The Method Maker

Gerry Weiss, a Grant County farmer, scientist, and permaculturist, recounts a lifetime of innovation and collaboration with CALS and UW Cooperative Extension

Gerry Weiss BS’67 admits he knew nothing about the steep-valleyed fields of southwestern Wisconsin when, back in 1975, he bought 350 acres in Grant County and started raising forage, row crops, swine, and beef cattle. A native of flatter lands in Dane and Columbia counties, he knew the unfamiliar geography would present a true challenge, perhaps decades of trial and error. But Weiss began farmwork at age five, and he was taught to appreciate an experimental attitude right from the start.

“My father and my two uncles were innovators,” says Weiss, now 72, as we sit at his kitchen table, stacked high with papers, research studies, and farm magazines. “I learned that you advance by being more efficient, more focused. They told me, ‘The answers are in front of you. Keep your eyes open.’”

Following their advice helped him earn agricultural accolades at an early age. He reveals to me that he is still the only FFA member to be named State Star Farmer, State FFA Speaking Contest winner, and State FFA Officer all in one year. That prodigious resume, combined with his incisive nature, propelled him to earn a B.S. (with honors) in animal sciences at CALS and a doctorate from Iowa State University, though he occasionally mocks his Ph.D. as standing for “piled higher and deeper.”

Weiss is intelligent, erudite, and challenging, with an unpredictable, probing sense of humor and a proclivity to pun in English and German — a vestige of his time as a postdoctoral researcher in the Netherlands and Germany in the 1970s. He followed his work abroad with a stint as senior meat scientist at Union Carbide and then a job as assistant to the president, focused on technology and science integration, at Dubuque Packing Company

His education and private sector career did not, however, teach Weiss much about permaculture, rotational grazing, humane ways to wean cattle, or a hundred other systems, tactics, and processes that he invented, honed, or proved on his land and in his barns. Thinking of these innovations, I suggest to Weiss that he seems to have carved his own furrow, but he balks at my words. “I have not plowed a single furrow in Grant County,” he says.

What he means is that, in 40 years of farming, he has not used a moldboard plow — the device that John Deere invented in 1837 and is still used today. By turning over the soil and exposing it to rain and wind, the moldboard plow raises conservation questions, at least to a visionary like Weiss.

The seven pastures on Weiss’ terraced farmland converge at this point to promote the easy movement of his herd of Gelbvieh cows. “After five days of grazing in one pasture, they come here to let me know they’re ready to move,” he says. “All you have to do is swing a gate. No trap pens, no catching cattle, no hauling them to the next pasture.” The use of this system of rotational grazing in Wisconsin was cultivated by Richard Vatthauer, an emeritus professor of animal sciences, and Bill Paulson, former superintendent at UW’s Lancaster research station, Weiss says. Rotational grazing keeps weeds in check while stimulating grass growth, which helps prevent soil erosion. Photo by Mark Hirsch

‘We Attitude’

Weiss’s sloping farm, located just a few miles from UW–Madison’s Lancaster Agricultural Research Station, sits inside Wisconsin’s Driftless Area. The region is known for its exceptionally rugged terrain due to the utter lack of glacial bulldozing (i.e., drift) and for the meandering paths that the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers and their tributaries have slashed through the landscape.

Many Wisconsinites look upon this unique geography — and the adaptations necessary for living within it — with genuine pride. Likewise, many are proud of the connections between CALS and the economic engines of farming and food processing. These linked industries are vital to the state; they employ 413,500 people and generate $88.3 billion in economic activity.

Weiss resides at the heart of all of this — a born innovator who adjusts to the conditions thrust upon him and exemplifies the connection between academic experts and those who make a living raising crops and animals. And it’s a pipeline that flows in both directions. Weiss credits Bill Paulson, former superintendent at the Lancaster station, with valuable suggestions for weed control and a seed mix for improved pastures and other conservation practices, such as waterways, that still thrive today. It was the first of many connections that have benefited Weiss — and CALS — over the course of four decades.

Some of this collaboration pertains to permaculture, that basket of approaches to farming that develops sustainable agricultural ecosystems through thoughtful observation and creativity. Despite the name, permaculture is not, Weiss says, a “set-and-forget” operation. It takes real work to manage acres of permanent pasture. Fortunately, Weiss is energetic — and relentless.

“I have never worked with terraces that have had so much constant maintenance,” says Grant County soil conservationist Kevin Lange, who has worked with Weiss for almost 30 years. “He’ll fix the rodent holes, scrape the soil back to the top.”

Weiss does all of this in addition to testing the soil, fertilizing as needed, winning the war on weeds, and conducting his own research. The last one, according to Lange, is special — most farmers lack the time for it. “If they are interested in research, they are interested in reading somebody else’s work,” he says. “He’s always checking in, always got something new he wants to try.”

Any success he’s had, Weiss attributes to what he calls a “we attitude,” a propensity for collaboration. This mentality has led to fruitful partnerships with two land-grant institutions (UW– Madison and Iowa State University) and their associated extension units and agricultural research stations, as well as the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “I don’t know all of the answers,” he says. “And if I don’t know it, I’m on the phone, and I’ll admit that I don’t know it.”

To find the answers, Weiss asks some tough questions. Lange admits that he can be an acquired taste. “Sometimes when he calls, you have to take a certain amount of his guff and give back a little bit of lip of your own,” he says. “But it’s not too insulting. That’s just our thing. Somehow, I got to be his guy.”

 ‘The Animals Taught Us’

Weiss’s agricultural education, and his unusual approaches to the hurdles of farm life, began with his father’s wisdom about “open eyes.” One outcome of that observant nature appears as soon as we enter Weiss’s cattle housing. At first, I wonder whether I’m in a barn or a carnival fun house lightly scented with manure. The floor is nowhere close to level, the gates are built to telescope to different lengths, and odd angles are as common as right ones.

These peculiar features are all designed to get cattle to move where he wants, Weiss says, and they’re built to suit the innate tendencies of a herd. “The animals taught us,” he says. “They like to stick together, to walk along the wall, and to walk downhill. We don’t use sticks or prods to move them. Don’t need to.”

The highway guardrails outside the barn also represent lessons learned from the cattle. They’re part of a humane, common-sense system that started with fence-line weaning, the practice of allowing cows and their young to associate — but not nurse — to ease a traumatic separation. The technique presented itself as the solution to an obvious need if your eyes — and ears — were open, Weiss says.

After weaning, “You could look at the anxiety of the calf and its mother and could tell it was pretty high,” he says. “The calf would stand in the gate area, bellering until it lost its voice, and the cow would stand at the pasture gate somewhere and beller. Nobody was happy. You could bring a baton and direct the orchestra.”

But the whole equation changes if the pair can see, smell, and even touch each other. “They have less stress,” Weiss says. “Baby can talk to its mother, and she can look through the fence [or guardrail] and see that her baby’s okay.” Within days, both sides have quit singing the separation blues.

Decades later, fence-line weaning is gaining acceptance in beef operations. The benefits, Weiss says, are measurable. “We weigh when we wean and again before we sell the calves as feeders. They are gaining 1.8 or 2 pounds per head per day. With high-stress weaning, they are pacing, bellering. They’re pretty woundup little critters, and the gain is more like 0.75 or 1 pound per head per day.”

Defying conventional weaning wisdom led to another example of the “Weiss method,” one designed to address what he calls “another part of the horrible tradition” with calf weaning. “You would jab them with needles for antibiotics and vaccine,” Weiss says. “Talk about making a calf feel great! It would take four to six weeks to get past all that.”

That was the way it had always been done. But Weiss had better ideas, many of them related to vaccinations. In the late 1970s, he helped Norden Labs of Lincoln, Nebraska, demonstrate a protocol designed to prevent E. coli infection and rotavirus in calves, a method that involves no stressful catching or needle pricking. “We administered this to the beef cows two weeks prepartum to generate maternal antibodies for the mom to pass on to the newborn calf,” Weiss says. “Our calf scour [diarrhea] incidence dropped to zero and has remained at zero since our working with this vaccine.”

“That vaccine … which originally goes back to the Norden product, is one of the most, if not the most, commonly used methods to prevent E. coli and rotavirus diarrhea in calves,” says Simon Peek, a clinical professor of large animal internal medicine at the UW–Madison School of Veterinary Medicine. “It’s something pertinent, relevant to the state, and it’s definitely made a big contribution.”

 ‘We Developed Biosecurity Before It Was a Word’

To Weiss, continuous improvement is simply common sense. “You make advances step by step,” he says. “We saw the same attitude at CALS and at Iowa State. Once you do something, you see an opportunity to do it even better.”

He learned this method early through his father and uncles, who were early adopters of farrowing crates for swine. “Originally there was a 5-foot by 7-foot pen, but we transformed that to put mother in a more confined area so it would be harder to lay on her little ones,” he says. “Then we hung a heat lamp to draw them away from mother. Then we raised the farrowing crate to keep the young pigs off the cold concrete floor, and manure would fall through the grate so the babies stayed clean.”

Demonstrating the ingenuity that has helped drive Wisconsin to the forefront of animal agriculture, the Weiss farmers developed a system that involves washing the sows to remove worm eggs and manure and then washing the crates as well. “A clean mom with a clean udder is a whole lot better than a dirty mom,” Weiss says. “We progressed to a much-improved, higher-growth performance with a much lower load of bacteria and worms. We helped develop biosecurity before it was a word.”

Weiss found other ways to focus his creativity on animals. In 1994, he built a specialized pig barn designed for scientific investigation. As proprietor of the on-farm science business Progress Plus LLC, Weiss has used the barn to perform contract research for the late Mark Cook, professor of animal sciences, as well as private firms in the hog industry. The building has five rooms, each with its own feed supply and manure pit, to enable side-by-side comparisons of input and output in swine.

“There are so many variables, so this barn was ideal for conducting complex trials quickly,” Weiss says.

It’s also the perfect place for a data-obsessed farmer-scientist, one who listens to an inner voice and never settles for “good” when “great” is begging to be invented.

The entrance and exit to special swine housing on Gerry Weiss’ farm sits at trailer height for ease of loading and unloading pigs. The ramp has shallow steps that are easier for animals to navigate and makes a 45-degree turn so pigs are urged on by their own curiosity rather than being driven. “They want to know what’s around the corner,” Weiss says. “I have never carried a weaned pig up that ramp.” The system, which he says he borrowed from Madison’s Oscar Mayer plant where he made swine deliveries in his youth, reduces stress for pigs and hassle for farmers and processors.   Photo by Mark Hirsch

‘I Didn’t Know Anything about This Stuff’

As we cruise Weiss’ farm on a tractor road, I notice the ride is exceptionally smooth — no ruts, wallows, or washouts. So he tells me about the 10-inch layer of breaker run and gravel beneath his pickup. The overkill design is not needed on this dry summer day, but when he has to tend the cattle or haul manure in the rain, it prevents wheels churning through the mud, which would translate into erosion.

Even after July’s staggering rainfall, there’s no mud, no hint of a gully, no erosion in sight throughout our drive.

The subject of erosion returns us to the 1970s and to the role of publicly supported science. “I grew up on the Arlington prairie,” Weiss says. “I didn’t know anything about this stuff out here.” From the USDA NRCS, he received advice on filling gullies and constructing terraces, diversions, and waterways to halt soil erosion that had measured 13.1 tons per acre per year on his land. Some of those gullies, he says, were deep enough to hide the bulldozer that he hired to repair them.

A despiser of waste, Weiss was loath to take the waterways out of production, and he figured hay or conservation practices would yield a saleable crop while preventing erosion. And so, unembarrassed by his ignorance, he contacted Bill Paulson, then the superintendent of UW–Madison’s nearby Lancaster experimental station.

“USDA had its own seeding specifications,” Weiss says, “but the difference was that Bill had actually done it. He’d perfected the seed mixture; it was an unbelievably positive addition to what we were doing. Bill knew what would work here.”

Thirty-eight years later, Weiss continues to do soil tests and fertilize as needed, but he has not had to reseed his pasture. “We just take the hay off,” he says. When waterways and terraces are always covered, soil and stream bank erosion are practically zero.

“It may seem obvious, but I’ve never had anybody mention [hay harvest from waterways] to me,” says Dan Schaefer BS’73 MS’75, longtime head of the Department of Animal Sciences, when asked about Weiss’ permanent seeding of these erosion protections. Meanwhile, Weiss is happily hauling hay, which is profitable in today’s market.

This initial interaction with Paulson led to many more collaborations with CALS. Weiss has opened his own land and crops for pesticide trials conducted by the departments of agronomy and entomology. Last summer, the only row crop on the farm was a soybean trial that assessed weed resistance to herbicide. All in all, Weiss has taken part in more than 220 research trials related to animals and crops.

‘People Thought I Was Nuts’

Decades ago, the process of accounting for homegrown organic fertilizer became another element of the Weiss method. Working with UW researchers, he developed systems to track the nitrogen and phosphorus added to the soil by manure and legume crops.

“I was one of the first to utilize manure in a nutrient management plan, working with [Grant County] UW Cooperative Extension agent Ted Bay MS’80,” Weiss says. In two growing seasons, using soil analyses from the Marshfield Agricultural Research Station, he cut his fertilizer bill by 70 percent. As with his work with cattle, one improvement begat another. To maximize savings, Weiss bought a manure spreader able to change application rates to supplement nutrients based on variations in soil tests.

But the simple logic in favor of buying only as much fertilizer as you need would have been plowed under had Weiss listened to his neighbors — or his fertilizer dealer. “People thought I was nuts, yes, for 25, 30 years,” Weiss says, “but we were supported by the agronomy and soil science faculty in Madison.”

If you spend enough time with Weiss, you begin to assume that any allusion to conventional wisdom will be chucked to the wayside if not squarely onto the dung heap of history. It’s how he stays ahead of the curve. Today, the “nutrient credits” that can reduce fertilizer use and environmental damage are required on many Wisconsin farms. They’re also integral to SnapPlus, a software program created by experts at the Department of Soil Science.

“SnapPlus solves several problems at once, related to distributing manure and fertilizer efficiently, while meeting guidelines for protecting groundwater and surface water,” says associate scientist Laura Good MS’88 PhD’02, who has led its development and testing. “The program helps to maintain crop fertility without wasting money or endangering natural resources.”

Just like manure, legumes are a critical part of permaculture. Aided by soil microbes, plants like alfalfa and clover absorb nitrogen from the atmosphere and put it back in the soil to make it more fertile. Decades ago, when most farmers dedicated fields to pasture or row crops, Weiss planted legumes in his permanent pastures and pioneered the use of “rotational grazing.” Moving cattle from field to field not only protects the pasture from trampling and overgrazing but also reduces tilling and hauling of feed and manure. At the same time, it increases fertility and productivity, so any given field can support more animals. The practice of moving cattle is now a mainstay of organic and other low-impact agriculture.

Gerry Weiss surveys his farm from the seat of his pick-up truck while parked at a high point in one of the pastures. Photo by Mark Hirsch

‘You Don’t Need to Do This!’

Weiss’s collaborations with CALS have also involved planting innovations. At a time when planting and cultivating corn entailed at least a half-dozen passes across the field, he teamed up with frequent collaborator Paulson, soil science professor Larry Bundy, and agronomy professor Ron Doersch BS’58 MS’61 PhD’63 to develop a two-pass corn-planting system.

“You disk in manure and cornstalk residue with a heavy disk, doing primary tilling in one pass,” he says. Then, aggressive trash whippers on the planter clear a seven-inch row for the corn as the planter sprays a preemergent herbicide.

“We found that most years, with normal rain, we got such tremendous activity from the preemergent herbicide that we did not need a second pass of spraying, but a very limited number of people have picked that up,” Weiss says. “They are locked into four to seven passes for tilling, planting, spraying, and then spraying again. People, you don’t need to do this! We are reducing labor, soil compaction, and fuel burn, and also recreational tillage.”

But having a motive to disbelieve can overpower the evidence of open eyes, he adds. “I’ve had salesperson after salesperson come here to look at a field after the soybeans have been drilled and shake their heads,” Weiss says. “The field is still relatively rough, which I want for rain erosion prevention. I’ve had many of these guys come back at harvest, and say, ‘This is really a tremendous plant environment.’ When I respond, ‘But four months ago, you told me this was a disaster,’ they get real quiet. But it always seems easier to criticize than to try to understand why I keep doing it.”

A different attitude, both positive and more open-minded, prevails at UW–Madison and the other land-grant institutions, Weiss says, and the attitude is mutual. “He has always been respectful of faculty, though he will speak out if someone has a loony idea,” Schaefer says. “He’s principled, all about accurate data, accurate communication. There’s no varnishing, no window dressing. ‘Tell it to me the way it is.’”

In this way, Weiss has managed to survive in the ever-changing farm economy for 40 years. Today growing forage is profitable, so hay is what he sells, usually delivered to horse owners in small bales.

The swine barn is now empty — another victim of harsh market conditions — so the Gelbvieh cows that Weiss collaborated to import from Germany in the 1970s are his only livestock. Having grown to understand (so I think) the many labor-saving and cow saving innovations on the farm, I ask why he has only 60 head. As the question hovers above the kitchen table, I immediately realize that I have plunged into the manure pit called conventional wisdom. Bigger is not necessarily better, and the answer is in front of my face, though Weiss is kind enough not to mention that.

“I match the cow herd to the rotational grazed pasture program,” he says. “Sixty head is my carrying capacity with my current 68 acres of permanent pasture, but we have plenty of room for more pasture here.”

Such an expansion, Weiss says, would best be carried out by the next generation of stewards of his land. He is now on the hunt for a “very special person or people” to continue where he leaves off. When students of the agricultural sciences visit his farm to learn from its innovations, he tells them his successor just might be among their ranks.

“I also tell them,” Weiss says, “that I haven’t made all of the mistakes yet, but I’m getting close.”

‘The Barbs Are Quite Dull; They Are Just Gerry Weiss’

Thinking back, Weiss’ meticulous attention to the land and his characteristic dry wit are both on display the moment we first meet. I drive onto the farmstead with my road bike racked behind my economy Honda and approach a weathered, white-haired guy pitchforking Canada thistles from the back of a white Ford pickup.

By way of introduction, I ask, “Aren’t you too old for that?” He responds, “Oh, I think we’re going to get along just fine. You can give it back.”

Later that day, as we tour the fields, I tease Weiss about a lone Canada thistle proudly blossoming above a pasture. Even a city fellow knows that those splendid purple flowers are one of Wisconsin’s premier pasture pests, and Weiss immediately promises to annihilate it to block it from reseeding.

I mention the thistle to Lange, the Grant County conservationist, and he remarks, “I’m surprised that he did not write down the location. If he was younger, he would have put it on GPS, but I’m sure it’s gone by now.” Indeed, when Weiss later meets me for lunch in Spring Green, he hands me a thorny, withered thistle. “Some salad from the farm!” he says.

“He’s very conservation conscious,” says weed expert Jerry Doll, professor emeritus of agronomy. “He once called after an 8-inch rain, happy that his grass waterways and terraces had no visible erosion, while his neighbors were looking at gullies.”

“His mind is always churning,” Doll adds. “I don’t know how he sleeps at night. I know his power of observation. When he sees something he can’t explain, he’s on the phone.”

Like Doll, others who have worked with Weiss typically cite his inquiring mind and diligence, as well as his devotion to conservation. They also like to mention his low-grade combative nature.

“Gerry is very bright and quite self-deprecating,” Schaefer says. “He can be prickly and takes pride in barbed comments, but he does that mostly for effect. He wants to know if he’s getting through to you. The barbs are quite dull; they are just Gerry Weiss.”

But underneath Weiss’ thorny exterior, Schaefer sees the embodiment of a precept of the great Midwestern public universities. “He’s a land-grant creation. To me, he epitomizes the application of science to agriculture.”