Reducing nonpoint source pollution is critical for many watersheds of the Great Lakes basin, which include Western Lake Erie, Saginaw Bay and the Lower Fox River.
The Lower Fox River Demonstration Farms Network was formed to do the following:
1. Establish sites within the Lower Fox River (just south of Green Bay) to test the effectiveness of current and innovative conservation systems.
2. Establish an effective mechanism to transfer technology and conservation system effectiveness information to land management agencies, producers and the public.
3. Create opportunities for stakeholders to test their research, technical assistance and program implementation at the demonstration sites.
4. Create and implement an information/outreach strategy to share information and lessons learned from the Network to managers, researchers and stakeholders across the Great Lakes Basin.
The network featured several partner farms during a recent demonstration of conservation practices currently being employed to improve soil health and water quality in the area.
Dan Brick of Brickstead Dairy in rural Greenleaf knows the stakes are high when it comes to protecting water quality in Northeast Wisconsin.
Brick has become an active conservation and community leader, who's committed to finding solutions that maintain environmental quality while preserving the area's rich agricultural heritage. He is currently working on the cutting edge from concrete to low impact manure application.
The 800 milk cows at Brickstead Dairy produce both an abundance of milk and manure. Through the NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program, Brick invested in an additional 2.9-million-gallon concrete manure structure to contain manure and milk house waste through the winter until it can be spread safely as fertilizer in the spring on his 900 acres of crop and hay ground.
No-till, cover crops
Cover crops also are a key part of his overall conservation plan to reduce soil erosion and keep nutrients on his cropland.
Brick switched to a no-till system last fall, and is planting cover crops, like wheat and rye to help keep the soil in place over the winter. 'Cover crops utilize phosphorus, build up organic matter, and improve water infiltration and holding capacity of the soil,' he stressed.
Last month Brick planted corn on one of his fields and spread liquid manure at a rate of 10,000 gallons per acre on it the next day. He uses a low-disturbance and low-impact manure application system that applies the manure about 2 inches above the ground.
'We're not disturbing the soil and we're increasing infiltration,' he said. Odor reduction is another benefit. 'The odor really gets knocked down because we're not broadcasting the manure all over the place.'
Brick is continually adjusting his seeding mix, timing and planting to get the best results. 'You need to keep phosphorus on the field, not lose it to runoff,' he said. And he wants to prove it with hard data.
'The whole concept is to be able to keep something growing there all the time, so we don't have that soil erosion and lose those nutrients,' he explained.
As one of the four special demonstration farms in the Lower Fox River Watershed, Brick believes he can help collect the data needed to find the best cover crop practices that will reduce phosphorus loss.
With assistance from the U.S. Geological Survey, a unique water quality monitoring system was installed in early 2014 to measure sediment and nutrient loss from a test field. 'We are monitoring for nutrients, that include phosphorous, and nitrogen, and sediment as well,' said Ben Young of USGS.
Brick also is participating in the Fox River Watershed Phosphorus Trading Pilot Project, with the Great Lakes Commission and Brown County Land and water Conservation Department.
Phosphorus trading provides an economical opportunity for industries that produce phosphorus to buy credits from farmers who are reducing their phosphorus contribution to the watershed.
Brick is participating as a hypothetical seller by providing nutrient data so he can develop a realistic market and pricing system.
Just down the road at Collins Dairy, pregnant heifers get their required feed and needed exercise on managed rotational pastures.
Farm manager Kevin Collins said rotational grazing is a win-win situation. 'It allows us to utilize land near our buildings and other land that's not suitable for tilling,' he explained. 'The pastures, which we've interseeded, also produce enough grass for us to harvest some of the paddocks.'
His daughter, Brittany Vander Kinter, is in charge of grazing management. She rotates approximately 70 pregnant heifers daily among the several paddocks on the 90 acres.
'Heifers stay on the pasture for the two to three months before calving during a time when they usually don't need special attention,' she said.
Each day Vander Kinter moves the waterline to a new paddock with a UTV, and the thirsty heifers follow.
'We watch the land, make sure they're on a certain area for a certain amount of time, which allows the soil to be worked in, but in a natural way,' she said.