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JEFFERSON - Dodge County is best known for its natural attractions, including the Horicon Marsh, the largest freshwater cattail marsh in the United States. The county also has numerous rivers and streams and 21 lakes including Beaver Dam, Fox Lake and Lake Sinissippi.

Dodge County also has farms. Over the past year there has been a stepped up effort among farmers to demonstrate that they care just as much about the area’s land and water as the urban residents.

Farmers are stewards of 72 percent of the county’s land Dodge County farmers own and manage 402,041 acres. This includes cropland, rangeland, pasture, tree farms and farm forests.

Agriculture is an integral part of Dodge County that ranks in the Top 10 for the total value of agricultural products sold in the state. The county consistently ranks among the Top 5 for conventional crops such as corn used for grain, soybeans, peas, tobacco, and winter wheat, according to Dodge County Ag Statistics.

Dodge County ranks in the top 10 in milk production, cattle and calves, and pheasants sold in the state. Its large and diverse agriculture industry supports many processing and food manufacturing business, and is home to the latest in green technology including manure digesters, wind turbines and ethanol production.

Farmers have always been stewards of the land, if for no other reason, because if soil stays on the farm it will produce more.

As stewards of the land, farmers use conservation practices such as crop rotation, nutrient management and integrated pest management to protect environmental resources and provide habitat for wildlife.

Demonstration plots

During a recent soil health meeting hosted by UW-Extension Discovery Farms in Jefferson, Tony Peirick, a Watertown dairy producer, said so far 20 farms have joined in the new Dodge County group and they have been meeting with land and water conservationists on a plan of action.

The first step, according to Peirick, is to establish some demonstration plots on some of their farms. They plan to use aerial seeding and other methods after the establishment of corn so that when the corn is harvested and light hits the fields the cover will be established and take over.

They also plan to establish cover crops in harvested wheat fields.

“We had over 250 farmers at a meeting we held earlier this year to learn about cover crops and no till and conservation practices. Many more came back to the meeting the next day to ask questions and learn more,” Peirick said. “We found out a lot of farmers are interested but they are nervous about trying it on their own farms. The test plots that we will establish this year will help show them how it works and we’ll host field days where they can learn.”

During the two-day meeting in February, attendees learned that soil is much more than just a medium for growing crops. In the past, farmers prepared the soil (generally by plowing and then tilling), planted seed, added fertilizer, managed weeds and then hoped for just the right amount of rain to make the crops grow.

Applying lessons

After hearing soil specialists such as Ray Archuletta, a regional Soil health Specialist for the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service Soil Health Division, farmers understand that healthy soil is a complex ecosystem with billions of bacteria living in a single spoonful of soil.

The interaction of all these living species in the soil is what makes healthy plants grow.

Soils differ greatly throughout the state and even throughout the county. They have different texture, mineral and organic components and nutrient content.  In addition, fields have different topography with everything from huge flat fields to very steep hillsides.

The Discovery Farms program started with that in mind, recognizing that what works on university research farms around the country may not work on all farms.

The farmer-led group is looking at ideas that will help them build soil and feed the ecosystem.

Besides farmers, the new group includes representatives of the state Department of Natural Resources, USDA’s Natural Resource and Conservation Service, and county land conservationists.

The producer-led group hopes to get grants to help fund their demonstration projects. To date fifteen groups like this are established in the state. They are farmer-driven, seeking solutions to address local issues and concerns.

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