CLAYTON — For now, Jonathan Chaplin considers his small herd of beef cattle little more than “helpers” around his 120-acre farm near the Polk-Barron county line.
“I just like to have them as my helpers, to help clean up the place,” said Chaplin, who rotationally grazes about 20 head of crossbred Red Angus and Hereford beef cattle.
But he plans to take his Busted Knuckle Ranch — so named because of all the time he spends working on his collection of old tractors and machinery — to the next level after he retires in a year or two from his full-time agricultural engineering professorship at the University of Minnesota. Future plans include expanding his herd.
“When I’m here all the time, I might experiment with some more management things,” said Chaplin, who splits time each week between his northwest Wisconsin farm and the nearby Twin Cities, where his work mainly focuses on precision agriculture, drones and robotics. His recent work with Toro has focused on mowing systems for organic dairy pastures.
Neighbor and “part-time stockman” Greg Ketz is Chaplin’s “eyes and ears” on the farm when he’s away. Chapin said he typically rotates his herd to fresh pasture on Sunday, just before the work week begins, and then moves them again when he’s home on Wednesday. The timing works out well.
“We’ve got it down to an art. ... They will tell me when they want to move,” he said. “I don’t want to get in a situation where I run out of forage. We’ve got it about right now.”
About 20 people attended a pasture walk hosted by Chaplin on Aug. 11. The son of a “yeoman farmer from England,” Chaplin was raised on a 300-acre beef and sheep farm in Leicestershire that now is owned by a conglomerate, he said.
In 2009, he bought his 36-acre farm in Wisconsin, which at one time was a dairy operation. The next year, he bought another 80 acres just to the north, along the source of the South Fork of the Hay River, for grazing paddocks and hay production.
“I’ve been relearning some of the things I learned as a young adult in the UK,” he said.
He has been renting out about 10 acres to a neighboring farmer who grows corn and soybeans in rotation but expects to resume management of that after he retires. For a few years, he tried his hand at growing row crops. Only one year — 2012 — was very good, and he saw corn yields of 150 bushels per acre. But that never happened again.
“I thought I would be better off going to Turtle Lake and putting that money on the roulette table (at the casino),” he said.
In 2014, Chaplin was awarded an Environmental Quality Incentives Program grant to help him establish forage crops, battle invasive weeds and improve fencing. But before building new fence, he had to dismantle a lot of old fence, which was a big task, he said. The EQIP grant paid for about a third of the real cost of new fencing, he said. His cost for high-tensile fencing was about $3 per foot.
Chaplin bought his first seven head of cattle in 2015 and added another 14 animals in 2016. He currently has 10 adult animals and eight calves. He said his 30-acre pasture system is designed to carry about 15 head. The farm is made up of eight paddocks that average 3½ acres in size. Four paddocks are open, with only a few trees, and four are under oak canopy.
He has worked to develop his silvopasture over several years and done extensive brush and weed control by removing invasive species and doing managed grazing. Recently, he has noticed some oak trees rotting at the root ball but suspects it’s unrelated to the presence of his herd.
“I don’t think it’s because my cattle have been here two years,” he said.
Chaplin said he has seen his pastures improve over time, but his farm’s highly variable soil types, which include silt loam and gravel, along with wet spring soils, have posed challenges. He said his “worst enemies” include thistles, prickly ash, buckthorn and burdock. In an effort to control them, he regularly “tops,” or clips, paddocks using an 8-foot Alamo flail mower. This also helps build organic matter and protect the soil. He opts not to spray herbicides because of the cost, plus he’s “not sure what it would accomplish.”
“I try to manage them with the cattle and mechanically,” he said.
In addition to grazing, Chaplin raises some hay. He expects to sell a couple hundred round bales this year, mostly to other beef producers. While he often sees a good first cutting, second cuttings have been disappointing. He hopes to re-seed fields to give him a more guaranteed second crop.
“I like to be in a position where I can sell some hay,” he said, adding that he has transitioned from small square bales to small round bales to eliminate the need for stacking.
As his herd grows, Chaplin said, he expects that he will have to expand available shelter for them. The herd currently overwinters in a lean-to on the old dairy barn.
Chaplin said he started marketing grass-fed beef last fall and sells steers at a hanging weight of more than 1,000 pounds, or about 20 months of age. Direct marketing has been an uphill battle, as many people locally aren’t willing to pay a little more for grass-fed beef vs. corn-fed beef, he said.
“It needs to be a very different population of people we sell to who realize the high value of the grass-fed beef,” he said. “I don’t think I’m going to make a lot of money selling beef.”
He has been selling beef directly to some Twin Cities restaurants, but because of the tight margins in the restaurant business, he often gets paid in installments.
“They’re so threadbare, they will pay you $50 at a time on a $2,000 bill,” he said. “I let them get away with it. The restaurant business is so cutthroat and they don’t have enough money. You have to insist on payment as they take it from the slaughterhouse.”
While there’s no shortage of projects to keep Chaplin fully “employed” around his small farm, he looks forward to his nearing retirement: “There’s plenty of work for me to do in the rest of my years right here,” he said.