Council strives to make impact on conservation efforts in western Wisconsin

Michelle Stangler
WWCC Board President Todd Doornink says members using conservation practices on their farms has grown from 1 to 18 members in just three years.

The Western Wisconsin Conservation Council (WWCC) is joining the effort on how farmer-led conservation efforts are moving forward and making a difference in agriculture and the community.

The council recently held its annual meeting and conference led by leaders within their membership. In addition to updates on UW-River Falls research projects, attendees heard from a panel made up of farmers who shared their experiences using sustainable farming practices on their respective operations.

“Farmers in our community have a great story to tell about how great conservationists we are,” said Todd Doornink, WWCC board president.

The group is spearheaded by farmers who want to learn more on how they can become great stewards of the land. Doornink, a fourth-generation dairy farmer near Baldwin says he wants to keep the business in the family for years to come. Farmers, like himself are busy, but he says it’s important tell their story to the community.

The council is focused on bringing people together. For the last four years, the council has invited farmers to host field days to share what works best and join innovation efforts.

During a presentation highlighting accomplishment over the past 12 months, Doornink focused on a growing membership, grants secured from the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) and The Nature Conservancy (TNC), a research partnership with UWRF and ways to incentivize farmers in adopting conservation and sustainability practices.

Steve Richter of The Nature Conservancy pointed out that more and more members are engaged in the council and use conservation practices of cover crops, reduced tillage (vertical and strip), and no-till practice.

In 2018, just one member was using reduced tillage on 112 acres. In just three years, the number of members - now 18 - are using conservation practices on 12,575 acres.

Richter says there are great benefits to keeping soil and phosphorus in fields, with members seeing the impact of using those practices on their own farms.

In 2021, through the use of cover crops, no till and reduced till planting practices, Richter estimates that WWCC member farmers were able to keep 90,000 pounds of phosphorus and 24,000 tons of soil from running off their farm fields and into streams.

Western Wisconsin farmers, Greg Friendshuh, Pat Johnson, Tom Sitz, and David Tollberg participate in a panel discussion, sharing conservation practices were in place on their farming operations.

Farmer-led panel

Pat Johnson was among members of a farmer-led panel assembled to share information with fellow farmers from western Wisconsin on their experience implementing conservation-minded practices on their own farms.

“I’m here to get more pointers.” said Johnson, who was joined by panelists Greg Friendshuh, Tom Sitz, and David Tollberg.

The size of the operations among panelists ranged from a 1,300 head dairy farm to an operation growing a variety of crops on over 500 acres. No matter the size, conservation efforts amongst farmers are all important.

Tollberg, who works as a private crop consultant cautioned those planning to incorporate sustainable practices to “walk, before you ride”. Taking time to prepare before implementing is crucial to success, he said. Seeking information from other farmers and recognizing what works best for the soil is key. Throughout the discussion, the panelists themselves expressed interest in learning ways to reduce erosion in their fields while producing a profitable crop for years down the road.

Moderator of the panel, Jerry Emmert, a farmer from Baldwin, Wis., uses 40% of the farms' land for cover crops depending upon rotation.

“It really has been amazing to see,” he said.

Emmert says he has seen the impact on the soil after incorporating cover crops a few years ago.

He stresses to those starting out to speak to producers who have a few seasons under their  belt and understand the process.  He also suggests farmers starting out on a small scale, maybe trying 2 to 5 acres.

“Try to experiment so you can see the results without having to commit all your acres to it,” he said.

Research collaboration

Research collaboration with UW-River Falls is creating ways for farmers to see the innovation first-hand. Dr. Jill Coleman Wasik, associate professor of environmental science at UWRF, presented an update on the well testing program now in its fourth year

She says this research partnership is important from a public health standpoint since differing pH and chemical levels can affect vulnerable populations. In 2021, the University tested 83 wells reporting on pH, Nitrate, Chloride, and other contaminants producers wanted more information about. This resulting data allows members to see if levels in the wells exceeded the 10 mg of nitrates per liter of drinking water EPA health standard, or if other treatment technologies were effective.

Another research project aimed at improving soil health is being led by Dr. Patrick Woolcock and Dr. Natasha Rayne from UW-River Falls using biochar. Woolcock describes biochar as an organic resource thermally treated to provide carbon stability.

The professors’ intentions are to use the compost from the Mann-Valley Research Farm and mix in biochar. After maturity, the mix will be sent to test plots to measure effectiveness, benefits, and to see if it’s financially feasible. Preliminary research has shown biochar-based fertilizers reduced nutrient leaching, and application to poor soils have resulted in improved water and nutrient retention, and can possibly benefit crop growth.

WWCC members are eager to see how this practice may help them to achieve their long-term goals for their cropland.