Farmers build sustainable future through trial and error

CCASA

HILBERT, Wis. – Collaborating with other farmers and learning from one another about the successes and failures of conservation practices is helping Kurt Schneider feel confident about trying new practices on his dairy farm.

Schneider runs 2,000 acres of mostly corn and alfalfa, has a 1,500-head dairy operation, and owns and operates a custom manure hauling business. He began exploring minimal tillage, no tillage and the use of cover crops about three years ago. He credits the farm’s soil health to the practices he’s implementing.

“We haven’t had a bad trial yet,” Schneider said. “The more we do this, the more we will continue to do it because we’re seeing so many benefits.”

Kurt Schneider

Schneider is a member of Calumet County Ag Stewardship Alliance (CCASA), a farmer-led conservation group in Calumet County with 10 farmer-members. The two-year-old group represents 8,037 acres and 11,830 dairy animals and 240 beef animals. The alliance collaborates with university researchers, environmental groups and community leaders.

In 2020, members incorporated split nitrogen applications on 5,290 acres, reduced-tillage planting on 2,118 acres, planted 1,827 acres in cover crops, used low-disturbance manure injection on 1,500 acres and used no-tillage planting on 460. These practices significantly reduce the chance of harmful runoff into streams, rivers and lakes.

Schneider uses primarily cereal rye and is in the process of adding more cover crops to his operation each year. His primary challenge is implementing manure into the cover crop cycle and finding a way to uniformly apply manure throughout the year. He is hoping to pick up tips from other conservation groups and farmers about how using cover crops can help resolve his challenges.

“Since being a member of CCASA, I continue to learn a lot from other groups and farmers about water quality and soil conservation,” he said. “So far I’ve learned if you fail once with cover crops, keep doing it because it has so many benefits, but it takes time to see the results.”

Education is a primary goal of CCASA and other similar groups. Another goal is to communicate accurate information to the non-agricultural community, John Schwarz, president of CCASA, said. Members are encouraged not only to try new conservation practices on their farms but also to engage with people who are not farmers.

“We are working to send a message to the non-farm community that we’re trying,” Schwarz said. “We’re trying new conservation practices, talking about our successes and failures, and sharing that information with the public.”

In addition to the cover crops, reduced tillage and no tillage, CCASA members regularly practice conservation techniques like basic soil sampling, plant tissue sampling, nutrient management plans and planting harvestable buffer strips. They are also figuring out how to make these practices financially sustainable through increased productivity.

“Our incentives are helping, and that’s a big draw for some members; plus, we’re working hard to promote the use of cover crops, inter-seeding and reduced tillage,” Schwarz said.

As he looks ahead to 2022 and beyond, Schwarz said he is working closely with his members to grow the membership base while considering new practices and spreading the word about the benefits of agricultural conservation. Like Schneider, Schwarz knows sharing information to learn what works and doesn’t work locally is a major part of success in the group.

“My message is always to get involved,” Schwarz said. “The dues you pay are nothing for what you will gain.” 

By the numbers

Acres covered by conservation practices among Calumet County Ag Stewardship Alliance members:

  • 5,290 – split nitrogen application
  • 2,118 – reduced-tillage planting
  • 1,827 – cover crops
  • 1,500 – low-disturbance manure injection
  • 460 – no-tillage planting