Pictured: Moderator Dave Tollberg (from left) listens to Greg Friendshuh, Andy Bensend and Scott Carlson. Photo courtesy of WWCC.
Western Wisconsin farms continue to have a high interest in conservation practices and their impact on local soil health and water quality, according to Western Wisconsin Conservation Council, a group of farmers committed to stewardship of the land and water in their care.
To promote farming best practices that keep soil healthy and water clean, the group highlighted local research projects on soil health and well testing, along with local farmer perspectives at the 2022 annual meeting.
At its annual meeting, Board President Todd Doornink shared the group’s many accomplishments, including hosting three field events, launching the first year of a biological study, continuing UW-River Falls research partnerships, having a fourth successful year of a cost-share program and offering a new way to communicate with members through a texting service.
WWCC has grown to 56 members, with 86 percent of members completing this year’s annual conservation practice survey. Some of the key takeaways were 99 percent of acres were soil sampled, 50 percent of acres were split-applied nitrogen, almost 25 percent of the farmers tried planting green and 61 percent of acres were reduced-till and no-till. These preliminary results show a great adoption rate of conservation practice across the group.
The full 2022 conservation practice report will be shared with the group in early 2023.
A neighboring watershed council, Horse Creek Area Farmer-led Watershed Council, has a plot studying conservation practices for the past eight years.
“If you reduce tillage and use cover crops, typically you’re going to have less runoff. Along with that reduced runoff, you’ll have lower soil erosion rates and lower phosphorus loss,” says Dennis Busch with Water Resources Monitoring Group. “We saw that across the board in the plots at Horse Creek where they reduced the tillage and utilize cover crops. Typically, we had higher infiltration rates, lower runoff, and reduced soil and phosphorus losses.”
The Horse Creek plot follows trends that have been well documented; the more tillage you do, the lower the earthworm population will be. The data is preliminary.
WWCC’s continued partnership with UWRF provided the opportunity to hear an update on the ongoing well-testing and lysimeter research. Dr. Jill Coleman Wasik, associate professor of environmental science at UWRF, has grown her sampling effort from 45 wells in 2018 to 100 wells this past year. With a long-standing study, she can look back on wet versus dry years to see what sticks out. For example, in a wet year, she saw some of the nitrate concentrations tick upward in some of our wells. And now over these last couple of dry years, she’s seeing a tick downward in those nitrate concentrations in wells.
“This indicates or suggests that maybe at least some of the wells in the data set are responding rapidly to weather and climate. And you know, how the water is moving into the soil,” she says. “There are a variety of factors that we look at when we’re thinking about how susceptible is a well to something that might be coming from the surface.”
All WWCC members are added to the well-testing project. Farmers interested in getting their well tested should reach out to WWCC.
The annual meeting also featured a discussion panel with farmers Greg Friendshuh, Andy Bensend, and Scott Carlson. All panelists got into conservation practices for varied reasons, and all have plans to continue doing them. Some of the biggest benefits they agree on are weed suppression, strong soil structure and water management. They also encouraged the audience to start small and try reducing tillage or planting cover crops for multiple years to see the difference.
“One of the easiest things to do to ensure success is to start small and try things out on a more limited acreage basis before you try to do the whole farm,” Bensend said. “Another piece of advice is to get yourself connected to a farmer-led watershed group that has people with experience in it and listen, watch, pay attention and attend meetings. There’s a lot of help out here and there’s a lot of experience that most of those guys are willing to share.”