Innovative farming protects against phosphorus runoff, soil erosion
Nurturing soil health has been an integral part of Peninsula Pride Farms’ (PPF) work to improve water quality in northeastern Wisconsin, and a new analysis confirms that those efforts are making a difference.
Field practices adopted by the farmer-led watershed conservation group’s livestock and crop farmers are significantly reducing the chance of harmful runoff making its way into streams and lakes, according to research shared by UW-Madison, The Nature Conservancy and the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.
Using data about farming practices by PPF members, the analysis calculated an estimate of the potential impact of various practices compared to more conventional methods on typical crop and livestock operations in Kewaunee and southern Door counties. The findings show, for example, that farmers who are using strip-tillage and no-tillage potentially reduce phosphorus runoff from farm fields by 50 percent and soil erosion by 60 percent.
Stopping phosphorus and soil sediment from leaving farm fields improves water quality. Every pound of phosphorus that reaches a stream or lake can potentially feed 500 pounds of algae, degrading the waterway.
“Peninsula Pride Farms members are excited to see the impact of their conservation work over the past several years,” said Don Niles, a dairy farmer who leads PPF. “We are proud that as an organization we have grown to the point where we can tally scientific results. While there is ongoing work to be done, it is gratifying to see how far we have come in our efforts to protect our peninsula’s land and water resources.”
The five-year-old nonprofit group has grown to 43 farmer-members who represent 63,038 acres and 67,276 dairy animals and beef cattle. The group collaborates with university researchers, environmental groups and community leaders, and they hold field days to demonstrate various practices. They’ve developed a reputation for being willing to make changes to their operations to benefit soil health and reduce environmental impacts, said Steve Richter, agricultural strategies director at The Nature Conservancy, which helped fund the analysis.
“Since their inception in 2016, the Peninsula Pride farmers have made huge strides in getting cover crops planted and using reduced tillage and low-disturbance manure injection,” Richter said.
PPF members are regularly practicing other conservation techniques as well, such as soil sampling, split nitrogen application, nitrogen stabilization and planting grass waterways. They are also figuring out how to make these practices financially sustainable through increased productivity.
Analysis recently completed as part of a conservation-benefits tracking project shows that phosphorus loss and soil erosion can be avoided by adopting practices on agricultural landscapes in southern Door and Kewaunee counties.
Calculations are based on comparisons of generalized systems, not actual farms, and do not take into account the other watershed variables that affect how sediment and phosphorus make their way into a stream or lake.
For comparison, a mid-sized dump truck can carry 10 tons of sediment, and one pound of phosphorus in a waterway has the potential to cause the growth of up to 500 pounds of algae.
Consider the positive effects of these conversation practices:
• A dairy farm with a corn-silage and alfalfa rotation adopting 362 acres of small-grain cover crops following corn silage.
Phosphorus-loss reduction: 420 pounds
Soil-erosion reduction: 326 tons
• A corn, soybean and winter-wheat operation adopting 708 acres of strip-tillage.
Phosphorus-loss reduction: 1,083 pounds
Soil-erosion reduction: 885 tons
• A continuous corn operation adopting 327 acres of no-tillage.
Phosphorus-loss reduction: 1,347 pounds
Soil-erosion reduction: 958 tons
Conservation Practices Installed by PPF Members as of 2019
• 18,697 acres of conservation tillage practices, either strip-till or no-till planting
• 63,038 acres covered by nutrient-management plans
• 10,124 acres of cover crops
• 6,089 acres of low-disturbance manure injection