Ohio Farmer

The Holgate dairy farmer has been named a 2024 Ohio Master Farmer.

Jennifer Kiel, Editor, Michigan Farmer

March 14, 2024

15 Slides

Through the years, Kent Sonnenberg has had a lot of “learning moments.” He’s learned that keeping the soil covered is imperative. He’s learned raising the soil’s organic matter means the system is running well, and he’s learned to adapt to what is dealt, while figuring out the best strategy to move forward.

A dairy farmer all his life, Kent was about 8 years old when his older brother and sister moved out, leaving him with a lot of responsibility on the farm in Holgate, Ohio, with his father, Reinhold. “I remember hoeing weeds in the bean field with my grandfather,” Kent recalls.

A fourth-generation farmer, he still lives on the home farm, although it is much different than when it was started in 1865 by his mom’s family.

Through the years, acreage was added, and the dairy was expanded, most considerably after his son, Ted, returned home in 2010. But the growth of the farm was not only about size or number of animals. Kent consistently strived to improve the soil, protect the water and best manage nutrients, including manure.

Kent has been a longtime supporter of Ohio State University Extension and the Soil and Water Conservation District.

“He really became interested in conservation practices, and once he was able to see their benefit, he was overly anxious to help others,” says Alan Sundermeier, a retired OSU Extension educator who successfully nominated Kent as an Ohio Master Farmer.

Kent has served on the Henry County Soil and Water Conservation District board for many years and is currently chairman. “We are always interested in his thoughts, and he was interested in learning from others, too,” Sundermeier adds. “Being a Master Farmer, you must be willing to help other people. With Kent, that really can’t be surpassed. He is respected in his community for his devotion to faith, family and farm.”

Today, Kent farms 1,700 acres of corn, soybeans and hay and is a partner in Sun Mountain Dairy in Pleasant Township. With his son, Ted, who manages the dairy, they are milking 3,100 cows, quite a jump from the 25 milk cows he managed with his father early on.

“I enjoyed farm life, still do,” Kent says. “I was in FFA, 4-H and stayed on the farm after high school.”

In the early 1980s, a barn fire forced a restart. It included an expansion to about 60 cows. “I farmed with my father for 30 years, and he retired from milking at the age of 90,” Kent says. “He was a strong man and a very good mentor, leader and teacher, who grew up during the Depression, which changed people a lot. I can’t be as cautious as he was. I have to be out there putting in a little more risk for the next generation to move forward.”

Kent met his now wife, Jan, in kindergarten. She, too, was from a dairy farm. They married in 1976 and have three children, Elaine (Shawn), who is an organist in Philadelphia; Darla (Andy), an insurance agent who also works on their farm in Defiance, Ohio; and their son, Ted (Kari), who graduated from Cornell and spent a couple years in California before moving back home to run the dairy.

With his return, they expanded to 700 milking cows — and with additional purchases went to 1,200 head, then to 2,200 and now to 3,100 cows — and have about 30 full-time employees. With the purchase of a large dairy, they sought the help of the Henry County SWCD for design and construction of two manure ponds and a filter area for leachate.

“It took a lot of cash flow and a lot of debt, but that’s what you have to do to survive in the dairy business,” Kent says, while noting they have a lot of rental ground, but not enough total acres to have a normal rotation.

Farming in a monoculture

Of the 1,700 acres they’re farming, 1,600 acres are in corn, 75 acres are in soybeans and 25 acres are in wheat.

“We needed more corn silage. We had to find some way of growing corn back-to-back in a monoculture,” says Kent, who noted they were doing tillage and no-till before. “You have to break that up. So, it is either cover crops, or you have to work the ground and put manure on. That’s an oxymoron … You just don’t do that because you’re destroying something and running it down the river. Nobody wants that. We want to keep the phosphorus in the ground and utilize it, as well as the nitrogen itself.”

To move forward, they decided to go into cover crops. He consulted with Russ Rice from Nutrien Ag Solutions, who is also an agronomist, and who helped him purchase equipment to update the planter with precision technology.

He tried different cover crop mixes, but plants mainly cereal rye with 100% coverage of the land. “You don’t feed your dog or cat six months out of the year; you feed them 12. So, you’ve got to feed the land the same,” Kent says. “You have to grow a crop year-round, but I terminate rye at 12 to 18 inches to keep it from competing with the crop. Harvest the sunlight and treat the ground with respect.”

To make the most of his acres, 700 acres of his cover crops is wheatlage harvested the end of May, which is followed by corn for silage as a double-crop system. “The advantage is a cool-season grass followed by a warm-season grass. … The two combine quite well as far as water usage and keeping nutrients on the farm,” Kent says.

Keeping a crop growing throughout the winter works to build the soil biome. Combined with no-till, cover crops add organic matter, while also sequestering carbon and suppressing weeds, Kent is working with Ag Solutions for carbon credits.

“The soil structure has changed with more microbial activity, and our organic matter was at 2%. Now it’s 5%-plus,” Kent says. “That 3% change represents an additional holding capacity of 60,000 gallons of water an acre that we can capture and reuse. It’s like a retention pond, but also a wetland.”

Eye on water quality

To help control soil erosion and soil and nutrient runoff, he has installed 40 subsurface water control structures, allowing him to close or raise up, as necessary. “Doing it at the proper time is an art,” says Kent, who has been participating in H2Ohio program since it was launched.

Part of the 800 acres they’re farming is in the Western Lake Erie watershed, where phosphorus levels are being monitored coming off the soil.

“There are 12 other sites in the program, and we are at the lower end,” Kent says. “In a dairy operation, you have a lot of phosphorus. But phosphorus in the soil is not the problem. It’s when phosphorus leaves the soil, there’s a problem. We use cover crops and control structures and put manure on a growing crop to utilize all those nutrients instead of sending them to the river.”

The farm also has extensive filter strips on all fields adjacent to drainage ditches and a two-stage ditch to slow water flow. “With the weather swings we’ve been having recently, if everyone used cover crops, we could keep a lot more ground covered and intact,” Kent says.

Corn silage is harvested by the same custom harvest crew that pumps and applies their manure.

Looking ahead

“Water quality is very important to Kent and Ted,” says Les Seiler, a previous Ohio Master Farmer from northwest Ohio. “Kent and I have attended training with the National Wildlife Federation and The Nature Conservancy to promote conservation on the land. I always enjoy doing talks with Kent because he brings the livestock story to the discussion.”

With The Nature Conservancy, Kent is a Farmer Advocate. “We reach out to people throughout the year, anyone that wants to talk to us about cover crops and other farming practices,” he says. “We are not perfect, but we try to do as much as we can.” He has also hosted several field days. “Going to the field and seeing cover crops planted is beneficial.”

A succession plan is underway. Every day is different. Kent feeds calves at the homeplace, and then goes down a quarter-mile to feed calves at Ted’s house.

“I’m no longer a major player, but Jan and I are part-owners. I went from a whole bunch of jobs to having a different role,” Kent says, while noting that he’s about to turn 68. “We work together, but he’s the manager of the dairy, and I have to make sure the cropping end gets done the way it should be done.”

Jan, however, is still involved quite heavily, getting up at 4:30 a.m. and assisting in bottle-feeding upward of 300 calves. “She makes time for the four grandkids, and when silage season starts, she cooks for 28 days for 20 people,” Kent says. “She’s as much a part of this operation as anyone. I feel an honor to be chosen for this award, but I’m also honored to be married to her for 48 years.”

Through the years, Kent Sonnenberg has had a lot of learning moments. “Somebody was watching out for me along the way because we’ve had times when it’s been close. But then things worked out. … It’s part of farming. Hard times aren’t always bad if you learn from them. When the good times stick around, you know the hard times are coming, so you have to protect yourself from that hard time when it does hit.”

Kent Sonnenberg at a glance

Farm: Sun Mountain Dairy in Holgate, Ohio; 1,700 acres farmed, corn, soybeans and wheat; 3,100 milking cows (plus replacement heifers and calves) 

Nominator: Alan Sundermeier

Leadership/community involvement: Four-year Holgate FFA member (high school), state FFA degree recipient (senior year), 4-H member (4 years), Henry County Dairy Board member, Henry County Soil and Water board member, St. Peter’s Lutheran Church (various offices and committees, usher), Northwesternaires Barbershop Chorus member (since 1978), Henry County Extension advisory board (several years)

Read more about:

Master Farmers

About the Author(s)

Jennifer Kiel

Editor, Michigan Farmer

While Jennifer is not a farmer and did not grow up on a farm, "I think you'd be hard pressed to find someone with more appreciation for the people who grow our food and fiber, live the lifestyles and practice the morals that bind many farm families," she says.

Before taking over as editor of Michigan Farmer in 2003, she served three years as the manager of communications and development for the American Farmland Trust Central Great Lakes Regional Office in Michigan and as director of communications with Michigan Agri-Business Association. Previously, she was the communications manager at Michigan Farm Bureau's state headquarters. She also lists 10 years of experience at six different daily and weekly Michigan newspapers on her impressive resume.

Jennifer lives in St. Johns with her two daughters, Elizabeth, 19, and Emily 16.

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