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Concentrated animal feeding operation farmers and professional manure haulers in Wisconsin have embraced the use of a tool designed to reduce the risk of manure runoff, according to a 2017 survey and focus groups. Further analysis of its use is on the way.

Wisconsin Sea Grant is providing backing for an evaluation effort of the Runoff Risk Advisory Forecast (RRAF) through the Environmental Resources Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and University of Wisconsin-Extension and thanks to funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative that was awarded to the National Weather Service.

Amber Saylor Mase is leading the evaluation and said the sentiment of her focus groups with farmers managing concentrated animal feeding operations and professional manure haulers was, “We want to leave the land and resources in good shape. We don’t want to contaminate the water.”

Launched in 2011, the RRAF is a non-regulatory approach to simultaneously support agricultural operations and protect waters. The web-based tool uses geographic information systems mapping to provide visualization of the variation in risk of runoff across Wisconsin.

Weather-wise, it looks ahead up to 10 days, depending on the season. Farmers and manure haulers can check this tool when they are planning to spread manure, and can shift the day of an application or the fields, which could reduce the risk of freshly applied manure from running off. In fact, this tool can be employed to gauge the best time and conditions to retain any kind of fertilizer on a field, not just manure.

The RRAF was presented at the 2017 meeting of the Professional Nutrient Applicators Association of Wisconsin. Mase’s follow-up survey found that 65 percent of respondents were likely or very likely to use the RRAF to make manure-spreading decisions in the future and 84 percent said they would tell fellow haulers and farmers about it.

Other results indicated nutrient applicators prefer an email or text alert only when the risk of runoff—based on factors such as rainfall, snowfall, soil moisture, along with evapotranspiration rates, humidity and soil temperature—is high.

Next steps involve even more assessment. Late last summer, Wisconsin hosted the North American Manure Expo and surveys will be distributed this winter to ask the Badger State attendees about the RRAF.

In addition to the surveys, Mase said, “We might do some more focus grouping with different types of potential users. In the past, we only talked to the larger and professional applicators. We didn’t talk to smaller farmers. I had asked the RRAF team, ‘Who are your main target audiences? Is your goal mainly to get the larger farms that are handling the most manure or the largest amount of land affected or the most farmers using it?’ They responded, ‘All of the above.’ So, we haven’t really addressed the larger number of smaller farms in the state.”

Mase’s efforts are running parallel to the RRAF going regional. Dustin Goering, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service’s North Central River Forecast Center, is spearheading expansion of the tool’s use into Ohio, Michigan and Minnesota.

“I'm excited to be involved in the development of these runoff risk tools for the Great Lakes region for many reasons. Everyone we talk to immediately recognizes the need that these tools address in providing real-time actionable guidance to farmers and producers so they can make the best short-term nutrient application decisions.”

He continued, “Ideally, these tools catch on via voluntary adoption across the sector and over time provide not only environmental benefits through reduced nutrient losses from fields but also an economic benefit as producers won't have to reapply to replace nutrients they may have just lost in a runoff event.”

The RRAF team includes the National Weather Service; U.S. Geological Survey; U.S. Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service; University of Wisconsin-Extension Discovery Farms; University of Wisconsin-Madison Soil Science Department; Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources; and Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

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