MENOMONIE — Water-quality issues brought a group of college students from around the country to UW-Stout for the summer.
The Water Matters Tour — organized by the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin, UW Discovery Farms, the Wisconsin Counties Association and the Wisconsin Towns Association June 26 — led the group Linking Applied Knowledge in Environmental Stability Research Experience for Undergraduates, or LAKES REU, to Farm On Dairy in Pepin County and Alfalawn Farm in Dunn County, giving the students an idea of the role farmers can play in keeping water clean.
Dunn County Conservationist Dan Prestebak said during a panel discussion at Alfalawn Farm that he was pleased with how Dunn County farmers have worked to address water-quality issues in the county.
“We concentrate a lot on surface water because we have two of the greenest lakes in the state, Lake Tainter and Lake Menomin,” Prestebak said. “But we’re realizing that when we address the health of our soil we improve the surface water and the groundwater.”
Students involved in the LAKES Research Experience for Undergraduates understand the causes of and solutions to phosphorus pollution through participation in research. In Dunn County, lakes are toxic at certain times of the year with blue-green algae bloom because of phosphorus pollution.
Phosphorus and nitrogen are the primary nutrients that in excessive amounts pollute lakes, streams and wetlands. Nitrates, compounds containing nitrogen, can reach bodies of water through sources like septic systems, animal feedlots, agricultural fertilizers, manure, industrial waste waters, sanitary landfills and garbage dumps.
Water-quality monitoring in Pepin County has shown that between 30 to 45 percent of the wells tested were high in nitrates, according to Pepin County Conservationist Chase Cummings.
“We’re trying to work with our ag community to continuously improve on what practices they are doing,” Cummings said. “But we are also trying to work with the non-ag community. Everyone has to drink this water, everyone has to use this water.
“The challenge is how to balance economics and the environment.”
Both Pepin and Dunn counties mentioned practices or projects that can help the counties improve water quality: manure composting in Pepin County and the Dunn County UW-Extension’s Red Cedar Demonstration Farm, which the county uses for research on no-tillage practices and use of cover crops.
Cummings said composting manure wasn’t particularly well received in the county when it was first introduced several years ago, but he has seen a growing interest in the practice.
“From a product standpoint, it’s probably our preferred method of dealing with manure,” Cummings said. “The challenge we face is scaling it to the uniqueness of each farm.”
“The nice thing from a public-health perspective about composting is you can get 100-percent kill of pathogens,” said Mark Borchardt, a microbiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service. “A hundred thirty degrees for three or more days, you get rid of all those bugs. That’s plant pathogens, bovine pathogens, human pathogens, gone.”
Dunn County’s Red Cedar Demonstration Farm has allowed county officials and students and instructors from Chippewa Valley Technical College to work on ways to improve the health of the soil while seeing some of the challenges farmers endure, Prestebak said.
“It’s good for us to experience,” he said. “We’ve run into challenges, but we’ve been able to work through them. That’s what farmers have to do, they figure things out.”