Sheboygan River Project Blends Sustainable Agriculture and Water Quality

One of the challenges facing farmers in Wisconsin and nationwide is keeping sediment and nutrients on the land and out of rivers and streams.

The Nature Conservancy, Sheboygan County conservation staff and other public agencies and private organizations are partnering with landowners and farm operators in Sheboygan County to test a more efficient and effective way to do this, which will help improve water quality in area streams.

This approach, called the Wisconsin Buffer Initiative (WBI), uses science to target conservation practices on those fields and pastures with the greatest potential for contributing nutrients to streams.

A pilot project to test the WBI approach in Sheboygan County began in summer 2011 in Otter Creek, a tributary of the Sheboygan River. Fisher Creek, a tributary of the Pigeon River, will serve as the control watershed where no action will be taken. The Mullet River watershed, another tributary of the Sheboygan River, was added in 2013.

What we learn through this project will not only help improve water quality in streams and help farmers increase their profitability. The strategy used and lessons learned will also help the City of Plymouth in the Mullet River watershed decide how best to mitigate discharges from their wastewater treatment plant.

Targeting Conservation Practices Where Most Needed

The Sheboygan River basin in eastern Wisconsin encompasses more than 600 square miles in portions of Sheboygan and four other counties. The basin is water-rich and ecologically diverse with more than 400 miles of perennial streams and 45,000 acres of wetlands. Public and private organizations have made the Sheboygan River, which empties into Lake Michigan, a conservation priority. Restoring and protecting the health of Lake Michigan and the entire Great Lakes basin is a global conservation priority for The Nature Conservancy.

The Sheboygan River basin, which has a strong agricultural tradition rooted in the production of milk and cheese, is an important contributor to Wisconsin’s economy.

In Otter Creek, the Conservancy and Sheboygan County conservation staff worked with willing landowners and farm operators to conduct farm inventories to gather information on crop rotation, fertilizer, manure applications, etc. Soil samples were taken on each field and pasture at no cost to the landowner.

We used a software program called SNAP-Plus, which can calculate soil loss and estimate the risk of phosphorus run-off from farm fields (known as the Phosphorus Index), to test a WBI hypothesis that a handful of fields in a given watershed contribute comparatively large amounts of phosphorus to nearby streams.

To date, Sheboygan County conservation staff have worked with 11 farm owners in the Otter Creek watershed to identify and implement alternative management practices. These include installing a bark bed bioreactor to remove nutrients running off farm fields through a tile drainage line, planting cover crops, changing tillage practices, installing buffers along Otter Creek and grassed waterways in fields to absorb runoff and developing manure management plans.

In collaboration with the National Corn Growers Association, University of Wisconsin-Soil Sciences Department and UW-Extension, we have helped establish two test plots to study the use of cover crops and gypsum to increase water infiltration, reduce runoff and build soil health.

Benefits to Farm Owners

Because changing management practices can have financial implications, we are providing cost-share opportunities to farmers in the Otter Creek watershed to subsidize a portion of the total costs to make farm operation changes.

We also helped one farmer complete his transition to managed grazing by providing funding and technical support and worked with him to plan a milk house waste treatment system. We worked with another farm family to install a new manure storage facility that will save them money and improve water quality in the Mullet River.

The project will benefit landowners, and possibly increase their profitability, as new practices are put into place that are compatible with their farms’ current cropping and livestock operation. Some of the outcomes farmers could see are better soil health and retention on farm fields, financial savings due to less fertilizer runoff and improved pastures for dairy cows.

Using Results to Drive Needed Changes

The U.S. Geological Survey and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources gathered baseline data on stream flow, water quality and fish populations in the Otter and Fisher creek watersheds. As the study proceeds, the agencies will continue to collect data so that differences between the two watersheds can be compared. We are also helping the City of Plymouth gather water quality data in the Mullet River watershed.

It will take several years for conservation practices to be fully implemented and begin to show results. Ultimately, however, the partners hope to demonstrate that targeting conservation practices where most needed will result in significant water quality improvements and be the most efficient and effective use of limited resources.

“It seems straightforward,” says Pete Nowak, chair of the WBI Advisory Committee. “But it’s actually a very innovative approach to water quality improvement that is not currently being utilized in the United States.”



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