cows in field

BORG-way FARM, Belgrade, Minnesota

Joe & Toni Borgerding in the nursery.

Added March 27, 2018.

by Sonja Heyck-Merlin

“I started washing eggs when I was six and driving tractors at eight,” said Joe Borgerding, a 61-year old Minnesotan organic farmer. He prepped cows for milking until he was old enough to reach the pipeline. By age 19, his father was ready to hand him the reins to the 360-acre farm located near Belgrade, a small town in the central part of the state. As the 10th child of 12 with 8 older sisters, Joe embraced the challenge.

“My dad had an 8th grade education, but was one of the smartest people I know. Growing up the during the Great Depression taught him frugality,” Joe said, and in-turn provided Joe with the principles that would guide his farming career.

The connotation of frugality can imply cheapness or stinginess. In Joe’s case, frugality involves constantly adapting to new technologies and ideas in order to improve efficiency and productivity.
“A lot of farms are patched together,” Joe said, “but since I took over my dad’s 50-cow herd in 1974, we have rebuilt or replaced every single farm building.” When not on pasture, the herd of 180 milk cows are housed in a free-stall and milked in a double-8 herring bone parlor, both built in 1994. “The barn yard is laid out in a nice circular design that allows us to move cattle between buildings,” said Joe. “The manure is concentrated on one side of the yard, and the shop, grains bins, and feed on the other.”

For some farmers, frugality may prevent them from growth, whether it be their land base, equipment, or infrastructure. Joe, however, has not been inhibited by his frugality. Joe, and his wife Toni, of 39 years, have increased their land base to 680 owned acres, and another 400 rented acres. Their land base and dairy are now large enough to support two sons who have returned to the farm full-time.

Joe and Toni raised six children on the farm- five sons and one daughter. Danny (30), and Tommy (28) have returned to the farm. Their son Ryan is an engineer in Texas, and their daughter Teri works at a hardware store but helps manage their crew of teenagers in the summer. Their youngest son, currently in college, also hopes to return. Their son Carl passed away at 11 in a tragic farm accident.


Winter machine shop

Joe is also heavily invested in equipment. “My strategy when I started was that every five years, I would trade for a piece 10 years newer,” he explained. With profits from both organic milk and organic soybeans over the past five years Joe said, “We have been able to more than achieve that goal.” They have added DigiFarm RTK auto steering to their main planting and cultivating tractors, and purchased a newer combine equipped with a yield monitor.

“You can bleed on the leading edge or you can eat dust on the back edge.”

It’s not that Joe hasn’t ever experienced eating dust on the back edge. Joe farmed conventionally for nearly 20 years. Production was being affected by salt and chemical carry over. The heavy clay soils of the home farm were alkaline with a pH up to 8, had poor aeration, infiltration, and root penetration.

“Because of the tightness of the soil,” Joe said, “the problems got worse and worse. I don’t think I saw an earthworm for 15 years. None of our roots went into the ground very deep. I would see alfalfa roots where the tips had turned sideways.”

Joe continued, “Nobody had really ever taught us about soil structure; I didn’t fully understand the importance of soil biology.” A natural problem solver, Joe began to read about biological farming, particularly the studies of Dr. William Albrecht. “I also started working with Gary Zimmer of Midwestern BioAg,” Joe said.


Arial view of the farm in 2017

By integrating cover cropping into his cropping systems and changing tillage, within five years Joe was able to see significant changes. “Now, when it rains, I can soak up three inches. Before we fixed our soil, the high ground would run off and the low ground would flood. No amount of drainage tiling would have fixed the problem.”

With two sons back on the farm and a nephew who has been farming with Joe for 30 years, Joe described his current farm role as “general manager.” Stepping back from pasture and herd management has allowed him to focus on managing the business and cropland, and custom work. The cost of his equipment is partially offset by completing around 500 acres of custom work a year (planting, chopping, tilling and baling) for neighbors. Joe said his neighbors “appreciate not having to invest in the cost of the equipment that we maintain.”

In 2017, he planted 140 acres of soybeans, and 180 acres of corn (1/3 for silage, 1/3 for snaplage, and the remaining 1/3 for dry corn). He also harvested crops of wheat, barley, oats, and spelt. “Production has gotten pretty good,” Joe said. “We can grow up to 200 bushels of corn an acre, and 45-50 bushels of soybeans. We recently sold 4000 bushels of food-grade soybeans that will end up in Japan.” Currently, he is researching growing Black Turtle beans on contract. “I learned from my father that resiliency comes from diversity. My strategy is not to be dependent on one commodity,” Joe said.

“We seed high population oats or barley for grain and straw and then incorporate manure in August,” Joe explained about a typical crop rotation. “That is followed by alfalfa or a cover crop blend. Older alfalfa (2-3 years) gets plowed, manured, and seeded to oats/radishes in late-August. That is followed by a year of corn, a year of soybeans, back to corn, and then back to small grains.”


Danny milking

Joe is currently experimenting with organic strip tillage and modifying cultivating equipment to allow cultivation within a strip tillage system. Joe said, “Strip tillage involves tilling 8-10” strips, every 30 inches, where we plant row crops, without disturbing the soil in-between.” According to Joe, the advantages of strip tillage are that it allows cover crops to shade the centers, it causes less soil disturbance, and reduces erosion from wind and rain.

He uses a Dawn strip tiller and with DigiFarm RTK, he is able to till 7-8 miles per hour with a 150 horse-power tractor.

“We modified a rotary hoe to work the strips,” Joe said. “And we are revamping an old heavy- duty cultivator to handle the residue, and to catch up on the weeds later in the season. We understand this will be a challenge, so we are just doing trial strips each year until we can evaluate the results.”

“We don’t farm in a box. When the wind changes, we adjust our sails,” Joe said. “If you’re doing things like you did five years ago, maybe you aren’t looking. We really try to stay current. It sure beats eating dust.”

“The boys take care of the backaches and I take care of the headaches.”

Joe explained that serious stray voltage issues have historically affected the productivity of the milk cows, but that despite those issues “the dairy has made the farm work in terms of the manure, forage utilization, and rotation.”

Joe shipped his first load of organic milk to Organic Valley in 2004, and the higher milk prices have allowed the dairy to continue into the next generation. “We are focusing more on the dairy right now, and it is becoming more productive. Maybe the boys are better dairymen than I was,” Joe said. They have also solved most of their stray voltage problems.

The herd was primarily Holstein, but seven years ago they began cross-breeding with Bavarian Fleckvieh semen. The use AI and a few years ago invested in a Semex ai-24 heat detection system. “The Fleckvieh breed is a dual-purpose breed with tremendous reproductive efficiency, something that seems to be lacking in the American Holstein,” Joe said. “They are better grazers, and in the winter, can take the cold.”



Average annual production per cow is 17,000 pounds with 4.3% butterfat and 3.2% protein. SCC averages 160 in the winter and 240 in the late summer. Current pay price is $29.70/cwt.
60% of the herd calves in the fall in order to take advantage of what were until 2017, significant winter premiums. “Heat and humidity are our biggest enemies,” Joe said. “We’ve found that our cows are the most productive in the winter when we are able to manage their rations.” The current winter ration is 22# baleage, 25# corn silage, 14# haylage, 15# snaplage, 3# shell corn, 1# roasted soybeans, and 1# minerals. They produce all of their own forages and concentrates.

100 acres of pasture around the home farm are dedicated to the milk cow rotational grazing system. Upon his return to the farm, Tommy participated in the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship to learn the finer points of grazing. During prime grazing months, the cows are at 30-40% DMI from pasture.

Another 100 acres of pasture at three different satellite locations are grazed by heifers, dry cows, and a separate beef herd made up of steered bull calves from the milking herd. They finish about 50 steers a year, half of which are sold to Organic Prairie, and the rest direct marketed. Joe said, “Each location has buildings and pasture associated with it.” The satellite farms also have housing for his sons and nephew. Joe said that the additional properties have allowed the farm to “decentralize their young stock, and utilize marginal ground.”

Pastures are maintained as sod because the majority of their pastures utilize untiled, marginal land which tend to “muck up when they are wet,” said Joe. “The sod developed over many years and withstands cow traffic better than fresh sod that gets smeared.” At least one paddock per year, however, is re-seeded.

“Our brand is a little red barn, at the end of a nice green pasture, managed by
a farm family.”

“It doesn’t look so good for the short term,” Joe said about the current pay price. “I think the NOP dropped the ball by not standing up to those big dairies.” He also expressed concern about the Aurora farm and processing plant being built in Missouri. In his opinion, the over supply is also due to the widening price difference between conventional and organic producers which he feels encouraged conventional producers to transition.

Setting the cause of the oversupply aside, Joe said, “We have to use our honest message to outsell the competition,” which is quasi-organic milk and non-dairy milk. Joe continued,” We need to find a way to use science to show that our milk is better. Then, consumers will stick with it regardless of price. We have to sell the quality, lifestyle, and environmental benefits.”

In an email, Joe elaborated, “Lower prices will also make it more important to use new tools and ideas to produce even more efficiently. Small changes in our practices can have big effects on margins because practices are free. We are still fortunate for the opportunity we have, but likely won’t be bailed out by higher pay prices any time soon.”

“The best thing we grow on our farm is our kids.”

According to Joe, within the span of his farming career, the number of dairy farms in Minnesota has dropped from 25,000 to 3200. Many of the remaining dairies are large confinement operations. “Our communities,” said Joe, “are changing. The school bus drives and drives to get a load of kids. Grocery stores and hardware stores have gone out of business. Our local community base is shrinking.”

He continued, “I think one of the best things we grow on the farm is kids. My wife and I are so happy we had the opportunity to raise our children on the farm.” Joe feels that children who grow up on small farms have an innate work ethic and sense of responsibility, and there is a huge social cost to our society when there are less farm children. Joe said, “How many hard-working farm kids do you produce on a 5,000-cow dairy?”

Joe and Toni have tried to buck this trend by employing local school children. Roughly 35 of their nieces and nephews have been employed at the farm, some for only a few weeks, others for longer periods of time. “We have an excellent labor supply,” Joe said. “We even get the banker’s and insurance agent’s children out here on the farm. Parents are so happy to have their children get some farm experience.”

“I encouraged my sons to come back. I told them it was the good life. We don’t have the neighbors we used to. Large grain operations are taking over- there are two 30,000-acre operations nearby. It doesn’t give you the same type of community as if you had young farm couples. At this point in my farming career, one of the most important things I can do is to promote efficient small farms.”

Joe Borgerding and his family can be reached at: 39736 275th St., Belgrade MN 56312,
320-254-8430-home, 320-248-9340-cell,