Grant County farmer charts own path, with help from scientist colleagues

Wisconsin State Farmer
Gerry Weiss in his field in Grant County, Wisconsin.

LANCASTER, Wisconsin - You never know where a conversation with Gerry Weiss will drive you. Today, it's swerved toward fenceline weaning.

Whatever that may be.

Once explained, however, fenceline weaning emerges as a common-sense, humane approach to a life stage that can be traumatic to beef cattle. Conventionally, farmers would separate mother and calf, who would bellow their complaints across the fields for a few days before finally moving on, exhausted.

But Gerry Weiss, now 72, was raised on a farm by an inventive father and uncles who believed - and acted - as if "the answers are in front of you. Keep your eyes open."

Gerry Weiss in front of a landscape he began healing almost 40 years ago. Terraces like the one right behind the fence, waterways like the draw at right-center, and permanent grass cover all prevent erosion on these steep slopes near Lancaster, Wisconsin.

Weiss learned about 35 years ago that this can be true even before the question becomes apparent.

"We were getting the newly weaned calves ready to eat dry feed: 'No more milk from mom!' and I looked behind me and mom was standing there. She'd come a mile and a half up a creek, through three flood gates [fences across streams], to get back to her baby. Fixing flood gates is not a lot of fun, nor is getting her back to her pasture, so we started doing fenceline weaning, long before it became the vogue of the industry."

Weiss did not invent the practice, but he realized that fenceline weaning eases stress for animals and cattlemen alike. Once separated by a strong fence, mother and child can do everything but nurse.

"They have less stress, baby can talk to its mother and she can look through the fence and see that her baby's okay," Weiss says. "Within a few days, both parties get over the separation blues."

Today, fenceline weaning is gaining acceptance in beef operations. 

In a state proud of the connections between its College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and the linked industries of farming and food processing (which employed 413,500 and created more than $88 billion in economic activity in 2012), Gerry Weiss stands as a key conduit between academic experts - many with roots in the soil - and those who make a living growing crops and animals.

During his various collaborations with the branches and people at CALS, Weiss built a specialized swine barn designed for research, and performed contract research for the late Mark Cook of UW-Madison, as well as firms in the hog industry. 

A tour of Weiss’s acreage features smooth passage across waterways that were truck-deep gullies when he bought the property.

Among many formal relationships with CALS, Weiss worked with soil science faculty to develop nutrient management plans to credit the nitrogen for future crops added by manure and legumes, thus helping reduce costs and constrain water pollution. 

"He's principled, all about accurate data, accurate communication," says Dan Schaefer, who for many years chaired the animal science department at UW-Madison. "There's no varnishing, no window dressing. 'Tell it to me the way it is.' He has always been respectful of faculty, though he will speak out if someone has a loony idea."

Weiss is a native of Dane and Columbia Counties who says he began farm work at age five. In 1975, after earning a bachelor's degree in animal science from UW-Madison and a Ph.D. from Iowa State, he began working at Dubuque Packing Co. as assistant to the president for research and development. 

Curious and apparently tireless, Weiss bought 350 picturesque, hilly acres near Lancaster and, with advice from the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service, immediately set out to fill gullies, plant waterways and construct terraces to halt soil erosion measured at 13.1 tons per acre annually. 

Recalling that struggle elicited his first reference to UW-Madison. Weiss credits Bill Paulson, the former superintendent of the university's nearby Lancaster Experimental Station, for having local knowledge of the ideal seed mix for his pastures, terraces and waterways. 

Farmers avoid plowing low areas where rainwater must run off to foster an erosion-resistant ground cover. Weiss goes one better by planting hay, getting a saleable crop as a fringe benefit with the erosion control. "It may seem obvious, but I've never had anybody mention that to me," says Schaefer.

Weiss has managed to survive in the ever-changing farm economy for 40 years. Today, he says, corn and hogs are a quick way to lose money, but growing forage is profitable, so hay is what he sells. 

Decades ago, Weiss pioneered the use of "rotational grazing" on his improved permanent pastures, moving cattle to protect the forage from trampling. The practice, now a mainstay of organic and other low-impact agriculture, replaces tillage and the haulage of feed and manure in conventional cattle raising. At the same time, it increases productivity, allowing any given field to support more animals.