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Organic Grazer Joins Discovery Farms Program

Mineral Point – Ben and Debi Heisner and their family are the latest producers to join the statewide Discovery Farms Program.

The Heisners milk 40 cows and rotationally graze them in 17 paddocks, covering 60 acres. They are a certified organic dairy and will soon start shipping their milk to Organic Valley Cooperative. Ben”s father, Jim, runs the adjoining farm and is also certified organic. He”s been shipping milk to Organic Valley for just over a year. The Heisners have been grazing their cattle for 18 years and no commercial fertilizers or chemicals have been used on the farm for 16 years.

Ben is active in Wisconsin Farm Bureau, serving as chairman for the state young farmer committee and as a director on the Iowa County Farm Bureau Board. He learned about the Discovery Farms Program through his Farm Bureau activities. “Discovery Farms was looking for a diverse group of applicants, and I feel we have a unique farming operation,” Ben says. “We like to think outside the box.”

Discovery Farms, the foundation of the Wisconsin Ag Stewardship Initiative, is a producer-driven initiative working to assure a healthy environment and a healthy farm economy through real-world, on-farm application of environmental research. Discovery Farms is an innovative research effort made possible through cooperation by UW-Extension, the UW System and the UW-Madison”s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Along with Discovery Farms, the Ag Stewardship Initiative is comprised of the Pioneer Farm at the UW-Platteville and component research projects in the UW System.

Farms are selected to become Discovery Farms based on opportunities for research presented by the farm”s geographic location and management practices, suitability of the site for monitoring, level of anticipated cooperation by the farm owner, research funding availability and other factors.

The Heisners have long taken a sustainable approach to agriculture. With a dozen springs on the farm, as well as a 5-acre pond, surface water quality is something this family has been constantly vigilant of. Ben says his family is also proud of the measures they take to prevent soil erosion. “Recreational tillage is for the birds. Soil is a rare resource and we take pride in the fact that soil does not move on our farm.”

Ben says grazing has fit well into his family”s philosophies on protecting the environment. It”s also a low-input way of dairying. He says it”s a better use of resources for them to graze, rather than purchasing equipment to farm those acres. “If we take good care of our pastures we get good tonnage and the cows get a virtual salad bowl.” The Heisner”s cows do well grazing their “salad bowl,” averaging around 50 pounds of milk per day.

The Heisners decided to become certified organic mainly to take advantage of the difference in milk prices. The base price for organic milk doesn”t get below $17. 35 per hundredweight. Many organic farming guidelines do make sense, the Heisners say. They don”t mind using organic fertilizer and appreciate not using pesticides. In the dairy herd, in order to avoid using antibiotics, they say prevention is the key. “We”re more in tune with what”s going on. We watch for earlier signs of illness and we keep things clean. My nose is constantly in a book,” Ben says, reading about alternative treatments for common dairy cow ailments, such as mastitis and retained placentas.

Ben says that while his and his parents” farms are certified organic and they consume some organic products, the bulk of their own food purchases are not organic. “We know the food supply is safe,” Ben says, but the Heisners are willing to go the extra mile on their operation to meet the demands of consumers, and the growing organic niche market.

Ben says along with “thinking outside the box,” he and his family want to “be in the know and part of the decision-making process to create a better future for farming,” something he says being involved with Discovery Farms will help them do. “I think it will be a good teaching tool,” he says, to help create regulations and recommendations that are practical, economical and will still work.

Discovery Farms looks at farming operations representative of their industry and evaluates what impact the operation is having on the environment before any management changes are made or suggested, so the effectiveness of those changes can be measured. Then Discovery Farms will evaluate best management practices, with the expectation of eventually sharing with producers a list of BMPs that are effective and actually profitable and a list of BMPs that although effective would be economically difficult to implement without cost-sharing dollars. As the Discovery Farms program progresses it will positively affect the regulatory process, helping create more effective regulations that have farm economics as well as the environment in mind. Core Discovery Farms will be involved an anticipated 5 to 7 years, and receive $5,000 annual stipends. Core Discovery Farms are invited into the program as funding allows.

Additional Discovery Farms will be announced in the coming months. For more information about Discovery Farms research projects contact the Discovery Farms office in Pigeon Falls, at (715) 983-5668.