Pete Cernek

Dairy farmer Pete Cernek discussed improvements to soil health using no-tillage and cover crops at an Oct. field day held on his farm.

A 13-partner coalition of public and private organizations has secured $600,000 over five years from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service for a unique regional project in Lafayette County. The project provides cost-sharing and technical assistance to help farmers implement conservation practices on their land, primarily within the Pecatonica River watershed.

The group of partners is working with two large farmer networks that already exist in the watershed, formed through Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection’s Agricultural Enterprise Area program.

The Pecatonica AEA and Southwest Lead Mine Region AEA are two adjacent areas covering eastern and southern Lafayette County. With a total of 226 landowners who initially petitioned to form the two AEAs, the region was in a particularly strong position to pull resources together to fund on-the-farm projects.

Dana Lawrence, outreach specialist for Southwest Badger RC&D Council, is one of the project’s lead coordinators working directly with the farmers. A former NRCS technician and native of Lafayette County, Lawrence knows the land well and is experienced with helping farmers improve their operation using conservation practices.

“One of the challenges I’ve embraced is finding new landowners that haven’t participated in any USDA programs, or reaching out to people that haven’t been involved in 20 years for whatever reason,” said Lawrence. “I help them get into the system so they’re eligible to use the money that’s available.”

Participating farmers in the area not only gain access to the available NRCS funding, but also have access to the pool of resources from the 13-partner coalition. This can be especially helpful for farmers who are interested in taking advantage of the tax credits offered through DATCP’s Agriculture Enterprise Area program, but are struggling to meet state soil and water conservation standards.

“The two biggest practices we’ve been installing are pollinator habitats and cover crops,” said Lawrence. “These practices go directly onto a farmer’s property and payment is either a flat rate or cost-share assistance.”

For many farm operations, this financial assistance is crucial. Like much of southwestern Wisconsin, Lafayette County has been hit especially hard by the six-year low in dairy prices. What used to be the heart of small family dairy farms is seeing a shift towards consolidation and row crops. And with any transition, the changes can be hard on the communities and the land.

“Where there used to be eleven dairy farms on our road, there’s three now,” said Peter Cernek, a dairy farmer near the village of Gratiot. “And the land is the same way. We’re in the middle of a couple of farmers managing at least 5,000 acres. When land comes up for rent, there’s a lot of competition for it.”

Cernek’s property has been in his family since 1972 and he current manages 110 dairy cows. With over 10 years’ experience with cover crops and no-till, Cernek was asked to host a conservation field day in early Oct. to discuss his experience with soil health, in conjunction with the regional partnership.

Cernek agreed to host a field day, in part because how much he learned from one he attended a few years ago. What stuck out to him the most was how disruptive tillage can be to the natural cycles of the soil.

“If the soil is a house where all these different organisms live in, and you come in with a chisel plow and rip it all up, it would be like a tornado tore up your house and you had to keep living in it,” Cernek recalled as his biggest takeaway. “It takes a lot of time to rebuild that structure.”

After a decade of no-till, Cernek has noticed a significant improvement in his soil health.

“When we used to till and would go out to check seed placement, once in a while we’d find an earthworm. Now when we check for seed placement, you find earthworms quicker than you find corn,” said Cernek.

In addition to building up organic matter in the soil, cover crop and minimal to no-tilling are excellent methods of improving rain water absorption in fields, which is a trending issue for the region. Top soil runoff poses a significant challenge for the Pecatonica River watershed, as high phosphorous and nitrate levels have put the river on the impaired waters list.

Pat Leonard, another small dairy farmer near Blanchardville who also hosted a field day with the partnership in October, underscored that the year of heavy rains have compounded the runoff issues in the watershed.

“If you want to talk about water quality, just look at the river in the last month — how much topsoil ran off and how long it will take to replace an inch of topsoil,” said Leonard. “When the county has to come out and plow the topsoil off the road, there’s a problem.”

Leonard grew up on a dairy farm and manages about 50 dairy cows on his operation. Leonard has worked closely with USDA-NRCS and Lafayette County Land Conservation Department to install best-management practices on his property since 1989, including a barnyard system, pasture fencing, a dry dam and an access road, to name a few.

“They want to do [these projects] so they work for you,” said Leonard, noting that every farmer is different and operations have to figure out what works best for them. “Successful people put successful people around them. And that’s how I look at how I farm — whether it’s my crops, my veterinarian, my nutritionist, or my practices.”

The Lafayette County Regional Partnership Program is currently seeking landowners who are interested in the financial and technical assistance to install these practices on their operations. To get involved, contact Dana Lawrence at 608-776-3836 or www.swbadger.org.

Additional public field days and educational events are currently being planned for the upcoming year. For more information about the program, visit DATCP’s Lafayette County Agricultural Enterprise Area Water Quality Project webpage here: https://datcp.wi.gov/Pages/Programs_Services/RCPPLafayette.aspx.