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DE FOREST - In its quest to reduce the amount of phosphorus getting into Dane County’s lakes, Yahara Pride Farms members are making progress. At the group’s recent watershed conference in De Forest, the programs for cover crop assistance, low-disturbance manure injection and strip tillage were outlined.

Dennis Frame, a former Discovery Farms leader who is now Yahara Pride’s Conservation Resource Manager, said 36 farms in the Yahara Watershed – covering a wide swath in Dane County and reaching into areas of Columbia and Rock counties – are participating in one or more of the programs to reduce phosphorus loss to the lakes.

Farmers are also using practices like headland stacking of manure or manure composting as part of the program.

On the participating acres, practices including cover crops, strip tillage and low-disturbance manure injection resulted in 8,652 pounds of phosphorus reduction in the watershed. “It’s a much bigger number than we thought was possible,” he said. “That’s a huge amount of congratulations to the farmers in this room.”

Of those 4,900 participating acres, he said, 1,390 were cost-shared which means that farmers used significant conservation practices on over 3,500 acres without cost-share money.

Frame said that 28.3 percent of the cover crop planted acres on Yahara Pride land were cost shared and three farms were involved in strip tillage. “That was 990 pounds of phosphorus that didn’t run to the lakes,” he added. (The numbers he quoted were from 2015, Frame said, as he was still crunching the 2016 numbers at the time of the conference.)

There was 1,489 acres of land planted with strip tillage. Low-disturbance manure injection is a low-cost per pound of phosphorus reduction method, he said, and it has a high potential to get big reductions. But both strip tillage and the low-disturbance manure injection methods require specific machinery that is less available.

Cover cropping has the biggest bang for the buck because it can be done in a variety of ways and “not everybody has to do the same thing,” Frame said.

Frame said Yahara Pride plans to look at how important it is to continue a practice, like cover cropping for five or six years on continuous corn fields. They plan to offer a bonus payment for continuing a practice for four or more years.

The Yahara Pride programs – a collaboration between farmers, Dane County, agribusinesses, conservation groups and environmentalists -- were begun a number of years ago to improve soil and water quality in the watershed and reduce phosphorus.

Much of the funding has come from Dane County but multiple supporters have allowed the programs to flourish with financial support that helps cost-share with farmers to try various practices. The goal of the programs is to reduce phosphorus runoff at the lowest possible cost.

Full-scale county-wide programs are targeting urban sites as well, like construction sites and stormwater management. Those efforts will be expanded this year. “Working together is the only way to improve water quality in the watershed,” said Dave Taylor, from Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District.

“Dollars can help make the business case for a practice’s implementation.”

Dane County Executive Joe Parisi told the farm group that “the most important thing going forward is to keep up the partnership. Yahara Pride has been a game changer. I’m so proud of the work that’s been done and the work that’s going forward.”

He called the progress of Yahara Pride Farms a “model for the nation” and added, “you don’t get to that place with the big hand of government coming down.”

The county’s approach, looking at all sources of phosphorus, including urban and rural sources and so-called legacy phosphorus, seems to be the best way to tackle the problem. “Pointing fingers doesn’t do anyone any good,” Parisi added.

During the watershed conference, he previewed an innovative new program to continue cleaning up the county’s lakes by assisting small and medium sized farms store manure in the winter.  A few days later, Parisi made an official announcement that he will make $1.1 million available this spring for farmers to apply to help build community manure storage which will reduce the application of manure during critical times of the year when runoff is most likely to occur.

Dane County and its partners spend over $8 million a year to support the implementation of conservation practices, he said.

“Our farmers are our best partners when it comes to lakes clean-up efforts,” Parisi said. “The county is working to do our part to ensure we preserve our agriculture heritage while protecting one of our most valuable resources.”

He lamented the recent loss of a number of dairy farms in the county and said there are some citizens who want to propose stiffer regulations on manure spreading, especially during the winter. “If we want less winter spreading we have to find a way to help farmers store it until conditions are better.”

Scientists from the University of Wisconsin estimate that 40 percent of manure containing phosphorus runs off snow or frozen ground between January and March and ends up in the lakes.

Parisi proposed to allocate these funds using two methods: traditional cost-share agreements and requests for proposals. The traditional Dane County cost share will fund a cost share for community manure storage. The request for proposal (RFP) will allow producers to submit project proposals describing innovative ideas and strategies for managing manure such as ultra-filtration or composting.

Proposals will be due to Dane County early this summer, he said, and county staff will work with the top ranked proposals to develop them. Projects that rank the highest will be contacted by Dane County to develop funding agreements for project implementation.

In his latest budget, Parisi allocated over $10 million to clean up county lakes. “Our quality of life is one of the main reasons people are moving to Dane County more than anywhere else in Wisconsin,” Parisi said. “We have everything from generational family farms to bustling cities and beautiful lakes. Dane County must work to protect all of our vital resources to continue our economic growth.”

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