Precision ag technology improving bottom line and wildlife habitat on Lake Family Farm

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer
Jeff Lake is joined by his family, wife Kelly, and daughter, April (left) and son, Jake. Jeff is the fifth generation of his family to over see the family farm located in Boyceville, Wisconsin.

Jeff Lake is the latest in a long time of stewards that have cared for the land on the Lake Family Farm located near Boyceville in western Wisconsin.

While Lake respects the time tested traditions implemented by his forefathers, this crop farmer is taking this fifth generation farm into the future using precision agriculture to guide the way.

By updating his soil management and conservation practices, Lake is able to improve the soil and create habitat for the wildlife that share the farm's 1,500 acres while improving the farm's bottom line.

"My ancestors did a great job caring for the land and I want to make sure that I can give our land to our children better than the way I got  it," Lake said. "It's just with more technology that we can do more things with the land and on a bigger scale."

Leopold Conservation Award

Leopold Award finalist

Lake is one of three finalists for the Leopold Conservation Award in Wisconsin. This prestigious award that recognizes extraordinary achievement in voluntary conservation by private landowners is sponsored by the Sand County Foundation. 

“The three Leopold Conservation Award finalists exemplify that conservation stewardship is as profitable as it is responsible for all kinds of agriculture, whether cash crops, dairy, or forestry,” said Wisconsin Land and Water Conservation Association Executive Director Matt Krueger, in a press release.

For many years, Lake Family Farm was home to a herd of dairy cows until Lake's father retired in 1999. Today Lake, runs a cash grain operation growing corn and soybeans and a few acres of alfalfa to feed a small herd of steers with the help of his 21-year-old son, Jacob. Lake's wife, Kelly, and daughter April, also help out at the farm.

In the past Lake diversified his crop portfolio by growing snap beans and kidney beans and selling them to the local cannery. Lake discontinued growing snap beans and kidney beans when the farm began began shifting towards no-till methods.

To provide wildlife habitat and gain efficiencies, some marginal cropland has been converted into grass and full season cover crops.

"We experimented on and off with no till crops for several years and totally switched over about 6 years ago," Lake said. "No-till has helped us with controlling erosion and improving water quality. Perennial cover crops are also appreciate by the wildlife."

Big picture

Lake says his eyes were opened to modern approaches to land stewardship two years ago while attending a meeting of the Hay River farmer-led watershed group (of which he is a member). Farm biologists Scott Stipetich and Cody Tromberg of Pheasants Forever were presenters that evening who spoke on the use of software to help identify net negative farms in the watershed. 

"I had been interested in using precision agriculture for awhile," Lake said. "I'm a nuts and bolts kind of guy and my son Jake is is really good with technology.We needed a combination of both of those things to make precision agriculture work on our farm."

Lake signed up for a demo subscription of the EFC Systems AgSolver software which targets areas on the farm for needed improvements. This data subsequently helps farmers to make decisions on alternate land uses that not only benefit the farm financially but help to improve soil health and water quality.

Jeff Lake along with son, Jake (right) have implemented precision agriculture –  including a yield monitor on their combine -  to improve Return on Investment (ROI) on their cropland .

"It really made us look at our land differently. As farmers we grew up around the mentality that we should be farming all of the land. But when you see the big picture in dollars and cents, it just makes sense to try something else," Lake said, adding that the farm experienced a change in land use on approximately 30 percent of the acreage. "We discovered a few pieces of land where it doesn't pay to put it in crops like along the shady edges near the woods and corners. Here we decided to put something in for wildlife."

These changes have also helped with the farm's ROI. Already the family has saved on seed and fertilizer costs. Lake says he saved $10,000 in seed costs the first year just by employing variable rate planting and seeding

"We've taken 5 to 10 percent of our acreage out of production by just identifying shade spots and field edges," Lake pointed out. "Next year we may take even a little bit more, but right now we're in the infant stages of it, trying to identify what is and isn't producing well."

Earlier this year those efforts earned Lake the first-ever Precision Agriculture Farmer of the Year award from Pheasants Forever. 

Boon to wildlife

Supporting local wildlife is important to the Lake family. For over 25 years, Lake and his brother have been very active with deer management on their farm, planting patches of cover, and perennial borders along the fields.

"It's quite a thing to see some big bucks come walking across the field," Lake said. "It's fun for us as we don't get a lot of time to hunt so it's sometimes just nice to see them."

Jeff Lake and his son, Jake (right) stand near a buffer they planted with sorghum, clover, buckwheat and millet to improve soil health as well as provide cover for wildlife on their Dunn County farm.

Lake says the improved habitat has helped to attract more pheasants to the area.

"While out combining last year I was surprised to see so many of them in the area. We used to have a lot of partridge and grouse in the area, so one of my next goals is to start managing crops to attract more of the birds," he said.

Farming into the future

Lake says it's his hope that his children, Jake and daughter, April, 23, will return to the farm and become the sixth generation to farm the land. April currently works for the Synergy Cooperative in Ridgeland and is returning to college to complete a degree in agronomy. 

"The future of farming doesn't seem bright right now and everything seems to be turning to the big businesses. But I feel if you find your own niche, the small family businesses can survive," he said. "I'd like to see the land stay in the family but the hard part nowadays is how to keep it.  With precision agriculture out input costs are down as we can survive a little bit easier."