CRAWFORD/VERNON COUNTY - About 15 agricultural producers, water quality experts and concerned members of the community gathered for a meeting of the Tainter Creek Watershed Council on Monday, Oct. 2 at the Franklin Town Hall in Liberty Pole.
Amber Radatz, Co-Director of the Discovery Farms Project, made a presentation to the group on preliminary results of her edge-of-field watershed monitoring project in Jersey Valley in Vernon and Monroe counties. The eight-year project began in 2009, and concluded in September of 2017.
The Discovery Farm program’s water quality monitoring in a watershed allows scientists to compare nutrient and soil losses between different farming systems. In addition to water quality monitoring in watersheds, they work with farmers on nitrogen use efficiency, erosion risk assessments and nutrient management planning. Overall, they want to demonstrate, with tangible data, the relationship between land management and water quality.
The steering committee of the project includes representatives from a diverse array of Wisconsin agricultural businesses. Chairman Dick Gorder, a farmer from Mineral Point works with the Wisconsin Farm Bureau, and Vice Chairman Ben Peterson, a farmer from Grantsburg, is with the Dairy Business Association. Other agricultural sectors providing oversight for the project include Wisconsin Association of Professional Ag Consultants; Wisconsin Cattlemen's Association; Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board; Wisconsin Poultry and Egg Association; Wisconsin Potato & Vegetable Growers Association; Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin; Wisconsin Farmers Union; Wisconsin Soybean Growers; Wisconsin Agri-Business Association; Wisconsin Corn Growers Association; Wisconsin Pork Association; Clean Wisconsin; and the Professional Nutrient Applicators Association of Wisconsin.
Edge of field monitoring
The methodology used in the research was ‘edge-of-field’ (EOF) monitoring. EOF monitoring sites, which consist of wing walls constructed of plywood or steel sheet piling combined with earthen berms, are installed at the edge of agricultural fields, where runoff can be directed through monitoring equipment.
EOF sites monitor both runoff quantity and quality, and various characteristics such as:
• meteorological data - precipitation, air temperature, relative humidity, solar radiation, soil temperature, and soil moisture;
• on location water quality - temperature, pH, specific conductance, dissolved oxygen, turbidity, nitrate and phosphate (via sensors);
• sediment and nutrients - samples are analyzed for suspended sediment, chloride, nitrate plus nitrite, ammonium, total Kjeldahl nitrogen, orthophosphate, and total phosphorus.
Jersey Valley research
The Jersey Valley research involved sites in Monroe and Vernon Counties that included one city site in Cashton; one wooded ravine; four farm field sites; and one active in-stream site. The project involved nutrient management planning, walkovers and nitrogen use efficiency.
All of the monitoring locations were on sloped hillsides considered to be ‘highly erodible land.’ Of the four agricultural field sites, one was a no-till field where solid manure was applied by a daily hauler; one was a no-till field where liquid manure was spread on the surface seasonally; one was a field where liquid manure was spread and incorporated through light tillage; and one was a beef cattle pasture that had animals on it year-round.
Preliminary findings from the study confirm the prevailing wisdom that the vast majority of runoff occurs in March-June of the year. Agricultural sites usually have more runoff in the non-frozen ground time of year than non-cultivated sites. However, agricultural sites with exceptional erosion control practices like appropriately sized and shaped grassed waterways have soil loss values that are similar to non-cultivated areas. Volume of runoff from cropped areas was double that from grassed areas, where water infiltration is better.
Soil and phosphorous loss occurs primarily during storm events during the growing season. About 70 to 75 percent of surface runoff, total phosphorous loss, and total nitrogen losses were not driven by extreme rainfall events. In other words, the runoff events were mainly caused from common rainfall events or snowmelt. However, 50 percent of soil loss happened from extreme rainfall events.
Radatz explained that common conservation practices prevalent in the area have done a very good job at controlling soil loss, but that this does not, contrary to common belief, necessarily control phosphorous loss. She emphasized that what is key is to deliver nutrients into the soil below the surface with a light tillage device such as a manure dragline in order to reduce phosphorous losses. Curbing soil loss, by not tilling to incorporate nutrients, actually leaves more phosphorous on the surface.
Now that the research has officially been concluded on the Jersey Valley site, the next step will be to prepare a final report from the data. Radatz says she expects this report to be complete sometime between June and October of 2018.
The day of the meeting the group learned that the dollar amount available to producer-led watershed groups by DATCP had been increased from $20,000 to $40,000.
A subcommittee of the council tasked with writing the grant was formed at the group’s previous meeting on August 7. Berent Froiland, Bruce Ristow, Ben Wojahn and Matt Emslie met and have roughed out the overview of the grant application.
The three major focuses of the group, for purposes of using the grant funds will be:
Water Quality: the group plans to continue and expand surface water monitoring in the watershed. Part of the matching funds will come from Valley Stewardship Network, who will increase their monitoring sites. The group would also like to increase groundwater quality monitoring through a cost share to encourage landowners to test private wells. They envision a potential share with landowners. The tests would be for very comprehensive testing, beyond the basic level.
Outreach and Education: this would include field days for producers and the public; and guest speakers.
Reducing Flooding and the Impact of Flooding: this could cover cost shares for cover crops, writing nutrient management programs and soil testing.
The group is also considering using some of the funds for group development, to craft goals and a mission statement. The funds might also be used to assist producers in attending conferences, where they would then report back to the group.
Radatz, who has been involved in a producer-led group in her area, gave the group some feedback. She observed that the dollars earmarked for surface water testing looked a little low to her. She also shared that in her group, dollars used for promotion of cover cropping were done on a per expense versus a per acre basis. She also reported her group had developed a landowner survey about nutrient and cover crop practices, and paid to have the survey filled out.
Watershed water quality
John Delaney, agro-ecologist and water quality program manager for Valley Stewardship Network (VSN) made a preliminary Tainter Creek water quality report to the group. Delaney accessed existing water quality data from the DNR, and was able to show the group information, which gave them a rough baseline of water quality in the creek.
Working with VSN, the group plans to build on this baseline and continue and expand water monitoring in Tainter Creek. This will allow the group to keep tabs on surface water quality, but also to establish a measurement of the positive impacts of various conservation practices the group is committed to promoting in the watershed.