Watershed phosphorus sources work together for reductions

Jan Shepel
Yahara Pride Farms

At a watershed conference March 2, attendees learned that the farmer-led Yahara Pride Farms, which sponsors this annual conference, along with various field days and other events during the year, works with Yahara WINS, the Yahara Watershed Improvement Network. Community partners led by the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) collaborate on strategies to reduce phosphorus throughout the watershed.

Kim Meyer, watershed programs coordinator for MMSD, told the group that they monitor phosphorus reductions in eight stream reaches throughout the watershed. “We met all the goals for phosphorus reduction except for one stream reach, where there may be only one farm,” she said. Most of that stream reach involves land that has housing developments. The streams where there are more farms met the phosphorus reduction goals.

The numbers for 2022 are not in yet, Meyer said, but in 2021 WINS had phosphorus reduction goals of 38,290 pounds and what was reported to her documented reductions amounted to 88,854 pounds.

The idea of Yahara WINS is for all sources of phosphorus – farms, towns, villages and cities – to work together to reduce phosphorus runoff. Since 2017, the WINS effort has given money to Yahara Pride Farms to be used for cost-sharing as part of that effort. Seven years ago, the amount was $110,000; this year the grant is $425,000. That money helps Yahara Pride Farms pay farmers in the watershed for various conservation practices that improve water quality.

Budget to grow

Jeff Endres, chair of Yahara Pride Farms, said that the budget has grown in the 12 years since the organization was created by interested farmers in the watershed. The watershed stretches from the southern edge of Columbia County to the northern edge of Rock County near Evansville. Endres said the organization will have a budget of $400,000 this year to be spent out in the field on cost-share programs.

Jeff Endres

“You’re making a difference,” he told the gathered farmers. “You’re making a big difference.”

The budget is likely to grow, Endres said, as a Climate Smart grant through the organization called Farmers for Sustainable Food could boost the cost-sharing funds to three-quarters of a million dollars.

Surveys done by Yahara WINS have shown that farmers spend 150 percent more on conservation practices than they receive in cost-share payments.

Farmers also learned from Dr. Francisco Arriaga, an associate professor in soil science at the University of Wisconsin, about his observations from a soil pit that was dug in some poorly drained soil where no-till practices have been used for ten years. He explained that soil health involves biological, physical and chemical factors. One of the key factors is organic matter which is disrupted by tillage. That soil disturbance breaks aggregated clods of soil apart. Organic matter promotes aggregation, he said.

Better aggregation and organic matter content increase the biological activity of the soil. “Tillage and crop rotations affect soil aggregation and this aggregation protects soil from compaction.”

Surprise soil results

It was on land operated by Bob Uphoff’s Maize and Bacon Farm south of Madison, where Arriaga studied the soil profile by digging a pit. Uphoff said he “stumbled into” no-till more than ten years ago and this field was the last field he put into no-till, in 2013. It is a field on land that is permanently protected from development by an environmental easement with Dane County, he said.

By using no-till, Uphoff has documented improvements in corn production from 61 bushels per acre before no-till, to yields ranging from 212 to 214 bushels per acre, depending on the year. His soybean yields, in rotation with the corn, went from 44 bushels per acre toward the beginning of the no-till scheme, to 72 bushels last year. “Something has been happening in those fields,” Uphoff said.

He has had several bids on tiling the land to drain it, but he isn’t sure how much good that would do since there’s no good place to drain it to, Uphoff said. “I’m not sure how much could be accomplished with tiling.” When storms roll through the Madison area the nearby creek rises and stays up, he added.

Arriaga said that because the soil types there are poorly drained, he was surprised that he found no compaction. “It’s one of the first things I expected to find. The management practices led to significant improvement in soil condition, including drainage