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By Tamara Scully, NODPA News contributing writer
Dairy farming has been in his family for generations, and Minnesota farmer Dennis Lutteke has been doing just that for most of his life, beginning when he grew up on his parent’s dairy farm. Following a stint in the military, his own farm operation began on his great-great aunt’s farm, where he and wife Diane started dairy farming a half century ago, and where they remain today.
They began with a 30 head milking herd, and grew that herd as the infrastructure allowed. With a manure pit - still in use- built in 1978, they were able to double their herd size. With a new barn, they now have a current milking herd of 80 Holsteins, and another 80 head of heifers and steers.
The Lutteke’s diversified organic farm near Wells, Minnesota has seen plenty of change, although some things - those that work well - have stayed the same. A combination of tradition and innovation, Lutteke Organics is a mix of dairy cows, pastures, feed crops grown for the herd, and a variety of cash crops.
The home farm consists of 160 acres, and the dairy is located here, along with the grazing pastures. They also farm other parcels of land, located in the surrounding area. All of the land is part of their diversified crop rotations of certified organic feed crops, seed crops, forages and processing vegetables.
Dennis believes that nature already contains everything it needs to perfectly produce nutritious crops. All he has to do is not mess up the soils, thus allowing them to do what they do best. Adding fertility naturally, from manure, has served the farm well for decades. Following extensive soil testing in the 1980s and 90s, he hasn’t focused much on testing in the interim. Today, his soil samples show that organic matter has increased, as have soil nutrients, over the past 25 years.
Throughout the years, he’s taken frequent feed samples to guide him on the state of soil health. He’ll adjust his manure applications as needed based on those tests, and it’s served him well.
He eliminated chemical fertilizers more than 40 years ago, and stopped applying pesticides a few years later. In the mid-1990s, the farm became certified organic. They began selling milk through Organic Valley, with whom they continue doing business today, in 1997.
The secret to building soil health has been crop rotation, responsible manure applications, and the responsible use of equipment to minimize soil compaction and disturbance.
“God has put everything in that soil that we need,” Dennis stated.
They spray on manure slurry, applying it primarily to the cornfields, and incorporating it via discing at the time of application. The spraying and discing is done on the same pass through the field, with the sprayer on top and the disc on back of the truck. The manure is applied at 3,250 gallons of liquid per acre, primarily to areas next getting planted to corn.
Soil fertility is enhanced through an eight crop rotation pattern. They raise all of their own feed crops - field corn, corn silage, oats and alfalfa - which are rotated with organic sweet corn and organic peas, raised for processing by Seneca, and organic black beans for Everbest Organics. They are also seed growers, producing corn, soybeans and oats for Albert Lea Seed. They raise soybeans, all of which are sold on the foreign commodity market. Pasture, too is a part of this rotational mix.
“If we can raise all of our own forages, they’ll eat that better than any forages we can buy,” Dennis said.
Alfalfa is grown the seed year and for two more years, and is usually mixed with grasses and clover. Corn follows alfalfa. Black beans, oats, sweet peas and sweet corn follow in rotation. After the sweet peas, a cover crop mix of radish, clovers, turnips and oats primes the land for the sweet corn.
Forages on the home farm will be grazed for three or four years, at which time Dennis rotates the ground out of pasture, and into the crop rotation, leaving the herd with new freshly planted pastures.
Cover crops play a significant role in building that soil healthy soil. They act as a soil conditioner, and a weed suppressant. Dennis has noticed that crops planted following a cover crop - typically he uses a diverse mixture of oats, clovers, turnips, radishes - will flourish in the “chocolate cake-like” soil. Cover crops, he said, “are the best crop out there.”
Dennis prefers for his cover crops to winter kill. For crops such as the black beans, it’s important that the cover crop be fully terminated before spring, to prevent any mixing of the cover crop with the cash crop.
Dennis will allow winter killed cover crops to blanket the soil, preventing erosion and protecting the soil. Depending on which crop is next up in rotation the following spring, he also applies manure and bedding from the barn on top of the cover crop. He later will shallowly plow it all into the soil, no more than six inches deep. Cover crops are terminated n this manner when oats or black beans will be planted the following spring,
For Dennis, the importance of soil health can’t be overstated. “I feed the soil the same way I feed the livestock,” Dennis said.
The milking herd grazes on 35 acres of pasture each year. Dennis does not divide that land into separate paddocks, leaving the intricate details of grazing up to the cows themselves. Pasture is always located near to the barn, as he does not want the cows to expend energy walking to and from pasture each day.
The cows are milked twice per day, and are free to enter and leave the barn at will. During the winter, they have access to an outdoor exercise paddock, where baleage is available in feeders. This area is also used by the youngstock during the grazing season, when the milking herd is on the large pasture. The cows tend to graze during the cooler morning and evening hours, returning on their own to the barn for much of the hot afternoon.
“They know what they want,” Dennis said of the cows. “I let the animals choose what they want.”
The pastures grasses are primarily assorted fescues and ryegrass, with some Alyce clover and maybe a bit of oats or peas thrown in for variety and diversity here and there. The cows don’t like the oats, but do enjoy the peas. Dennis has observed that the cows graze different areas of the pasture at different times, and basically rotate themselves.
“It seems to me they keep the whole thing clipped pretty good,” he said. “What goes in the cow comes out as manure.” and the cows do not go back and revisit the areas where they’ve already been, so the manure is spread out naturally, and the forages aren’t regrazed too soon.
He has noticed that at times the cows will lick a certain area down to the dirt, but he does not know why. If there are patches of forages they refuse to graze, he’ll pull those out and reseed. The cows will graze most of the pasture down to six or eight inches, and then move on, ultimately sampling the entire pasture during the season, without excessive use of any area of pasture. This “roam free” ideology has worked well for his herd, and he feels he’s avoided some issues he’s observed when rotational grazing is managed more intensively, and isn’t optimally done.
The herd is fed the same ration year-round and the dry matter intake from pasture forages remains at about 35 - 40 percent. The fed ration consists of shell corn with some small pieces of cob ground fine, with about 10 percent of the grain mix being oats.. Alfalfa is fed as dry hay and haylage in the barn, but as baleage outside. Corn silage is also fed, with amounts of alfalfa and corn silage adjusted as needed depending on pasture intake.
“We lose some butterfat on pasture, and some production on pasture,” Dennis said. “We’re in the business of selling milk.”
Going above 40 percent DMI from pasture forages tends to see that milk production decrease too much. They average 55 -65 pound of milk per cow, per day. Milk production ranges between 16,000 and 20,000 pounds per year. Butterfat is 3.7 during the grazing season, and 4.1 in the winter. Protein is typically 3.2 -3.3.
They don’t supplement cows with anything other than salt, a vitamin pack and minerals.
The herd is milked twice per day in the tie stall barn. They have several cows that don’t get chained, as they simply stay put in the stall for milking. Stalls are bedded with wood shavings, and they haven’t had any problems with moisture. Somatic cell counts range from 140,000 to 240,000. A lot of that range depends upon the humidity levels, Dennis said.
The original old tie stall wood barn burnt to the ground in 2000. No livestock was lost, but Dennis wanted to rebuild a barn that didn’t have the risk of fire. So he worked with a local company, showing him the barn design he needed. They agreed to build him their first ever cement barn.
The new cement barn measures 50 feet wide and 170 feet long. There are trees planted on the south side of the facility, to keep out the heat of the day, and two large two-speed fans draw the air through the barn, keeping a healthy environment for the cows year-round.
“It’s very comfortable in there,” and stays about ten degrees cooler than the outside air during the summer months, he said. In the winter, the barn temperature is maintained at a steady 55 degrees, using only one fan for ventilation.
They’ve had no health problems vexing the herd. No veterinarian has been needed for 15 years. Part of the strategy is to remove problems prior to them becoming a herd issue. If a cow has mastitis, they dry the quarter. If the problem can’t be readily solved, they’ll sell the animal rather than risk introducing illness to the entire herd.
They don’t have respiratory, scours or other issues, and their calves are “strong and healthy.” One or two calves are the most they lose each year. If there are any stray health problems, Dennis does have some prepared organic tinctures, but has no ongoing issues and does not utilize these often.
He prefers to “get rid of the problem before it gets too bad, so it will go away,” rather than risk the entire herd’s health to treat one cow.
Calf housing is in the same cement barn as milking herd. The calf will stay with the mama cow for a day or two, and then is moved into an individual pen, within eyesight of the mother, who goes to her stall. The calf pen measures five by five, and the calves are fed raw milk from the bulk tank. At three months of age, calves are moved into a group pen. Larger pens are located outdoors for older calves, and steers are reared in the exercise pen until slaughter.
Cull cows - as well as the 40 head of steer they raise each year - are sold to Organic Valley. They occasionally will sell a cow for slaughter, but keep their replacement heifers for their closed herd.
All breeding is done via artificial insemination, and they’ve never used a bull.
“I like Holsteins that are big,” Dennis said.
Other selected traits including high, small udders with a lot of milk production, and a high butterfat content of over 4.0 are important, but a nice temperament is a necessity. Cows with a poor disposition are culled, no matter how productive they may be.
The Luttekes aren’t only organic farmers: they are innovators. Dennis, son Chris and assorted grandchildren are also equipment fabricators, building flame cultivators to specification for other farmers. About 1995, Dennis built his own 12 row flame cultivator, adding propane tanks and nozzles to existing equipment. Today, they build between 600 and 1000 per year, to each farmer’s exact specifications, during the non-growing season.
“That’s probably what we should be doing, but I enjoy farming, and I enjoy livestock,” Dennis said.
He’s built flame weeders for farms of all sizes, and for growers of all types of crops. He’s not sure how they adapt the practice to various crops, but he knows they all have figured out how to do so.
The flame weeder, along with tine cultivation and keeping the soil covered, all work to keep weeds at bay in their organic farming system. They flame weed all of the corn crops, along with the sweet peas, black beans and soybeans. Each crop has to be flamed at certain growth stages to avoid damage and for optimal weed control.
“The weeds in the field...need to be done when they are itty-bitty,” Dennis said, or they can quickly get out of control. Flame weeding “works excellent on broadleaves,” except thistle and cocklebur. “We cover most of the acres with flame weeding.”
Grasses are not always fully eradicated via flame weeding. Control runs between 50 and 100 percent. Dennis postulates that he difference has to do with humidity level at the time of weeding may play a role.
They cultivate close to the row for weed control. Last season, they were unable to flame due to the weather, and they’ve had some weed issues this season as a result. An electronic weed zapper, owned by a neighbor, may be the next tool the Luttekes are interested in trying for weed control.
All of their equipment is guided by GPS. It is less exhausting to drive, and therefore more can get accomplished in a day, and more precise, too, preventing unneeded compaction to the soils.
Three of the Lutteke’s four children have followed the family’s farming footprints. Their two daughters both farm organically with their spouses and families, and son Chris returned to work on the home farm in 2007. Chris and Dennis are the only farm employees, along with occasional help from the grandchildren, at least one of whom is showing interest in farming as a career.
The dairy herd income is split 50-50 between Dennis and Chris. Chris owns some land of his own, and the crops from both farms are pooled together, with the manure used across both farms as needed. The Lutteke’s don’t believe in crop insurance, and “if I fail, he will help me out, and if he fails, I will help him out,” is their family philosophy, Dennis said.
Without any outside employees, Dennis and Chris admit to being overworked. Morning milking and barn chores take four or five hours, and they feed the cows four times per day. Feed pushups are done four to six times per day. The evening milking and chores require another three to four hours. In between, the crops are tended.
As the 67th organic dairy producer for Organic Valley, Dennis was farming organically before it became a widely accepted practice. While organic farming does capture a pricing premium, that pricing incentive isn’t the reason for being certified organic.
“It’s not about the money. It’s about doing it correctly,” Dennis said of farming organically.
Lutteke Organics is certified through Oregon Tilth.
Dennis Lutteke can be reached at 56360 200th St, Wells, MN 56097, (507) 553-5633
Posted: to Featured Farms on Mon, Sep 28, 2020
Updated: Mon, Sep 28, 2020