By: Scott Hennelly – May 13, 2016
If Wisconsin’s soil was a house, it’d be due for an inspection.
Tilling, which is practiced on 96% of the cropland in Wisconsin1, breaks down the soil structures that house benefitical microbial life. “When you run a bulldozer through your house, the structure is destroyed. It’s basically the same thing when we till the soil—we tear down the house,” said Brent Petersen, Project Manager for the Demonstration Farms Network in Brown County.
To rebuild our soils, Petersen has become the driving force behind the Demo Farms Network, which educates and supports farmers as they transition from tilling to planting cover crops and practicing no-till on their fields. Since 2014, Petersen has recruited four farms in Brown and Outagamie County, including farms owned by Greg Nettekoven, Van Wychen Farms, Tinedale Cropping, and Brickstead Dairy. Each of these farms are located in the Lower Fox River Watershed, which has been a hot nutrient and sediment load going into the Great Lakes system.
Cover cropping and no-till have been well tested to prevent topsoil from running off of fields and adding carbon and nitrogen to soils to support a healthy array of microbes, fungi, bacteria, and worms. Petersen tells his farmers this practice isn’t just good for yields, it’s the natural way.
“If you and I weren’t here, Mother Nature would cover this whole works up. That’s telling me Mother Nature has got this thing figured out and now we got to get back to what she does,” said Petersen.
So why haven’t these practices spread across Wisconsin?
“It really is a different mindset,” explains Petersen. “We’re not just going to work the ground and plant anymore. Grandfather did it that way… Dad did it that way… but now we’re asking farmers to leave those soils in place and that’s a huge barrier to overcome.”
One of the Demo Farms overcoming these barriers is Brickstead Dairy. Dan Brick owns and manages this dairy of more than 700 cows, which has belonged in his family since the mid-1800s. After Brick heard about cover crop practices going on in Pennsylvania, he began experimenting with his own mixes and eventually joined the Demo Farms Network.
“Brent came to me because we were already doing some work on cover cropping to conserve soil and reduce phosphorus runoff,” said Brick. “But the biggest challenge has been trying to figure out how to get it implemented into my program. It was new to everybody.”
Since becoming a Demo Farm, Brick has expanded his use of cover crops to 95% of his acres, with mixes of barley, radishes, and Austrian Peas. “The fact that he’s got all his acres in cover crops is really amazing. He’s jimping in with both feet and he’s making it work,” said Brown County Conservationist Mike Mushinski.
Despite Brick’s desire to cover all of his fields, he is required to leave just one uncovered for a water monitoring station constructed by the United States Geological Survey (USGS). This station is setup to compare the nutrient and sediment loss between a covered and uncovered field, in addition to taking measurements of nitrates, phosphorus, and rainfall.