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Soil conservation important to Crawford County's economy
CROP Soil Conservation
Soil conservation and healthy living soil are critical to Crawford Countys economy. The sloped terrain makes soil conservation all the more challenging, but the county has shown huge progress in slowing losses and moving towards overall tolerable soil loss per acre goals.

This article is part six of a nine part series explaining Crawford County’s Land and Water Resource Management Plan.

According to the Crawford County Land and Water Resource Management Plan (LWRMP), the county experienced significant erosion through the early 1900s. Upland cropland erosion has been addressed in the county since the early 1950s. The county’s topography makes managing soil erosion difficult.

Crawford County has seen a significant increase in the amount of corn and soybeans grown since the 1990s, and a decrease in the amount of hay land during the same period. One of the principal reasons for the change is a decrease in the number of dairy farms.

The Crawford County Soil Erosion Control Plan estimated the countywide average cropland erosion rate at 3.2 tons/acre/year (T). The county average tolerable soil loss limit is 2.0 tons/acre/year (T).

A large number of farmers have adopted contour strip cropping and/or reduced tillage or no-till planting. Excessive summer rains of 2004, 2007 and 2008 in Crawford County have caused widely noticed sheet, rill and gully erosion. More waterways and effective use of good ground cover and contour strips are needed.

The T-Value line

“The most pressing issue is to ensure that cropland meets ‘T,’ which means the rate of soil being lost from any given field is lower than the designated ‘T-Value,’ or essentially the amount of soil that can be lost without losing production on that soil.  Each field’s T-Value is different, as it depends on soil type, slope, aspect, etc.,” said David Troester, Crawford County Conservationist.

The increase in the amount of Crawford County cropland covered by a Nutrient Management Plan (NMP) has ensured that the acres enrolled are less than the T-value.  There has also been an increase in no-till, as well as the amount of cover crops being planted, which are proven methods to reduce soil erosion.

The LWRMP authors noted that Crawford County is following the statewide trend of decreasing animal numbers, and thus, decreasing acres of hay/alfalfa and pasture ground.  This trend is increasing the amount of soil erosion occurring on the steeper slopes in the county.

The USDA office has numerous programs to assist producers in reducing soil erosion, such as cover crops, contour strip cropping, buffers, etc.  Contact the USDA office at 608-326-7179 to learn more about these programs. 

2004 transect survey

The 2004 Soil Erosion Transect Survey showed the following soil erosion rates in each of the county’s major watersheds, with soil loss being expressed as tons per year:

Rush Creek 

Cropland: 27,946 acres

Soil Loss: 101,505

Avg. Erosion (T): 3.8

Milville Creek

Cropland: 10,324  acres

Soil Loss: 34,381

Avg. Erosion (T): 3.3

Lower Kickapoo

Cropland: 22,428 acres

Soil Loss: 61,482

Avg. Erosion (T): 2.9

Reads & Tainter Creek

Cropland: 18,334 acres

Soil Loss: 37,186

Avg. Erosion: (T): 2.8

Knapp Creek

Cropland: 18,868 acres

Soil Loss: 49.885

Avg. Erosion (T): 1.7

Crawford County has conducted a countywide transect survey yearly since 1999. The transect survey’s goals are:

1. Provide the county and the state with statistically reliable data needed to update their ‘T by 2000’ goals; 2. Verify the need for additional funding to put in Best Management Practices; 3. Document the ‘T by 2000’ progress being made by the county; 4. Document trends in soil erosion and land use.

The county continues to conduct the survey annually to monitor changes. The county will also document soil loss through the USDA NRCS field office progress reports. Cropland soil losses are tracked electronically before and after practices are applied.

The county’s conservation  plan also emphasizes that it is important that soil erosion issues on land other than cropland are also addressed. Some additional sources of soil erosion are stream banks, overgrazed pastures, logging roads, access roads, driveways and roadsides.

The eroded soil from such uses ends up in the streams and rivers of Crawford County as sediment. Sediment carries nutrients, which affect the water quality. These sources are difficult to inventory and need to be addressed on a case-by-case basis.

Education is needed to prevent erosion versus continually repairing erosion damage.

Several agencies will be involved in the implementation of the action plans, they are: Crawford County Land Conservation staff, USDA-NRCS Field Office staff, USDA-FSA staff, the WI-DNR Forestry staff, the UWEX Ag/Resource Agent, and local conservation clubs and organizations.

Healthy living soil

“The dust storms and floods of the last few years have underscored the importance of programs to control soil erosion,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote in 1937. “I need not emphasize to you the seriousness of the problem and the desirability of our taking effective action, as a nation and in the several states, to conserve the soil as our basic asset. The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.”

Crawford County along with most of the nation heeded this warning, and jumped into conservation with dedication and enthusiasm. The abundance and condition of the soil is a resource that must be protected as it provides the fundamental underpinning for preservation of the natural heritage.

Soil health is the very foundation on which the Rodale Institute and ‘New Farm,’ the research farm established by J.R. Rodale, organic and regenerative farming pioneer, was established.

From cover crops and no-till to compost and legume rotations, the concept of improving soil health has found its way into most of the projects on their farm.

From the website of the Rodale Institute, we learn that soil health means that organisms in the soil are present and doing the work they are supposed to do to support the growth of plants. Soil teems with microscopic life, each type of creature performing its own function in the soil food web.

Plants differ in the way they acquire nutrients—woodland plants tend to rely on soil fungi to cycle the nutrients they need, while grassland ecosystems are driven by soil bacteria—so there is no one set of organisms that creates optimal growing conditions for all plants.

In general, a vibrant mix of microbiology is essential for healthy soil and healthy plants.

Recent data from farming systems and pasture trials at the Rodale Institute, and around the globe, show that we could sequester more than 100 percent of current annual CO2 emissions with a switch to widely available and inexpensive regenerative management practices.

Organic agricultural production exemplifies many of these practices, but historically these practices were integral to all successful farming operations. Building healthy living soil on organic farms is fundamental to promoting balance, fertility, productivity and resilience in the absence of use of synthetic agricultural chemicals.

These practices work to maximize carbon fixation while minimizing the loss of that carbon once returned to the soil, helping to reverse the greenhouse effect.

Regenerative agriculture for soil – carbon sequestration is tried and true: Humans have long farmed in that fashion, and there is nothing experimental about it, says the Rodale Institute website.

What is new is the scientific verification of regenerative agricultural practices. Farming trials across the world have contrasted various forms of regenerative and modern conventional practices and studied crop yield, drought impact and carbon sequestration.

Living downriver

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that on June 9, 2016 scientists forecast that this year’s Gulf of Mexico dead zone, an area of low to no oxygen that can kill fish and marine life, will be approximately 5,898 square miles or about the size of Connecticut.

The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico affects nationally important commercial and recreational fisheries. Hypoxic zones or ‘dead zones’ are caused by high levels of run off of nutrients, primarily from activities such as industrialized agriculture and inadequate wastewater treatment.

Citizen scientists

One organization that does conservation work in Crawford County, working synergistically with the Crawford County LWRMP, is the Valley Stewardship Network (VSN).

 VSN works to protect the land and waters of the Kickapoo Valley and neighboring watersheds through water quality research, public engagement, education outreach, and networking that involves community in stewardship for the social and economic benefits of sustainable agriculture, land use, and recreation.

VSN was conceived in the 1990s, when some local sportsmen and conservation groups established a ‘network’ to share experience, best practices, and new ideas for the protection of land, water and habitat. Much of the organization’s activity in the early years after establishing VSN as a non-profit organization was focused on water quality monitoring.

After 15 years of data collection, it became clear that the streams and rivers in the Kickapoo and neighboring watersheds contain excess sediment and nutrients. This situation threatens much of what people value about the area, including health, economy and recreation.

Run-off into streams and rivers is detrimental to trout and wildlife and it is known to cause toxic algal blooms. The presence of excessive sediment and nutrients in our waters also indicates the potential for farmland degradation and a decreasing recreational economy – two of the things area communities most rely upon.

Measurement is the key to continual improvement and determination of best land management practices. That’s why VSN’s Water Action Volunteer (WAV) program was founded.

In collaboration with DNR and Wisconsin River Alliance, Valley Stewardship Network trains volunteers who serve as ‘citizen scientists’ to measure key parameters that indicate how well area streams and rivers support life.

To date, they have trained over 200 citizen scientists and currently collect monthly data at 25 riparian sites.

Water Action Volunteer

VSN provides training, assistance, and support throughout the year. They offer a formal, one-day training session by local or state experts, along with hands-on help from fellow volunteers.

Volunteers can choose a site near their home or school. Sites are monitored once a month from May through September. The citizen volunteers also meet throughout the year at various locations to discuss results and procedures. Equipment is provided!

VSN offers three levels of water quality research and training:

Level 1: monitoring provides a baseline understanding of a waterway’s health by measuring pH, dissolved oxygen, temperature, transparency, nitrates, nitrites and flow on a monthly basis. Each season, Level-I monitors also assess habitat and conduct aquatic insect (bio-index) sampling. Level-I monitoring is also known as baseline monitoring, described in more detail on the UWEX-Water Action Volunteers website.

Level 2: monitoring uses more sophisticated equipment and WDNR-approved protocols so monitoring data can be used in WDNR research.

Event-driven monitoring checks levels of nutrients such as phosphorus, nitrogen and ammonia, plus harmful bacteria, all of which can pose biological threats to streams and rivers.

Data collected through Level-I and Level-II WQM establishes baseline measures of watershed health. Such baselines are critical for determining how various types of land use affect the watershed.

Agricultural production and urban runoff (non-point source pollution) are the primary causes of water pollution in Wisconsin.

In cases of manure spills or flooding, VSN uses event-driven measurement to quickly test nearby waterways and determine how events have affected watershed health.

Crawford County plan

Goal 1: Maintain soil erosion on all cropland to “T”.

Objective A: Track average soil loss in Crawford County and maintain soil erosion to “T” tolerable soil loss limit on all cropland. Actions: 1.           Use Nutrient Management Planning to track soil erosion estimates on 500 acres per year; 2.         Maintain a database of soil erosion estimates; 3.        Compare aerial photos and changes over time at 10 farms.

Objective B: Inform and educate landowners on conservation practices. Actions: 1. Identify 20 absentee landowners and provide specialized outreach information; 2. Develop and provide a model rental contract with soil erosion prevention items in it; 3. Create an information packet on conservation programs, practices, and agencies to provide to landowners, and update it every year; 4. Work one-on-one with 20 landowners as they call or visit; 5. Develop an outreach packet for realtors and title companies to give to new rural landowners.

Objective C: Reduce soil erosion to “T” tolerable soil loss limit on all cropland. Actions: 1. Write 5 annual conservation plans and treat cropland to tolerable soil loss levels or less; 2. Provide technical assistance to landowners to install 500 acres of contour strips and contour buffer strips per year; 3. Promote no-till, zone-till, and reduced tillage systems, as well as cover crops with 15 landowners per year; 4. Encourage landowners that crop fields of 18% or steeper slopes to use less intensive cropping practices.


Objective D: Provide examples of good conservation ethics to landowners. Actions: 1. Provide 2 annual local news releases highlighting conservation.

Goal 2: Reduce erosion on land other than cropland.

Objective A: Administer the county’s NR135 Non-metallic Mining Reclamation Ordinance. Actions: 1. Permit 1 new non-metallic mining operation per year: 2. Annually inspect all permitted non-metallic mines and ensure compliance with NR135, and certify properly reclaimed acres; 3. Collect annual data and fees from NMM operators, and submit the county’s annual report/ fees to WIDNR.

Objective B: Work with area loggers and earth movers on utilizing best management practices. Actions: 1. Participate in 3 Best Management Practices workshops during this 10-year plan: 2. Provide technical assistance to 5 landowners per year on proper construction, repair, and maintenance of driveways, logging roads, and access roads.

Objective C: Inform landowners on methods to prevent erosion on land other than cropland. Actions: 1. Develop 1 model logging contract, or encourage landowners to work with forestry consultants on developing an adequate logging contract for their property; 2. Promote intensive rotational grazing practices and provide technical assistance to 5 operators per year; 3. Encourage forest landowners to participate in local “Selling Timber Smart” workshops 2 times during this 10-year plan.

Objective D: Increase riparian areas protected. Actions: 1.Work with FSA and NRCS to establish 2 new CREP agreements per year; 2.Provide landowners brochures on the importance of buffers through direct mailings.

Goal 3: Increase money available for cost-sharing to install practices to prevent erosion.

Objective A: Assist landowners in signing up for cost-share programs Actions: 1. Work with 10 landowners to sign up for USDA financial assistance programs; 2. Work with 2 landowners to sign up for the Wisconsin Forest Landowner Grant Program to secure funds for forest management plan development and site improvements.

Objective B: Provide more cost-share funding. Actions: 1. Secure and contract annual DATCP SWRM funding for cos-share practices (8 contracts per year); 2. Apply for other state grant funding when available twice during this 10-year plan; 3. Work with southwest Badger RC&D to look for private sources of money for 2 projects during this 10-year plan; 4. Apply for other applicable funding for conservation work once during this 10-year plan.