DODGEVILLE, Wis. – Whether conservation can pay is a question on the minds of many farmers. It was a topic of discussion at a recent field day at Dolan Farms of Dodgeville. The event was hosted by the Uplands Watershed Group, a farmer-led watershed-protection organization.

Ryan Dolan farms with his wife, Krista, and his parents, Paul and Mary Dolan. A member of the watershed group, Ryan Dolan has incorporated a nutrient-management plan and cover crops into the farm. The Dolans currently milk 250 cows and own another 280 head of replacement heifers. They farm 800 acres of corn, alfalfa, winter wheat and rye, most of which they use to feed the cattle or as straw.

To write the nutrient-management plan, Dolan worked with Roger Geisking, then an agronomist at Mount Horeb, Wisconsin-based Premier Cooperative.

“It really helped me to see where manure is best used and how much fertilizer we needed to supplement crops,” Dolan said. “We didn’t need to purchase phosphorous where manure is applied because manure provides us 160 nitrogen credits. The plan also helped us to see better spots in our fields to spread manure in bad weather.”

Now working with Ag Source Cooperative Services in Dodgeville, Geisking in 2018 helped Dolan to update the nutrient-management plan. Soil tests indicated that more potash was needed so Dolan used some of what he saved in phosphorus to purchase potash.

More recently Dolan Farms has planted rye as a cover crop, which is used to help supplement cattle rations in winter. The rye also has helped to reduce soil erosion, Dolan said.

At the field day Ted Bay, a retired University of Wisconsin-Extension crops and farm-management agent, discussed economics of no-till practices. Each farmer really needs to focus on what will work best on his or her own operation because there are different types of tillage systems and equipment, he said.

Farmers can research ideas from university studies as well as consult crop budgets developed by the University of Wisconsin and Iowa State University. They can enter their individual operating costs and particular rotation systems on worksheets provided by those universities. A farmer could see, for example, how trading in a conventional planter for a no-till planter would affect operating costs. A farmer also could compare labor and fuel costs associated with different tillage systems and crop rotations, Bay said. Financial benefits from reducing erosion are more difficult to quantify, but there are long-term benefits to improving soil organic matter, water infiltration by soil and soil structure.

Farmers who are hesitant about transitioning to no-till practices might consider doing a test and hiring someone to do the no-till planting. The Uplands Watershed Group has a no-till drill available to rent at an economical cost, said Daniel Smith, southwest regional specialist for the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Nutrient and Pest-Management Program. Group members have been using that no-till drill to plant soybeans and also for pasture overseeding.

“The Uplands Watershed Group is eager to try new things,” Smith said.

Some farmers in the group are starting to do water-quality monitoring, he said. In May 2018 the group hosted a Water Action Volunteers training program. Water Action Volunteers is a statewide program for Wisconsin citizens who want to learn about and improve the quality of the state’s streams and rivers. The program is coordinated through a partnership between the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and UW-Cooperative Extension.

At that program Peggy Compton, baseline-monitoring and outreach coordinator for UW-Extension, trained participating farmers and another group of citizen volunteers on water-quality monitoring. That involves monthly monitoring of a designated area of stream between May and October of each year. The designated area may vary in length, but could extend from 20 feet to as much as 1,300 feet, Compton said. The participants measure water temperature, turbidity, dissolved-oxygen level and stream flow. In addition they monitor once each spring and again once each fall the biotic index of specific macroinvertebrates. Insects, crayfish and worms are examples of macroinvertebrates.

“Specific invertebrates are good indications of water quality,” she said.

Participants record what they find and their data will be collected. Because 2018 was the first year of data collection, the farmers don’t know yet how their conservation practices are affecting water quality. But after two to three years of testing, they may begin to see some impacts, Compton said.

“I applaud any landowner who becomes involved and sees what’s going on,” she said. “When you see what’s going on in a stream you can see how actions we take can affect it. You see things differently.”

Visit fyi.uwex.edu or www.extension.iastate.edu for more information.

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. Email lgrooms@madison.com to contact her.