Digging for solutions

Colleen Kottke
Now Media Group


On the surface the rolling farm fields of Kewaunee and southern Door counties look ideal for growing crops and supporting the farms that dot the rural landscape.

Below that bucolic facade rests an unfolding story that must be told in order to protect the groundwater the flows below. Soil and conservation experts say this region in northeast Wisconsin is particularly vulnerable to groundwater contamination because much of the county is made up of karst topography — porous, cracked rock — with shallow soils on top.

To meet those water quality challenges, a group of 40 farmers in Kewaunee and southern Door County have organized Peninsula Pride Farms, a farmer-led environmental stewardship coalition designed to leverage the knowledge of the agriculture community's university research and scientists.

'Shallow soil depths and fractured bedrock in northeastern Wisconsin and other parts of the state make groundwater particularly susceptible to contamination from manure and other nutrients applied to fields as fertilizer,' said Don Niles, Casco farmer and president of Peninsula Pride Farms.

Niles said the group's goal is to work together collaboratively in helping to solve problems and coming up with solutions.

'However, it's nice to get some expert help not only to discuss these challenges and opportunities in our fields but to apply some testing and data analysis to give us ideas very quickly on whether something is working or not,' he said.

Education and outreach

Peninsula Pride Farms hosted a field day on April 22 at EL-NA Farms in the town of Lincoln near Algoma to give farmers and the general public an opportunity to learn more about the unique topography of the region as part of the group's effort to meet groundwater quality challenges.

'Education and outreach are important to the Peninsula Pride mission,' Niles said. 'At the same time we are empowering farmers with knowledge and training, it is important that the broader community sees the work as it happens.'

Farmers associated with the organization have operations ranging in size from 66 cows to 6,000 cows.

Niles said the group will focus on more innovative ways to protect and improve ground and surface water through conservation practices and technology in Kewaunee and southern Door counties.

Soil Surveys

In Wisconsin, soil surveys were conducted beginning in the early 1900s to determine the composition of materials under the surface to a depth of 5 to 8 feet. While scientists have worked to collect and update data, due to the technology used to gather that data, the information is imperfect, said Eric Cooley, Director of UW-Discovery Farms program.

'A lot of these soils in northeast Wisconsin were built after glaciers came through 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, scouring the landscape and causing all of these unique features on the bedrock. So we have a big variability of landscapes,' Cooley told the group. 'Trying to read the landscape is not a perfect science, so the soil surveys have to be taken with a grain of salt. While they're a great tool its not a perfect tool. It's time to move on to the next level.'

Information from early soil surveys was gathered using topographic maps and hand held bucket augers. Those methods, however, were limited in their capabilities and not detailed enough for field-specific use by agriculture producers.

Ground penetrating radar and seismic refraction have also been utilized but each has proved to have limitations as well.

Technological assist

In 2008, UW-Discovery Farms purchased a skid-steer equipped with a Geoprobe to assist producers with their nutrient management planning by providing more detailed information on the depth of the bedrock. Scientists may also determine the depth of bedrock using drilling records from well construction reports.

Certified Crop Advisor Nathan Nysse of Tilth Agronomy says tools like the Veris soil mapping system (a cart pulled across the field acquiring real-time data through conductivity measurements and geo-references) helps him to pinpoint problem areas on farms.

'The goal for the technicians is to find out just how much soil is out there over the bedrock and as we get newer and newer technology, it helps us to verify that information,' Nysse said.

Dennis Frame, founder of the UW-Extension Discovery Farms group and consultant for Peninsula Pride Farms, said most farmers have an idea where problem areas are located in their fields, but consultants can help draw a more comprehensive picture for them through testing.

'A lot of this is done through intensive hand investigation so we can create those maps and farmers are able to understand just how much soil they have so they can respect that carrying capacity,' Frame said . 'Knowing how much bedrock is on top of that soil is critical. If you have nutrients on top of that soil and they hit bedrock, there is nothing to stop (filter) them from getting all the way down and hitting groundwater.'

Long-term project

Getting a clearer lay of the land will help each farmer identify the practices that make the most sense for the individual farm, Frame said, adding that accurately mapping soil depths in northeastern Wisconsin will take time.

'This is going to be a long-term project. This isn't going to be answered in even 5 to 6 years,' Frame said. 'This isn't a large farm only issue. It's both large and small, and the more we understand and get a better grasp of what we have on top of that bedrock, we'll make better management decisions.'

Niles said the group will hold another field day this summer and hopes to expand its membership during the annual winter meeting.

'We have a great spectrum of members from all different areas of agriculture,' Niles said. 'We can all benefit as a group by improving our practices based on what we've learned.'