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Sharing success stories boosts adoption | crop

Anne Moore Farmers for Sustainable Food

CHILTON, Wis. – The journey toward implementing conservation practices can intimidate farmers, especially those with no prior experience. But networking with other farmers and sharing experiences has given Mitchell Schaefer the confidence to try them on his farm.

Schaefer farms 400 acres in Calumet County, Wisconsin; I have 270 cows. He has 60 acres of rotational grazing with 250 heifers on-site. The land he farms is silty loam and rocky soil, which is a big reason he’s finding ways to protect his soil health and water quality.

He started noticing more covered fields on neighboring farms in the winter and read articles about the benefits. When his friend Kurt Schneider asked him to join the Calumet County Ag Stewardship Alliance, a farmer-led conservation group, Schaefer said it was a no-brainer.

“Having a group to talk to about practices first is extremely helpful,” he said. “The less trial and error on my own means I can have more success and faster adoption.”

Three years ago he began exploring minimal tillage, no tillage and the use of cover crops. He started out small with just a few smaller fields, to ensure the practices would work on his land. He now has a goal to have 100 percent of his acres in cover crops.

The Ag Stewardship Alliance continues to grow membership, now including 10 farmer-members. The three-year-old group represents 15,600 acres and 12,491 livestock, including beef, dairy and hogs. The alliance collaborates with university researchers, environmental groups and community leaders.

In 2021 members planted 6,030 acres using reduced tillage, planted 5,736 acres in cover crops, used low-disturbance manure injection on 5,438 acres and used no-tillage planting on 4,666 acres.

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The practices adopted by the alliance’s farmers are significantly reducing the chance of harmful runoff into streams and lakes, according to a modeling-based analysis. The farmers in 2021 potentially prevented an estimated 3,506 pounds of phosphorus from leaving the fields. They reduced sediment erosion by 1,559 tons of and reduced carbon-dioxide equivalents by 1,572 tons, according to an analysis conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, The Nature Conservancy, and the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

For comparison, a mid-size dump truck can carry 10 tons of sediment. Just 1 pound of phosphorus in a lake or stream has the potential to cause the growth of as much as 500 pounds of algae, which can degrade water quality. The amount of greenhouse-gas emissions reduced equals 339 miles driven by a gas-powered passenger vehicle.

The modeling-based analysis calculated on farms an estimate of the potential impact of cover crops, low-disturbance manure application and reduced tillage compared to more conventional methods typical to the group’s area.

“The farmers in the Calumet farmer-led group are working to accelerate the widespread use of sustainable agriculture practices like cover crops and no-till planting,” said Steve Richter, The Nature Conservancy’s director of agriculture strategies in Wisconsin. “These farmers are not only growing robust crops, but they are also demonstrating farm practices that can improve water quality and withstand the impacts of a changing climate.”

Schaefer uses primarily winter wheat, rye and alfalfa on his operation through the off-season. His biggest challenge from him is implementing manure into the cover-crop cycle and finding a way to uniformly apply manure throughout the year. And left-over crop residue from no-tillage was a concern.

“While no-till planting this spring, I noticed great root-mass clumps and quite a bit of trash from the growth in the field’s last crop,” Schaefer said. “I had to figure out whether to work up the land. I knew from the group and articles I’ve read to just plant into it, letting the residue do its job to help the soil.”

Schaefer said he’s happy to see more people willing to share and teach others about the practices and the benefits provided. He understands his farm needs to be sustainable to stay in business while producing a safe and healthy product that customers want to purchase.

“It’s a good move on your farm; there really is no down-side,” he said. “It’s going to benefit the environment and keep us in business.”

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