MENAHGA, Minn. — You’d never guess there was a severe drought at Single Cedar Farm in Menahga, Minnesota, south of Wolf Lake.

Robert and Sue Keranen operate a 100% perennial, pasture-based farm. They raise grass-fed beef and pastured pork.

The Sustainable Farming Association (SFA) showcased the Keranens’ ag practices during an Adaptive Grazing Field Days event this month.

Founded in 1989, the mission of SFA is to advance “environmental stewardship, economic resilience and strong, diverse communities through farmer-to-farmer networking, education, demonstration and research.”

More than 30 farmers toured Keranens' farm on Aug. 17, learning about bale grazing, pastured pork production, water and fence infrastructure and adaptive grazing techniques.

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Robert Keranen said he made the transition to grazing because he believes it is best for the soil and the financial benefits boost his business.

Initially a hobby farm, their herd grew from eight to 50. Efficiency and profitability became more important. The Keranens joined SFA a year ago, and are already seeing results.

“I started looking at different fertility programs to make my fields more productive. Everybody I talked to said, ‘Yeah, they work, but they’re really expensive.’ I don’t like to write checks,” Keranen quipped.

Then he learned about Joe Salatin, author of “Folks, This Ain't Normal: A Farmer's Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World.”

Keranen said he was comfortable jumping in feet-first. “We pulled out every crutch we could think of underneath our animals. We went at it 100%,” he said.

The cattle currently are moved twice per day around the pasture. This essentially spreads the manure, fertilizing the soil, while increasing hoof impact on the ground, Keranen explained. “Whatever they don’t want to eat, hopefully they trample it down so they can cover the soil up so we don’t have so much bare soil out there.”

Plants trampled by animals better retain moisture and reduce water evaporation. When soil temperatures rise above 100 degrees, Keranen pointed out, soil microbes slow down and can die. The soil is dead at 130 degrees or more.

When the Keranens began grazing cattle, the field had alfalfa, bromegrass and orchardgrass.

With letting the cows manage the pasture, plant diversity has blossomed. Now there’s red clover, sweet clover, common ragweed, tall fescue, timothy and more.

“If I had to guess, I’d say most of the seed was here already,” Keranen said. “It had to have an opportunity to express itself.”

He said, “That’s the beauty of this program. Why go buy seed when there’s millions of pounds of seed in the ground already?”

When diverse plants are available in the pasture, SFA soil health lead Jared Luhman said studies found that cows will “choose bites of this and bites of that to balance their diet.”

Native prairie pastures had hundreds of varieties of plants, he noted.

“The more diversity we can get, the better our animals can pick and choose their own diet,” Luhman said.

Satisfied with grazing, Keranen said the cattle and pigs often don’t eat grain.

Keranen said conventional farmers may look at his grazing fields and think they are too many weeds. “I don’t care if the cows eat them,” he said. “It’s really interesting to see what cows will actually eat when you stop to watch. Most people don’t stop to watch.”

For example, his cows devoured stinging nettle. His pigs eat thistle.

Observation — livestock condition, quality of grass, cover, weather conditions, time of the season — is an important part of this process, Luhman said, “and then react to your observations, not just follow a calendar plan.”

Keranen explained that they move the pigs twice a day in the pasture, bringing them grain two times per day as well. They own seven red wattle-hereford cross pigs.

“Our plan is to some day just have them fenced in with an electric fence,” he said.

Luhman called Single Cedar Farm an “amazing” example of sustainable agriculture: capturing more water, reducing fuel use and improving soil fertility.

While farmers can improve ag practices, consumers also need to change habits. The Keranens sell their farm products directly to consumers. Learn more at www.singlecedarfarm.org.

5 soil health principles

The Sustainable Farming Association advocates these principles:

  1. Keep the soil covered. Even after the growing season, it’s important to keep vegetation, living or dead, on the soil. This reduces soil loss and protects the microbial soil community.

  2. Minimize soil disturbance. Limiting both mechanical (tillage) and chemical disturbance (herbicides, etc.) reduces nutrient loss, prevents erosion and allows the soil biology to thrive.

  3. Increase crop diversity. A variety of plant root systems in a pasture or crop improves the soil by protecting against pests and diseases and providing habitat for beneficial wildlife and insects.

  4. Keep living roots in the soil. This improves water filtration, creates soil aggregates and improves soil structure.

  5. Integrate livestock. Grazing allows farmers to capture financial value in the form of pounds of meat from crops residue and cover crops. It also reduces the need for additional fertilizer.