DARLINGTON — While this year’s Lafayette County Fair went off without a hitch July 10-14, this past March, a fast snow melt and heavy rains left the fairground completely underwater.
Flooding in this area near the Pecatonica River is not unusual, however, this year’s flooding was historic, damaging many buildings that typically don’t see water, destroying a scale that had to be replaced and forcing fair representatives to clean up a huge mess of water and mud.
“The fairgrounds is impacted at least annually by flood events in the county and this year it damaged the entire grounds, including the livestock building and roads. The water was fast and higher than typical,” said Theresa Burgess, Lafayette County emergency management director.
According to Burgess, due to the fairground being in a flood zone, fair representatives are not allowed to make any improvements or expansions to the facility, which continues to become outdated and deteriorate. Because of this, a group of volunteers have dedicated their time for a new effort: to move the Lafayette County Fairgrounds to higher ground and develop a facility that could be used year-round by not just Lafayette County, but surrounding counties and communities as well.
“Thanks to the generosity of a local farmer, we have an option to purchase 80 acres just south of Darlington and we’ve worked with several engineering companies to provide building layouts that would be both cost-effective and yet set us up for the future,” said Steve Carpenter, president of the newly formed Southwest Wisconsin Ag Innovation Center committee.
A small group of individuals have formed the Southwest Wisconsin Ag Innovation Center committee, a non-profit which is now focusing on fundraising $3 million to purchase the land and establish a new facility they will call the Southwest Wisconsin Ag Innovation Center. They have a vision to start with the construction of two buildings after they complete the land purchase — a cattle building and a multi-purpose building that can hold up to 600 people, with the thought that communities and organizations can use the building for meetings and more.
A second phase of the project includes the construction of more buildings, a grandstand and campground.
“We want to make it more than just a fairgrounds,” Carpenter said. “We want to make this community-based and getting information out about it has been huge, especially for people who may have moved out of the area but still might be interested in helping fund this project.”
Feasibility studies have shown that the economic impact of the establishment of this new facility could reach a couple million dollars back into the community, he added. Committee members have also met with representatives of Southwest Wisconsin Technical College and UW-Platteville for training and educational opportunities at the new facility.
“As a young person who recently moved back to Lafayette County, a new fairgrounds to me is a great opportunity to continue development of the county through new business and new tourism dollars as well,” said Cody Carpenter, who farms in Lafayette County alongside his brother at Redrock View Farms. “Near and dear to my heart is the fair, but there are so many other opportunities a new fairgrounds could possibly bring.”
The 80-acre parcel is attractive for many reasons. It is high above the river and close to the intersections of Highways 81 and 23, with access to local ATV trails, space for camping and enough acreage for expansion in the future. It is also close enough to city limits that there is potential for it to be annexed into the city and hooked up to city water and sewer.
The farmer that currently owns the parcel has also offered it to the committee for a fair price. Similar properties near the city that have been considered are two to three times more expensive than the offer for this site, Carpenter said.
Fundraising is currently underway, with area banks in Lafayette County accepting donations. Committee members sold bricks at the recent fair for $1,000 a piece, with a goal to sell 1,000 of them to kick-off fundraising efforts as well. Pledge sheets are also available for individuals or organizations interested in pledging funds over a number of years for the project.
Carpenter said there has been a lot of talk about in-kind help and feedback for the project has been positive so far. It’s one that combines education, community, innovation, rural development and more, with the possibility of benefiting southwest Wisconsin as a whole. He recognizes the project will need the support of those in Lafayette County and beyond in order to be successful.
“Agriculture is the backbone of this part of the state. We need to find reasons to keep our kids here and generate additional business opportunities in the region,” Carpenter said. “We are very hopeful we can get the fairgrounds moved and create this type of facility. So many people have already stepped up to voice their support and pledge their time and expertise.”
For more information about the new Southwest Wisconsin Ag Innovation Center, visit www.SWAG-Center.com.
GRATIOT — After wind storms and drought killed many of the trees in his pasture, Steve Holland was brainstorming ways to bring shade back for his grazing Jersey cow herd. He had seen a portable shade structure advertised and was going back and forth on whether to make the investment, finally buying one and giving it a try for the first time last year.
He told attendees of a recent pasture walk on his farm that he is glad he made the purchase. While he’s only had the structure for a little over a year, he expects multiple benefits from its use, including managing and distributing pasture fertility better, abating the summer heat for his cows and keeping them cleaner.
“The shade does have some benefits aside from helping to keep cattle cool,” Gene Schriefer, Iowa County UW-Extension agriculture agent said. “It also benefits soil and ecology.”
Schriefer stuck a soil thermometer into the ground multiple times during the pasture walk, recording cooler temperatures at points in the pasture and underneath the structure. Using a soil thermometer is one way to see how warm or cool the soil is; he also recommended using the Heat Stress app, developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and available on smart phones and other electronic devices. The app uses GPS data and current weather conditions to alert farmers if temperatures are heading into a dangerous level for livestock on their operations.
Holland and his family milk about 75 Jersey cows just outside of Gratiot on their 147 acre farm. They’ve been grazing their cows since they bought the place in 1997, starting with just 40 Jerseys to begin. In 2005, they installed a swing-10 parlor, which made milking more cows a lot simpler, Holland said.
He added that it’s hard to tell if the shade structure has had an impact on milk production, but did notice that a few more cows were pregnant last year after using the structure in the pasture. He aims to continue recording data on the cows and will know more about other possible benefits as time goes on.
After using the structure for the first time last year, Holland had noticed some pasture damage where the structure had been positioned. Because the cattle congregated under the structure, the grass was shorter and brown spots could be observed within the pasture where the structure had been. However, Holland kept an eye on the areas and did not feel the need to re-seed this spring, although he has heard of other farmers re-seeding if needed.
“Like anything, it takes some management,” Holland said.
He moves the shade structure around the pasture every day using a UTV, following the advice of the company he purchased it from and not folding it up each time he moves it. It is relatively easy and only takes a few minutes to hook it up to the back of the UTV and move it, he said.
In the winter months, Holland stores the structure in a shed, out of the elements, and believes the fabric should last 10 years if properly cared for. He was also able to insure the structure, he said.
Interest in shade structures for pasture is growing, with Marie Raboin of Dane County’s Land Conservation Division sharing how she recently helped a Stoughton farmer with their first cost share for this specific piece of equipment. Kaitlin Schott, a soil conservationist with Iowa County’s NRCS office, has also been working with a few sheep raisers on the pros and cons of purchasing a shade structure.
Cost sharing through NRCS’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program does include shade structures, although the farmer’s proposal needs to include how the purchase of the structure can improve and protect environmental quality on the farm.
Farmers interested in exploring a cost share for a shade structure should contact a local NRCS representative and work with them on a plan, Raboin said, adding that the more farmers explain how the shade structure will benefit the environment, the easier it will likely become to take advantage of those cost share dollars.
CHIPPEWA FALLS — A 2012 study showed bats in Wisconsin were saving farmers between $658 million and $1.5 billion every year in pesticide-application costs, according to Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Conservation Biologist Jennifer Redell.
But since the appearance of white-nose syndrome in Wisconsin in 2014, cave bat populations in the state have been in rapid decline.
“We know that bats are valuable to agriculture,” Redell said July 11 during a Wisconsin Apple Growers Association field day at Bushel & A Peck Orchard and Market in Chippewa Falls. “Unfortunately, because bats have historically been misunderstood and therefore underfunded and understudied, there’s not a lot of research on bats in general.”
A bat can eat thousands of insects every night, making them an important form of natural pest control. Redell said a single little brown bat can eat up to a thousand mosquito-sized insects in and hour and will eat up to her body weight in insects each night if she’s a nursing female.
Redell said a recent study by UW-Madison student Amy Wray found that little brown bats at 42 percent of the sampled sites and big brown bats at 35 percent of sampled sites were eating forest and agricultural pests. Both bats were also eating mosquitoes, including some West Nile Virus-vector species.
“They’re really hungry,” Redell said. “They are the primary predator of flying insects. We want them to be well-fed.”
Wisconsin is home to eight species of bats. The little brown, big brown, eastern pipistrelle, northern long-eared, and Indiana bats are classified as cave bats, which remain in the state and hibernate over winter in caves and mines. The silver-haired, eastern red, and hoary bats are classified as tree bats, which migrate south for the winter.
White-nose syndrome has now spread from coast to coast after its discovery in New York state in 2006 with California releasing news of a positive finding in early July. The fungus, which only affects bat species that hibernate in caves, has killed millions of bats. Some of the most common bat species have seen declines of 95 to 99 percent, Redell said.
The fungus that causes white-nose syndrome thrives in the cold environments where bats hibernate. Bats with white-nose syndrome often display a white fungus on their noses and on other hairless parts of their bodies, including their wings. White-nose syndrome causes bats to wake up during hibernation. If they wake up too often, they’ll use up too much of their fat reserves and starve.
“Most of the bat’s year, six or seven months, are spent underground in a cave or mine,” Redell said. “It’s like walking to your refrigerator for six or seven months and finding it empty. There’s no food available for them at that time.”
On a 2012 bat survey on a lake in Vilas County, acoustic monitoring uncovered several species making about 200 different bat passes per hour. When that survey was re-created in 2017, it showed one big brown bat left on the lake after white-nose syndrome went through the area.
“We’re looking at regional extinctions at this point,” Redell said. “It’s very concerning to us as bat biologists. Half of our bat species are at risk.”
There about 150 caves and mines in Wisconsin that work as hibernation sites for cave bats. Wisconsin has three of the largest known bat hibernation sites in the Midwest.
“We used to have tens of thousands of bats at each of those three mines,” Redell said. “Those numbers are down significantly due to white-nose syndrome.”
Redell said researchers are looking at three possible areas of disease management for white-nose syndrome. The pathogen is highly susceptible to ultraviolet light, giving researchers hope that could be a way to control the disease. They are also looking at decontaminating mines during the times of the year when bats are away from the hibernation sites, and the development of a vaccine that could be administered as a gel the bats would climb through when entering a roost and then ingest during grooming.
“White-nose syndrome is causing the most precipitous decline in North American wildlife in recorded history,” Redell said. “Bats do need everybody to help out. Bats are still misunderstood, so we are still trying to get the positive messages out about their benefits.”