Cattle and Brookies: Making Modern Agriculture and Trout Habitat in Wisconsin

Person trout fishing in a stream

Story by Jonnah Perkins. This story was original published in The Drake Magazine.

Some 10,000 years ago, glaciers from the last Ice Age were retreating from the Upper Midwest. While much of Wisconsin was scraped into the rolling landscape that is representative of much of the state, a roughly 24,000 square mile piece of land at the intersection of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa, was left untouched by continental glaciers. Broad ridge tops with shallow soil, river-formed valleys, and steep, craggy ravines make the Driftless area a geological anomaly. For millennia, this was a fertile Brook Trout habitat but in an evolutionary blink of an eye, these waters became threatened by modern agriculture. Across this region of sandstone and dolomitic limestone bedrock, there is more than 6,000 miles of trout water, with about 1300 miles of public access. But the health of these waters continue to compete with agriculture to survive. 

Joseph Hansen fly fishing in Lowery Creek. Photo by Jesse Perkins

The Cates Family Farm sits in the heart of the Driftless area, in Iowa County, between Madison, the Wisconsin state capitol, to the east, and the Wisconsin-Iowa border to the west. This bottomland managed-grazing beef operation has created a model for how grass-based agriculture can have a direct positive impact on coldwater trout habitat.The Lowery Creek, a 15 mile waterway that bisects Cates Family Farm, was once a monumental inconvenience for its habit of separating the herd or sinking tractors into her muddy banks. 

“I grew up in a culture where if you had tall corn, a shiny tractor and a silo, you were successful.” Growing up on Cates Family Farm, Richard “Dick” Cates, was of the generation that mythologized the American ideals of the post-WW2 industrial agriculture boom. “When I was a boy, I hated this farm. I wanted flat, black farmland. I wanted to be able to see the tallest crops. Because you could never get the cattle across the stream when you needed ‘em. They’d wander up into the woods, then over the hills to the neighbors’ to eat the neighbor’s corn.” After spending three years managing the world’s largest dairy farm in Saudi Arabia in the 1980’s, Dick and his wife, Kim, decided to return the farm to raise their children and grow the family beef business.

When asked about the impetus for restoring the Lowery Creek, Kim has a utilitarian memory of the pure logistics, “The first connection with the creek and how it impacted our farming operation was that we had to get equipment and cattle from one side to the other. The Lowery, over three-and-a-half miles of channel, cuts right through all of our grassland. With the stream crossings, there were very few, and they weren’t adequate. That was our first focus on the stream, we needed to get a tractor or pick up truck from one side of the stream to the other. We got some cost sharing from NRCS (USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service) to put in breaker-rocked stream crossings. In the course of doing that, we were paying so much more attention to the stream.” Cattle are leery of unstable footing and easily spooked by slipping on soft stream banks. The farm now has 25 stream crossings among its 35 pastures.

Cates Family Farm has been a pasture-based farm since the 1850’s, though there wasn’t a rotational managed grazing program until the 1980’s when Kim and Dick began focusing on grass management. “We had cattle on one side of the farm for half of the season, and then the other part of the farm for the rest of the season. That’s just how it was done.” Small grazing herds dotted the landscape on farms across the region, which was largely dominated by wheat production and, later, dairies, where cows were fed forage and corn. Both of these systems required intensive tilling, which was detrimental to the sensitive watershed.

The history of wheat in Wisconsin predates the founding of the state in 1848. In fact, if you tip your head back and gaze up at the mural, Resources of Wisconsin, that is painted on the very top of the Wisconsin State Capitol building, the most prominent feature you’ll see is a woman holding an armful of wheat. Duke Welter, retired Trout Unlimited Driftless Area Effort Outreach Coordinator and Wisconsin Natural Resources Board 2004-2011, points out that the agricultural demands put on southwest Wisconsin were catastrophic to the entire ecosystem, “In the 1800 and 1900’s, European farming techniques like plowing up and down the hillside, breaking prairie root structure and removing plants that held the soil in place led to this massive erosion. European settlers also logged off the hillsides and grazed them which disrupted all of the soil that had been blown in over thousands of years.” Though wheat production provided agricultural security to European settlers, the tilling of the eastern tallgrass prairie that is native to southwest Wisconsin, was the beginning of an era of flooding and washouts that were a continual threat to farms in the region.

14 the Cates joined forces with a group of neighbors and regional organizations to create the Lowery Creek Watershed Initiative. The organization, managed through the Driftless Area Land Conservancy, has collaborated with farmers, landowners and conservation groups, to map the watershed, hold outreach events, and monitor water quality through their partnership with the Water Action Volunteers citizen science program. “The Cates have been very integral in sharing their knowledge and getting other landowners involved to see if they could get the entire watershed on board with the conservation program,” says Wisconsin DNR Senior Fisheries Biologist, Justin Haglund. And over these past six years through the collective effort of the initial group of neighbors. The Lowery Creek restoration project has become a movement that has brought together farmers, conservationists, biologists and anglers. 

Cates Family Farm. Photo by Jesse Perkins

“They care a lot about their animal husbandry but they also care immensely about their land and water. If we had more land owners like the Cates that thought so highly of the resources where they are living, conservation work would be a lot easier,” said Duke of Trout Unlimited, whose work in the region began in the early 90’s. “When I started doing restoration we would work on one piece of the trout stream at a time. We didn’t have the vision or resources to look at an entire watershed. The chemistry here is very productive in the coldwater food chain. Its high pH because the rain water goes through the limestone and picks up calcites which enrich the whole system up to the apex fish species, which historically would have been the native Brook Trout.” 

When Dick and Kim set out to create a productive and prolific cattle operation, the trout species in the Lowery were not a factor. But the same stream restoration principles that make a resilient riparian system are also advantageous for Brook Trout habitat. Dick remembers the day that brookies were first found in the Lowery, “During one of our conservation field days, a fisheries manager was catching Brook Trout. We were like HOLY MOLY! We had never seen Brook Trout in our creek. Through genetic testing they found that these Brook Trout were not from any of the fish hatcheries in the Midwest. They were heritage genetics from pre-European settlement. With all of these little tributaries there can be pools where Brook Trout can be produced but weren’t able to survive in the warmer, muddier parts of the main river.” This ignited an even hotter fire in the Cates to continue the stewardship of their section of the Lowery Creek. While production-scale agriculture is so often at odds with conservation, the Cates have created a proof of concept for other grass-based beef systems to model.

Justin of the DNR points out that soil is often most productive parallel to trout habitat, so farmers need to keep this in mind when managing their lands, “Agriculture and coldwater conservation have to work together. Over time there has been a lot of erosion and sediment deposition in the valleys. Whether it’s grazing or row crops, coldwater Brook and Brown trout habitat tend to be right next to agriculture. They are pretty intertwined and they need to be managed in sync.” Justin is the biologist who advocated for the Lowery Creek to move from Class 2 to Class 1 water, a long, arduous process that was finalized this year. 

“Lowrey Creek has been a Class 2 trout stream for decades. As of January 1, 2021, we reclassified it as Class 1 trout water. This is very important because the Lowery has one of our two native Brook Trout populations in the Southern Driftless,” Justin said of the both symbolic and practical conservation value of the Lowery Creek restoration achievement. “Since the Feral Trout Program began in the mid-90’s, there has been a push for genetic work and determining the source of these populations. Through this sampling work we have determined that Lowery Creek does in fact represent our native Brook Trout population for the Lower Wisconsin River-Mississippi River watershed.”

Kim makes the point that good stream management comes from observation of cattle behavior, “The stream crossings are important because they keep the erosion much lower by directing the cattle away from sensitive areas.” Sloping back the stream banks, keeping them vegetated, and adding rocked crossings have all been part of the Lowery Creek restoration at Cates Family Farm. But even beyond that, the rotational planned grazing methods established in the mid-80’s by the Cates carry an incredible responsibility in the health of the land. “This is hill country,” said Dick, “The land is too steep or wet and the fields are small. This land does not fit your modern agricultural landscape. We have learned to make it more productive by getting better at growing grass.” Healthy, established grasslands hold more water and hold soil in place better than unmanaged lands. “Researchers from the Wisconsin DNR and University of Wisconsin-Madison came out to Southwest Wisconsin in the mid ’90s to conduct trials on about 20 pasture and cropping farm operations. We had field biologists measure the impacts of grazing on the riparian area They found that properly managed grazing, leaving residual grass on the entire pasture, was better than leaving a grass or wooded buffer strip along the edge of cropped fields.”

Movement is a principle of grassland ecosystems across the planet. As a rule, ruminants follow grass; which means they are following the pressures of rain and fire and moving in response to predators. By supporting the biomimicry of the movement of herd animals, the Cates are creating a gateway back to what their valley held before European settlement. 

Dick and Eric Cates. Photo of Jesse Perkins.

“Think about what the landscape could look like if we had a next generation of young people who cared deeply about the quality and the future of the land and the water and trout. The notion of having thousands of cows is not the only way forward. So many farmers have stayed on the treadmill hoping that the outcome would be different next year,” says Dick about the great potential that young farmers hold in conservation. The Cates’ son, Eric, and his wife, Kiley, have now taken over daily operations of the farm and recently bought the farmhouse adjacent to the home farm. This legacy is important to the Cates because their three-and-a-half decades in managed grazing will continue to impact the larger food system and conservation movement. “You have to have a next generation that can come in and think differently because you’re not going to change people my age,” says Dick. “If we don’t have a system that allows young people to come back, you lose your rural communities, you lose your care for the land.”

Establishing a grazing system that doesn’t require the farmer to be in a constant state of wrestling nature, has been a great gift Dick and Kim have passed along to Eric, and he doesn’t take this for granted, “This is a system that I grew up in. We have been farming this way for over 30 years. My whole life has been surrounded by this mindset of farming and I don’t really know any other way, in practice. The work that we have done takes a little bit extra effort, but the payout is huge, both ecologically and in providing financial stability. I have healthier animals; better performing animals that provide better quality meat that I am proud to sell.” A big challenge for young farmers is balancing a growing family with demands of agriculture, which can be dangerous and time-intensive. “This is a low input system and it doesn’t take a lot of mechanical effort to manage. I don’t have to spend a lot of time running equipment and burning diesel fuel. And I can manage the system with the kids on my back or walking next to me.”

“There’s a next level of thinking for younger land owners that are really conservation-minded that are willing to work with agencies like DNR, NRCS and Driftless Land Conservancy that promote good land use practices. And farmers like the Cates’ are proving that you can even see better production yields and more stable lands,” says Justin. At the confluence of science-based conservation, making a living from the land, and a reverence for the natural world, the Cates set out to raise steers on grass and brought back Brook Trout in the process. For Dick, his work spans beyond his own lifetime, “The Lowery Creek is a sacred place. We hear the same sounds that could be heard over the last 12 millenia years. We see the same landscape. It’s a very powerful connection to everyone who has come before us.”