An expanded Dane County partnership with its farmers and with the Sand County Foundation is intended to help build more manure storage to help farmers avoid the need for winter spreading of manure.
At a farm near Waunakee May 22, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi said the project was aimed at helping farmers keep more phosphorus out of the Madison-area chain of lakes. That nutrient contributes to the algae blooms that affect the lakes in late summer.
Jeff Meffert, his wife Ann and daughter Megan — son Luke who wants to be the next generation to farm was still in school — and Jeff's father Jack hosted Parisi and reporters at the Meffert homestead as he talked about the program.
Parisi said that the county has a great partnership with its farmers and has been working with them to find solutions to the phosphorus problem in the lakes.
Every pound of phosphorus that finds its way into the lakes equals 500 pounds of algae, the county executive said. "We're constantly looking at new ways to address this issue."
Manure storage that will help farmers avoid winter spreading, is one of the ways the county hopes to help keep more phosphorus out of the watersheds that lead into the Madison lakes.
The long, wet winters of recent years had led the county to look for "nuts and bolts solutions" to help address this. Farmers and county officials came up with the idea of increased availability of winter storage.
With greater storage comes the concept of farmers being able to wait until conditions are more suitable to spread their cows' manure — when it will also be more available for the current year's crops.
The county is offering interest-free loans and cost-sharing funds to help interested farmers pay for increased storage capacity. Farmers who participate will also agree to avoid spreading manure in the winter and at other less-than-ideal times, implement other phosphorus reduction practices and help the county evaluate the water quality impact of the new program.
According to county data, up to 50 percent of the phosphorus that enters area lakes during the year does so in February and March when the ground is still frozen and snow melt and rain events have more impact.
Parisi said that if the county is going to tell farmers they can't spread manure in the winter, they need to help them find ways to store it.
The county is offering $500,000 for the new program; applications will be accepted in early summer. Proposals will be evaluated based on the projected impact on water quality and the ability to evaluate the effectiveness of the project.
Before he went on a walking tour of the Meffert farm, Parisi talked about other initiatives the county has undertaken to help clean up area lakes. The county participated in the creation of two manure digesters on area dairy farmers.
The newest, in the Town of Springfield is up and running and is a "next generation" manure digester, he said, capable of producing enough electricity for 2,500 homes. Parisi's budget has allocated money for new technology at that digester that will allow it to extract virtually all the phosphorus from 70,000 gallons of manure per day.
On the urban side, the county has helped with grants to replace old stormwater outflows that ran directly in the lakes. "The debris that runs into the lakes carries phosphorus with it," he said.
So far, 19 new stormwater detention ponds have replaced the old outflows and helped keep that kind of debris out of the lakes. Those basins have prevented nearly 124 tons of sediment from entering the lakes.
In addition the county has restored or preserved 263 acres of wetlands, which help absorb phosphorus.
Dane County's budget also will make $2 million in capital funding available in 2014 for a new matching grant dedicated to acquisition and remediation of lands responsible for the highest percentage of phosphorus runoff in the Yahara watershed.
Parisi said the partnership with farmers is vital in reducing phosphorus runoff. "We need our farmers," he added, "and we're making progress."
The discussion for the new program began two winters ago and was repeated this winter in a different version. The county convened a group of farmers to talk about how the problem could be attacked.
Jeff Meffert, a third-generation farmer north of Waunakee, milks 100 cows and raises all his own replacements and his own feed.
The farm has grown through the generations. Jeff's grandfather milked 20 cows, his dad Jack had 50 cows and now the herd numbers 100 Holsteins.
Meffert showed Parisi and reporters his freestall barn and manure storage facility that were built in 1999. Last year they had to renovate the stalls as the cows have gotten bigger over the years.
His pit contains 80 days of storage along with wash water from the parlor he added in a lean-to off the traditional red barn so he could continue to milk cows.
Parisi said that the county's idea may involve building satellite manure storage facilities that farmers could use during the winter even if they are not built on their farms.
"We are not looking for a one-size-fits-all solution."
Meffert said he is just getting started on the design for his expanded manure storage, working with engineer Naomi Bernstein, but said it will be concrete with vertical walls like his current pit.
Parisi said the county is looking at getting the biggest bang for the buck and will look for projects that have the highest potential for keeping phosphorus out of the watersheds, but added that it's important to them at this point to get willing participants.
As farmers hear about it from their peers the program will be better received, Parisi added.
"Everybody wants to do the right thing," said Jeff Meffert. "It's just a matter of how you get there."
As part of the Yahara Pride Farmers group, Meffert said he has added more cover crops to his farm. It's one of the programs that he heard about from other members of the group and adopted because it will help with conservation and with producing an extra crop for his cattle.
Parisi commented on problems that have cropped up with the Waunakee area manure digester, which handles manure from three farms in the Town of Vienna. It has experienced three spills.
The county has insisted that the company running the digester put in a monitoring system. He also said that some of the piping used in the system should have been flexible and had problems during last winter's excessively cold weather when frost was down six to eight feet.
But Parisi said it's also important to put the spills into context. They released 50 pounds of phosphorus while the facility also removed hundreds of thousands of pounds of phosphorus, he said.
Dane County farmers who are interested in the manure storage program should call Kevin Connors, director of the county's Land and Water Resources Department at 608-224-3731 for more information.