SAUK COUNTY, Wis. – The Sauk Soil and Water Improvement Group recently was named a first-time recipient of a Wisconsin Producer-Led Watershed Protection grant. The group was awarded a $40,000 grant by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, which administers the grant program.

The group is comprised of more than 15 farmers who farm in flood-prone areas near the Baraboo River, Honey Creek, Narrows Creek and Otter Creek. The farmers are collaborating with the Sauk County Land Resources and Environment Department and with the University of Wisconsin-Division of Extension. They’re focused on improving soil health and reducing nutrient and sediment runoff to surface waters.

The group will use cost-share funds from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection to plant cover crops and convert land from row crops to rotationally grazed pasture. The group also will host educational events to share their experiences with other farmers and landowners.

“We have natural leaders who have implemented different conservation practices and want to share information with other farmers,” said Justine Bula, education coordinator for the Sauk County Land Resources and Environment.

Bula had attended in September 2018 a meeting hosted by the Milwaukee River Watershed Clean Farm Families farmers. That meeting featured a presentation by Ray Archuleta, an agronomist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. He teaches soil health and principles of agroecology. Bula said she was impressed by the program and shared with farmers in her area the idea of establishing a similar program. A few of those farmers also had attended a program hosted by the Dodge County Farmers for Healthy Soil and Healthy Water.

“From there things moved quickly,” Bula said. “We had our first meeting in January 2019.”

Sauk County-area farmers met a few times to discuss plans for forming a watershed-protection group. They also applied for the watershed-protection grant.

“One of our big goals is to increase water infiltration,” Bula said.

Farmers who had already established regenerative-farming practices were able to plant earlier and harvest earlier than other farmers during prolonged wet conditions in 2019. Farmers who had implemented no-till practices and changed rotations to include cover crops saw better water infiltration. That helped to protect soil structure, which helped soil withstand planting and harvesting equipment.

“Last year was an especially good year to try cover crops,” she said.

With cost-share funding the group in 2020 plans to plant 500 acres to cover crops. The farmers will evaluate the performance of cereal ryegrass planted after corn harvest and diverse cover-crop mixes. Some farmers also will focus on converting row-crop acres to rotational grazing pasture.

“We’ll be hosting events in 2020,” Bula said. “We have a phenomenal group of farmers. They can share that knowledge and help other farmers in our area. They also can help to educate the general public about what farmers are doing to improve the health of soil and water. We want more people to be involved and to talk with each other at the events.”

Bula’s parents, Ron and Maureen Bula, farm near Baraboo, Wisconsin. They’re members of the watershed group. They have a 160-acre farm and rent another 40 acres. The farm has undergone different permutations through the years because both Ron and Maureen Bula have had off-farm jobs. He retired in June 2019 from Farm Credit Services and now spends more time farming. That involves raising corn, forages and a variety of livestock.

“We use cover crops for forage,” he said. “And we no-till as much as possible.”

He plants a mix of about seven cover-crop species. Keeping land covered helps to sequester carbon, improve soil health and moderate soil temperature, he said. He raises 30 head of cattle, a small flock of sheep, and chickens for eggs and meat. The Bulas also finish a few hogs, raise about 5 acres of organic vegetables, and sell maple syrup and honey. Justine Bula and her brother, Patrick Bula, help the family farming operation as needed.

“We’d like to continue to learn more about how natural systems can work for us,” Ron Bula said about being a member of the Sauk Soil and Water Improvement Group.

Using no-till practices, cover crops and other conservation practices can help address the water-infiltration capabilities of soil. Given the amount of flooding in Wisconsin in the past two years that will continue to be an important focus, he said.

“The more we can do to heal soil the more we’ll see benefits,” he said. “And in the United States alone there are 5 million acres of pasture. If we could sequester a ton of carbon in every one of those acres, we could help to reverse carbon release as well as save farmers time, money and fuel.”

Darren Yanke also is a member of the Sauk watershed-protection group. He farms with his father, Doug Yanke, and brother, Derek Yanke, at Echo-Y Farms near Loganville, Wisconsin. They raise corn, soybeans, winter wheat and hay on about 1,300 acres. They raise 30 head of cattle and sell beef through the Wisconsin Grassfed-beef Cooperative. They also have a custom heifer-raising business, raising about 200 head of Holstein heifers for another farm.

The Yankes have implemented no-till and cover-crop practices on their farm and wanted to help others, Darren Yanke said. The family started no-tilling part of the farm in the late-1980s and has no-tilled the remaining acres since the late-1990s. They’ve planted cover crops since the early 2000s.

Cereal ryegrass follows their corn in the fall. Each following spring they plant soybeans into cereal ryegrass before terminating the ryegrass. They also plant winter wheat into soybean residue, and follow winter-wheat harvest with a 13-way cover-crop mix. About three years ago they began grazing cattle on that mix. That has helped generate more revenue for the farm in addition to improving soil health, Yanke said. And by using cover crops they’ve reduced fertilizer use.

“We use chicken litter as fertilizer, which is a little less expensive than synthetic fertilizer,” he said. “Our soil samples have showed that we’re gaining nutrients.”

The Yankes started in 2015 a rotational-grazing program. They devote about 300 acres to grazing and move cattle on a daily basis. Perennial pasture has helped to absorb a lot of water, Yanke said.

He encourages fellow farmers and Sauk County residents to become involved in the watershed group.

“This effort isn’t just for farmers,” he said. “Cleaner rivers and lakes help everyone.”

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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.