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Brandon dairy farmers earn water quality award

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer
Josh Hiemstra, a Fond du Lac farmer, has been using software developed at UW–Madison for more than a dozen years to track soil fertility and plan applications of fertilizer and liquid manure, stored in the “big blue lagoon” in the background.

Robert and Josh Hiemstra of Brandon were the recipients of the annual Mathias/Lesczynski Water Quality Award for 2020. The Hiemstra’s have been growing cover crops on their family’s dairy farm for over a decade.

Cover crops are gaining popularity among farmers and landowners thanks to the many benefits that can be achieved. These include reduced nitrogen and phosphorus loads entering water bodies improving water quality, increased soil organic matter, improved soil health, reduced soil erosion and expanded grazing and forage acres.

Over the years, Josh Hiemstra has experimented with different combinations of cover crops with varying degrees of success.

The Brandon farmer says it was trial and error at times as he tried several cover crop species and different planting strategies, His patience and persistence has paid off in improved yields and more which includes protecting and improving surface and ground water quality by keeping soil and nutrients in the field.

The third generation farmer runs Hiemstra Dairy LLC just east of Brandon along with his father Robert Hiemstra. The Hiemstra's recognize that soil is their farm's greatest resource and have adopted a cover crop system along with field buffers, using design and the implementation of best management practices.

Josh says his family has been moving away from traditional tillage methods for some time.

"Other than burying corn residue from combining we don't do a lot of tillage," Hiemstra said during a Summer Field Day held at the farm in 2017. "We don't want to waste the nutrients we're applying because it's expensive to buy fertilizer. Right now we're trying to use our manure to the fullest extent. However, we never spread manure on ground that's been worked."

Hiemstra says the use of cover crops have increased soil organic matter, improved soil health and fertility along with reduced soil erosion. The family notes that cover crops also helps to extend their forage inventory.

In recognition of the family's conservation practices that help protect surface water from runoff of sediments, nutrients and chemicals into rivers, streams and waterways – and especially Lake Winnebago – the Hiemstras were honored with the Mathias/Lesczynski Water Quality Award.

The award is sponsored by the Lake WInnebago Quality Improvement Association of Fond du Lac County.

Fifteen years ago the Hiemstra's employed a software program intended to cut water pollution and soil erosion. Josh Hiemstra said the program has matured into an essential production tool for farmers.

“I began using it in 2005 because I had to, I won’t lie,” he says in his barn office, as he gears up for the fall harvest on a 525-acre farm.

The software, called SnapPlus, was created at the UW–Madison department of soil science and introduced in 2005 under a state-federal mandate to reduce soil erosion and prevent runoff of nitrogen and phosphorus. These essential nutrients can over-fertilize lakes and streams, and feed the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.

“Now, I use it because it helps me make better business decisions, better environmental decisions,” Hiemstra told University of Wisconsin officials. “SnapPlus is a big deal for farmers.”

In the accompanying video, the Hiemstras show us how they utilize cover-crops to extend their forage inventory and improve soil health and fertility.

RELATED: Farmers using UW-built software statewide to cut pollution, plan soil fertility

RELATED: Cover crops help Brandon family to achieve goals