Take Care of the Land & It Will Take Care of You

To 53-year old Mark Guge of rural Estherville, farming has always been in his blood. As a matter of fact this passion for the land and the cattle goes back five generations. “I think it goes way back to my great grandfather, who homesteaded near here in 1890,” says Guge. “I think there has always been an emphasis by each generation to take care of the land. Economics drives everything, but you have to take care of and improve the land for the land to take care of you.”
 
In the Guge Family Farm earned the Region III Environmental Stewardship Award. Established in 1991 by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and co-sponsored by Dow AgroSciences, the program highlights industry stewardship and provides cattlemen with successful examples and ideas developed by their peers. Guge is also a leader among his peers, promoting conservation practices and programs to others. He helped organize the Iowa Lakes Controlled Grazing Project, served as project coordinator for a Leopold Center funded educational program aimed at helping cow/calf producers and has traveled the state of Iowa as a spokesperson for the cattle industry.
Guge’s father, Myron earned the “Conservation Farm of the Year” award presented by the Sioux City Journal for his conservation practices as a steward of the land back in 1966. Looking at the land, Myron saw with the rolling hills and with slopes up to 12 percent, erosion was potentially a big problem. Back in the 1950s he was already using high-residue tillage methods to save the soil, practicing contour farming and installing terraces and grassed waterways. As the years progressed, Guge joined his father, and together they earned many more conservation awards.           
Guge says the 2008 Stewardship award is humbling. “Producers are becoming more environmentally conscious. There are a lot of producers doing a lot of neat stuff to protect their land. We’re only 12 miles from the Iowa Great Lakes, and clean water is very important.”
Guge, along with his wife Norma, operate a farm that consists of 870 acres with a mix of permanent pastures, forage and row crops of corn and soybeans. Their 75 head cow herd grazes on 35 acres of native pasture and 125 acres of rotational grazing land that was for many years row cropped. “It took a lot of years to gradually bring this back to pasture. We now have a mixture of brome, timothy and orchard grasses along with some legumes. If conditions are right, we sometimes cut the legume ground for hay.”
Building on the conservation practices of contour farming, the utilization of terraces and working with different forms of conservation tillage that his father established, Guge has expanded on those efforts, transitioning to a no-till drill that seeds soybeans into the cornstalk residue from the previous year. Grid sampling methods are used to determine where and at what level of nutrients are needed with manure from the feedlot and other fertilizers added.
Guge also operates a 300 head feedlot business for finishing his calves along with purchased feeders.
In today’s world, the Guge Family Farm is not big, and there appears to be little potential for future expansion with more than 1,800 acres of land owned by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other conservation groups within two miles of the farm. With their son-in-law Mark More joining the operation, Guge says they are working to develop creative ways to maximize the farm’s potential. “This is an area that has a tremendous amount of public land right near us, but we also want to be able to give our grandchildren the chance to become sixth generation cattlemen and stewards of the land.”
So, it comes down to making the most of what is available. Part of that is the rotational grazing system Guge started in 1991 after he had attended a course on Holistic Resource Management in Albuquerque, NM. Since that time, management principles have been applied throughout the entire Guge Family Farm. Thus, the row crop, pasture and feedlot operations all benefit each other.
The system is divided into an eight-paddock system with one or two of the paddocks used for hay production during the fast forage growth each year. The rotational system has helped accomplish several goals: less erosion and bare ground along the creek running through the pastures, fewer bare cow paths, more dense sod throughout the pastures with less space between plants and reduced pasture erosion. With these improvements, Guge has found that calf-weaning weights have improved and more pounds of beef are produced per acre.
 
As a spin-off, Guge has partnered with other Emmet County cattle producers to organize the Iowa Lakes Controlled Grazing project for Emmet, Clay, Dickinson and Palo Alto counties. Guge became the project coordinator. The goal of the project was to determine the economic and production potential for alternative management systems such as management of intensive grazing, improving fertilization, interseeding legumes in grass pastures, planting warm season grasses, increasing paddocks in grazing systems, increasing pasture rest periods, designing pasture watering systems and expanding plant diversity.
Results of the project were successful and have provided cow/calf producers with data generated on the farm they, too, could use in their own operations. Over this time period, the public, business leaders and conservation groups have been invited to attend pasture walks to help others understand more about this type of farming practice.
One of the “out of the box” ideas came with the development of TwoRiver Cattle L L.C. in 2006. Over the 13 years of working for the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association and Iowa Quality Beef Supply Cooperative, Guge had constant contact with cattle producers in a four state area and began to see a developing need for an alternative method of marketing cattle.
When Iowa Quality Beef shut its doors, he formed his own company to keep the marketing alliance operating. The alliance markets cattle weekly on a Value Base Grid, which allows producers to receive premiums for the high quality cattle produced here in the upper Midwest. Producers from eight midwestern states now market their cattle through the TwoRiver alliance.
A more recent project has been the reconstruction of the feedlot manure catch basin. Guge began this project in 2007. Berms have been built below the feedlot with a slotted gate system for settling out the solids from feedlot runoff. The collected solids are then spread on the row crops as fertilizer. Below the settling basin, an area of grasses has been seeded which helps slow down the runoff rate and lessen erosion further down the slope. The area of grasses becomes an excellent area for wildlife.
Fence line bunks, cement aprons and mounds are the base for the 300-head feedlot. Ethanol co-products are utilized in the rations and all feedstuffs are weighed to assist in determining the per head consumption on a daily basis.
On the crop side, his son-in-law brings with him his commercial application experience to the business, which in turn eliminates the cost of commercial application. Guge’s daughter Erin joins the team from her home in Ankeny, where she handles the data input for TwoRiver Cattle L.L.C.
With conservation and energy consumption becoming increasingly important in our country, the Guge family has invested in the locally planned NorthStar wind farm that is expected to commence construction in the near future. “We will have two wind turbines on our own land plus four more on land that we rent.” Located on the Buffalo Ridge, the Guge Family Farm is located on some of the most prime wind energy ground in the entire country. The NorthStar Wind Farm is a community wind farm project that offers both a lease payment to landowners for placing a wind turbine on their land, while at the same time giving the landowner the opportunity to own a share in the wind farm itself. This type of project tries to keep as much of the money in the community and in the hands of the landowners and investors instead of going to an outside developer.
For Guge & his wife, all of the effort and “thinking out of the box” are worth it because it’s all about family and the land. They want a place for the sixth generation of producers, their three grandchildren: Camden, Madison and Logan.
They also remember the advice Myron had when it came to the land that he farmed. “Treat the land like a piece of borrowed equipment and return it in better shape than you received it!”