Dexter couple balances full-time jobs with small-town farming

Published 6:35 am Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Along with raising cattle and growing food, a pair of area farmers are looking to share their farming methods.

“Our goal on our farm is also to educate people,” Mark Schulz said.

Schulz and his wife, Jamie, wanted their farm, called Flatland Farm, to be an example of the sustainable methods that can be used on a small farm.

Schulz and Jamie own about six Scottish Highland Cattle, three horses and roughly 60 rabbits. The two moved from Austin to their Flatland Farm near Elkton in 2001 when Jamie wanted to purchase horses. A few years later, Mark decided to raise rabbits, which he had done while growing up on a dairy farm near Faribault. Jamie also grew up near Faribault.

Soon after, the two bought a few Scottish Highland heifer calves, a woolly breed of cattle Mark described as short but with a solid build. Not only are Scottish Highland cattle a hearty breed that can withstand various climates, Mark said they can also live on grass. A cattle breed that can convert grass to muscle is exactly the type of cattle the Schulz’s were looking for to start their sustainable farm practices.

Sustain

Jamie had the idea to operate a sustainable farm, and Mark hopes their sustainable methods can be an example of how to utilize “green” farming techniques. Mark and Jamie attend cattle shows, and they brought their cattle to the Mower County Fair, which offers a chance to talk to people about their farming methods.

“It’s just something to provide people with an option, to show that it does work, and that you can do it differently,” Mark said.

The couple also let children who live in the city come to their farm for 4-H projects and let them help in raising cattle or rabbits, as an opportunity to learn about agriculture. They also brought their animals to a live nativity scene at their church.

Mark’s cattle are entirely grass fed from around April or May through the end of October, and they use rotational grazing on about four acres. Feeding the cattle on grass is a throwback to how cattle were often fed in the 1940s. Because of their heavy coats, Scottish Highland Cattle don’t store fat for insulation, so the beef is leaner, and Mark said some studies show the meat is higher in Omega-3 because they feed on grass.

“If you can keep them on grass from April to October, that’s a lot you’re not buying feed,” he said.

In the winter, they feed their animals hay.

The Schulz’s divide the land into small paddocks using temporary fences and force the animal to eat the spot down. In the spring, the paddocks are smaller as there’s more lush vegetation, but they use larger paddocks when there’s less vegetation.

“Especially for small farms like ours, it’s growing in popularity and use just because of the advantages and because of people wanting to be more sustainable with a small farm,” Mark said.

The horses go into a paddock first, as Mark said they’re fussy eaters and eat certain spots. Then the cattle will eat what the horses leave behind. Mark allows the animals to eat down the grass to about four inches, before switching paddocks, which is often done every five to seven days. He’ll then clip the grass to even it out before the paddock is left to grow back.

The method is intended to benefit the animals and the land, since healthy land is a necessity for healthy, grass fed animals.

“It’s also called intensive grazing,” he said. “In other words, you’re grazing small areas intensively and then allowing them to rest.”

Since the animals eat gradually over a small area, they spread manure over the entire paddock, so Mark said he doesn’t have to spread manure over the pasture like he would on traditional pastures.

Though they’ve been grazing the cattle for about five years, Mark said they’re still in the experimental phase. He hasn’t tracked how much they’ve saved on feed.

Experiment

Mark described sustainable agriculture as a broad field, and he said each farm must decide on what it means to be sustainable.

In fact, he said their ideas have changed in the years they’ve owned the farm. Not all the methods the family uses are set in stone. They’re still trying to implement new things and learn how the animals react and grow to different methods.

“Everyday is kind of an experiment at our place,” he said.

When they started, Mark said they intended to use few vaccinations and treatments on their cattle. While they don’t use things like growth hormones, they now administer a low amount of basic vaccinations as a protective measure since they take their cattle to shows.

While Mark grew up feeding rabbits oats, he switched to feeding them whole oats and alfalfa hay after Jamie suggested a change. At first, Mark said it was discouraging as the rabbits struggle to gain weight, but the rabbits have adjusted through a few generations.

“They actually adapted to our style of feeding, and we’ve seen them come along,” he said.

The couple tried raising the rabbits in cages on the ground in attempt at free range rabbits; however, the rabbits had some health issues.

While Flatland Farm can be an example of sustainable practices, Mark is open to other agricultural practices, and he said there is still a place for large modern farms.

“I don’t believe necessarily that we’d be able to feed everyone on sustainable agriculture where we are in the world today, but we’d like to show … that it is an option for people,” he said.

Future

The couple attempts to operate a rounded farm, and Mark said they’d like to add a hog and some hens to it. However, Mark said they’re cautious to grow gradually.

“We’re doing this as a sustainable Ag venture, so we don’t want to over extend our animal herd,” he said. “That would be a detriment to the land.”

Since sustainable methods like rotational grazing can require a lot of labor, Mark said it’s important they ensure they have enough time to maintain their farm. Both work full time, and Mark often travels for work. He said it’s important the farm remains small enough for Jamie to maintain the farm on her own when necessary.

“I think the only way we do this is we’re both passionate and interested in the same goal,” he said. “If it was just me, it would be very difficult.”

Mark and Jamie both fund the farm through their jobs. In the future, Mark plans to run it more as a business and record the money they spend and bring in.

They’re currently selling a bull, and they also plan to sell more grass-fed beef and rabbit meat. They sell some meat now, but they currently keep most of their meat or give it to family.

For new farms looking to implement sustainable practices, Mark recommended they only expand slowly and visit other farms for research before making the change.

“It’s very easy to become almost addicted to the next type of project or thing you want to add, and that can be a problem in that you extend yourself a little too far,” he said.

He also said there are many groups people can be a part of. Flatland Farm is part of the North Central Highland Cattle Association, which has about 90 members in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa.

Along with continuing to work with local youth, Mark said Flatland Farm may someday host an Ag tourism day to allow people to come out and view the farm, and learn where their food comes from.