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Agriculture and Clean Water Do Mix

Trout Benefit from Stream Restoration

Watch how our partners are working with landowners to rehabilitate trout streams in the Pecatonica River watershed. Watch


Working With Farmers for Clean Water

Watch how farmers, Conservancy staff and many partners are targeting conservation where most needed and improving water quality in the Pecatonica River watershed.


For Mark Peterson, farming is a family affair. The land on County A south of Mt. Horeb where Mark owns and operates a dairy was homesteaded by his great-grandfather’s wife in the late 1800s. His father Paul, who farmed the land before him, still helps out, and Mark’s cousin Steve owns the farm next door, which he took over from his father. With just 48 milking cows, Mark operates one of only a handful of small dairy farms remaining in the watershed.

“I think we’ve survived over the years,” Mark said, “because we’re not afraid to try new things. My grandfather bought a bull from Carnation Genetics to improve the herd before it was the thing to do. He was definitely ahead of his time.”

Mark appears to be carrying on the family tradition of innovation. He’s one of 22 farmers in the Pecatonica River watershed taking part in an experiment to see if making changes to the way they farm can improve water quality in local streams that drain into the river.

Launched in 2010 by a group of partners including University of Wisconsin scientists, The Nature Conservancy, Dane County and other public agencies, the group is testing the idea that water quality in a watershed can be improved by targeting conservation practices on those fields and pastures with the greatest potential for contributing phosphorus to streams.

Too much phosphorus leads to excessive algae growth, which can block sunlight from underwater plants, consume oxygen in the water and lead to fish kills, interfere with shellfish and other filter feeders and cause surface scum and bad odors.

“Targeting conservation practices seems straightforward,” said Pete Nowak, professor, UW-Madison Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. “But it’s actually a very innovative approach to water quality improvement not currently being utilized in the United States.”

Targeting Conservation Practices Where Most Needed

Using research by a UW-Madison graduate student and Dane County Land and Water Resources Department staff, the partners identified a small number of farms in the Pleasant Valley watershed, a tributary to the Pecatonica River, that were contributing comparatively large amounts of phosphorus to the stream.

Dane County conservation staff worked with Mark and the other farm operators to identify alternative management practices, including different types of tillage, crop rotations and manure handling that would reduce sediment and nutrient loss.

Because changing management practices can have financial implications for farmers, UW Extension and College of Agriculture and Life Sciences researchers helped each farm operator assess the financial costs associated with implementing various management practices on their farms to find the best fit.

The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service provided most of the funding to implement the changes, with the unmet portion provided by the farmers and The Nature Conservancy through grants from the Monsanto Company.

Some of the conservation practices implemented on farms in the Pleasant Valley watershed in the past two years include the following:

  • 1,465 acres of cropland (about 1/3 of the watershed) was converted to no-till;
  • nutrient management plans were developed covering 1,520 acres;
  • 8 barnyard runoff systems were installed;
  • 14 livestock crossings were added to streams;
  • livestock were excluded from 4.1 miles of stream; and
  • 1 mile of stream habitat was restored and improved for wildlife.

Mark’s farm includes his dairy operation, woodlands, pasture and some cropland. He’s been using no-till on some of his fields for more than 20 years. Most of the changes he’s already made and will make in 2012 are designed to keep his cows away from the stream and improve manure handling in his barnyard.

One of the biggest changes Mark and county staff made was building a diversion to take clean water coming off the hills above his farm and route it around the feedlot and into the stream using a stone center waterway (shaped channel). The diversion has reduced the gully erosion happening on the farm and keeps the clean water away from the manure in the feedlot.

A crushed rock animal walkway was also built to keep the cows on dry ground as they travel from the feedlot to their pastures. The 15 acres of pasture were fenced into smaller units so Mark can rotate the animals among the different pastures, reducing the time cows spend on the same ground and allowing new grass to grow.

This year, Mark and the county will focus on his feedlot. They’ll build a wall around it to help with maintenance, collecting the solid and liquid wastes in a basin. Mark will be able to utilize the solid manure on his fields, and the liquid waste will be filtered by a 6,000-square-foot grass strip before it enters the stream.

“The new system will allow Mark to keep his cattle on the feedlot longer in the spring so he can let his pastures rest and grow more grass,” said Duane Wagner, soil and water conservationist with the Dane County Land and Water Resources Department. “Capturing the solid manure on his feedlot and applying the nutrients on his fields for future crop needs will reduce his dependence on commercial fertilizer and save him money in the long run.”

Overall, Mark said the experience has been a positive one: “Working with the county was a good give and take situation. Neither of us got everything we wanted, but in the end, we made some good changes.”

Still Too Early to Gauge Results

Prior to starting the project two years ago, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources set up monitoring gauges and gathered data on water quality and fish and invertebrate populations in the Pleasant Valley watershed. They also gathered baseline data in a second watershed, where no action is being taken, so that differences between the two can be compared.

While the partners are pleased at how much has been accomplished in the first few years of the project, it’s still too early to tell how much of a difference the changes farmers are making on their land is having on phosphorus levels in the stream.

One of the issues is that measurements need to account not only for the phosphorus being added to the stream today but for “historic” phosphorus laid down in the stream banks and bed in the past. U.S. Geological Survey and UW-Madison Biological Systems Engineering scientists are still gathering information and will soon begin to tease those numbers apart.

“While we would love to be seeing a reduction in phosphorus in the stream right now, we’re still heartened by the fact that we’re not seeing an increase,” said Steve Richter, Nature Conservancy director of conservation in agricultural landscapes, “in spite of the fact that 700 acres of former Conservation Reserve Program land have been removed from the program since the project started.”

“In the long term,” Richter added, “we’re confident the changes farmers like Mark are making in the watershed will pay off. We expect to see phosphorus levels eventually drop by 20 to 30 percent, a testament to their willingness to take the risks associated with trying new things and to the incredible amount of science and expertise partners bring to the project that makes the risks farmers are taking calculated ones.”

Meet the Pecatonica Partners

Farmers, academics, agencies and the Conservancy are working together for clean water.

Resources for Your Watershed Project

Want to get started on a watershed project? The Pecatonica partners provide some resources. 

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