Lake Family Farm is a fifth-generation farm located near Boyceville in Dunn County. The farm transitioned from dairy to cash grain in 1999. Jeff and Kelley Lake, along with their children April and Jake, grow 1,500 acres of corn, soybeans and alfalfa. They also raise a small beef herd. The Lake family has embraced innovative management and conservation practices and are continually promoting and protecting soil health, water quality and wildlife habitat, all while strengthening the farm’s bottom line.
Jeff works with Dunn County Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) to develop conservation plans. John Sippl, District Conservationist for the NRCS, has advised the Lakes on herbicide programs and cover crops. He has helped the Lake family institute different technologies to capitalize return on investment.
“We have left the ‘more-on’ attitude of more and more and more and started using less inputs,” added Jeff.
John encourages looking at the total dynamic of a crop program to diagnose specific areas of the fields and maximize profitability. He has worked with Jeff to align his land with the four main principles of soil health. The principles include: always leaving the ground covered; continual live plant or root; plant diversity; and minimize disturbance. A bonus principle is integrating cattle into the crop rotation. Applying manure adds organic matter to the soil, which is especially useful in the sandy region where the Lakes farm.
Jeff checks the boxes of the soil health principles by planting cover crops, rotating hay, corn and soybeans, and practicing no-till. Jeff will leave some fields planted in cover crops for a year to build up soil health.
Grassed waterways have been particularly important on the Lake’s farm. Jeff prioritizes keeping waterways surrounding the farm clean.
“We believe if we have healthy soil, we will have healthy water,” said Jeff.
Pheasants Forever has been an active partner in Jeff Lake’s success.
“Working lands breed healthy wildlife,” says Scott Stipetich of Pheasants Forever.
Scott helped Jeff create profit maps to determine the cost effectiveness of planting corn on low yielding ground. Rather than investing time and inputs into the lower yielding land, they have found that these areas are better suited for cover crops or buffer strips. These buffer areas are a win-win for Jeff’s farm and for Pheasants Forever. It offers both cost and environmental benefits for the farm while promoting wildlife habitat.
Tim Midland, Area Resource Soil Scientist for NRCS, examines what is happening below the soil. Cover crops and no-till practices help to preserve organic matter in the soil and elongate the window of opportunity for plants to grasp the nutrients. Tim added that buffer strips in the headlands of the field help to reduce compaction.
Tim has been a big believer and supporter of implementing cover crops around northwest Wisconsin.
“You wouldn’t leave your equipment out in the sun and rain; you have to invest in and protect your soil, too,” said Tim.
Jeff would rather see wildlife in the buffer strips than in the corn. The Lakes have seen a decrease in animal damage to their corn crop since implementing buffer strips.
Jeff compares planting no-till to planting a garden in a front lawn without using a rototiller. There are still challenges to no-till.
Cover crops show results more quickly than no-till. Within a year of planting cover crops, Jeff saw improved soil tilth. He is a big believer in red clover.
“It really turns the ground over quickly,” added Jeff.
The Lake farm is surrounded by the north and south fork of the Hay River. Jeff has worked to build up and improve the stream bank by placing stream barbs along the shoreline. These barbs promote a good, natural habitat that allows native plants to thrive. Jeff lets the river do its thing and is confident it will stay in place without losing any bank.
Jeff played an important role in the establishment of the Hay River Watershed Group. The Hay River Watershed was one of the first watershed groups in Wisconsin.
Having proactively prepared their soil and land through cover crops, no-till, and buffer strips, the Lakes are not intimidated by large rain events. Combined, the practices they have implemented ensure the longevity of the farm’s future.
“Sustainability means we can pass the farm on to the next generation – even to our grandkids,” said Jeff.
Rachel Gerbitz is WFBF’s Director of Sustainability Communications and Partnerships. In this newly-created role, she oversees the organization’s sustainability communication efforts. Rachel grew up in Rock County where she was involved in 4-H and the Wisconsin Junior Holstein Association. She now lives in Kaukauna. In her spare time, Rachel manages her small herd of registered Jersey cattle.