ATHENS, Wis. – Dairy farmers around Wisconsin are using innovative technology and management practices to help protect Wisconsin’s valuable water and natural resources.
    Such was the topic at the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin Environmental Workshop at Miltrim Farms near Athens Sept. 24. PDPW partnered with the Wisconsin Towns Association.
    The workshop featured discussion panels with dairy farmers to share ways they preserve and protect water and soil quality on their farms and information from conservation specialists.
    Miltrim Farms is home to 2,500 cows – 1,100 milked with robots and 1,400 milked in a parlor. The farm crops about 5,000 acres to grow feed for the farm. The farm is a fourth-generation family dairy, and the family is involved in the Eau Pleine Partnership for Integrated Conservation, a community partnership comprised of not only farmers but also a variety of stakeholders. In 2019, the farm was the first in the national to receive a designation as an environmental leader in the Clear Water Farms program.
    “We continue to push to treat the land and water as best as possible,” said David Trimner. “We started some of these practices, such as cover crops, about six or seven years ago. What really got us started on that path was that you could see some of the issues that Wisconsin has had with its water. We ourselves love the water, and we all want to drink clean water. We wanted to push ourselves to be part of the solution and work together in a positive way to make that change happen.”
    According to Dennis Frame, an agricultural environmental consultant and former co-director of the University of Wisconsin Discovery Farms program, the potential for soil erosion exists in many areas of Wisconsin due to the unique nature of the state’s topography.
    “If you do the wrong thing, at the wrong time and get the wrong weather, you can have soil erosion,” Frame said. “It’s a really critical issue. Farms can be doing everything right, but if you get a 3-inch rain coming down some of those hills at the wrong time, everybody will say you did the wrong thing. You didn’t. It was just the wrong time. That is why soil conservation is really important.”
    One practice that is becoming more popular is the use of low-disturbance manure application.
    “There is a huge range of what is considered low-disturbance application, and you need to find what works best for your slopes on your farm,” Frame said.
    Miltrim Farms began using low-disturbance manure application practices about seven years ago and have been using draglines for application of manure, citing increased efficiencies and the added benefit of keeping heavy traffic off municipal roads.
    Discussion panel member Scott Maier farms near Waunakee. Maier said all the water that flows past his farm ends up directly in the lakes around Madison.
    “We have a farm with a lot of different soil types, and some areas with a lot of different types of residues on top,” Maier said. “There is so much stuff out there for low-disturbance applications. You really have to look at all the options, take your budget into consideration and make the best choices for what you need on your farm.”
    Maier is a long-time member of the Yahara Pride Farms, a conservation group that works to protect the Yahara watershed. Maier said the group works to collect and provide data to farmers to help set benchmarks and cost-shares with farmers to support conservation efforts.
    “When you only have two really small windows of time to spread manure with low-risk, it is very challenging,” Frame said. “Maybe not so much up here, where you have such wonderfully light soils, but if you have heavy soils, they aren’t very forgiving if you are trying to spread manure on it and you get a heavy rain event.”
    In the Yahara watershed region, many farmers have begun to add small grains to their rotations to help open up the windows of opportunity to safely apply manure.
    “The more opportunities you have, versus just hoping for a good fall and a good spring, to apply manure, the better off you are,” Frame said.
    Composting is another method that is gaining interest with producers, and Maier shared some observations he had about his neighbor’s experiences with composting.
    “He has done some experimenting with putting compost on a growing hayfield,” Maier said. “It’s really a concentrated product. It doesn’t smell, and you really have to look and see where he has spread it. … That is working out well for him and gives him the opportunity to put manure somewhere where spreading liquid manure might not be an option.”
    Frame said for three years, that farmer applied compost to half a field. Now he is seeing yields of approximately 10 bushels per acre more on the areas where the compost was applied versus the areas where commercial fertilizer was applied.
    “Compost has a lot of organisms and organic matter in it,” Frame said. “You can’t absolutely say what did it, but you can see the value in doing it.”
    PDPW executive director Shelly Mayer summed up how vital water is to Wisconsin’s dairy industry.
     “Water is a priority, not an issue, for dairy farmers in Wisconsin,” Mayer said. “When I hear people talk about studying water issues, what we are really doing is taking a deep dive into our most important resource that we have and need to take care of and learning more about it. Water is life. Water, land health and community are a priority for all of us in the dairy sector.”