Dan Hansen
 |  Correspondent

MANAWA – Many farmers throughout Wisconsin are sincerely interested in planting cover crops and employing other conservation practices to help build the soil and reduce erosion but are hesitant to take that first step because they are uncertain about the results.

Now 10 farms in eight Wisconsin counties are leading the way as members of the Upper Fox–Wolf River Basin Demonstration Farm Network. 

These farms are showing other farmers and general public that the right combination of traditional conservation practices and other innovate technologies functioning on the landscape can produce viable and sustainable economic and environmental benefit.  

The demonstration network is a partnership between the farms and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA NRCS), the Waupaca County Land & Water Conservation Department, Fond du Lac, Green Lake, Marquette, Outagamie, Portage, Shawano, and Winnebago counties and the Green Lake Association.

This partnership will address the effectiveness of current conservation systems used to reduce nonpoint source pollution. NRCS, through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, is the main funding source with contributions from the participating counties, and some private partners, according to Angela Biggs, USDA NRCS State Conservationist for Wisconsin.

“Through this collaboration and funding, we can publicly highlight the most effective conservation systems that have the greatest environmental and economic benefit; we’re excited to be partnering with our fourth series of demonstration farm networks to reduce phosphorus entering the Great Lakes basin,” explained Biggs.

“Participating farms will demonstrate the effectiveness and adaptability of conservation practice systems that reduce erosion, sedimentation and nonpoint source pollution. The network will also provide education and technology transfer opportunities for the public,” said Brian Haase, director of the Waupaca County Land & Water Conservation Department.  

Network farms

The farms network represents several diverse operations according to agronomist Matt Brugger, who is with Tilth Agronomy and also serves as the network project manager.

“We have a range of farms, including a large CAFO,” Brugger explained. “About half are dairy farms, or have animals. And we have some that are just crop farms. Farms range in size from around 500 acres to over 2,000 acres.”

Member farms include: Albright Brothers, LLC operated by brothers Jamie and Casey Albright, along with their Uncle David and their father James near Omro; Dan and Ruth Boerst farm near Manawa and hosted the first demo farm field day June, 2019.  They have no-till planted into green cover, established a rotational grazing system for dairy heifers, and more.

Father and son farmers Dave and Dusty Schultz have been completely no-tilling their 1,700 acres near Van Dyne for 20 years. Randy Erickson, his wife, Carol, and their son, Adam milk 450 cows and farm 1,000 acres near Clintonville.

Rick Gehrke and his father, Ron, own and operate the Gehrke Family Farm, LLC, located just west of Omro, which covers 600 acres grows corn, soybean, winter wheat, along with some forage. Matt Hintz and his wife, Sara, farm around 1,500 acres of cropland near Amherst, with1,000 acres in continuous no-till.

Ed Montsma and his wife, Kathy, farm 2,400 acres owned and rented in southwest Fond du Lac County, planting corn, soybeans, and wheat test plots. Chris, his wife, Kelly and parents, Larry and Deb, are the owners of Pollack-Vu Dairy, LLC located near Ripon.

Tauchen’s Harmony Valley Farm is run by brothers Steve, Gary and Greg Tauchen, along with their parents Herb & Marlys near Bonduel, where they milk around 1,200 cows, care for nearly 1,000 heifers and run 2,500 acres of cropland. Zeb Zuehls is a fourth-generation farmer of his family farm in Montello. He farms 1,200 acres he also does custom work which includes planting, combining and large-square baling.

Demonstration plot

This fall Wisconsin State Farmer checked out a demonstration plot on the Boerst farm along with Brugger and NRCS Conservationist Derrick Raspor that included several cover crop seed mixes.

Brugger noted the individual strips featured common vetch, spring lentils, cow peas, clover, sun hemp, cereal rye, pearl millet sorghum-sedan, radish, African cabbage, turnips, buckwheat, flax and sunflower.

“There was barley here before I sprayed it, but we have barley coming back,” said Boerst. “We vacuumed cleaned the seeder before planting each strip of cover crop that was labeled so that we could easily tell which plants were doing better.”

Boerst also stressed the importance of establishing a baseline to help determine how the soil improves. “We need to crunch the numbers, too,” he added.

Brugger emphasized that the network was designed to work closely with producers to address challenges at the ground level and provide solutions that can be implemented on a large scale throughout the river basin, and many more farmers now recognize the advantages of cover crops.  

“We have many farmers who are looking for something they can do differently to mitigate some of the issues we’ve had the last couple of years with wet fields,” he said. “They realize that growing crops take up moisture and help dry out the fields quicker. More are starting to see that they can plant into a crop and still terminate it if they want, and not have negative issues they thought they might have.”

Brugger also stressed the importance of sharing information with the public.  

“The general public is supportive of practices that help prevent soil runoff into our lakes and rivers,” he said. “Everybody wants clean water, and farmers do too. We  want the public to know that farmers are working to be a part of the solution.”

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