Brickstead Farm preserving the quality of land and water for next generation

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer

GREENLEAF -  For years farmers in northeast Wisconsin were convinced that cover crops and no-till farming practices would have little chance of success in the predominant clay soils in this area of the state.

Dan and Melanie Brick hope their children, Sawyer, Elijah and Ian will lead their farm into the sixth generation.

After visiting a farm in Pennsylvania, Brown County farmer Dan Brick believed he could produce similar results as his counterparts in the Keystone state.

"I felt we had the same soil types and we could duplicate (those practices) here," said Brick. "The challenge has been getting people to think outside the box on how we've been traditionally farming before. There's a different way to do it in a more economical and environmentally friendly way. We've been successful so far and can only get better at this!"

Brick and his wife, Melanie, and sons, Sawyer, 9,and 7 year old twins, Elijah and Ian, invited the public to visit their farm on Aug. 9 during the second "Sunset on the Farm" event.

"I really wanted the opportunity for my neighbors to see my farm and understand all of the work that goes into running this dairy. But more than that, I wanted them to know all of the things we do here to be better than we have to be. It's important for that the see how we operate and learn about the conservation efforts we put forth and other thins we do to make us the best neighbor we can be."

Stewardship of the land and water is key to this fifth generation farmer who tills and plants the soil of his family's farm that dates back to 1848. For some time now, Brick's concern for the environment has expanded beyond the acreage deeded to his family.

Barry Bubolz of the Natural Resources Conservation Services explains the importance of cover crops in maintaining soil structure during a tour.

"There came a time where I felt we had no choice but to change the way we take care of our land. The impacts of tillage, manure management, the use (or lack) of cover crop methods and care of waterways can be detrimental to our water shed or they can be positive," Brick said.

The Greenleaf farmer put that mission into practice when he become one of four farms in Brown County to become a part of the Lower Fox Demonstration Farms Network (Fox Demo Farms). The project is designed to showcase and demonstrate leading edge conservation practices that improve Great Lakes water quality by reducing phosphorous from entering Green Bay and Lake Michigan. The project now includes farms in Kewaunee and Door County.

Over 470 guests signed up for Sunset on the Farm which included tours of the family's milking parlor where their herd of 900 cows are milked three times a day, with the majority of the milk being made into Kemp's ice cream. Local 4-H clubs provided a petting zoo and while conservation groups provided informational exhibits including a rainfall simulator that shows the real life impacts of no-till and cover cropping measures, food and fresh ice cream.

Guests also boarded one of four farm wagons for a tour Brick's farm fields and a nearby monitoring station that measures how much surface water and nutrients are lost during rain events.

Jamie Patton of UW Extension shows guest how important earthworms are in helping water infiltrate the soil.

Since 2016, Brick has traded the practice of conventional tillage and planting and is now committed to planting into a living cover crop. The farm is now 100 percent no-till and cover cropped. 

"When the corn reaches knee high, Dan is able to go into that field and plant cover crops between the rows of corn using an InterSeeder," pointed out Barry Bubolz of the Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS). "The basis of what we're trying to protect and improve in this watershed goes back to soil health and trying to reduce the amount of nutrient runoff and soil loss."

To hold the soil in place, farmers are using various mixtures of cover crops, each sending down roots that create structure in the soil as well as providing a transfer of nutrients into the root zone for the next crop.

As anyone in Wisconsin well knows, the growing season comes to an end all too soon, making the timeliness of planting of cover crops in the fall even more critical.

"Within the last 3-4 years we've been able to bring on low disturbance manure tools that used soon after the silage is taken off the field," Bubolz said. "While you can plant a cover crop in mid-October, these northern climates present a smaller window of opportunity for growth. Now with these tools, Dan is following the forage chopper around and a lot of times getting those cover crops planted the same day. The crops get an extra week of growth in the fall where all the growing degree days are....that's a game changer."

Natural Resource Educator Whitney Prestby said the turnout for this year's event was amazing.

"Last  year we invited folks from a two-mile radius and got about 90-100 people to come. This year we had people on a waiting list, that interest and support from our more than 50 sponsors and 100 volunteers blew right past all of our expectations," Prestby said.

Melanie Brick says Sunset on the Farm is a great opportunity to educate the people on how the dairy industry has changed.

"Hopefully this paints the dairy industry in a more favorable light than what the media does or the long-held beliefs about dairy farms," she said. "We'd like to shatter those preconceived notions and restore the public's faith in our desire to sustain the land and make this a possibility for future generations to continue farming here."

Young guests watch closely as Brickstead Farm employees milk the cows.

The family must be making a difference with their stewardship efforts as the family was awarded the Wisconsin’s Leopold Conservation Award®. The award honors Wisconsin landowner achievement in voluntary stewardship and management of natural resources
"I hope people see that farms are very concerned about water and are making a huge effort to combat those runoff problems that we're having," Brick said. "We still have a long way to go and we still make mistakes...but we've chosen to make sure our farm impacts the land in a positive way. I know we're doing the right thing and this is how we will continue to manage this dairy."

The Lower Fox Demonstration Farms Network (“Fox Demo Farms”) is a Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) project that is the first of its kind in the Great Lakes region and it consists of eight producers within the Fox River Basin, their crop consultants, Brown and Outagamie County Land and Water Conservation Departments, the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), and the University of Wisconsin-Extension.