WEST ALBANY — A Wabasha County dairy farm is improving wildlife habitat, enhancing pastureland and defining woodland management options with assistance from two Natural Resources Conservation Service programs.
Sheri Sexton manages the NRCS projects on the 130-cow operation she runs with her husband, Vince, and two of their five children. She prefers fieldwork, large-livestock feeding and bookwork; he prefers milking. Together, they make management decisions.
The Sextons farm 310 acres near West Albany. They own another 80 near Oak Center, 60 acres of that land is untillable, much of it woods.
Through NRCS’ Conservation Stewardship Program, Sexton converted 1 acre along a field’s edge to pollinator habitat, dug a shallow pond that serves as a watering hole, planted a half-acre wildlife food plot, and modified a fence to deter entanglements. She replaced sprayer nozzles to minimize drift.
In the hay fields, she agreed to haybine only during daylight, and to run the machinery across the field from end to end. That allows wildlife such as turkeys, pheasants and deer to escape.
In the pasture, she moves mineral blocks every week or two. That keeps cattle grazing in different areas, which reduces compaction and keeps weeds and invasive species from taking hold on bare ground.
“There’s opportunities out there, so you’ve got to take them,” Sexton said.
CSP provides $7,700 in assistance a year to minimize the risk of trying new conservation practices. Sexton is in the fourth year of a five-year contract.
“She’s trying to have her entire farm be productive,” said Phillis Brey, Wabasha County NRCS district conservationist. “She’s trying to enhance the farm by doing some conservation practices that they haven’t done before, to see if these things are what they want to do. She’s doing some things in her woodlands, too. She’s taking care of the entire farm.”
Tree planting was nothing new to the Sextons, who planted all but a few of the now-mature trees in the farmyard.
“Trees do a lot of good for a lot of things. Good windbreak. Good shelter. They just look nice,” Sexton said. She heard about NRCS’ woodlot program from a neighbor, and contacted Brey for details.
Now the Sextons have a woodland stewardship plan for three parcels totaling 36 acres. NRCS’ Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) reimbursed Sexton for hiring a licensed forester to walk the property and write the plan.
“They make recommendations as to what needs to be done to turn that forest into a healthy, productive piece of property,” Brey said.
Eventually, the Sextons may harvest timber, remove spruce and ash trees, and plant oaks and walnuts where boxelders now grow.
“You’ve got to look at what you’re getting for benefits, and what the final outcome is,” Sexton said. “You maybe won’t see benefits for 20 years if you’re going to be planting oaks and walnuts. But you can kind of see what you’ve done before, so you know what you’re going to look forward to.”
An agricultural family
Sheri Sexton once astounded a soil and water conservation district employee who was plotting out contour farming strips with her husband, Vince.
“He said, ‘OK now you just drive along the flags and you plow this, you lay a dead furrow.’ Vince says, ‘OK, go ahead.’ So I walked over and I got on the tractor and I plowed it. His jaw dropped,” Sexton said.
Today, most people know the Sextons share the fieldwork.
“It was the only thing I knew. I was probably about 8 years old when my dad put me on a tractor and said, ‘You’re crimping hay.’ Like most dads, they don’t give much for description. I learned on a Case tractor with a John Deere crimper behind. My mom was in the house with my baby brother and sister,” Sexton said.
“I guess it was stuff I enjoyed.”
Today two of the Sextons’ five children now work with them on the farm. All five are involved in the ag industry.
Staci owns 50 of the cows and some young stock. She’s in charge of calf feeding, and works with genomics on the side. Lance, the youngest, recently started working for a wage on the farm. Both help with cattle breeding. Sarah and her family run a dairy farm near Zumbro Falls; she’s also a milk inspector. Katie is a field representative for Land O’Lakes. Robert is a financial analyst for Compeer.
“It’s something that you grow up with, so I don’t think you really look at it as work. It’s just something that you have to do and you know you’ve got to do it until it’s done,” Sexton said of farming.