Managing for Conservation, Efficiency, and Family

Lucinda Stuenkel’s, labor-saving innovations, including building a calving barn, relocating winter feeding sites, and installing a video surveillance system, have saved time and energy and positively impacted water quality. The grass-fed beef operation benefits from the integration of no-till with cover crops, which enables the family to graze approximately 60-65 cow/calf pairs year-round on the Stuenkel farmstead near Palmer, KS.

Prioritizing family time, conservation, and efficiency, the Stuenkel farm saves water, improves water quality, saves energy, and leaves plenty of time to enjoy both the family and the farm.

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Water

Integrating no-till farming with cover crops and managed grazing saves water and increases resilience during tough times. Conservation Practices help water to both stay on the property and be cleaner when it leaves than when it arrives. Utilizing the Kansas Rural Center’s Clean Water Farms notebook, Lucinda and Daryl identified water goals for 1, 2, 5, 15, and 20 years. She continues to follow the plans, using this original environmental assessment as a guide for future goals. The Stuenkel’s installed sediment basins between cropland and pastures which slow the water down, holding it for 42-72 hours before it filters through the bank and down into the pond. This reduces erosion between crop fields and the ponds. It also increases wildlife and riparian areas. In another location, they built a dike along the edge of a sacrifice lot (a.k.a. dry lot) so water has to go around north or south through grass before it enters the river. Rock check dams and rock channels hold back the soil, slowing water down and making sure it is cleaner before it enters the creek. Lucinda explains,

The water was making a channel into the field - starting another finger of the creek into the field. We could have just filled it in and covered it up and kept farming but decided to try to study the problem and choose the method that would work and be better for the soil and water.

The biggest water conservation measure on the Stuenkel farm is planting cover crops in the fall. When the wheat is harvested, they do not bale the straw, instead leaving it as residue that retains moisture to nourish the next crop. The cover crops are planted into this residue then grazed during the winter. The soil gains the microbiology from the cattle manure and trampling of plants into the ground, providing compost. This practice also means that the soil is covered all winter which helps retain moisture coming into the spring and reduces the drying effect of winter Kansas winds, the third windiest state in the United States. The Stuenkel’s do not irrigate, so they prioritize retaining water and reducing runoff through the use of cover crops and no-till. Lucinda explains,

One of the biggest fallacies is that cover crops remove moisture. We found the opposite. Covers actually sequester water and hold it in the soil. Covers mean that a root is holding the soil for 12 months a year or as much as possible. The roots provide a long corridor down to the groundwater and the plant roots from the next grain crop follow that corridor down to the deeper water supply. This makes it easier to grow a crop!

Keeping the soil covered is a big part of the Stuenkel’s management plan, and it pays off. In 2013, in the second year of drought, farmers on the Stuenkel farm no-till planted corn into two-foot high wheat stubble. While the corn on neighboring farms burned up, theirs yielded 137 bushels per acre. In 2012, they were selling high moisture corn while everyone else's dried up such that silage could barely be made. "We are using techniques that are currently innovative but they're not costly and it is providing us with a crop during this drought period.”

In addition to keeping more water on the land, their practices also preserve the rich topsoil and manages for the extremes: "

Amazingly enough, when you do continuous no-till, you don't have the ponding from heavy rains. The moisture stays where it falls so it goes into the ground instead of evaporating or running off. The soil has the ability to act as a sponge and soak it up. By doing the no-till and cover crops to enhance soil health, we are preparing for both droughts and floods.

Water availability

The Stuenkels are working to increase the number of livestock waterers and also converting existing water sources to frost-free waterers. The goal is for each paddock to have a water source. The cows would then need to go just 500 feet to the nearest water source instead of all the way to the barn. Frost-free waterers will expand the ability to graze cattle on cover crops in the fields during winter. Some of the ponds are fenced to maintain better water quality.

Continuous pasturing year round keeps the cattle from being penned up for long periods of time, which also reduces waste and nutrient run off into creeks. With the assistance of a Tuttle Creek WRAPS grant, Stuenkel had a winter feeding site moved to the top of the hill to be farther from the creek. This provides more of a grass buffer between the dry lots and the creek, filtering and reducing the impact of nutrient runoff. The continuous pasturing saves in other ways, too.

Putting water in pastures helps to minimize manure in dry lots. Now, we only haul manure from dry lots once a year instead of every couple of weeks. It saves fuel and money. We stockpile grass, to save it for grazing in the winter. We try to coordinate the stockpiled grass so they are adjacent to milo stocks and cover crops.

Additionally, Stuenkel has a summer crew of high school students who are actively cutting cedars in the pastures to improve water availability. Cedars take about 30 gallons of water each. Eliminating weed cedars makes more water available to run into ponds. Lucinda jokes, "cedars are almost as greedy as corn.” While they are actively cutting cedars in some places, they are also expanding and maintaining trees in other areas – as hedge rows for wind breaks. Lucinda explains,

Crop land between two hedge rows seems to produce more in terms of crops. In the summer, cattle congregate under hedge tress during the heat of the day. They do better both in raising healthier calves and in terms of grooming and body condition if they have benefit of some shade in the summer. Also, it is much better if they can be protected from the cold winds in the wintertime.

Energy

Lucinda Stuenkel’s approach to on-farm energy use includes fuel reductions, more efficient use of human energy, and integration of renewable energy. While continuous pasturing means cleaner water, it also impacts on-farm energy. Lucinda says,

With rotational grazing and a pasture resting period to regrow, you can have two or three times the amount of grass you would typically have. In that way, we are saving water and energy, too, because we are basically harvesting the sun with animals. The sun causes photosynthesis, causes grass to grow, then we harvest it with cattle, rather than harvesting with machinery.

Plus, rotational grazing means there are fewer bales to bale, resulting in less fuel and machinery in terms of transporting the feed to the cattle. "Basically, the cows have four legs and they go get the food. I have 65 pairs of grass harvesters,” Lucinda quips.

No-till saves fuel also:

The major reason the family switched to no till was for more family time but the side effect was that it cut the fuel cost dramatically and wear and tear on machinery because we were not using as much.

Additionally, healthier soils mean reduced chemicals which are both energy intensive and have negative impacts on water quality. The Stuenkel’s try to spray as little as possible, which has also saved them money.

Improvements to the calving system save fuel, time, and energy, and result in healthier cows. Lucinda installed a video surveillance system in the calving lot. With this system, farmers can check on the cows from their houses in town, instead of driving almost ten miles to see if the cow is calving.

They can pull up the video surveillance on their computer or cell phone. This means we have less frequent trips to check on the cows, plus more sleep! This gives flexibility and freedom, but it saves fuel, too.

The calving pasture is situated such that you can drive on all four sides to observe without going into the pasture to bother the animals or distract them. When distracted, the cows shut down the birthing process to prepare to run. "It’s a natural instinct. The less we bother them, the better,” Lucinda says.

Using calving-ease bulls means easier births that are safer for the cows and much less labor – and energy - intensive for farmers. Lucinda explains,

You want the mother to be a calving ease cow, bred to a calving ease bull, so the process is easier. Last year, all the cows calved with no assistance. We simply counted, tagged, and weighed.

A maternity barn was built to help with the calving process. The maternity barn has four box stalls, two of which have head gates and gates that swing up against the cow to calm her when she is in the head gate. If a cow has difficulty birthing, the cow puts herself into the headgate so the human assistants can pull the calf. The partial slide away gate is nice when a calf wants to nurse or the cow needs to be milked. Lucinda recalls, that the neighbors thought she was crazy. However, she noticed that shortly after she built her maternity barn, they began to replicate the process. "It is so much safer than the alternative. You don't have to keep cow off of you. You don't have to work out in the cold. You aren't at danger of being charged by the cow.”

Aside from these energy conservation strategies, some of the farm is powered with renewable energy. Most of the electric fencing is solar powered. They use a polywire temporary fence along the road to keep cattle off of neighbor’s fields when moving to adjacent fields. Stuenkel puts plastic bags on electric wire. The cattle associate these plastic bags with electric shock, so sometimes they simply put wire up with bags, using no electricity whatsoever. Lucinda is interested in installing electric power from solar and wind. She recently installed pex in the floor for adding solar heat in the sunroom/greenhouse area.


Progress

Lucinda Stuenkel is truly a model of success, determination, and innovation – in collaboration with others. Her approach to conservation and efficiency was shaped by a tragedy. In 2010, both her husband and brother-in-law were killed in an accident the week before Thanksgiving. Knowing that if she and her sister-in-law let go of the farm, the kids would have a much harder time getting back into farming as adults, they made quick and sweeping changes to ensure that they could stay on the farm. From the maternity barn to low-stress stockmanship to the video surveillance system to no-till with cover crops, Lucinda has prioritized efficiency, conservation, and family.

Holding to the goals established before the accident, Lucinda maintains a steady pace of improvements both planned and spontaneous, responding to the new reality of farming with less muscle. Working in collaboration with others to turn ideas into reality, Lucinda is quick to share the credit:

The best management decision I ever made was selling some heifer calves to two of my new farmers. They both just turned 30 (and each have wife and three kids). They are highly motivated to be successful, are intelligent, have experience from growing up on small farms with cattle, and are young and strong enough to do what needs to be done. I do not do this solo. I could not begin to do it without these farm partners.

In addition to her work on the farm, Lucinda has been involved with 4-H, taking high school students along to conferences as much as she is able. She explains,

If they attend meetings like the Kansas Graziers Association meetings or Extension service trainings, they will all be more informed in a gentler way to work with animals, with lower costs, more sustainable conservation techniques, lower inputs, and sustainable agriculture, in general. Also, these students provide the muscle that makes it possible for me to do these things!

Year round grazing, especially with cover crops, has helped financially. Giving the cattle no grain saves money while cover crops both save money and improve the soil. Lucinda recalls,

We planted cover crops the first year for grazing, but each year we saw a ten bushel per acre boost in production just on fields with cover crops. The first year, it was hard for me to convince my new farm partners to plant covers, but as soon as they saw the boost in yield that year, they were eager to plant more cover crops. They could see it improving the soil, plus it put money back in their pockets.

Continuous pasturing with rotational grazing of non-GMO crops, perennial grasses, and cover crops results in healthier cows that yield higher profits. Lucinda says,

I have found that I like the cows to have three places to go during winter grazing: cover crop, pasture, and milo stocks. They balance their own diet. We save on medical bills, feed bills, trips to the field, machinery, and fuel. Plus, we receive a premium on grass-fed beef.

While managing a successful and profitable operation, Lucinda still has a goal to preserve wildlife areas. Fencing cattle out to heal ravines, clearing cedars and taller trees where hawks would rest as predators for pheasants and quail, while planting corridors and brooding bases. The native prairie on the farm has diverse plants and has neither been sprayed nor burned for over 50 years. This healthy prairie is available for bird watchers, too. The whole system can be summed up in one simple sentence:

If you take care of the soil and water, it will take care of you.


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RESOURCES
USDA Rural Energy for America Program
Iowa's NRCS: No-Till Will Preserve Soil Moisture For Next Year
Getting the Lowdown on Worms