One farm strives to protect Wisconsin’s natural resources

Story & Photography by Kate Morton

Eric Cates opens a fence to move cattle to a new area of pasture. The Cateses use managed grazing to ensure cattle do not exhaust one area of the land. This technique helps maintain grass coverage and give the land time to recover.

Eric Cates and his daughter, Sloane, overlook Cates Family Farm. Since taking over the farm for his father Dick, Eric continues to protect the portions of Lowery Creek that run through his land.

Meandering through the hills of the Driftless Area in Spring Green, Wisconsin, is Lowery Creek, a spring-fed stream teeming with life. Lowery Creek lies on an 8,600-acre watershed, flowing through a valley, continuing through Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin estate, down into the Lower Wisconsin River and on to the Mississippi. A heritage breed of brook trout glides through its cold waters. 

On a fork in the stream just south of Taliesin lies Cates Family Farm. 

Dick Cates Jr., who has passed management of the farm on to his son, Eric, was one of a group of local landowners involved in forming an organization in 2014 to protect the stream. It’s now known as the Lowery Creek Watershed Initiative. Since then, the Cateses have worked alongside other landowners to preserve the stream that runs along their organic, grass-fed beef farm. 

“I thought, who would want to farm on a side slope like this, where there’s a crick that runs down the middle?”

— Dick Cates

Landowners like Dick and Eric Cates ensure the water remains clear of soil erosion, which darkens watersheds with sedimentation that keeps aquatic life from thriving. Maintaining the water quality allows the brook trout in Lowery Creek to flourish and provide eggs to other local streams to boost the native trout population.

Dick always wanted to farm. He started doing farm work in 1967 at the age of 15, when his father purchased Cates Family Farm. However, he didn’t always have the intention of taking over his father’s land.

“I thought, who would want to farm on a side slope like this, where there’s a crick that runs down the middle?’” Dick says.

After earning his doctorate in soil science from UW–Madison, Dick, now 69, and his wife, Kim, moved to Saudi Arabia, where he worked on a massive dairy farm with 10,000 cows. When they came back to Wisconsin in 1986 after three years in the Arabian Desert, his father’s farm felt perfect. Dick started to take over management of what was just a small family farm with a couple of cows and transformed it into a grass-fed beef operation.

He and other landowners along the stream have taken measures to protect the water through their involvement in the Lowery Creek Watershed Initiative.  

“Some of us got together and said, we’ve got a pretty special location here, and we’re all doing things to try to protect it and improve it. Perhaps we ought to band together and give ourselves a name and have membership and have events.’ And that’s what we started to do,” Dick says.

What started as kitchen table conservation turned into an organization in which each landowner protects the land in different ways. Driftless Area Land Conservancy projects coordinator Barb Barzen helped the group organize a formal structure and goals. To start, Barzen enlisted the help of students with the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies’ professional program at UW–Madison to conduct a report of the stream’s conditions. The quality of Lowery Creek’s water was already very good, so the group decided to focus on outreach to local landowners while still monitoring the water.

“The consensus was that we really needed to do a community-building initiative and not just focus on water quality,” Barzen says.

The Cateses’ herd munch on grass in a new part of the pasture. A conservation easement Eric’s parents purchased in 2016 is located father down the property, where trout enjoy artificial habitat created by the previous owner with the help of the state Department of Natural Resources.

“Hunchy” — as Sloane lovingly calls him —  lives up to the Jersey cow’s curious reputation.

In 2019, the Lowery Creek Watershed Initiative hosted a workshop at Cates Family Farm to share streambank management methods the Cateses had implemented on their property. The farm has won several awards for its commitment to conservation, and Eric has continued his father’s work to protect the stream on his land. 

When Eric, 36, started to take over in 2016, his parents purchased another property to expand the existing farm. The newer farm is part of a conservation easement, where the previous owner worked with the Department of Natural Resources to create artificial trout habitat, slope streambanks and build stream crossings. Eric has kept the portion of the stream on the easement fenced off behind a buffer of trees and native plants, except for designated stream crossing areas. 

Eric manages the original portion of Cates Family Farm differently, creating a “symbiotic relationship” between the cattle and the land. The farm has a herd of up to 100 Jersey and Angus steers at a time on its 110 acres of grazing pasture. The Cateses consciously understock their cattle and have more than 30 designated paddocks. The cattle are moved on a near-daily basis.

There are 25 designated stream crossings on Cates Family Farm, and Eric makes an effort to protect areas where the cattle gravitate. The Cateses have put breaker rock in along cattle crossings, which provides better footing and prevents cattle from stepping in mud and eroding the area. Eric says many people assume cattle will want to stay in the stream all day when it’s hot out, but that’s not necessarily true. 

Cates Family Farm is situated at the end of a long, gravel driveway off County Hwy T in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Lowery Creek extends through the property, maintaining its natural winding shape thanks to the Cateses’ efforts to limit erosion.

Lowery Creek moves through a valley, down toward the Lower Wisconsin River. Lush vegetation around the stream seen here serves as a buffer to rainfall that would otherwise deposit soil in the stream.

“If you can create a happy, healthy environment with lots of grass and lots of clovers, the grass actually holds moisture, and they’d rather lie down in the grass,” Eric says.

He uses spot and cross fencing around the stream to prevent cattle from staying in one area too long and destroying the land, a technique called managed grazing. The polywire fences can be cut and moved as needed. Eric uses fencing to protect sensitive areas, such as oxbows and steep streambanks. 

He also targets places to protect where cattle like to rub their heads along the bank and disturb the streambed. The fences are strategically placed to direct cattle to crossings at more gently sloped spots along the stream. In these areas, the stream is typically shallower and cattle have a better view of where they are headed. 

Keeping the cattle away from vulnerable areas keeps streambanks protected from wear and tear. Steep banks worsen the effects of erosion, and measures like these help prevent sedimentation in the stream. The Driftless Area is characterized by high rainfall events, and Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist Justin Haglund says managed grazing can help to mitigate the erosive effects of rain.

“By rotating those cattle around, it allows the vegetation to come back up, whereas if you kept the cattle in one spot the entire time, you probably would see a lot more bare soil, and then that bare soil also has the potential to be transported to the stream in those high rainfall events,” Haglund says.

Erosion can put the trout population at risk. It is especially important to protect the brook trout in Lowery Creek because they are one of two native brook trout populations in the Southern Driftless Area that the Department of Natural Resources uses for its feral brook trout stocking program to spread the species to other local streams.

“Brook trout do need cold water, and that water needs to be clean,” Haglund says.

If the gravel trout spawn on is covered in sediment, any eggs laid during the winter will suffocate.

The Cateses allow cattle to graze along the stream for set periods to fight invasive species and unwanted trees, strengthening the streambanks. 

“What cattle can help do is that they help manage those weeds so that the grass can grow and the grassroots can kind of take hold and help stabilize that bank. But it only works if you limit their exposure,” Eric says.

Sloane throws rocks into Lowery Creek from the bridge on Cates Family Farm.

Eric uses fencing to protect vulnerable areas of the stream. He specifically looks for areas like sharp corners and places cattle have gravitated to in the past.

Cates Family Farm has made efforts to protect wetland areas along the stream that birds and other wildlife call home. The Cateses’ 110 acres of grazing land allows them to give plots of land the time they need to recover. Many Wisconsin farms plow their fields, causing soil loss, but healthy grassland filters soil and serves as a buffer in the event of rainfall and protects the water. 

“Any one of those farms could improve the circumstance by doing no-till and using cover crops, but many do not because they continue to do it the old way, and that’s what I’m concerned about,” Dick says. “It’s not really the size of the operation, it’s how people do things.”

Pete Nowak, retired professor emeritus of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at UW–Madison, says if enough landowners along feeder streams take actions like the Cates family, there could be positive effects downstream in greater bodies of water.

“If you get a number of farmers that begin to bring a stream back to its original condition, where it serves as a filter to dramatic events, then you’re going to lessen that surge of water that goes into the larger water body,” Nowak says.

The natural, curved shape of streams lessens the erosive impact of significant rainfall, which carries sediments into larger bodies of water downstream. 

“That’s ultimately the way we’re going to protect those larger bodies of water is to go up into the watershed and protect those smaller streams,” Nowak says.

Protecting streamside areas is not always easy for farmers. Without funding, these projects can be costly, and doing so takes areas of land that could be used to farm out of commission.

Groups like the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, provide cost-share opportunities to help landowners fund restoration projects. 

“Stream habitat restoration projects can be pretty expensive, especially if you do large sections. Most programs really help private landowners fund those projects, whereas if they didn’t, maybe landowners wouldn’t do the restoration,” Haglund says.

Eric stands by one of 25 stream crossings on Cates Family Farm. Crossings like these are kept stable by gravel. They typically have gentle slopes, to prevent cattle from breaking down the streambanks, and shallow water, which gives cattle a better view of where they are going.

The Cates Family Farm currently has a herd of about 60 jersey and angus steers. Numbers generally do not exceed 100 and Eric tries to keep a smaller herd during the winter.

Cates Family Farm’s dedication to conservation is just one example of a growing movement of farmer-led conservation in Wisconsin. Watershed groups like the Lowery Creek Watershed Initiative use community outreach to demonstrate successful restoration projects and encourage other landowners to take similar steps on their land.  

“It’s more [about] how we connect the stream with all the other things that go on on the land in the watershed, and to do that you have to engage landowners and provide them with the right kind of knowledge and resources to do things on their own end,” Barzen says.

When landowners hear about the successes of their peers, they can be motivated to follow in those footsteps. The Lowery Creek Watershed Initiative does this by holding monthly “evenings afield” events for participants to learn from experts and see what other landowners are doing. Events like these create an opportunity for community exchange. 

“I want to see my agricultural colleagues step up and do the best job they can in terms of saving soil and protecting our waters.”

— Dick Cates

“If [landowners] get good information and have a good relationship with a neighbor that’s had really great success working with the [state Department of Natural Resources] or other organizations, such as the Driftless Area Land Conservancy, it really helps to build those relationships, especially in small watersheds,” Haglund says.

Farmer-led initiatives such as the Iowa County Uplands Watershed Group — to which the Cates Family Farm also belongs — allow farmers to work collectively to tackle conservation issues. Formed in 2016, this group is one of several across the state of Wisconsin that benefits from the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection’s producer-led watershed protection grant program. Groups such as these allow farmers to work in their communities as equals to protect natural resources.

As watershed initiatives grow across the state and farmers work together to protect their land, Wisconsin’s water — and future — is brighter than ever.

“I want to see my agricultural colleagues step up and do the best job they can in terms of saving soil and protecting our waters,” Dick says.

Editor’s note: This story was corrected on Dec. 17 to reflect that the 2016 land purchase was made by Eric Cates’ parents, and to update the farm’s acreage for grazing is 110 acres.