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Hopeful trends in land conservation beginning to appear on the horizon

Hopeful trends in land conservation beginning to appear on the horizon

OLD DOWNTOWN SOLDIERS GROVE following the 1951 flood. This photo captures the look and feel of Soldier’s Grove’s old downtown, where the village park is now located. Local residents are seen workin...

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POSTED August 9, 2017 12:43 p.m.

CRAWFORD COUNTY - There are lots of exciting programs and hopeful trends on the horizon for local farmers, according to Crawford County Conservationist David Troester, Crawford County USDA-NRCS District Conservationist Karyl Fritsche and Crawford County UW-Extension Ag Agent Vance Haugen.

The county’s agricultural economy, public safety, transportation, flooding, and clean water are all interconnected issues that many believe require an integrated examination and approach. Historically, this was, perhaps, the most important contribution of those who formed the Blackhawk-Kickapoo Watershed Association in the 1960s.

The association brought together neighbors from the Tainter Creek Watershed to discuss their challenges and opportunities. While counties and townships are often effective administrative units, watersheds cross these boundaries, so it is often useful to take the watershed-based view to foster conversation and search for solutions.

The next meeting of the Tainter Creek Watershed Council will take place on Monday, August 7, 7:30 p.m., at the Franklin Town Hall in Liberty Pole.

Conduits to safety

It could be argued that the most concrete achievement of the Blackhawk-Kickapoo Watershed Association’s work was construction of the earthen, dry dam in the Johnstown Road/Nederlo Creek Valley. What benefits does our community reap from that dam?

In the 2007 flood, the water impoundment area behind the dam filled up with water, according to county conservationist Dave Troester. Without the dam, this water would likely have rushed precipitously down the Johnstown Valley to quickly join with the other waters entering Tainter Creek.

Al Slavik and Shirley Northern live and raise grassfed beef in the valley below the Johnstown Dam.

“The only time we were worried was in 2007, when the water filled up the impoundment to the top,” Slavik said. “We walked up to look at it, and began to get a little worried. Should we start moving things to higher ground? Evacuate?”

Slavik says that the intersection at Freeman and Johnstown Roads is generally covered with water in major flooding events.

“The dam was very well built and does exactly what it’s supposed to,” Slavik observed. “The water never comes out of the creek banks, the water that builds up behind the dam drains out slowly over the course of several days, and Johnstown Road is always open as a reliable route in and out of the area.”

Slavik was quick to compliment Troester and his team on the wonderful job they do with monitoring and maintaining the dam.

Access to the  internal area of the Tainter Creek Valley, which is often cut off by flooded roads, is available by travelling down from Highway 27 on Johnstown Road. Sometimes, it can be one of the only routes into the area.

This was the route taken by Soldiers Grove Fire Chief Ben Clason, and Cody Sidie and Gabe Rayner, en route to conduct a swift water rescue of Jane Keeley, when her car was swept away in the 2016 flash flood. It was what might be called, “a critical conduit to safety.”

The other earthen, dry dams called for in the Blackhawk-Kickapoo Work Plan (B-KWP), published in April of 1967, were never constructed. They were to have controlled water coming from the headwaters of Tainter Creek in Franklin Township in Vernon County, the waters flowing into the creek from Conway Creek in McManus Hollow and Latham Road; and the waters coming down Jones Hollow from Folsom Creek.

We don’t know if the purported impacts of these proposed dams would have alleviated the flooding situation. And they were never meant to work alone – the B-KWP made clear that they would only work in concert with conservation land treatment on ridge top farmland.

However, there have been some problems in Vernon County with their many dams in recent floods. There have been scares that the dams, overwhelmed with floodwater, were going to breach. There were evacuations, and in some cases purposeful breaching of the dams to safely drain the impounded water before there was a catastrophic break.

What is clear, from the public record, is that following the 2016 flash floods, Franklin Township in Vernon County spent almost three times as much to repair roads and bridges as did neighboring Utica Township, downstream in Crawford County. And the roads are still pretty rough in the upper reaches of the Tainter Creek Watershed.

It can be hard for county highway departments and township crews to get ahead when they are constantly trying to recover. Emergency workers often have a hard time reaching citizens in need during flooding. Ultimately, the recurring damage to roads and bridges costs all taxpayers in the county a tremendous amount of money.

The first approach of the various agencies operating in the county to promote agriculture and foster conservation land treatments is to stop or minimize soil erosion, according to county ag agent Vance Haugen. It’s commonly referred to as holding the T-Value.

Karyl Fritsche, the local USDA-NRCS conservationist, pointed out that her department has Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) and Mississippi River Basin Initiative (MRBI) dollars available to invest in conservation land treatment projects, which help to stop soil erosion and prevent excess nutrients from entering our surface waters.

“Well, 95 percent of Crawford County’s cropland is considered ‘highly erodible,” Fritsche explained. “That means that almost all producers in the county receiving federal, state or county payments are required to implement conservation practices on their land.”

Fritsche shared that there are EQIP dollars available to assist landowners. MRBI, which is a sub-funded program within the EQIP program, has targeted watersheds in the Upper Mississippi Basin. Tainter Creek is one of those targeted watersheds.

“Last year, we were funded $6 million dollars to implement conservation practices,” Fritsche said. “The funding will remain active for three years, and one year in, we have only disbursed $2 million.”

Fritsche explained that the dollars are more likely to be spent on structural improvements like dams, manure pits, stream bank stabilization, waterways, and seeding of ephemeral gullies. Her department also has a high priority this year to achieve reductions in the phosphorous load in surface waters at their monitoring station in Steuben.

The first EQIP funding deadline for 2018 is coming up on August 18, 2017. More information on EQIP can be found at https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/national/programs/financial/eqip/.

Grass-based production

Currently in Crawford County, there is a push to develop grass-based dairy, beef and pork.

Haugen has been very active, working with various private sector organizations, to foster growth of grass-based animal agriculture in the county, which he sees as a good fit for the area.

Groups such as Great River Graziers and the Kickapoo Grazing Initiative (KGI) offer both beginning and experienced grazers the chance to go out on pasture walks and talk to other grazers. Information about their services and events can be found at http://www.kickapoograzinginitiative.com.

Kickapoo Grazing Initiative Project Director Cynthia Olmstead was proud to share that Crawford and Vernon counties have the highest signups for EQIP funding to support grazing initiatives in the state.

Olmstead, in her role with KGI, does preliminary site assessments to assist grazers in preparing to apply for Mississippi River Basin Initiative funding. Olmstead can be reached at KGI’s website.

Experienced grazers in the county agree there are great programs out there to assist producers. NRCS EQIP is a program that helps grazers write their grazing plan.

One avenue for grass-based beef producers looking for a market for their products would be to consider joining the Wisconsin Grassfed Beef Cooperative. The cooperative can offer an existing and growing market, advice from fellow producers, and lots of helpful pointers about what kinds of programs and resources are available. Information about the cooperative can be found at wisconsingrassfed.coop.

Area farmers are also beginning to explore production of pasture-based pork. In December of 2016, a group of about 40 interested producers gathered in Seneca to discuss the idea of forming a pasture-pork cooperative. They decided to call their co-op ‘Back to the Land Cooperative.’ For more information, Mike Mueller can be reached at 608-412-0725, or by e-mail at pioneergardens@gmail.com.

“We’ve gathered a solid group of founding members, and have been steadily working to write our articles of incorporation and bylaws over the last growing season,” co-op organizer Mike Mueller reported.

The KGI will hold their last pasture walk of the season at Mueller’s farm. Go to the KGI’s website for more details.

Another organization that can be a resource in the area of pasture-based production is GrassWorks, grassworks.org. SW Badger Resource Conservation and Development Council (SWRC&D) is doing exciting work in the pasture-based production area as well, www.swbadger.org.

No-till options

No-till practices on ridge top farmland have helped to achieve ‘holding the T-value,’ limiting soil loss per year to an acceptable rate and helping to prevent runoff of nutrients into surface waters.

However, the typical root density of monoculture row crops on ridge top farmland is relatively low, as compared for instance to that of grass or forage crops. Because the fields are not tilled and seeds are typically drilled in, the soil in these fields can be very hard and can become compacted from equipment running over it and rainfall on uncovered ground.

Runoff from these fields in extreme weather events can be large volume and precipitous.

“The acceptable rate of soil loss is approximately the depth of a dime per year,” Haugen said. “But I always tell farmers, that’s the starting point, and there are options to go beyond that with conservation practices. Even if you lost a dime’s depth per year, after ten years, how much soil have you lost?”

Haugen says that because so many farm systems no longer include animals, we have seen a large reduction in the amount of grasses and forage being grown on ridge top farmland. He thinks that this may be a contributing factor in the frequency and severity of flooding that we’ve seen in the area in recent years.

“The easiest thing row crop farmers can do to improve their soil is to leave the post-harvest debris on their fields,” Haugen said. “The next easiest is to seed their fields in winter rye to keep them covered once the crops are out.”

Haugen pointed out that there in an upsurge in interest in soil health.

“The reason for the uptick in interest among farmers is that, with better soil health, farmers can easily achieve better water capture and better utilization of nutrients, reducing fertilizer costs,” the ag agent explained.

The roller crimper is also an innovative new development. Steve Hornby, an organic producer from Liberty Pole, attended the first cover crop field day on Swede Knutson’s farm, and uses the roller crimper.

“I recommend the roller crimper because I don’t have any weeds, and I am getting bigger yields,” Hornby said.

Chaseburg Manufacturing in Coon Valley is currently manufacturing roller crimpers in the area. The company can be reached at 608-452-3040.

Use of the roller in no-till cropping will be one of the subjects covered at the August 11 cover crop field day in Mt. Sterling.

Cover crops

Perhaps one of the most exciting and vibrant conservation land treatment initiatives in the county is the trailblazing cover crop program. Cover crops are a lively source of discussion and information sharing at the meetings of the Tainter Creek Watershed Council.

Two cover crop field days have been held this growing season, and the third and last will take place on Friday, August 11 on Jay Aspenson’s farm near Mt. Sterling (see the story in this issue).

Other newer conservation land treatment options seem to revolve around keeping continuous cover and root structure in the soil.

Jay Fuhrer, nationally known USDA NRCS Soil Scientist, who spoke to county farmers recently at the second cover crop event in Mt. Sterling advocates “planting green.”

Fuhrer explained that farmers have two major opportunities for cover crops and carbon capture—one in the spring and one in the fall. However, they also have a major opportunity during the growing season itself.

Fritsche, the USDA-NRCS conservationist, emphasized the EQIP funding can be used to implement cover cropping on county farmland as well. Landowners should apply now for 2018 funding.

Farmland preservation

Wisconsin's Farmland Preservation Program helps farmers and local governments preserve farmland, protect soil and water, and minimize land use conflicts.

Most of Crawford County’s townships have not elected to put in place zoning that would allow landowners access to the Farmland Preservation tax credit.

Currently Utica and Haney Townships, and the Village of Soldiers Grove, have successfully worked with the DATCP to enact the zoning. The town board chairs of Eastman, Seneca and Freeman townships have indicated their boards are considering doing so as well.

David Troester has announced that the county has recently received a grant to help landowners develop nutrient management plans (NMP) for their land (see the story in this issue).

For land that is rented, writing the NMP is often something that the renter will assist the landowner with as a cooperative agreement.

Strip cropping

Crawford County Conservationist David Troester pointed out that “there may have been some decline in the county of the number of acres in strip cropping, but most farmers are still planting on the contour.”

Contour planting and strip cropping were two important conservation land treatment practices that have been used in the area since the Civilian Conservation Corps projects in the 1930s. The practices help to control soil erosion, and reduce runoff of water and nutrients.

Every year Troester’s department along with Fritsche at USDA-NRCS, assists farmers with laying out contour strips of crops on their farms. Troester says their departments, on average, layout about 500 acres of strips each year.  There is no fee for this service.

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