Producer-led Watershed Protection program bearing fruit

Gloria Hafemeister

WHITEWATER – Ten years ago the Department of Agriculture began a farmer-led program involving farmers living and working within the same watershed could come together and discuss ways to improve farming, sustainability, weather concerns, and more.

They were able to do this through a grant program called the producer-Led Watershed Protection Grants.

Last week in Whitewater farmers from several of these watershed grant programs came together for a panel discussion about what they have learned on their individual farms and how their soils have improved as a result of their efforts.

Panelists included Cody Brugen of Little Red Farms, Whitewater who represented farmers in the Rock River Regenerative Graziers; Scott Schultz, Milford, representing the Jefferson County Soil builders; Willy Hughes, Janesville, representing Rock County farmers; John Koepke representing the Oconomowoc River watershed group and Aaron Shotliff of the Biological Farm Friends of Dane County.

Brugen, who together with his wife Stephanie, raises and direct markets beef cattle, says, “Our regenerative agriculture practices bring together animal and soil health through managed grazing on our lush pastures.”

He admits he doesn’t like running equipment and his four-wheeler does a lot of work on his farm. His other main piece of equipment is a no-till drill.

“We keep everything moving on our pastures including shade and water.  We make our own equipment to use to move these things,” Brugen said.

A group of innovative farmers from southeastern Wisconsin shared their ideas during a healthy soil conference in Whitewater last week.  Panelists include, from left, Aaron Shotliff of the Biological Farm Friends of Dane County; Scott Schultz, Milford, representing the Jefferson County Soil builders; John Koepke, Oconomowoc; Cody Brugen of Little Red Farms, Whitewater who represented farmers in the Rock River Regenerative Graziers; and Willy Hughes, Janesville.

The Whitewater farmer reports better yields and improved soil at the same time through his managed grazing system.  Using pasture maps he monitors the livestock rate of gain on different pastures.

He also is experimenting with compost using wood chips provided by a local source, and leaves.  He says the compost helps to stimulate the soil.

As society changes, Brugen says, it is the farmer’s responsibility to change with it, looking at ways to eliminate chemicals and use less fuel.

Scott Schultz says it costs half as much to graze his cattle than it costs to grow crops to feed them. 

"My neighbors talk about the need to get a better chisel plow because it is getting hard to pull it in the hard soil but I don’t have that problem and my fields don’t erode, either,” he said.

The Milford farmers says he stumbled on cover crops when he custom-baled a mix of clover and wheat straw for an area farmer. He realized at that time the benefit of the clover and straw as a feed for livestock. He is now a believer of the importance of maintaining multi-species.

When he sees farmers spraying off their wheat fields after harvest, he feels they could just as well use that money to buy seed and no-till a cover into it.

Schultz says neighbors have actually noticed the improvement to some of the land he runs after turning ground that had been conventionally farmed into managed grazing with cover crops.

"I like to make his own decisions on how to manage the land according to what I see," he says, adding that he admits there are failures at times, but he learns from them and moves on.

Willy Hughes’ farm is now in its sixth generation.  The Janesville farmer says extending a crop rotation with small grains and cover crops makes sense to him on his Rock County farm.

The Hughes farm, owned by Willie’s parents, Randy and Judy Hughes, contains more than 5,000 acres of tillable land they own and rent. A quarter of the acreage is certified organic while the rest is conventional non-GMO crops.

“Everything on our farm is food grade or seed," he shared.

Hughes said he likes the cover crop diversity to “keep the weeds guessing.” Most of all, he likes seeing the land come back to life through the use of cover crops.            

 “We have a pretty diverse rotation,” Hughes said.

Hughes keeps careful track of what he is doing on all the fields, monitoring the inputs and the yields as well as soil health.  To accomplish that, he monitors everything using a spreadsheet with as line item for every input and sale price.

“Having a way to track our cost of production is so helpful in planning for the season,” he says.

Working with the Rock County healthy soils group, Hughes has set up test plots to monitor results from different strategies.

For instance, he has learned, through his experiments to add a lime mixture to the seed when spinning it on for frost seeding, resulting in a more uniform stand.

John Koepke, a fifth generation farmer near Oconomowoc, says he likes the idea of leaving the farm in better shape than it started. The Koepke family is a leader in no-till farming, long before others recognized it as a way to build healthier soil.  

Regarding a cover crop after corn silage, Koepke says, “It’s hard to put a dollar number on it but we see the soil benefits over time.”

 Their farm's goal for the future is to begin using more biologicals. This year their farm saw two rainfalls in June that left more than seven inches of rain. That presented a challenge since in the past their farm tended to be on the dry side.

“We have a lot of irrigation on our farm but with the wet early summer months over the last few years, we now need to look at improving the drainage on our land,” he says.

Living in a very populated area of Waukesha County, Koepke says their systems have been good for neighbor relations.

The family plants a community garden mid-summer with kale, peas, beans, sunflowers, spinach and anything that grows quickly when planted late. He admits one year they had a failure in the late-planted garden because the deer ate everything but the kale.

Aaron Schotliff who works with the Biological Farm Friends of Dane County says the process is all about low input. 

"You don’t need high yields to make money,” he said.

Schotliff previously milked cows but now concentrates on the land, constantly experimenting with double-cropping, covers and no-till.

He's had some success raising rye and soybeans together, harvesting the rye for feed and seed in summer. After the rye is harvested the soybeans take off when they get more light.

When planting corn into rye in spring, Schotliff says it doesn’t take off and look as good in the early season. However, at harvest time it does as well as any other fields.

The crop farmer admits he is still learning and continues to learn from successful farmers attending meetings of the various healthy-soils groups around the state.

“There a lot of us out here who care about the environment but farmers still take a lot of criticism in the media,” he notes.  “We need to tell our story.”

Attendees observed a presentation led by Jamie Patton of the University of Wisconsin Extension Nutrient and Pest Management Program, who illustrated the benefits of covers for holding on to the soil aggregates and creating new aggregates.

Fine roots hang on to soil aggregates and help rebuild them year after year.  During a recent conference in Whitewater farmers learned about the benefits of planting covers with fine roots to hold and build soil, improve drainage and soil health.

“It’s not just about having roots in the soil.  It’s about having fine roots,” she said.

While radishes have a purpose (breaking compaction), Patton says they do nothing for building soil aggregates.

“Aggregates have a life cycle. They die when rain drops break them apart or when we destroy them with tillage or when there are freeze-thaw events so we need to continually build them," she said. "Keeping the ground covered really helps.”