Leopold Conservation Award: Koepke farm family shows the land is their bank, and the bank is their land

The land is your bank and the bank is your land.

Jim Koepke first heard his father say those words when he was 11 years old. He’s now 66, but those words have never left him.

As the story goes, Jim and a teenage brother tagged along with their father as he visited with a neighbor about buying some farmland. The neighbor (a former teacher from Chicago) shared her concerns over how the land should be maintained in the future.

The Koepke family had been farming the area north of Oconomowoc in Waukesha County since 1875. Jim’s father told his neighbor that it was his view that “the land is your bank and the bank is your land.”

“Did you boys hear that?” asked the neighbor who made the two farm boys repeat what their father had just said.

That neighbor would be very proud today. The Koepkes were recently awarded the Leopold Conservation Award for their stewardship practices on their modern dairy farm.

The prestigious award comes from Sand County Foundation, a private, nonprofit conservation group based in Madison, dedicated to working with private landowners to improve habitat on their land, and Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, our state’s largest general farm organization.

Clearly, conservation is a family tradition for the Koepkes. Today, Koepke Farms Inc. is a partnership between brothers Alan, David, and Jim, and Jim’s son, John. Together, they milk 320 Holstein cows and operate 1,000 acres of cropland plus another 150 acres of woods and wetlands.

What’s unique about the award is that it spotlights working farmland, and not tracts of land that have been retired from farming or planted in trees. It salutes those farms that excel at protecting the environment while feeding the world and driving Wisconsin’s economy.

Too often when people think of good land stewardship, the image they conjure up is of state-owned land managed by a warden. In the years to come, I hope the Leopold Conservation Award and families like the Koepkes will make them think of the innovative, dedicated, and determined farm families who own and operate over 15 million acres of Wisconsin’s landscape.

The Koepkes would humbly be the first to tell you that the soil and water management techniques they use are not unique to their farm.

It was about 25 years ago when they began implementing what’s called a “no-till” system in farm country. By leaving the plow parked, there is less erosion from their farm fields and the soils are “getting younger,” according to Jim.

Conservation practices such as contour strip cropping, diversified crop rotation, nutrient management, and use of cover crops and grassed waterways are all part of their farming mix. In addition, other farmers have benefitted from the real-life, practical research that was conducted on the farm by the University of Wisconsin’s Discovery Farms Program from 2005 to 2008.

Let’s not forget about the cows. The Koepkes are great dairymen in addition to being innovative land stewards. When they took home the “Dairymen of the Year” Award at the 2011 World Dairy Expo in Madison, it was for a variety of reasons. Their farm was home to a Holstein named “Granny” that once broke the world record for lifetime milk production.

They’ve also altered the dairy herd’s feed rations in such a way that the cows’ manure does not contain excessive levels of phosphorus (good for the environment) and milk production is not affected (good for their bottom line).

This brings to mind another catchy phrase that Jim Koepke first heard during his days as a student in Madison on Wisconsin’s land grant university campus.

“Conservation doesn’t cost. It pays.”

The productive and profitable Koepke family is just the Leopold Conservation Award’s latest example of why those words are so true.

The Leopold Conservation Award in Wisconsin is made possible through the generous support of the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, American Transmission Company (ATC), Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, Rural Mutual Insurance Company, UW-Extension and Farm Credit. In 2011, Sand County Foundation will also present Leopold Conservation Awards in California, Colorado, Nebraska, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming.

For more information, see www.leopoldconservationaward.org , www.sandcounty.net , and www.wfbf.com .

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