County forage council considers conservation plans

Ray Mueller

Manitowoc - Several self-help and locally based actions for protecting natural resources were considered in a series of presentations at the 2017 annual meeting of the Manitowoc County Forage Council.

A new proposal that was outlined by the county's Extension Service livestock agent Scott Gunderson is the creation of a land and water stewardship committee. It would consist of four members of the forage council along with one representative each from the county's soil and water conservation department, the Extension Service, the Lakeshore Natural Resources Partnership (LNRP), and the Farm Bureau.

Several self-help and locally based actions for protecting natural resources were considered in a series of presentations at the 2017 annual meeting of the Manitowoc County Forage Council.

Example of self-help

On that topic, county Farm Bureau president Dan Meyer of rural Kiel exhorted all of the farmers and their professional service providers in the crowd to “do something different” and to realize that they have the opportunity to grow cover crops on all of their acres as one way to pursue goals such as resource protection, better soil health, and improved crop production.

Government programs are not needed to earn those achievements, Meyer declared. He mentioned the conversion to all no-till on his own farm and cited the incidents of severe erosion on bare or recently planted fields in the area during spring in recent years. “We need to protect ourselves,” he concluded.

Maximum daily loads

On another aspect of the challenge, county soil and water conservation department director Jerry Halverson reminded the attendees of the impending effort to achieve compliance with the 1972 federal Clean Water Act for the total maximum daily loadings (TDML)of phosphorus and sediment to surface bodies of water.

Within Manitowoc County, there are 125 miles of waterways which rate poorly on that standard, 108 miles with a good rating, and another 360 miles with an unknown status, Halverson reported. He noted that parts of 15 rivers along with 10 lakes in the county rate poorly on the TMDL scale.

For the Manitowoc River basin, which also extends into Calumet, Fond du Lac, and Kewaunee counties, Halverson noted that there are 21 point sources and hundreds of non-point sources from which pollutants can enter the surface bodies of water. He announced that 15 more monitoring stations will be installed along the tributary waters in the basin to collect samples from the outfalls.

TMDL modeling project

In addition, the TMDL project, which is likely to take up to five years, will create Manitowoc River watershed models in segments of 20,000 acres in order to identify the land use within them, Halverson stated.

To address a portion of an intended 41 percent annual reduction in the loading of phosphorus, the watershed plan would identify changes in agricultural practices that landowners would carry out voluntarily, Halverson explained. He added that the point sources such as wastewater treatment plants would face very expensive mandatory reductions.

The cost alone for assembling the TMDL related data, analysis, and watershed modeling will be about $600,000, Halverson indicated. He reported that LNRP executive director Jim Kettler has applied for a $160,000 grant to create a demonstration project.

Introduction of LIDAR

Although Manitowoc County was relatively late in doing so, it now has the three dimension Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) system, according to soil and water conservation department resource conservationist Bruce Riesterer. He noted that 50 percent of the $230,000 cost was covered with a grant from the United States Geological Survey.

With its software component, LIDAR can measure landscape elevations within a .3 foot accuracy and contours to within one foot, Riesterer pointed out. “It's a new way of looking at some information and updating others.”

As a result of using LIDAR since November of 2015, Riesterer reported that 24 additional sinkholes and a dozen closed depressions were identified in the county. He noted that previous maps had listed 100 sinkholes (not all of them correct). He said 8 million data points can be collected on a parcel of 465 acres.

In the context of resource conservation, LIDAR is very useful for identifying sinkholes within the karst topography, for tracking surface water flows to points where groundwater has excessive nitrates, and for documenting soil depth to bedrock, Riesterer observed. As a guide to the placement of culverts, he also mentioned determining whether roadways are a dam to water runoff.

With the use of LIDAR, Riesterer is confident that the accuracy of water flow data within watersheds can be improved, that recommendations can be given on diverting water flow, and that upgrades can be made on field tiles. LIDAR can also be used to show the depth to bedrock, particularly in the vicinity of the 3,300 wells in the county, for which the Wisconsin Natural History and Geological Survey has provided the data, he added.

Grid tile report

During a panel session on field tile grids, tile installer Mike LaCrosse and cash cropping farmer Clark Riemer, both from Kewaunee County, and northeast Manitowoc County dairy farmer Russel Strutz shared their experiences – most of them very favorable.

In business since 1980, LaCrosse has found that field tile installation costs are typically recovered in five to eight years. He urged farmers to obtain crop better production from the land they already own rather than buying or renting more acres.

With grid widths of 35 rather than 40 feet, LaCrosse said it is easier to achieve the same conditions across an entire field at planting rather than trying to balance between dry and wet spots. For his trenching to a width of 14 inches rather than a plowing installation method, costs typically run between $2,000 and $2,500 per acre, he said. The problem with the plow method is the creation of a seal in the soil, he indicated.

With tiles newly in place, LaCrosse cautioned landowners to be avoid the application of liquid manure until the disturbed soil has had time to settle. If there are existing waterways in fields, they should be kept if tile is installed, he advised.

Changes boost yields

On the portion of his farm that's part of a three mile wide strip of light and sandy soil in Kewaunee County, Riemer has engaged in strip till and no-till practices while also carrying out some irrigation. During the drought year of 2012, he enjoyed a 153 bushel per acre grain corn yield and hit 49 bushels per acre with soybeans in 2013.

The wet spring in 2014 prompted Riemer to contact LaCrosse about installing a grid tile on that field later that year. In 2015, thanks in large part to the tile, he was able plant the corn on May 2 – well before a neighbor's adjacent field was ready – and harvested 202 bushels per acre that autumn.

With the followup soybeans on the tiled field in 2016, the per acre yield of 76 bushels challenged the combine's capacity, Riemer pointed out. He said this was the highest soybean yield ever on the 1,300 acres that he and his brother crop.

Riemer has also noticed a building of soil nutrients on the tiled field. For several reasons, he believes the $2,396 per acre cost for the grid tile was a good investment. One caution that he shared is to till the surface before applying liquid manure when there are cracks in dry soil.

Rescuing the drownouts

Addressing the problems of crop drownouts on 80 acres several miles away from his dairy farmstead prompted Russel Strutz to have Ross Excavating install tiles in 60 to 70 foot grids, which he considers to be appropriate with heavy soil on level terrain. He bought land in 2009 and had 45,000 feet of tile placed in 2014 on 76 acres at a cost of $682 per acre.

To accommodate the project, a 6 inch main was attached to the one on neighboring land, Strutz noted. He had planted winter rye on the field in the autumn of 2013 and discovered later that a very old field tile was in place but barely functioning.

With his most recent grain corn, Strutz has tabulated yield increases of up to 30 percent but he stated that this might be an inflated number because of low base reference yields due to the 2012 drought and crop drownouts. What's best, however, is the fact that this tiled field is now the first one ready for planting on his farm rather than being the last, he pointed out.

Following the rules

When repairing tile lines, be sure to observe all of the stipulations pertaining to wetlands and highly erodible land that date to the 1985 Farm Bill, Natural Resources Conservation Service district conservationist Matt Rataczak reminded farmers and their service providers. He said the regulations apply to any altering of a wetland and the improving and maintaining of existing tile drainage systems.

Rataczak pointed out that the AD-1026 form serves as the legal document for assuring compliance. Regarding the definition of a wetland, he explained that it must meet each of three traits – a predominance of hydric soils, a period of inundation or saturation by surface water, and a prevalence of hydrophytic vegetation.

For maintenance of tile drainage on a wetland, it is possible that agencies such a county soil and water conservation department, the Department of Natural Resources, or the Army Corps of Engineers might require a review or permit, Rataczak observed. He suggested that tile grids can play an important role in improving soil health.