Conley family's sustainability goals are two-pronged

Gloria Hafemeister
Correspondent
Chris and Brenda Conley are leaders in dairy promotion, dairy cattle breeding and protecting fragile soil on their farm.  The couple shared some of the things they learned about cover crops, no-till and protecting the soil during a recent Healthy Soil-Healthy Water tour of their Neosho farm.

NEOSHO – Chris Conley knew he was doing the right thing five years ago when he took his neighbor’s advice and planted cover crops and switched to no-till on his hilly Neosho farm. If he wasn’t 100% convinced the first year, he now knows for sure he did the right thing.

The proof came on June 15 when his farm, High-Gem Holsteins and Normandes, received six inches of rain in a short period of time, just weeks after corn had been planted on his and his neighbors' farms. 

His farm in southeast Dodge County, protected by the cover crop that he planted into, had no runoff while his neighbor experienced extensive runoff that resulted in gullies and a lot of mud deposited on the bottom of their hills.

Just a week prior to the storm system that brought a deluge of rain, Chris and Brenda Conley hosted a visit of Gov. Tony Evers who toured the couple's fields to observe conservation practices including planting green into a cover of rye. The same week as the storm, the Conleys hosted the Dodge County Healthy Soils Healthy Water meeting, taking area farmers on tours of their fields to see how cover crops have been beneficial to their operation.

Conley says they started no-tilling five years ago after a neighbor invited him to a meeting to hear about innovative ways to build healthier soil that stays in place.

“I listened to speakers who shared their experiences but I was really convinced when I saw the water infiltration test that was demonstrated at that meeting,” he said.

A year after attending that meeting Conley tried a few acres and added a few more acres each year after.

He had already been rotational grazing his Normande-Holstein dairy cattle on 23 acres of permanent pasture but with adding cover crops, Conley was able to increase his grazing acreage, giving his permanent pastures a break.

“We began by laying out wider strips that provided an opportunity to graze after first crop harvesting,” he says.

The wider strips also made it possible for him to utilize the services of his neighbor to custom harvest his forages. He still likes to make his dry baled hay himself.

These changes along with eliminating tillage have allowed him to sell his biggest tractor and much of the equipment he previously used on the farm. A 100 hp tractor is now his biggest tractor.

“I figured that if this is what we are going to do, I don’t need this tillage or chopping equipment and I can’t go back because it’s not here to use,” Conley said.

He also saves shed space storing all the equipment and saves on maintenance time and costs.

95 years and counting

His farm dates back to 1927 when his great grandparents immigrated from Switzerland.  They decided to settle in the southern portion of Dodge County because the rolling hills reminded them of home. Those hills, however, have always presented a challenge for planting and harvesting.

Conley has built and retrofitted much of the equipment he uses on the farm by watching a lot of YouTube videos. He shopped around for planters until he decided to rebuild his existing 4-row planter to suit his needs.

“We call him Mr. Innovation,” said Tony Pierick, president of Dodge County Farmers for Healthy Soil and Healthy Water group. Conley is a charter member of the watershed group and enthusiastically shares with fellow members his ideas, successes and lessons learned.

Cover crops and cows

Conley likes the way cover crops protect the soil, helping to make it healthier.

"Sustainability means keeping the land healthy and improving the environment,” Conley says. “If my daughters decide to come back and farm, I'd like to provide them the opportunity to farm here." 

In a year when fertilizer costs have sky-rocketed, he believes he is also saving money by using less inputs to get the same quality. It’s a gradual process but he can see the improvements in soil health.

“The good things take care of the bad things,” Conley says. “Good bacteria are attached to the living rye root, and the corn benefits from it.”

He sees it as a way that he, a smaller farmer by today’s standards, is able to continue in the business and make a decent living.

Chris and Brenda Conley’s Normande/Holstein cross cattle graze on the cover crops and permanent pasture on their Neosho farm.

In addition to the cost-saving sustainability of building and maintaining their own equipment and improving the soil health via conservation efforts, the herd of Normande and Holstein cattle fits in with the Conleys’ sustainability goals.

The family's Normande cattle originating from the hilly regions of France are well-suited for grazing. The animals also have a high feed-to-milk conversion rate. The cattle are grazed from April to November.

In addition, Normande cattle are a dual-purpose breed and support the Conleys’ long-term plan of transitioning the herd to beef.

“We have lots of hills here and we do a lot of pasturing and grazing. They work really well in our system,” said Brenda, who likes working with the cows and also serves as Dodge County’s dairy ambassador.

They have 60 cows and up to 70 young stock on the farm.   

Through selective breeding they are gradually working toward a Normande herd. She says they started with half Holsteins and half Normande and through crossing gradually built their Normande herd. Their purest cow is now 94% Normande.

“This spring we bought two embryos from a Normande herd in France. One took so we will now have a full-blood Normande,” she said.

Cost-sharing available

During the tours, the Conleys point out ways farmers can get help establishing cover crops, pastures or engineering cattle lanes.

Cost-sharing for protecting soil and establishing cover crops is available through the local watershed group, state grants and through national NRCS programs. The Conleys were recipients of funds from the Wisconsin Farm Support Program.

On June 7, Gov. Evers and other state officials visited the Conley farm to see on-farm results of work done as  a recipient of the Wisconsin Farm Support Program. During his visit, the governor heard from the Conleys about the farm’s practices raising dairy cattle and about their involvement in their local watershed group and community.

Gov. Tony Evers visited High-Gem Holsteins and Normandes on June 7. During his visit, the governor heard from owners Chris and Brenda Conley about the farm’s involvement in their local watershed group.

The tour of Conley’s farm was just one of many stops the governor made in learning about the state’s dairy industry firsthand.

Gov. Evers began Dairy Month by visiting with dairy farmers, processors, and producers, as well as local community and agricultural industry leaders in Plymouth, Lake Geneva, Jefferson, Neosho, Hilbert, and Thorp. Throughout the week, the governor highlighted the strength of Wisconsin’s dairy industry and state’s investments in the dairy and agricultural industries.

“We’re not called America’s Dairyland for nothing, and as the number one cheese producers in the country, Wisconsin’s dairy industry is not only a vital part of our economy, but it’s core to our Wisconsin heritage and who we are as a state," Evers said in a news release. "...I was proud to visit with many of our state’s incredible dairy farmers, processors, and distributors, and celebrate their hard work, as well as the investments we’ve been able to make to support their businesses and ensure this industry continues to grow and thrive for years to come.”