By MaryBeth Matzek
By making changes to their farm practices during the past several years, Yahara Pride Farms members dramatically reduced the amount of phosphorous entering the Yahara River watershed. But while they’ve been successful, members say there is plenty of work left to do.
“Five years ago, we had no idea we would be here,” said Bob Uphoff, owner of Uphoff Ham & Bacon Farm and vice-chair of the Yahara Pride Farms Conservation Board. “As we keep making changes and improvements, who knows where we will be in five years?”
Yahara Pride Farms held its annual watershed-wide conference on March 2 to share information and research on the different steps being taken to decrease the amount of phosphorus in the watershed and to celebrate its successes.
With phosphorus a key issue of concern, farmers use a mix of cover crops, low disturbance manure injection and strip tillage to cut down how much of it entered the watershed. Research and data collection show it is working.
According to estimates in 2016, cover crops reduced 6,572 pounds of phosphorus from entering the waterways while low-disturbance manure injection prevented another 1,080 pounds from entering the system. Strip tillage kept out another 990 pounds of phosphorus out of local waterways.
Jamie Patton, an agriculture educator with the University of Wisconsin-Extension in Shawano County, said planting cover crops improves soil health, decreases erosion and cuts down on the amount of phosphorus entering the watershed.
“Using cover crops improves soil structure, increases water retention and improves the macro bacterial health of the soil,” she said. “Improved soil health aids the growth of the crops.”
Coming up with an exact number of how much using cover crops can save farmers is not easy, but there is a benefit, Patton said. “The math is a bit fuzzy since biological systems are unpredictable, but if you are wondering if cover crops pay for themselves, the answer is yes,” she said.
Nick Viney, a sixth-generation farmer who has used cover crops since 2011 on his 1,700-acre Badgerland Grain Farms, said farmers who use cover crops view it as an investment in their farm’s future.
“Shorter-term, the costs of using cover crops is high, but you need to look at it as a long-term proposal,” he said. “For example, we will have reduced soil erosion.”
Yahara Pride offers a cost-sharing program to help farmers using cover crops. In 2015, 35 farms took advantage of the program, up from 20 farms in 2013, Uphoff said.
“Not all farmers need to do the same thing to help reduce the amount of phosphorus in the watershed. Farmers can do what works for them,” he said. “The key is to keep continuing these practices so we can continue to see more benefits.”
Although area farms have decreased the amount of phosphorus flowing into local waterways, Kyle Minks, conservation and nutrient specialist with the Dane County Land and Water Resources Department, said the overall phosphorus levels in the water did not hit their goal. “That told us it was coming from another source because we had direct source pollutants like utilities cutting back and we had so many farms adopting conservation practices,” he said.
His department looked to the muddy sediment that is found in some waterways. “We call it legacy sediment because it is holding in phosphorus from years ago. Slowly, it seeps out and gets into the water supply,” Minks said. “We could turn off all the inputs and it would take 66 years for us to reach our quality goals because of the sediment.”
In response, Dane County plans to spend $12 million over the next few years to remove the legacy sediment from waterways. Minks said it will be dewatered and stabilized on a field with permanent vegetation owned by the county to keep it out of the waterways.
“Farmers, just keep doing the great work you are doing,” he said. “You are helping us to make real improvements in water quality.”
After the discussion of how to keep phosphorus out of local waterways, Daniel Andersen, an assistant professor of agricultural and bio systems engineering at Iowa State University, shared the latest research regarding the value of manure. Known as “Dr. Manure,” Andersen said farmers need to treat manure like other fertilizers, such as making sure the application is uniform.
“Studies show soil holds on to manure fertilizer better than chemical fertilizer,” which means it does not run off the soil as easily, he said. “Solid manure does even better than liquid manure.”
During the conference, six new farms were recognized for receiving their Yahara Pride Certification: Maier Farms LLC, ABS Global in DeForest, ABS Global in Poynette, Badgerland Grain LLC, Doudlah Farms LLC and Meffert Homestead Inc. The certification program is designed to help farmers identify the strengths and weaknesses of their farming system, facilities and landscapes. The voluntary program helps farmers document how their operation protects soil and water quality while identifying high-risk situations and practices that need to be modified.