Farmer-Led Watershed Group Reduces P Losses
Partnership Reduces Phosphorus Losses
A group of Wisconsin farmers decided to take matters into their own hands rather than wait to be told by regulators what to do to meet local phosphorus-loss goals.
Dairyman Jeff Endres leads a group of 63 farmers in the Madison area trying new conservation measures in their watershed. The process provides them a seat at the table of local environmental regulatory efforts, plus the benefits of cleaner local lakes.
"We've had 50 years of a governmental approach trying to control water quality," says Endres, the Yahara Pride Farms (YPF) farmer watershed group board chairman. "In 10 years, this grassroots approach has been an instant success."
The farmer-led watershed group is one of several across the Corn Belt making meaningful dents in limiting nutrient losses to the environment. In 2021, YPF reduced farm phosphorus (P) loss to the Madison chain of lakes and the Yahara River by 61,706 pounds. This exceeded the Dane County/Wisconsin DNR nonpoint-P-loss goal of 54,673 pounds by 13%. Measurements for 2022 were still being calculated.
This grassroots proactive environmental stewardship effort hopes to head off potentially more governmental regulation of farm nutrient loss to streams and rivers. "I've learned that farmers are in a much better position when we're leading than when we're being led," Endres says.
Local blue-green algae (cyanobacterial) lake contamination and related beach closures prompted a consortium of 19 local groups to "Renew the Blue" of area lakes. Phosphorus is the main villain behind blue-green algae water contamination, whether it comes from farms or wastewater treatment plants. Every pound of P entering local lakes triggers up to 500 pounds of harmful blue-green algae in local waters.
MENU OF OPTIONS
YPF watershed farmers make individual, confidential choices about which conservation methods best suit their farms' P environmental footprint. Cost-share reimbursements ($15 to $50 per acre with 50- to 100-acre acreage cost-share caps) offset part of the risk of trying a new practice. Farmers might try any or all of the following practices: planting a cover crop; low disturbance, deep tillage and cover crop; low disturbance manure injection; strip-till; no-till; deferred alfalfa kill; seeding grass with alfalfa; headland manure stacking; or composting manure.
Collectively, over the past 10 years, YPF farmers paid 56% of the total cost to implement conservation practices and earned 44% cost-share reimbursement. An individual farm reimbursement amount varies by farm and practices used. For example, when the Endreses' Berryridge Farms strip-tilled the first year, $15 per acre of that cost was reimbursed by the YPF group, with a 100-acre reimbursement cap.
Making more equipment available and providing watershed farmers with firsthand experience has dramatically increased conservation practice adoption.
"Being able to personally see what works and what doesn't work is the beauty of this group," says Dennis Frame, YPF's technical adviser. He's a certified agronomist, former University of Wisconsin Extension educator and founding director of the first Discovery Farms. "It is farmers helping farmers and is truly grassroots."
LEAD BY EXAMPLE
Endres operates a 500-cow Century Farm (dairy and diversified crops) with his brothers, daughter and nephew. In 2021, their Berryridge Farms, near Waunakee, reduced its P loss by 2,770 pounds. They've cut their Phosphorus Index (P Index) in half from 3 to 1.5 and continue to decrease it.
"Any time your P Index is less than 3, that's really quite good; and to cut it in half again is tremendous," he says, describing his farm's progress. The P Index assesses a site's risk of P runoff based on soil tests, slope, soil type and Revised Universal Soil Loss Equation 2 calculations.
Endres and his family use a variety of conservation measures, including manure composting, low-disturbance manure injection, strip-till, no-till, overwintering cover crops, delayed alfalfa termination until spring and no-till seeding.
Reduced tillage and no-till have not hurt the Endreses' crop yields, while reducing soil erosion and nutrient loss. They strip-till two-thirds of the acreage and no-till the highly erodible fields.
Their initial foray into strip-till 10 to 15 years ago was helped by having a local farmer strip-till for them. "I always thought strip-till made a lot of sense, and we were hooked after that first year," Endres adds.
Delaying alfalfa termination until spring anchors their soil through the winter. A lot of P is attached to fine sediment soil particles, so soil loss also means P loss.
"Sediment loss is a big part of the P Index that measures phosphorus loss," Frame explains. "When delivered to nearby lakes, sediment can become an immediate and longer source of phosphorus, because phosphorus and sediment are bound together."
"We harvest the cover crop (winter wheat and winter rye) in the spring," Endres says. "The winter wheat isn't as aggressive as rye and works better with direct-seeding alfalfa into it in the spring. We clip the wheat as the soon as the soil's dry, before the alfalfa gets too tall, to feed heifers. This has mostly eliminated herbicide use. Having cover crop living roots next to another living root seems to help tremendously in establishing a new alfalfa crop.
"These conservation practices spin off from these cost-share programs," Endres continues. "It is the 'What if I change this' that snowballs into such great conservation strides. We share ideas among other watershed farmers. For example, no-tilling isn't new; but the beauty of networking is that ideas like this catch on sooner."
PROFITS FRONT AND CENTER
The YPF watershed group's goal is to reduce nutrient loss while operating profitably. Trying new conservation practices enables the farmers to also see how they affect their bottom line.
YPF's annual Ag Innovation Day showcases some of these conservation practices, including cover crop planting demonstrations, a dragline and tanker manure application using low-disturbance injection techniques, manure composting and application, and a portable 360 Soilscan nitrate soil-sampling system.
Manure composting has significantly reduced soluble P loss by an average of 2 pounds per acre. Farmers store manure until seasonal high-risk periods (winter runoff events -- snowmelt or rains -- with frozen soils and deep snow cover) have passed before application.
"Storm events hurt farmers in terms of nutrient runoff," Endres says. "Farmers interact with Mother Nature daily -- this is not a controlled environment. We try to manage farms in the best possible way to minimize nutrients leaving fields that contaminate water. There is no zero -- there will always be some nutrient loss -- but we use every technology and piece of know-how to prevent that from happening."
How does Endres justify the time and energy he devotes to promoting the YPF watershed group?
"This is something I'm passionate about that makes sense and bridges the gap between agriculture and negativity from the public. If farmers don't get a handle on our public perception, it will be really difficult for the next generation," he says.
HOW DOES A FARMER WATERSHED GROUP WORK?
Yahara Pride Farms (YPF) is the first farmer-led watershed group in Wisconsin, starting 10 years ago with 20 farmers.
In 2021, its 63 farmers reduced phosphorus (P) delivery to the Madison chain of lakes and the Yahara River by 61,706 pounds. In 10 years, the farmers reduced the amount of P leaving their farms by 198,815 pounds. Their efforts also educate non-farmers about what farmers are specifically doing to improve water quality.
Each farm's nutrient-loss math is derived from its nutrient-management plan (including tillage, crop rotations, manure/fertilizer applications and crop yields). A farm's and field's unique characteristics influence the risks of sediment and nutrient loss.
Dennis Frame is the group's technical adviser. He's a certified agronomist, former University of Wisconsin-Madison Extension educator and founding director of the first Discovery Farms. During the past 10 years, YPF also benefited from knowledgeable technical advisers Joe Connors and Pat Murphy.
In 2008, Dane County, the City of Madison, Wisconsin, Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection launched a lake cleanup partnership called Yahara CLEAN. Its 2012 recommendations aimed to reduce phosphorus (P) contamination and E. coli contamination by one-half. Once the EPA puts waters on the Impaired Waters list, it falls to the state DNR to remedy the problem.
In 2016, the Clean Lakes Alliance, a Madison consortium of 19 groups, concluded, "We would not reach our goals anytime soon, suggesting more would need to be done at a faster pace."
The Dane County Board of Supervisors approved a Healthy Farms, Healthy Lakes task force recommendation to update its community lake-cleanup plan. Of the 19 groups comprising Clean Lakes Alliance, one is farm-related: the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin. The rest are municipalities, sewerage districts, educational and governmental bodies. The umbrella group, Yahara WINS, finances the YPF farmer-led group cost-share programs.
Led by the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District, Yahara WINS began in 2012 as a four-year pilot project to reduce aquatic P loads and meet more stringent water-quality standards established by the Wisconsin DNR. This watershed adaptive-management strategy bands all sources of P contamination together to meet water-quality goals: cities, villages, towns, wastewater treatment plants, agricultural producers, environmental groups and others. To date, the farmers (nonpoint source polluters) have exceeded their assigned P-loss goals, and the others have not.
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