DODGEVILLE — In years past, members of the Uplands Farmer-Led Watershed Group in Iowa County have met in the fall for a dinner to celebrate conservation, inviting their friends from Louisiana to learn more about how the practices they implement upstream impact the business of fishermen downstream.
This connection has been important as the group works to decrease runoff in a hilly part of the state, as well are improve water infiltration in the soil.
With another wet year about to come to a close, the group continues to work toward their goals through the use of cover crops, no-till drilling, pasture restoration and managed grazing, nutrient management plans, stream buffers, stream crossing protections and the promotion of events where anyone can visit a farm and learn more about what each farmer in the watershed is doing to protect the valuable resources within.
Recalling a large rain event that took place in Iowa County in 2013, Gene Schriefer, Iowa County UW-Extension agriculture agent, displayed photos of the aftermath during the gathering on Nov. 21. While most of the county received five to six inches of rain during that 2013 event, portions of the county received over 10 inches of rain from that event, causing washed out roads, compromised bridges, failed culverts and field edges blown out from erosion.
“We’re seeing differences in rainfall events,” he said. “We have really intense localized downbursts that are effecting a lot of people.”
After the rain event in 2013, Schriefer said township crews went to work to rebuild 44 culverts that had failed, along with repairing damages to roads and bridges that occurred from flash flooding. They also removed debris that had washed into roadways and public spaces, with some townships blowing their entire budget to fix these issues caused by heavy rainfall.
“It’s not happening here every year, but it’s happening somewhere every year,” he said.
However, Schriefer noted there were good things that he saw, particularly near Highland, where farmers had implemented no-till practices, cover crops and buffers near waterways. Although the rainfall was heavy, these practices had worked, helping to mitigate some of the historic rain that had fallen.
“We as farmers have tools we can use to soak up four, five, 10 inches of rain,” Schriefer said. “But we choose not to use those tools and allow soil and fertilizer we paid for to wash away, along with causing damage to public infrastructure.”
He encouraged farmers in attendance to think about what they can do to help mitigate some of the damage from these heavy rainfall events. His comments were reinforced by Randy Jackson, a UW-Madison agronomy professor, who explained just how important infiltration is and just what kinds of conservation practices are most impactful to increase infiltration.
Jackson is currently working with UW-Madison and other collaborators on Grassland 2.0, which aims to transform agriculture in the Midwest from grain-based to perennial grass-based livestock production, restoring the ecosystem structure and function of the region by replacing annual crops with perennial grasslands. Through this research project, Jackson is trying to learn what it would take to get farmers to invest in this type of system, with a goal to promote technical and financial tools, along with policy incentives to continue to move that needle.
Jackson was speaking to the right group as Schriefer acknowledged the large number of livestock and dairy farmers in the watershed that use grass in their systems.
“This group has been about bridges, about making connections. And we’re grateful that through this little project we can make a difference in our state,” said Margaret Krome, public policy program director of the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute.
Krome serves as the group’s collaborator, as required by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, which administers a watershed grant to make possible the formation and work of farmer-led watershed groups across the state. She told those who attended the fourth annual Uplands Watershed Group conservation dinner that working with the group is fun and rewarding, calling for a standing ovation for the farmers in the watershed group for their dedication to the project.
As part of their efforts, Donale Richards, assistant policy director for Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, has been working on an interactive “Virtual Conservation Road Trip” for the watershed group’s website, which will highlight a handful of farmers in Iowa County and the conservation practices they use on their farms. He and Krome hope to have it on the website soon, allowing people to learn more about the 21 farmers involved in the group and how they strive to use the best land management practices to protect their watershed’s soil health and water quality.
“Not every group has this type of turnout,” Krome said. “We’re proud to have this kind of support and are thrilled that people care about conservation and doing it collectively.”