Farmers improving soil health, water quality throughout Wisconsin’s watersheds

Wisconsin State Farmer
Those attending the The
second annual PDPW
and UW-Discovery Farms Water Tours listen as officials at the Marshfield Wastewater
Treatment Plant Marshfield Wastewater Treatment
Plant, discuss treating wastewater with microbes instead of chemicals.

MADISON - Protecting water quality requires that everyone take action and be open to learn across industries.

The second annual Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin (PDPW) and UW-Discovery Farms Water Tours held in June brought together people from different professions to highlight innovative ways farms, municipalities and businesses are supporting water quality initiatives.

Tours were held in Marshfield and Rivers Falls and each tour included a stop that focused on a farmer-led watershed group in the area. During a tour discussion at Eron Agronomics, UW-Extension Agent Ken Schroeder and John Eron, farm leader of the Farmers of Mill Creek Watershed Council, emphasized their focus on experimentation and partnerships.

The council is working to reduce phosphorus loading of the Mill Creek by trying out a range of practices to determine what strategies work in their unique watershed. For example, the group has acquired two no-till drills that can be modified for inter-seeding cover crops and used by Farmers of Mill Creek Watershed Council members.

Several participating farmers have also started cover crop demonstration plots in partnership with UW-Extension to better understand the relationship of various cover crop species to soil moisture, soil temperature, and crop yield. The overall goal of the demonstrations is to determine appropriate cover crops suitable for planting on heavy, somewhat poorly drained soils.

In addition, a positive relationship has been built between the lake association and the farmers in the watershed. The lake association, the Petenwell and Castle Rock Stewards (PACRS), are working with the Farmers of Mill Creek Watershed Council to improve water quality of Lake Petenwell, Castle Rock Lake and the Wisconsin River.

The PACRS attended a field day to learn more about the farmer-led project and the council joined the PACRS on Lake Petenwell for discussions on blue-green algae and to see firsthand the negative impacts it has.

Rick Georgeson, President of PACRS, explained a new appreciation that was gained through these events by both groups regarding the concerns and challenges created by elevated phosphorous levels in the Wisconsin River and how both urban and rural communities have an impact.

The stop at Eron Agronomics led one tour attendee to takeaway just how important these types of relationships are.

“Relationships, relationships, relationships. It was really inspiring to hear John’s story about the no-till drill to get more cover crops planted. People talking to people, that is how work gets done.”

On the River Falls tour, Dan Sitz with the Pierce County Land Conservation Department reviewed the South Kinni farmer-led watershed’s efforts, which include collaborating on a cover crop test plot with his department and implementing a wide range of conservation practices.

Whether it’s a farm, cheese plant, city, or wastewater treatment plant, each sector is trying new innovations. Shared innovations don’t necessarily mean that each sector is implementing the same practice, it means that they are able to take ideas from each other to figure out what works best in each scenario.

Farmer-led watershed groups including the one at this monitoring site, had the opportunity to innovative ways that they are supporting water quality initiatives during the 2nd annual Water Tours sponsored by PDPW and UW Discovery Farms.

The Water Tours made it clear that there is a growing need for tinkering and creativity. Just look at the Marshfield Wastewater Treatment Plant, one of the tour stops, which took a chance and switched from a traditional system to one with biological phosphorus removal that cost $48 in supplies and now saves them $140,000 a year.

Amber Radatz, codirector of UW Discovery Farms explained, “It is not a choice whether we employ the tools that we know of or not. The choice is how you individualize it for yourself and whatever situation you are in. Whether you are a city, a farm, or industry, it is our choice how we adapt the tools to our personal situations and make them work.”