By Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
Growing up on a fifth-generation farm near Watertown, Nolan Lenzen read and saved every article on grazing he found since he first learned to read.
“It sounded like an easier way to farm,” he said.
But after attending a dairy management course, he found himself on a modern production path.
Lenzen farmed with his dad and grandpa, milking 90 cows and farming 300 acres.
“I was physically and mentally burned out by age 19,” he said.
He rented a neighbor’s barn four miles away for two years, using a tie-stall barn and total mixed ration (TMR) for his herd. But after two years, he was burned out again.
“I probably would have started out with rotational grazing if I hadn’t gone to college,” Lenzen said. “At that point I thought, ‘I need a break.’”
Since he couldn’t find even a 10-acre hobby farm for less than $450,000 near Watertown, Lenzen went looking further out. The first time he spotted the property he now owns west of Eagle Bend, he let it pass. The second time it came on the market, he knew it was time to buy it.
After being part of the modern production model, the “way of the future,” he said, he was ready to start grazing on his new farm.
“Nobody says that when your goal is ‘bigger is better’ and to constantly increase production, you will have more health problems when you keep pushing the cows,” Lenzen said. “That you will have to fertilize a little bit more every year just to maintain; that you will be doing things and not even know why because you don’t have time to stop and think of better ways to do something.”
“I was receiving awards from National Dairy Herd Improvement Association (DHIA) for milk production, but was flat broke,” said Lenzen. “I couldn’t fix my truck or pay the rent.”
Lenzen now farms seasonally, and is making a comfortable living doing it.
“The cows calve in April, and I start milking then. They are all bred around the Fourth of July,” he said. “By the first of October they are in late lactation and ready for a break before calving, so they are only milked once a day. The last day of December is their last day of milking.”
He rotationally grazes the cattle on all 140 of his acres; everything is fenced for grazing. The cows are never fed grain, but are provided hay in winter.
Lenzen installed an 8-pit parlor in a barn with no stalls. “The cows are in the parlor for five minutes twice a day,” he said.
Since farming this way, Lenzen has not trimmed cows’ hooves in eight years. In five years, no veterinarian has visited his farm.
“I used to have a $1,000 vet bill each month for 45 cows,” he said. “Now I don’t have to clean a barn; the cows are not dirty when they come in. I don’t have to bring in hay or feed, and I don’t have to scrape an 8-foot by 100-foot alley.”
Lenzen scrapes the 5-foot by 20-foot parlor once a day.
Each of the four young Lenzen children have put milkers on for fun, but have not progressed to other tasks yet.
Back when he was considering whether to switch to organic, he tried to find out what organic treatments would need to be substituted for those he was used to using.
“But I didn’t need to substitute anything. Treatments weren’t needed so those products were eliminated completely,” he said.
Lenzen’s current expenses boil down to twine and diesel fuel.
“I would have never thought about it before, but life is slower here,” he said. “I’m great friends with my neighbors. We all call each other up, and nobody’s afraid to ask for help.”
One of the most valuable sources of support has been the Land Stewardship Project (LSP.) “They have information, resources and personal assistance,” Lenzen said.
He is now helping other new farmers. “LSP has a list of farmers who want to help new farmers,” he said. “It is by far the most underutilized information they provide. Farmers on the list are just waiting for people to call with questions.”
Lenzen was invited to be part of a visit to Washington, D.C., in 2011 through LSP, advocating for conservation programs and beginning farmer programs.
For information about the Land Stewardship Project’s farmer network, contact Parker Forsell at (507) 523-3366 or visit online at www.landstewardshipproject.org.
Lenzen can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“It took me 10 years to get here, and it was a hard 10 years,” he said, “but it’s worth it.”