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APPLETON – For more than five years, farmer-led watershed groups, and farm demonstration networks have provided the knowledge and leadership needed to change Wisconsin’s farming practices for the better.

We’ve seen several examples of these changes in northeastern Wisconsin that have led to improved soil and water quality by planting cover crops and utilizing no-till planting.

Farmer-led groups are also successfully employing similar practices in other regions of the state.

Tony Peirick, chairman of the Dodge County Farmers for Healthy Soil – Healthy Waters, and co-owner of T&R Dairy LLC, shared with fellow farmers some of the progress he and other members of his network have made to improve soil and water quality in Dodge County.

Getting started

“On our farm we started no-tilling corn in 1994, and started planting cover crops in 2005, and in 2015 we started planting cover crops into corn,” Peirick related.

His main cover crop is planting cereal rye after corn silage harvesting. “Now we’re working to increase our cover crop residue, increase weed suppression and reduce soil erosion,” he stressed.

“We’ve also been improving our soil structure over the years and saving money with less tillage and fewer passes over the fields,” Peirick explained. He is working with University of Wisconsin researchers who are studying the effects of planting cover crops and fertilizer applications.  And he participates in several watershed programs to help improve water quality.

Important crop residue

Over the years he’s seen an increased amount of cereal rye residue left on his fields. “Underneath the residue we see a lot of worm castings that show how those worms are breaking up and aerating the soil,” Peirick noted.

“Last year, on Sept. 21, I was surprised at how green our silage corn was in with that cereal rye,” he said. “I put on about .6 units of nitrogen per bushel. The corn stays so much greener with the cereal rye, and the reason it’s so much greener might be that it’s breaking down the nitrogen in the rye.”

He recalled they had a 2-inch rainfall the day before he chopped one field, but there was very little rutting, which may have been due to the rye residue mat.

Peirick has been experimenting with planting 30- and 32-inch corn rows. “The yield taken off for grain was less than a 20 bushel difference.” he reported.

Cooperative effort

Peirick gives much of the credit for the increase in no-till planting and planting cover crops to his fellow members of the Dodge Country Farmers for Healthy Soil – Healthy Waters group.

“Members of our group do a lot of research. We also hold several events each year,” he explained. “We work together and have a really good turnout for the pre-planting meeting we hold each spring. Then we have monthly meetings to hear progress reports.”

Their 2019 summer meeting focused on manure management, sharing information on how farmers can use best practices in handling and applying manure.

“At our fall pre-harvest meetings we share ideas on planting cover crops,” he said. “We move around to different farms so we can see what all the farmers are doing, and what success they’re having. There’s also plenty of opportunity to ask a lot of questions.”

Within the last two years there was a smaller dairy farmer, with a 60-cow herd and 176 acres, who went to 100 percent no-till planting. “He’s been really happy with the result because of all the time and money he’s saving,” Peirick explained.

“I advised him to put more weight and down-pressure on his 4-row corn planter and go slow so he can get the seed two inches below the surface, and that’s really working well for him. In fact, it’s worked so well that he’s thinking about replacing his 150-horsepower tractor with a 100-horse model.”

Working with non-farm groups

The Dodge County Farmers for Healthy Soil – Healthy Waters group also has been able to establish good relationships with area lakeshore residents, the DNR, NRCS and other conservation groups, according to Peirick. 

“We have pontoon boat rides every summer put on by the lake owners association,” he said. “They provide food and refreshments, take us out and help us learn more about the lake.”

The farm group reciprocates in September with a field day featuring cover crops. “We show the lake association people what our cover crop look like and how they improve soil and water quality,” Peirick said.  

“We’ve also been able to correct a lot of misinformation and eliminate finger pointing, where some were blaming farmers for algae in the lake,” he explained. “We also help them learn how to properly apply fertilizer to their lakefront lawns to keep the fertilizer from washing into the lake.”

The group was even able to help settle an issue involving a farmer and lake home owner that almost led to a lawsuit. “We were able to get both parties to sit down and resolve the problem, and now they’re good friends because we were able to establish a good line of communication,” Peirick emphasized.

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