How Miltrim Farms Invests in the Future with Pheasants Forever and Granular

Don’t plant every available foot of your farmland. It seems counterintuitive, even radical. But for Miltrim Farms in Athens, Wisconsin, it’s the land they aren’t planting crops on that could be making the biggest long-term difference.

In a long-reaching effort supported by conservation professionals from Pheasants Forever and agronomy experts from Granular, Miltrim Farms set out to first digitize their farm and gather as much data as possible, then analyze it with the help of Granular tools and multiple professionals to take some big steps toward conservation, sustainability, and profitability.

The Challenge

Miltrim Farms sought to make an environmental impact while addressing underperforming farm acres

The Solution

The Miltrims, a Granular Agronomy Certified Services Agent (CSA) and Pheasants Forever worked together to identify and set aside acreage for livestock forage and pollinator plantings

The Numbers

Several years of planting and yield data were analyzed for more than 1,000 selected acres. This resulted in the planting of 50 acres of perennial grass and clover forage, 5 acres of pollinator prairie plantings (including 25 flower species), and 17 acres of monarch butterfly habitat.

The Result

Planting alternative crops for the acres with 3 or more years of a net loss of revenue creates an improved actual production history and a positive environmental impact.

Directed by the Data

Tom Mueller – owner, Miltrim Farms

“We’ve been collecting information for ten years or more through our John Deere machines,” owner Tom Mueller says of their 4,800-acre operation, consisting primarily of corn, hay and small grain crops. “So we started looking at ways we could really get the most value out of our data.”

“What they’re doing is really incredible,” says Vince Tichy, Granular Agronomy Certified Services Agent (CSA). “The aim was to have wireless data transfer on every piece of equipment on the farm to take in data and be able to see the full picture.” Aided by Vince’s expertise and Granular Agronomy, the team at Miltrim began evaluating the data to look for patterns.

What they saw were multiple opportunities for ecologically friendly farming improvements on acreage that had a history of low yields. As a passionate advocate for sustainable farming practices, Tom was already involved in the Eau Pleine Partnership for Integrated Conservation, a local group dedicated to the health of the area’s watershed, so the partnership with Pheasants Forever was the last piece needed to help those opportunities start to take shape.

“I was first introduced to Tom at our National Pheasant Fest Precision Agriculture Workshop,” says Scott Stipetich, Precision Ag and Conservation Specialist with Pheasants Forever. Emma Fuller, Science Lead for Carbon and Ecosystem Services Global Portfolio at Corteva Agriscience, introduced the two at the workshop centered around Pheasants Forever’s use of agricultural tech to advance farmer profitability and habitat solutions. “Our goals just align,” Scott said of Tom’s conservation efforts. “After one phone call, we both saw the value in working with one another and the relationship took off.”

While the crew at Miltrim Farm was already implementing sustainability measures like no-till, cover crops and even water reuse and conservation, combining their efforts and goals with the expertise of both Pheasants Forever and Granular took these efforts to the next level.

Scott Stipetich – Pheasants Forever Precision Ag & Conservation Specialist

“It’s a collaboration, there’s no doubt about that,” says Granular CSA Vince Tichy. “It wasn’t just one person, it was a lot of work done together by the entire group.”

With the help of Scott and Vince, the team was able to use Granular and John Deere tools to analyze multi-year trends with a focus on how each acre had performed historically, and where there were clear areas of underperformance. “When we talk about pulling acres out of production, accurate numbers are critical, so we spent a lot of time focusing on these low-production areas in order to be very specific about how yield average and profitability would look once those areas are pulled out,” Vince recalls. With hard data and clear projections in hand, it was evident that the land in question wasn’t prime for row crop production. The next step was to figure out what it was prime for.

Planting a Solution

Carissa Knab – Pheasants Forever field biologist

While the data pointed clearly at an alternative use for the underperforming acres, finding the exact solution required more information and expertise. After all, each farm operation can benefit from different techniques depending on location, climate, operation specifics and other variables. In addition, alternative crops can represent a significant financial investment, so finding the right one is critical. To solve this challenge, Miltrim, in cooperation with their Granular CSA, worked with Scott and local Pheasants Forever field biologist Carissa Knab.

“Before I visit a farm, I look up information on the soil types in the area and other information that will help develop alternative solutions, such as: is part of the field in a floodplain, are there creeks or other water bodies on the land?” Carissa describes her process. “When walking the property with a farmer, I’ll have them point out any areas of concern and share their top priorities. We use all this information to identify which practices are applicable and which plant species will thrive best.”

With more than 2,000 head of cattle in their operation, Miltrim had a unique opportunity to provide forage for their livestock while utilizing their acreage to its fullest. But in addition to these forage areas, Miltrim took it a step further by investing in and planting pollinator crops.

“Miltrim identified areas to transition to hay plantings or pollinator prairie plantings, which include a diverse mix of native grasses and flowers– 25 flower species, to be exact,” Carissa says. With approximately 35% of global crop production dependent on pollinators, native flowers like the ones planted at Miltrim are increasingly important– especially as bee losses are still prevalent around the country.

Once all was said and done, the team at Miltrim had identified more than 50 acres to convert to a forage mix of clover and grass or to pollinator prairie mix, reducing time and effort previously spent on low-yield acreage, boosting per-acre profitability and creating a number of ecological benefits in the process.

Buying into the long game

While investing in cover crops and pollinator mixes can seem to carry a hefty pricetag at the start, Tom notes that the outcomes make the investment more than worth it. “Thirty-five acres of pollinator plots means investing in a very complex, very expensive mix. But you have to buy into the long game on this. Sustainability is something that pays off well into the future.”

Vince Tichy agrees. “A pollinator plot isn’t built up in one season, so we have to be committed.” He takes that commitment to heart even on his own property, where he has converted some land into pollinator mix. “To have an answer for non-productive acres for growers out there is exciting. I do soil sampling throughout the year, every year, and soil from efforts like these is just way different from anything I’ve ever seen from other methods.”

Now that the grass and clover are springing up and the native pollinator plantings are in full bloom, Tom and the team at Miltrim are thinking about the outcomes– and where their sustainability journey will take them next. “By tracking inputs and costs, Scott, Vince and Granular are helping me to put a number on the value of what we’re doing here. But we’re always looking at each and every field to see if there are other areas that make sense to create these different plans for.”

Vince Tichy – Granular CSA

Pheasants Forever is also looking into the future and investing time and manpower into precision agriculture initiatives to help farmers nationwide through team collaboration backed by science. “When we come to the table, it’s the farmer, the agronomist and us,” Scott Stipetich says. “Before precision agriculture really took off, traditional conservation meant going and observing specific problems, addressing them and moving on. But now, it’s all about looking at all the data being collected plus the farmers’ insights and creating a long-term plan. Now we’re able to have a more involved, data driven approach and together, come up with new solutions.”

What are the benefits of pollinator crops?

Pheasants Forever Field Biologist Carissa Knab outlines just some of the benefits of dedicated pollinator spaces for both farmers and the environment:

  • Conserves native pollinators and provides nectar and pollen resources for local honeybees.
  • Reduces the need for pesticides by attracting beneficial insects that feed on crop pests
  • Improves soil, water and air quality while reducing erosion from wind, rain and other elements
  • Helps to mitigate risks like drought, insect infestation, plant disease and other variables
  • Enhances the natural beauty of the farmland through native flowers and plants

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