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Beginning Farmer Uses Stewardship Program to Make Long-Term Improvements

By: Gemma Bush, Ohio Earth Team Volunteer

Mike Van Winkle uses CSP to make long-term improvments on his Ohio farm

Mike Van Winkle uses CSP to make long-term improvements on his Ohio farm

Mike Van Winkle has always had a love of the land. He grew up on his family’s dairy farm in Logan County, Ohio, learning all the tricks of the trade from his parents and his seven older siblings. When it was time for Mike to go to college, he chose to study to become an Agricultural Education teacher, and during his college years, he still found as much time as he could to help out on the family farm. But then life took an unexpected turn.

When Mike’s father passed away in 2006, Mike purchased the family farm and became the primary operator of the Van Winkle Dairy Farm. Mike managed to simultaneously finish his degree and ramp up the farm’s herd from 45 head to 90. He had big dreams for his farm and wanted to make it efficient, clean, and sustainable. Now that he was on his own as a beginning farmer, he was unsure where to start. 

Fellow farmers suggested that Mike contact NRCS. He took their advice and was soon on his way to reaching his goals to address resource concerns on the farm. Mike wanted to improve water quality, stop soil from eroding, better manage animal waste, and more. Now, using NRCS programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), he is meeting those goals.

Mike first used EQIP to install a new waste storage facility, began using cover crops, adjusted his residue management practices and more, but he was not content to stop there. His ultimate goal was qualifying for CSP to pursue more comprehensive and long lasting conservation efforts. The dairy was awarded a CSP contract in 2015. 

CSP has made several changes possible for the Van Winkle Dairy. CSP enhancements to Mike’s farm have not only improved water quality, but soil health and wildlife benefited as well.

Mike’s cows now spend 12 hours a day out to pasture. He has converted some of his cropland to pasture land which lowers the intensity of land use on his farm. This change allows the animals to naturally spread their manure into the soil, which has multiple benefits. Once the manure decomposes, less is left on the farmstead to manage.  Not only are the manure’s nutrients deposited into the soil, which improves soil health by increasing soil organic matter, less nutrient application will be required when crops are grown on that land after crop rotation. Keeping nutrients in place and on the farm in turn improves water quality.

To further contribute to improved water quality, Mike applies nitrogen the smart way. He always does soil testing to see how much nitrogen the soil actually needs before applying. And while the conventional application technique is to apply a large amount of nitrogen to cropland once a year, plants cannot absorb that much nitrogen at once. Mike uses split nitrogen applications, applying half of the needed nitrogen in the fall after the soil temperature reduces to increase nutrient utilization, and half in the spring, when the plant has surfaced and can actually absorb more of the nutrient. The more nitrogen that is actually used by the plant, the less is available to be washed into waterways as runoff.

Local wildlife are also benefiting from a couple of Mike’s CSP activities. Mike leaves some grain unharvested each year to provide a winter food source for birds and other animals.  He has also established pollinator habitat on his farm, which not only increases bee, wasp, and moth populations, but also helps the crops they pollinate.

Mike wants to share his successes with others and will host a grazing related field day this fall, which will be the second he’s held on his farm. The field day will help educate the public about management techniques that can be incorporated into farming to address resource concerns — and it seems that he’s taking advantage of that Agricultural Education background after all.

LaRae Baker, an NRCS soil conservationist in Bellefontaine, has been working with Mike from his first EQIP project to his latest CSP efforts and has seen the Van Winkle Dairy Farm undergo an unmistakable transformation. “I think for me the biggest sign of success on the farm isn’t simply the participation in EQIP or CSP, it’s his willingness to share his experiences and insights with other farmers,” Baker says. “It’s his mom and him working together to keep the farm going, and her supporting the positive impact Mike is making. It’s knowing that with assistance from NRCS, the Van Winkle Dairy Farm has successfully improved their impact on the environment.”

Thinking to the future, Mike wants to bring more cropland into a long-term crop rotation, with 3-5 years of permanent vegetation, to increase his pasture acreage even further.  Mike is always thinking, what’s next?