Discovery Farms adding new layers of research

​Ray Mueller

GREEN BAY – After 15 years of documenting the effects of agricultural practices on surface water quality, Wisconsin's Discovery Farms project is adding new layers of research and services, its co-director Amber Radatz told attendees at the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board's 2016 regional conference for representatives of county dairy promotion groups.

Amber Radatz

Radatz noted that the WMMB provides a quarter to a third of the Discovery Farms funding and that her position and that of co-director Eric Cooley are the only ones on the staff of eight which receive state of Wisconsin funding. There's a diversity of funding which includes grants from federal, state, and private sources, she said.

Organization history

Since 2001, Discovery Farms has completed farmer-led projects on seven farms in Wisconsin and has collected data for 85 site years at 21 locations, Radatz reported. All of those locations are operating farms (most with livestock), not land dedicated solely to research.

Although there's often a challenge in “how to talk to farmers as a group,” Radatz suggested nearly everyone “has a desire to know” and that farmers look for data and numbers. Whether it's farmers or consumers, start by approaching them “as people first,” she advised.

Whatever the results are, “do not be afraid of and stand on the data,” Radatz stressed. She indicated that in many ways it's similar to a discussion, which needs to involve farmers, about genetically modified organisms.

Discovery Farms findings

In projects on farms in 14 Wisconsin counties, Discovery Farms made its first major breakthrough by documenting that subsurface water flow continues even when the soil is frozen. In what she described as “something special in Wisconsin,” Radatz pointed out no one else had been conducting full-year monitoring to document the flow of water, sediment, phosphorus and nitrogen.

Research results reported in numerous presentations, at field days, and in written materials that are distributed through agricultural publications have been focusing on the big impacts of surface runoffs, Radatz pointed out. She listed them as loss of soil and plant nutrients, the timing and placement locations of manure and fertilizer applications, and the use of soil test data in nutrient management plans.

Numerical findings are that 88 percent of sediment runoff occurs from April to June, that a high percentage of runoff occurs on an average of 8 days per year, that an average of 2.5 of the 34 inches of precipitation during the year is likely to be the runoff, and that March is the peak month for that water runoff, followed by June and April, Radatz stated.

Management practices

No matter what the management practice is in Wisconsin, there will be at least some runoff because “the weather is not in your control,” Radatz observed. Depending on the situation, tillage or no-till might be most appropriate but the runoff of phosphorus will not be solved even with no-till although the practice greatly reduces soil loss.

Because of Wisconsin's geography, the application of manure on frozen soil continues to be a tough decision for dairy farmers in the state, Radatz acknowledged. She said the greatest risk exists during February and March.

The results of management decisions on that point “get into the papers” when there's a failure but are not given any attention when they succeed, Radatz commented. For guidance on when to apply manure during potentially risky periods, she urged farmers to monitor

Spreading its roots

Discovery Farms holds a trademark for its innovation of edge of field monitoring and testing of surface flows, Radatz noted. In recent or upcoming developments, it is delving into the monitoring of the efficiency of field tiles, establishing an online farmer network and creating a soil health database, she reported.

“Soil health” has become a buzzword in recent years but attention to it is overblown at times, Radatz remarked. Nonetheless, she said Discovery Farms will be conducting research on soil micro-organisms and micro-biology, particularly as it pertains to nitrogen availability to plants.

Discovery Farms is being emulated with similar projects in Minnesota, North Dakota, Washington, and Arkansas, Radatz reported. She said there are 17 ongoing sites in Wisconsin and Minnesota alone.

Radatz, who is the chief grant application writer for Discovery Farms, announced the entity's fifth annual conference will be in Wisconsin Dells on Tuesday, Dec. 10, with a reduced $40 admission for dairy farmers. She can be reached by phone at 608-317-0001 or by email to