Progressive Farmer — October 2015
An Ethic For The Land
L.S. Leonard, Contributor

The Cates family puts Aldo Leopold’s words to work in their grass-based beef business.

Their farm was “rough,” but Dick and Kim Cates learned over time how to manage their pastures for function, affordability and sustainability.

Dick Cates comes from a long line of ancestors who made a living from the land and the water. His father made sure his connection to the earth was not only in Cates’ blood but was an ethic worked into his muscles, as well.

Cates’ family roots can be traced back to the 1600s through generations of farmers and fishermen. Dick Sr., Cates’ father, grew up on a Depression-era farm in Maine. He was a U.S. Marine whose career included terms as a Wisconsin state assemblyman, Watergate special counsel to the House Judiciary Committee and a trial lawyer. Dick Sr. grew up tough, and he wanted life to test his five children. To prevent Cates and his four siblings from slacking off, in 1967, he bought a hardscrabble patch of grass and timber in southern Wisconsin.

“Dad didn’t want us getting lazy in town,” says Cates, who holds a Ph.D. in soil plant health from the University of Wisconsin (UW). Today, he and his wife, Kim, own Cates Family Farm, in Iowa County, near Spring Green, Wis. The operation includes some of his father’s land. “ ‘I want you to learn how to work,’ Dad told us. That always stuck with me,” Cates says.

When Cates was 16, his father gave him a copy of Aldo Leopold’s “A Sand County Almanac” as a Christmas gift. It became, over the years, Cates’ guidebook for managing the family land. “I read the whole thing before I went back to school after Christmas break,” he says. “I couldn’t put it down. I still have it, and when I read it now at 63, I continue to get more and more out of it.”

Production And Protection. Cates Family Farm is more than double the size of his father’s spread. It includes 200 acres of woods managed for timber and oak savannah restoration, and 600 acres of managed pasture. Adding to the picturesque landscape of rolling hills, pasture and timber—and to the family’s environmental responsibility—is Lowery Creek. Native brown and brook trout, and a population of introduced rainbow trout, can be found in its cool swirls as it wanders through the farm’s pastures. The grass-fed Angus and Jersey-cross beef raised on Cates Family Farm is sold to retail outlets and through a direct-to-consumer business with customers from Wisconsin to Chicago.

The farm was rough and unproductive when Dick and Kim took over in the mid-1980s. “None of these farms in this area were working farms at that time. They were too small, too steep or too wet,” he says. “The model was from the 1940s and ’50s, and that just wasn’t functional anymore for this landscape. The high deer population feasted in the corn fields, and the pastures across the region were all thistles.”

The Cates worked and learned how to produce from their pastures the optimum blend of function, affordability and sustainability. “Our management techniques don’t require money,” Cates asserts. “They require an understanding of the agroecological system.”

It was insight that began to form in Cates’ mind after he attended a grassland-management lecture in 1990. “We went, ‘Holy moly! That could work on our landscape.’ We learned we needed to keep the land in grass and manage it properly,” he recalls. The rotational grazing system they set up was so effective they were able to withstand even the withering drought of 1988, which forced liquidations of some Upper Midwest cow herds.

Reflection Of Management. “Your pasture mix will end up being what you’re managing for whether or not it is your plan,” Cates says. “Your grasses are going to reflect how tight you graze, how often you graze, and, over time, your grasses will come into balance, and nature will fill the voids. Your pasture will be a reflection of your management.”

The Cates’ grazing system is built exclusively on a mix of cool-season grasses and clover. “We graze our pastures tall, and we frost-seed red clover every three years at about 5 pounds an acre into that grass in March, in the frost season,” he says. Clover seed is relatively dense, and it finds its way down into the cracks in the soil with the early spring freeze/thaw cycles. “When we put the cattle on the pasture in April, their hooves push the clover seed into the soft ground, essentially planting it as they graze.”

This is a highly productive mix for Cates. It provides growth throughout the hot summer and a residual stand in the fall. “We have a whole range of grasses—bromegrass, orchardgrass, quack grass and tall fescue,” he says. “Our favorite one is meadow fescue because it has a long growing season, is very palatable and does well on wetter, as well as dryer, soils. It grows prolifically in southwest Wisconsin.”

Cates knows some will question the presence of tall fescue in his mix because of the fungal endophyte that affects grazing cattle. “Tall fescues have been improved, and there are many that do not have that endophyte,” he says. It is a plant that handles the heat well and grows in drought.

Cates tried to seed warm-season grasses into his cool-season swards, but they didn’t compete well.
“A little farther south, you can incorporate warm-season grasses; but we tried that here, and it just didn’t work. In order to get a good warm-season grass going here, you have to kill the cool-season grass with Roundup or plow it up, and I’m just not willing to do that.”

The grazing system proved a benefit to Lowery Creek. The Cates participated in a three-year ecological study to measure the impact of rotational grazing on the creek. The research showed that managed grazing was effective at maintaining the purity of a cold water trout stream and passed the test on several metrics, including stream-bank stability, water turbidity, fish survivability and shoreline wildlife habitat.

No Fences Needed. When results of the study showed landowners that waterways didn’t need to be fenced off, managed grazing blossomed. “A significant portion of our dairy farms, and more and more beef farms, are doing this. We are seeing a growth area,” he says.

Cates employs four practices for improving his pastures and riparian areas:

• Controlled Grazing. Cates implemented a time-controlled grazing system in which cattle are moved daily. Managed grazing is all about timing, he says. “It’s about short-duration grazing and long rest periods. And when creeks are involved, it’s important to create rock stream crossings.”

• Cattle Crossings. Cates installed livestock stream crossings to protect stream banks. Crossings need to be located where cattle naturally want to cross. After learning the cows’ favored crossing spots, Cates then built up the stream bed with rocks and gravel. “We observed their habits, improved the crossings and rotated the cattle so they are never on one place of the stream more than a day,” he says.

• Weed Management. Thistle control allows for good grass growth, and, without the weeds in the way, grazing cattle consume the plant resources more efficiently. The Cates’ principal weed problem was the biennial plumeless thistle. It competed with the perennial grasses for sun, space and water. Once that weed was under control, the final step was the overseeding of clover.

• Clover Emphasis. Overseeding clover creates a cool environment for the livestock. “[It] creates a really wonderful environment,” Cates says. “In the summer, it’s hot and dry. But a clover leaf spreads horizontally and stays cool. Notice when you grab a handful of clover in the summer, it’s actually wonderfully cool. Not only do you fix nitrogen for your grass and have a better growth pattern, you have a lovely environment for livestock to lay down and ruminate, and they don’t have a need to go down and stand in the water.”

The Cates’ diligence was recognized in 2013 when they received the Wisconsin Leopold Conservation Award. The prestigious crystal award and $10,000 honor Wisconsin landowners’ achievements in stewardship and management of natural resources. It was the influence of Aldo Leopold’s “A Sand County Almanac” come full circle.

“Kim and Dick Cates recognized early in their farming career that they needed to work in partnership with their land resources,” says Rhonda Gildersleeve, professor and Extension grazing specialist at UW. “As a family, they integrated land-stewardship goals with a successful, grass-based beef operation and have generously shared their experiences with others.” The family farm visitor’s list includes groups of local school children and guests from overseas.

All Cates has tried to do, he says, is to understand how he could make the farm functional in a way that was economically affordable. “It’s really what Leopold asked landowners to do,” Cates says. “Leopold would say a landowner’s farm is the portrait of the landowner.”

Cates says the recognition in 2013 brought tears to his eyes. “The land ethic has been a motivating force in my life since I was a boy,” he says. “To be honored in Aldo Leopold’s name is bigger than I can put in words.”

Paying It Forward. Putting ideas into words is an ever-growing aspect of Cates’ life as he has scaled back his farming enterprises to make more time for lecturing and mentoring. The family still produces and direct-markets their popular Cates Family Farm beef. However, some of the land is rented to a tenant.

“After building our beef business for 30 years and being involved in agriculture since I was 15, I want to share what I’ve learned,” he says.

It is not an altogether new venture. Cates is a longtime senior lecturer in the department of soil science at UW. He is also the founder and director of the Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy and Livestock Farmers. The UW-based center hosts a business and training program for start-up farmers.

“There are tremendous opportunities for young people in agriculture today, and I get excited helping them put together business plans for their enterprises,” he says.
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