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Leopold Award finalist focuses on cover crops to reduce erosion, keep nutrients in soil

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
Brian Maliszewski is one of five finalists for the Leopold Conservation Award for his efforts in planting cover crops and saving earthworm populations and wildlife habitats.

Leopold Conservation Award finalist Brian Maliszewski has been farming on his family farm and cattle operation for nearly 20 years. When it comes to conservation, Maliszewski has been a stand-out example of putting a farmer's best foot forward in being a "steward of the land."

Maliszewski's most successful conservation story so far has been his implementation of cover crops to reduce soil erosion on his farm in hilly, river-crossed Independence, Wis. He said he first started with cereal rye because of how easy and cheap it is to grow, but since then, he's moved onto more experimental mixes, which he likes because if one crop fails, he has other crops to fall back on at the same time without worry. He also said he's experimenting with interseeding cover crops into his standing corn and soybean plants.

"(I've been) experimenting with different timings, different mixes," Maliszewski said. "Our weather patterns have been more sporadic, so ... I want those heavy rains to soak in the ground and not run off. And that's one of the best things with having a cover on your land all the time."

Strip cropping is necessary in their hilly environment, Maliszewski said, which can be hard to handle with how large current equipment models come. But having cover crops, he said, is a good way to unite the different strips that otherwise have to be kept separate during the growing season.

Maliszewski interseeds his cover crops with his already standing soybean and corn crops to ensure a smooth transition between harvest and winter.

Maliszewski said he's encountered support and good ideas from the people he meets in conservation groups. The groups have helped him determine which cover crops are best for their climate and soil as well as learn techniques on manure application to fields. He said he both uses manure from his cattle and buys poultry manure to spread across the cover crops, and it's taken him practice to figure it out, but the practice was worth it.

"There's a lot of diverse farms around this area, so we have poultry manure, to dairy manure, to beef manure," Maliszewski said. "A lot of producers want to know how to get a cover growing and not destroy it when working with the manure – put it down before (or) put it down after, and what covers do best to soak that manure up and keep it in place so it doesn't run off."

The earthworm population has also been a project for the Maliszewski farm. He added that he's worked to eliminate tilling on the fields to preserve earthworms, which break down the nutrients in the soil and draw them further into the ground, which helps them from running off the farm and into the nearby rivers. Maliszewski also said it's helpful that current technology allows for no-till planting.

"For me, it's been easier to no-till because of the equipment that's out there," Maliszewski said. "My planter now has the equipment on it to enable me to be no-till in any condition, where in the past the technology wasn't quite there."

Maliszewski said he built this interseeder himself.

Maliszewski has also partnered with Pheasants Forever, a Minnesota-based non-profit that helps maintain populations of wild birds and other wildlife. The wooded areas along the edges of his farm harbor many wildlife species, which can pick at crops if the farm doesn't have buffer zones. He said he's added bumper strips of cover crops on the edges of the farm, which have proven to be cost-effective because the investment in planting in those zones prevents the animals from getting to the actual corn and soybean crops.

Maliszewski said the number one thing all farmers should be doing is cover cropping to help reduce environmental impact in the fields.

"(People should be) planting any cover crop at any time – just start out small and try it," Malisewski said. "The land should always be green, so if it's green it's growing; if it's brown, it's dead."

Other finalists for the Leopold Conservation Award include Mike Berg of Blanchardville; John and Melissa Eron of Stevens Point; Charlie Hammer and Nancy Kavazanjian of Beaver Dam; and John and Dorothy Priske of Fall River. The winner will be announced later in 2020.