From field to lake

by Joe Schulz

One pound of phosphorus runoff can fuel up to 500 pounds of algae growth in a body of water.

Due to a high concentration of phosphorous, Big Green Lake has been listed by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources as an impaired body of water since 2014.

The Land and Lake Family Field Day last week Saturday explored the connections between soil health and runoff while showcasing local farmers’ conservation efforts.

The Green Lake Association  and the Wisconsin Farm Bureau sponsored the event at Dukelow Farm, where they kicked off the event with a farm panel, in which farmers discussed conservation practices they use.

After the panel, University of Wisconsin’s Nutrient and Pest Management Senior Outreach Specialist Jamie Patton gave a field demonstration, outlining how technological advancements have made conservation practices easier.

ATTENDEES GATHER AROUND University of Wisconsin’s Nutrient and Pest Management Senior Outreach Specialist Jamie Patton as she explains how advancements in technology have made conservation practices easier.

The field demonstration was capped with a rainfall simulator, which compared the runoff from using a moldboard plow, vertical tilling against various no-till methods. The simulation showed the moldboard plow and vertical till allowed for significantly more runoff.

AFTER SIMULATING A five-minute rainfall, the moldboard plow and vertical till allowed the most amount of runoff, as shown by the first tow jars from the left. The front row of jars represents runoff and the back row represents water absorbed. Above, showing the evolution of farming technology are, from left, moldboard plow, chisel plow, finisher, vertical plow and no-till drill.

After lunch, vendors from Country Visions and La Crosse Seed displayed equipment, products and services to show attendees how they can help support soil and water health.

Green Lake Association Communications Coordinator Jennifer Fjelsted believes the field day gave farmers a chance to see that sustainable practices pay off.

“The event is about coming together as a community, acknowledging the great work our agricultural neighbors are doing and talking about how we can all move forward together to keep protecting soil health and water quality in our area,” she said.

One of the conservation practices highlighted was no-till farming, which is a method of growing crops each year without tilling the soil.

Tilling can destroy soil structure, causing erosion and runoff, according to Patton. Soil structure refers to how the sandstone and clay grains come together to create soil.

“The best soil you can find is all crumbly when you touch it,” Patton said.

That “crumbly” soil allows for plant roots to grow, water to absorb and organisms like worms to burrow.

“It’s the organisms in the soil that actually make healthy plants,” Patton said. “Those soil organisms help plants take up nutrients, fight off disease, fight off insects and create that structure.”

Local farmers already have begun to adopt no-till practices. One such farmer is panel speaker Jim Hebbe, who made the change to no-till in the 1980s.

“My dad one year plowed a field and the next spring we watched the runoff,” Hebbe said. “My dad and I looked at each other and said, ‘We’re never going to do this again.’”

Soil Conservationist and panel speaker Todd Morris noted one of the biggest challenges he faced when switching to no-till was getting his father and grandfather on board with the idea.

“We were switching over to less tillage, and my grandpa didn’t think it was a good idea,” Morris said. “When my dad was milking the cows, my grandpa started the plow up and started plowing the field.”

After finally getting his family on board, no-till farming has saved Morris time and money.

“Every time a farmer goes across his field with a tillage tool, it costs roughly between $20 or $30 an acre,” University of Wisconsin-Extension Agriculture Agent Ben Jenkins said. “Multiply that by the number of times you prep your land, and it can increase your cost per acre.”

New technologies have made it easier to no-till. Hebbe noted genetically modified crops, such as Roundup Ready Soybeans have made it easier to manage weeds.

“Prior to that, you had to be very timely with your spraying, and the herbicides you were using were sometimes very time-sensitive,” Hebbe said.

Another technological advancement is the no-till drill, which plants seeds without disturbing topsoil.

The no-till drill eliminates pieces of equipment that many farmers have already invested in, so the struggle for farmers becomes trying to sell off old equipment in order to invest in the expensive no-till drill, Patton noted.

“You’ve got to find somebody who wants that old cultivator,” Patton said.