Rethinking farm practices

Now Media Group

A commentary from Jim Holte.

'Continuous improvement' is a buzz phrase that some people use to describe the process of how farmers are always upping their game with innovation and technology to produce more with less while protecting the environment. For every step farmers take forward with the public, I fear headlines from manure spills and well contaminations send us two steps back.

When I say we need to rethink how we manage manure, it is not aimed at farms of a certain size, or at farmers who are subject of headlines. It's a simple fact that livestock produce manure. It's also obvious that Wisconsin's agricultural economy hinges on the long-term success of the livestock industry. Therefore, this is a message for all Wisconsin farmers.

As land stewards, farmers intimately know the soil from which they make their living. Above and beyond what any regulation might mandate, farmers know best how to make the most of returning nutrients to their soils while minimizing unintended impacts.

Much has changed about dairy farming during the past 30 years, including the way many farms move manure from the barn to fields.

I know some of agriculture's critics think our problems would be solved if dairy farms looked like they did in the 1950s. They fail to realize the idyllic red barn and 35-cow dairy farm wasn't as pure as the driven snow. Many dairy barns were built close to waterways. Manure was spread daily and the fields closest to the barn often were over-applied with manure during winter. It resulted in small but consistent doses of pollution that degraded trout streams over time.

As herd sizes grew, farmers were also told not to spread manure on frozen ground. A pendulum swung from daily spreading to a system where millions of gallons of manure held in storage are moved during a narrow window of time each spring and fall.

Manure storage is convenient and nixes the need for winter spreading, but when something goes wrong, the damage is not slow and consistent, it becomes large scale and immediate.

'Farmer commonsense' says that there needs to be a balance.

It starts with applying manure more often than for a few frantic days each spring and fall, and there are ways that this can happen.

Not being at the mercy of a custom manure hauler's schedule might mean buying your own manure hauling equipment. Using irrigation equipment to apply manure also can take pressure off.

More production of small grains like wheat and rye provides options to apply manure during the summer.

Winter spreading should not be banned. Not only is it anti-small farmer, but it's over-reactive.

Nutrient management planning shows it comes down to timing of application on certain slopes and soil types. The bottom line is that given our state's soil differences, there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach. Likewise, farmers who want to expand livestock farms must consider the area's ability to handle the manure produced. Clearly some parts of Wisconsin are better equipped to host more livestock than others.

The Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation was part of a multi-year process to develop a new 590 standard with the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). The new standard will be unveiled soon. Whether you use a 590 plan or establish nutrient application rates with an agronomist, this winter will provide downtime to rethink manure management.

From familiar red barns to freestalls with manure lagoons, I know Wisconsin farmers strive to keep their soil in place and apply manure at the appropriate rates and times. In 2016, I urge you to up your game. I know we're ready for the challenge. It is part of the 'continuous improvement' we farmers are so good at.