Precision Ag Pays at Lake Family Farm

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R.O.I. and wildlife both win at this family-owned grain operation in western Wisconsin. The lessons apply across the pheasant range.

By Tom Carpenter 

Meet the Lakes. Jeff and his son Jake grow corn and soybeans on a 1,600-acre family-owned farm in western Wisconsin's Dunn County. Wife and mother Kelly, and daughter April, round out the crew at Lake Family Farm.

It's productive grain land. Famed western Wisconsin big buck country. And smack dab in the middle of some of Wisconsin’s best wild pheasant range.

Lake uses precision agriculture – specifically EFC Systems’ AgSolver software – to improve Return on Investment (ROI) on his cropland while providing habitat for wildlife. In fact, Jeff Lake received the Precision Ag Farmer of the Year Award at National Pheasant Fest and Quail Classic this past February.

Jeff and Kelly Lake, at right, accept the Precision Ag Farmer of the Year Award from Pheasants Forever's Ryan Heiniger and Scott Stipetich, at left. Lake Family Farm's successful use of precision agriculture technology is proof that improved ROI and wildlife can do more than coexist. They can thrive together.
 

Family Affair

"I’m the sixth generation to live here and work this land" says Lake. "We keep adding to it. It’s home. It’s what we do for a living. It’s who we are.”

“My son Jake and I farm the land together," Lake continues. "Jake is just out of high school. But as part of that generation, he’s really good with the software and computer skills you need to run a farm right these days.”

“I am the nuts-and-bolts guy. Jake is the technology guy,” Lake laughs. Precision agriculture is just that – nuts-and-bolts and technology working together.

Jeff and Jake Lake farm about 1,600 acres in Dunn County, Wisconsin, with grain production, profitability, soil health and wildlife habitat in mind. “My daughter April works for the local co-op, and also has a lot of input into our operation," adds Lake. "She’s a farmer at heart, and is going to go back to school for her agronomy degree. Kelly, she's the glue that keeps us all going.”
 

Places for Wildlife

“We take care of the land. We take care of the critters," says Lake. "We’re always trying to do everything we can to make a living, and let wildlife make a living too. We like whitetails. We also like that we’re seeing more pheasants now.” And that’s not to mention other wildlife.

“We hunt deer. We’ve been working for bigger bucks for a long time, and our area has been in a quality deer management program for over 30 years," he says.

“We first started trying the EFC Systems AgSolver technology several years ago now," says Lake. "It was ahead of everything else. When the newer generation started coming of age, that’s when we really jumped in. I went to the classes too. The benefits of variable rate planting and seeding have become very clear.”

For wildlife, there’s more than planting and seeding rates in the equation. Wildlife needs corners, edges and patches of cover. With precision agriculture, marginal or unprofitable (“red”) acres are identified for altered inputs or land usage to improve ROI and potentially provide wildlife habitat.

EFC AgSolver software showed that some areas of certain fields, such as shaded woodland edges, were better off left as buffer zones. “Scott Stipetich of Pheasants Forever got involved through our watershed district," says Lake.  "Scott talked to us about how the practice of precision agriculture could identify places we might not even want to plant – places that weren’t providing any return, or even a negative return.”

“It was an eye opener," adds Lake. "There are fields you think are good, and fields you don’t. With the software you see the true picture in dollars and cents. It helps you decide what lands you might put into CRP or CREP, or maybe hay or pasture.”

All those factors are positive for soil health, water quality and wildlife habitat.

“In our case, we saw a change in land use to about 30 percent of our acres," says Lake. “One interesting place that proved to very unproductive for crops were shady woods edges. Corn and soybeans just don’t do well with much, if any, shade.”
 

Managing for Returns, Soil Health and the Future

“Precision agriculture has certainly improved ROI for our operation," states Lake. "Combining variable rate planting and seeding from the AgSolver software has allowed us to focus the right amount of resources on each area of our farm.”

“In 2017 we had a full year with the technology. We saw what each of our acres was paying," says Lake. "We saved over $12,000 in seed costs in 2017’s planting season, versus 2016.”

According to Scott Stipetich, Senior Farm Bill Biologist in Wisconsin for Pheasants Forever, “In 2016, Cody Tromberg (Farm Bill Biologist in Baldwin, Wisconsin) and I presented at a local meeting hosted by the Hay River farmer-led watershed group.  We proposed demo subscriptions of the software to help identify net negative acres on farms in the watershed and provide alternatives that could increase the bottom line while improving soil health and water quality, and also benefit wildlife.”

“A grant from The McKnight Foundation helped make it all possible,” adds Stipetich. “Dunn County was at the meeting and enticed the proposal with financial contributions as well. Jeff was the first one to step up and implement the software.  We learned the system together and immediately found areas in fields that had the potential to make big changes in ROI.”

“We have three to four different soil types across our lands,” says Lake. “They produce differently. This technology helps you explore different options and be more efficient.”

“We have even gone no-till with our operation," says Lake, "and the technology is especially important in that respect.”

“No-till is critical to controlling soil erosion. And it just makes sense from a production perspective and improved ROI, especially on our types of lands," says Lake. "But no-till is important to wildlife too – deer, pheasants, anything. There’s something left on the ground for them to forage on. It’s easy to know that water quality is improving too.”

“Alternative crops, not farming net-negative acres, and conservation practices like perennial cover crops have also been or soon will be practiced on the farm,” adds Stipetich. “We will continue to use the software to make best management decisions, keeping Jeff profitable while implementing conservation practices.”

Small but unproductive areas, such as this field corner coming back to grass and forbs, provide an important mosaic of wildlife niches within a large-scale grain operation. “We’re actually managing for soil health in this whole process," says Lake. "The better your soil health, the better your return on what you put in. As a producer trying to make a living, that factor is as important as anything else.”

With changes in how some of the land is farmed, wildlife is benefitting. “We saw our best numbers of pheasants in years, this year. Our whitetails are doing great,” says Lake. 

“Jeff noticed more pheasants this year as he was harvesting corn,” says Stipetich. “I told him the perennial field borders and knee high red clover cover crops he planted corn into this past spring didn't hurt those bird numbers!”
 

Farm Bill Factors

The Farm Bill is important to agricultural producers using precision technology, and programs like CRP and CREP can provide another return on land not planted with grain. Lake laughs, “I missed last year’s CRP sign-up by a day." But he would like to have the opportunity to get a return on grasslands, and cover crops; grazing cattle is an option. 

That said, "The ROI equations demonstrated it still made sense to change the land use on certain areas," says Lake. "The software helps us identify those areas where planting doesn’t make sense.”
 

Conclusion

Lake Family Farm is the perfect example of how precision agriculture can improve ROI, create wildlife habitat and improve soil health. 

“It makes me real proud to be managing our land this way," says Lake. "Our parents and grandparents, and their parents and grandparents, did it one way – for volume. We always had buffer strips and other simple soil conservation practices going on. We always took care of the land. But with precision agriculture, you can do so much more. We are changing with the times.”

Lake Family Farm’s ROI has benefited. So has local wildlife, including western Wisconsin's wild ringnecks.

Precision ag practices prove that profitable grain production and wildlife habitat can can do more than coexist. They can thrive together.