DARLINGTON — In the three short years the Lafayette Ag Stewardship Alliance has been active, many exciting things have happened — and according to president Jim Winn, a lot more is coming down the road for the farmer-led watershed group.
Even a challenging, wet year couldn’t stop LASA from reaching toward their goals in 2019, increasing membership from 19 to 24 farms; hosting two events, including a successful one on the UW-Platteville farm; and continuing to grow collaboration and partnerships, from contributions to the SWIGG groundwater study to participation in an agricultural enterprise area water quality project, funded by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program.
The organization was also able to expand their cost share opportunities to include more than just cover crops, although over 5,000 acres of cover crops were planted in 2019, something Winn called “phenomenal.”
“I think (LASA) played a huge role in that and it’s something we’re very proud of,” he said.
At their conference and annual meeting on Feb. 25, LASA members also shared their own personal successes — and challenges — in 2019, with many trying aerial seeding of cover crops after a representative from an aerial seeding company spoke at last year’s annual gathering.
Wayne Loeffelholz, who works with Jim Digangi, owner of Darlington Ridge Farms, said they tried flying on cover crops this past year two weeks before harvesting corn silage. According to his own research, Loeffelholz said he found about four seeds per square foot got hung up on the canopy, and with heavy rains that followed, the survival rate was rather low.
It cost Darlington Ridge Farms about $30 per acre to fly on the seed, with Loeffelholz commenting that it’ll be interesting to see what happens this spring.
Brian Schilling, who farms with his dad and brother at Schilling Farms, said he also tried aerial seeding. He’s been growing cover crops for the past four to five years, and decided to give a new method a try this past year. He had about 200 acres of good cover crop stand, but the rest of the acreage was poor, similarly to Loeffelholz’s experience.
However, Schilling was able to secure cost share dollars from the NRCS to try aerial seeding. With a cost of about $47 per acre, NRCS was able to pay for $45 per acre.
“We may do some more aerial seeding in the future, but timing is a huge issue with it,” he said. “But for an experiment, I think it was well worth it.”
Mike Berget of Berget Family Farms has been strip tilling since 2012, commenting that “the first few years were a learning curve, but we stuck with it and it’s been working.”
Wet soils in the spring have been a challenge for Berget, but other innovations have helped his operation. It was by accident that he was speaking to a farmer near Beaver Dam who shared how he modified a piece of machinery to make things a bit easier.
“There’s never anything perfect but if you work on it long enough, you’ll get it working,” he said.
Benefits he has seen from strip tilling include clearer water into the waterways; more efficient fertilizer placement and use; limitation of soil disturbance; protection of soil microbe populations; and a more strong aggregation that improves water infiltration.
Dan Kamps of Kamps Farms agreed. He started strip tilling about 10 years ago and has seen increased soil activity. The soil is also a lot softer and there are more earthworms present.
“The soil just comes alive more,” Kamps said.
Brian Larson, who farms in partnership with Winn at Cottonwood Dairy, said his biggest challenge has been getting manure incorporated on the sloping hills of their farm. He, too, has been struggling with cover crops the past two to three years; they invested in a vertical tillage tool last year but didn’t quite get to use it as they intended in 2019.
“It’s been a challenge,” Larson said. “We’re still investigating on what we can do differently.”
“I thought we had the cover crops down to a science, but these last few years have been a challenge,” added Winn.
One thing is clear for Winn though, and that’s the strength in the membership of LASA.
“I can see down the road a lot of collaboration with other watershed groups,” he said. “That’s where we get the power.”
For more information on LASA, visit lafayetteagstewardship.org.