Lafayette County farms make progress on runoff, soil erosion reduction

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
Participants at a field day with the Lafayette Ag Stewardship Alliance learn about how water penetrates soil pits, August 2019.

The Lafayette Ag Stewardship Alliance is making significant progress on studying how non-traditional farming methods reduce and prevent phosphorus runoff and soil erosion.

According to a press release from the Dairy Business Association, LASA analyzed data from their own members to estimate the environmental impact of progressive farming methods, including no-till, strip-till and cover crops, compared to conventional methods. Their findings showed that farmers practicing no-till and strip-till may reduce phosphorus runoff by 53% and soil erosion by 59%.

Reducing and preventing phosphorus runoff is critical for maintaining the water quality of streams and lakes, where the runoff causes algae to grow, leading to waterway degradation. One pound of phosphorus can grow 500 pounds of algae, the press release said.

Jim Winn

"We have many dedicated farmers in this area who work hard to safeguard our water and soil, so to see these sorts of results is rewarding," said Jim Winn, a dairy farmer and leader of LASA. "We push ourselves to get better every day at protecting the environment. Measuring progress is critical."

The project was part of the Producer-Led Watershed Protection Grants Program funded by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. The SnapPlus nutrient management software was used to calculate the reduction of phosphorus runoff and soil erosion on farms implementing those conservation methods.

The analysis reported that a dairy farm reduced their phosphorus runoff by 752 pounds and their soil erosion by 577 tons after planting 312 acres of cover crops. A beef farm also reduced their runoff by 1,570 pounds and erosion by 891 tons following strip-tillage of 704 acres. And a grain farm adopted no-tillage farming on 794 acres, which helped reduce their runoff by 3,727 pounds and their erosion by 4,827 tons.

In three years, the non-profit watershed group has grown to 27 members who collectively represent 47,000 acres and 23,000 livestock animals. They're known for their frequent collaborations with university researchers, community leaders and other environmental groups. They've recently contributed thousands of dollars to an ongoing groundwater study. 

The Nature Conservancy has been a key supporter of LASA, helping fund the analysis.

Steve Richter

"We’re excited to work with these innovative LASA farmer members who are not only making changes in how they farm and manage their soil but sharing their data so we can better measure outcomes," said Steve Richter, director of agriculture strategies for The Nature Conservancy. "There is a lot of interest among farmers in practices that improve soil health and increase productivity, and LASA farmers are making these practices more accessible to others by sharing lessons learned."

According to 2019 numbers, the members of LASA have made changes to the way they farm, including 23,500 acres of no-till or strip-till planting; 22,300 acres managed by nutrient plans; 5,305 acres of cover crops; and 4,000 acres of low-disturbance manure injections.

"Trial and error are part of this, but we keep moving forward," Winn said. "We recognize we can do better, we can learn from one another and we can stand out as community leaders on environmental sustainability. That’s what drives our group."