Improving soil health, water quality, crop yields

Gloria Hafemeister
A panel of dairy farmers, together with Abigail Augarten of the UW Discovery Farms program and Dr. Francisco Arriaga, soil scientist with the University of Wisconsin-Extension answered questions about cropping systems that protect water quality and improve soil health during the annual Discovery Farms conference in Wisconsin Dells last week. Panelists include, from left, Arriaga, Derek Van De Hey, Augarten, Adam Lasch and Tony Peirick.

WISCONSIN DELLS – Farmers all across Wisconsin are beginning to look at ways to plant into growing cover crops, interseed into corn and soybeans and combine cover crops with manure management. These techniques vary across the state, influenced by things like soil type, cropping budgets and available equipment.

When Discovery Farms hosted the seventh annual conference in Wisconsin Dells last week a panel of farmers shared their ideas and described how their systems have helped to improve water quality and soil health and evaluate nitrogen efficiency.

At the conclusion of the conference they were joined by Dr. Francisco Arriago, soil scientist with the University of Wisconsin-Extension and Abigail Augarten of the Discovery Farms program to answer questions about how these systems have helped deal with issues related to weather, finances and yields and quality of crops produced.

Watertown dairy and crop farmer Tony Peirick has been no-tilling since 1994 and has worked with cover crops since 2005. He urged farmers considering these techniques to talk with other farmers who are no-tilling and utilizing cover crops.

“We need to share ideas and we need to work with a good crop consultant,” he states.

All three farmer participants in the discussion are involved with peer groups who share information with others.

Adam Lasch, who operates a diversified farm near Lake Geneva says his methods have sometimes been questioned by skeptical neighbors but the results of his efforts have been evident and when the inquisitive neighbors comment on the results, he is then able to convince them that his ideas are sound.

He illustrates, “When I planted into a green cover I was told by a neighbor that this would never work. By midsummer the other corn fields in the area were drying up but my field was tall and green. The next year he watched again but didn’t question my methods.”

Derek Van De Hey farms on heavy red soil near DePere. He started using cover crops as a means of extending the forage supply for the farm’s 950 dairy cows and 850 head of youngstock. The family expanded their cover cropping acreage due to the noticeable soil structure benefits.

Through their involvement with the Fox Demo Farms and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) edge-of-field monitoring, they have been able to quantify the amount of sediment that leaves their land. Through this they have been able to communicate the results of their efforts with other farmers.

He comments, “We have had landowners in our area seek us out to rent their land because of the way they see us improving our soil health.”

Peirick commented on the need to not only communicate with other farmers but also with others in the area who have expressed concerns about water quality and its relationship to farming practices.

Peirick is co-chair of the Dodge County Healthy Soil-Healthy Water group. That organization was formed after representatives of several area lakes association asked the county board to require farmers to have a 50-foot buffer strip along all waterways on the farm.

In response to this, farmers came together to talk with lake association members about their practices and also to learn ways to further improve farming practices to prevent erosion. The lakes groups were responsive and have sent representatives to field days on the farm and have attended meetings to learn more about farming practices.

Lakes groups have also invited farmers to go on boat tours of their lakes where they share their concerns about silting and pollution.

Peirick points out, “As a result of the communication between farmers and lakes association members in our area our healthy soil group has received a total of $14,000 from the lakes groups and through this we were able to provide free rye seed to farmers willing to experiment with cover crops.”

The Dodge county group continues to hold educational workshops to encourage more farmers to try cover crops and no till as a means of building healthier soil and preventing erosion.

Dr. Arriago admitted that in the past university studies looked at various strategies for planting crops but did not look at the biology of the soil. The emphasis was always on soil aggregation and how it affected soil erosion and on yields.

He noted, “The importance of biology is incredible. Whatever you do affects the biology of the soil. Tillage and cover crops all affect the biology of the soil.”

One of the reasons many farmers have incorporated cover crops into their farms is to grow their own nitrogen.

Abigail Augarten of the UW Discovery Farms program has been working with farms on finding out their Nitrogen Use Efficiency.

Efficient use of nitrogen is essential for crop production, whether the nitrogen source is commercial fertilizer, manure, legumes or some combination.

“Assessing the efficiency of nitrogen application on a per-field basis is a valuable first step in evaluating your nitrogen fertilizer management plan,” she says.

In 2019 UW-Discovery Farms will be offering a 3-part workshop series to guide farmers through the process of implementing an NUE study on their fields, analyzing individual NUE values compared with the WI-specific benchmarks, and determining future steps to improve efficiency.

Wisconsin farmers, crop consultants, farm advisors and extension agents are invited to take part in the workshops.

To learn more or to enroll check out the Discovery Farms program at