Editor’s note: This is the first article in a series featuring three finalists who have been selected for the 2019 Wisconsin Leopold Conservation Award. The award is presented to farmers who uphold standards of conservation and sustainable farming, honoring the work of Aldo Leopold, renowned conservationist. The award will be presented to the winner at the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation’s annual meeting Dec. 8 in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin. The three finalists are Bill Ciolkosz of Thorp, Jeff Lake of Boyceville, and John and Dorothy Priske of Fall River. The first article features Ciolkosz.

THORP, Wis. – Bill Ciolkosz is a fourth-generation dairy farmer. He, his wife, Bridget Ciolkosz, and their four children milk 200 cows. Recently selected as a finalist for the 2019 Wisconsin Leopold Conservation Award, he was inspired by the conservation efforts of his father. Edward Ciolkosz had installed many miles of grassed waterways and drainage tile before he passed away in 2014.

“Through his efforts and ours we’ve made strides in keeping our water clean, soil in great condition, and wildlife thriving,” Bill Ciolkosz said.

The 320-acre farm that he in 2013 purchased from his parents has multiple land classifications and variable soil types. So he implemented and followed conservation plans with help from the Clark County Land Conservation Department and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Because many of the farm’s fields are classified as highly erodible Ciolkosz has prioritized no-till and conservation tillage. He follows a nutrient-management plan to determine where to apply manure and at what rate.

“We soil test all our land – owned and rented – every three years to manage the changing needs of our soil and to make sure we’re applying only the nutrients we need to grow crops,” he said.

He has reduced the amount of water entering a manure lagoon at the farm. The lagoon was built several years ago. It's located near the dairy barn and rainwater falling from the barn’s roof added extra water to it. With cost-share funding through the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program he installed rain gutters on the barn. That diverts rainwater away from the lagoon. Now rainwater flows through down spouts and onto grassy areas. That slows water movement and filters rainwater before it enters a nearby ditch.

The project has conserved water as well as time and money spent hauling extra water from the lagoon, he said. 

Sheri Denowski, conservation engineer for the Clark County Land Conservation Department, said she worked with Bill and Bridget Ciolkosz on the roof-gutter project. 

"They were really good about listening to their options," she said. "We also worked together on a project to close an open well at a rural church in their area. They were really interested in doing the right thing and it was good to have their support in closing that well."

Benefits of grassed waterways learned

Ciolkosz learned benefits of grassed waterways from his father. Edward Ciolkosz in 1982 had installed a grass waterway-to-diversion-dam system with a grass-waterway overflow.

“We divert water from more than 100 acres through this system,” Bill Ciolkosz said. “It slows and holds back water.”

Water from the dam drains slowly through a 10-inch perforated drain pipe with 1.5-inch holes. Water flows to an underground 10-inch pipe. If there’s more rain than the dam can hold, a grass overflow waterway carries water across 15 acres. That prevents washouts, Ciolkosz said. The overflow has been necessary during some springs with rapid snow melt. He also has built and maintained waterways and ditches on 665 rented acres. 

“Every year we try to budget the maintenance of waterways that are important to conserving land,” he said. “We install waterways where needed and seed them so they don’t wash out. We also clean existing waterways and ditches to maintain healthy soil with little to no erosion. We financially support the effort in many cases. But we’ve communicated with landowners about what we’re doing and some have paid for the maintenance themselves. That benefits them, us and the environment.”

Farm invests in feed pad

Ciolkosz also has implemented conservation practices in the farm’s dairy operation. When his father was living, the family milked 80 cows in a stall barn. Bill Ciolkosz expanded the operation in 2014 to 110 cows. His family had been milking cows in two barns. So they decided to build a parlor and a freestall barn to milk 180 cows. The facility, which was built in 2015, can house up to 220 head.

“With the expansion came many obstacles,” he said. “We needed to find a way to maintain an environmentally friendly farm.”

Prior to making changes feed was stored on the ground in plastic bags. Spilled feed, dirt and mud was an issue along with water runoff. So Ciolkosz decided to install a feed pad.

“With help from the USDA Farm Service Agency office in Clark County and the Farm Storage Facility Loan Program, we built an asphalt feed pad,” he said. “We used a two-percent slope for the pad so seepage and water would run across a gravel catch and then to a grass waterway. From there it travels through a 12-inch culvert to a second grass waterway before entering a ditch. We also installed a manhole and culvert system to slow water around the feed pad and surrounding gravel areas.”

And he switched from storing feed in plastic rolls to piles with biodegradable plastic covers. That has reduced the amount of plastic used. Bunker cover plastic is now recycled.

Ciolkosz maintains food plots as well as three ponds for wildlife habitat. He reserves areas of the farm just for wildlife.

“We can enjoy nature at its best while doing what we love … farming,” he said. “We also enjoy sandhill cranes, pheasants, song birds, black bear, turkey and whitetail deer. We can look out our milking-parlor door to see deer eating alfalfa less than 50 yards away or sandhill cranes less than 100 feet away. Providing for nature is a huge part of what we do here.”

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Lynn Grooms writes about the diversity of agriculture, including the industry’s newest ideas, research and technologies as a staff reporter for Agri-View based in Wisconsin.