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DE FOREST - Leaders of a farmer-led conservation effort are “amazed and overwhelmed,” in the words of one member, to see what has taken place “since six farmers got together over a cup of coffee six years ago.” During the group’s well-attended watershed conference March 7, Bob Uphoff, vice president of Yahara Pride Farms, said there is more and more involvement by farmers and by the public leading to conservation improvements that benefit the region.

Farmers began Yahara Pride Farms to highlight conservation practices that could help reduce erosion and phosphorus pollution to the watershed, which is in Dane County and contributes to the city of Madison’s chain of lakes.

Dane County government and some citizen conservation groups like the Clean Lakes Alliance were early collaborators on the projects and have continued to support efforts like utilization of cover crops to prevent soil erosion, new methods of manure application and whole-farm assessment of conservation practices.

Uphoff notes that as the program got off the ground it attracted a unique mix of sponsors. Farm groups like the Dairy Business Association and the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, conservation groups like the Nature Conservancy and non-profits like the McKnight Foundation, are just a few of the many partners the group has.

“Farmers have always been environmentalists. Now people want to help us,” Uphoff said.

Dennis Frame, resource manager for Yahara Pride Farms and owner of Timber Ridge Consulting, explained the group’s annual report, which contained results of soil tests and nutrient applications. He said efforts by the group’s farmers reduced phosphorus losses in the Yahara watershed by 11,167 pounds in 2016. In total, farmers in the group’s programs have reduced phosphorus loss to surface waters in the Yahara watershed by 27,000 lbs since 2012.

Keith Ripp, a farmer and former Wisconsin Assembly member who recently became Deputy Secretary of the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, said that the model created by Yahara Pride farmers is one that can be copied in other parts of Wisconsin, in other states and even in other countries.

Speaking to farmers at the watershed conference, Ripp said “you have proven your success and showed what you’re doing is working. The outreach to farmers is a win-win situation.”

Since the inception of Yahara Pride, Ripp noted, manure hosing from lagoons has become a much more common practice along with low-disturbance manure injection. Now, the watershed group is pursuing projects to help farmers utilize headland stacking and composting of manure as conservation improvements.

As exports become more important to farmers, as a way to build their markets and increase their sales, Ripp said programs like those built by the Yahara Pride farmers “are something we can hang our hat on.” Buyers, he added, want to know “who grew it and how – that’s important to them.”

Addressing the watershed conference, Lt. Governor Rebecca Kleefisch praised the group’s efforts, which harnesses the beliefs and practices of area farmers. Since the origin of the state, farmers have been conservationists, she said, and those in the watershed group are becoming “leaders in sustainable practices into the future.”

Dane County partner

Dane County Executive Joe Parisi, a strong supporter of the group, said the low-disturbance manure injection tool, first brought into the area by Yahara Price, has been used on 3,600 acres for a reduction in phosphorus of 5,500 pounds.

Last October the group, with county support, announced the composting initiative. Parisi said the county allocated $200,000 for that project. Dane County has also been instrumental in building two manure digesters serving two groups of dairy farmers in the Waunakee and Middleton areas.

As the electrical rates being paid by the utilities at those two sites diminish, the county is looking at a project to extract and clean the gas rather than turning it into electricity. The technology would also be used on gas produced at the county landfill. The landfill and digester gas, once impurities are removed, could then be sold to make digesters more profitable.

“We plan to have a pilot of this program up and running by the time World Dairy Expo rolls around this year,” he said.

The county is also supporting a project to clean up phosphorus from Dorn Creek in the watershed. “What we found is that despite all the great work that farmers did in the watershed in reducing phosphorus loads, this ‘legacy’ phosphorus in the creek still got into the lakes. Some of that has been there for up to a century,” Parisi said. “We’re finding out it’s in the stream.”

Thirty-three miles of stream were identified and the county has begun a four-year project to clean up that legacy phosphorus. “Together we’re making great progress. We have really good momentum. We are really showing that collaboration can have great results.”

During the conference farmers learned about cost-sharing programs, run through Yahara Pride and supported by the many sponsors, for strip tillage, low-disturbance manure injection, cover crops, low-disturbance deep tillage, headland stacking, composting manure and payments for implementing multiple practices.

Compost program

Patrick Murphy, a former NRCS official who now consults for Yahara Pride, said the newest project is one to provide incentives for in-field manure composting to reduce phosphorus loss and help farmers avoid spreading manure at the times of the year that make the environment most vulnerable – late winter and early spring.

During a presentation at the conference, Murphy explained that during the composting process much of the nitrogen from the manure flows off into the air as gas, so the finished compost is low in nitrogen but high in organic matter. A compost pilot project at three sites where nitrogen values were measured showed that those N values were reduced anywhere from 26 to 90 percent.

He noted that if manure were to be surface-applied it would lose a similar amount of nitrogen to the air if it were not incorporated within three days. Under the compost piles they noted that the nitrogen didn’t leach into the soil.

Bulk density of the manure and bedding was reduced by from 20 to 50 percent through the composting process. Murphy said the resulting compost product was a loose, friable humus and had little to no odor when it was spread on fields. During composting, the piles lost their manure smell about a month into the process. It took about four “turns” of the compost with a turning implement to aerate and mix the materials, and about 45 days to produce a noticeable change in the bedded pack manure that went into the piles.

“Other research has documented the reduction in pathogens and weed seeds at 140 to 160 degrees and we routinely saw those temperatures in the Yahara Pride sites,” he said. The soil under the compost pile appeared to be sterilized from the heat of the process, and there was no significant pH change in that soil.

Application of finished compost to growing hayfields has resulted in “a noticeable improvement” in those crops, he added. Nine farms have already signed up to be part of the winter compost project. The idea is to try to get farmers to use compost piles as “manure processing plants.” The nice thing about this practice is that “it applies to farms of all sizes,” he added.

Farm Certification

Another component of the program is Yahara Pride certification which the group had trademarked in 2017. It is designed to insure a “consistent and rigorous process” for certifying farms for their environmental practices.

Some farmers ask for the assessment not so much because they want to achieve the certification but because they want help in identifying areas where they could do better on conservation. Murphy said the program provides farmers with a “focused, non-regulatory evaluation of the overall farm and farming system.”

Jeff Endres, who is a founder and current president of Yahara Pride Farms, said the assessment findings are confidential, which is something the group has been very careful about.

When a farm is assessed, Murphy said the “appropriateness of the farming system” is part of the discussion, along with the farmer’s vision for the future of the farm and its long-term operation. Conservation practices that are already implemented are verified and potential improvements are suggested. Soil testing, nutrient management planning and manure applications are part of the assessment.

Things like pesticide, herbicide and fertilizer storage are scored as are petroleum use and storage. Manure storage and household waste handling are added into a score along with other items like feed storage. Murphy said farms receive a prioritized list of areas or practices to be improved and have two to seven years to make changes on medium- to high-risk areas.

Scores for each area of a farm are entered into a certification spreadsheet and farms must earn 90 percent of all points to earn certification. Currently there are 25,014 acres certified and an additional 4,357 acres in process, Murphy said. There are also 1,467 acres that have been assessed for farmers not wanting certification but who wanted expert ideas on what they could improve. “And we’re fine with that,” he added.

The assessment, which is free of charge, is another way the group is helping provide ideas on how to improve conservation. “We got a goal of reducing phosphorus in the watershed and if we can look at small improvements over a large number of acres that will result in significant improvements.”

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