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Farmers aim to preserve Tainter Creek Watershed
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Farmers aim to preserve Tainter Creek Watershed

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VIROQUA, Wis. – The Tainter Creek Watershed is a bit of a misnomer. With a name like “Tainter,” one might conclude that its waters are tainted. Instead, the watershed is considered to have good water quality and good trout-fishing conditions.

“That’s why it’s so important to protect,” said Ben Wojahn, a conservationist at the Vernon County Land and Water Conservation Department in Viroqua.

The department is collaborating with the Tainter Creek Farmer-Led Watershed Council, a first-time recipient of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection’s Producer-Led Watershed Grant program. The council is comprised of about 20 farmers who are seeking to reduce the adverse effects of flooding and erosion. The council recently received $13,000 to help fund farm evaluations, field days, surface-water testing and cost-sharing for about 500 acres of cover crops.

Valley Stewardship Network, a Viroqua-based nonprofit organization focused on water-quality monitoring, also is working with the farmers. The network has been monitoring water quality in the region since the 1990s and will continue to do so.

“We’ll probably add more testing sites,” said Matt Emslie of the Valley Stewardship Network about working with the farmer group. “We’ve primarily been testing for phosphorus.”

Using geographic-information-system software, the organization also offers mapping and modeling services to individual farmers. Those technologies and aerial imagery can help farmers determine where erosion on their farms is most likely to occur, Emslie said.

The Vernon County Land and Water Conservation Department will help with water-quality monitoring for the Tainter Creek farmer group. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources also is helping to do some watershed modeling using software for erosion-vulnerability assessment for agricultural lands.

“Trout Unlimited also has come to a meeting, and is working on some trout-stream restoration work in the Tainter watershed,” Wojahn said. “The quality of groundwater is still unknown, and the farmers have repeatedly expressed interest in finding funding to do additional water testing.”

Berent Froiland is leading the farmer-led effort. He raised dairy cows until about four years ago and now raises steers. He rents his cropland. On those acres, his renters have planted cover crops and are experimenting with buffer strips. Cover crops have involved a mixture of cereal ryegrass and forage radishes.

“I’ve been impressed with the cover-crop establishment,” Froiland said. “They’ve also helped soften the soil.”

With funding from the Wisconsin agriculture department, the Tainter Creek group will be able to do cost-sharing for cover crops.

“We hoping to get more ideas out there for farmers,” Froiland said.

The group also plans on hosting this year two or three information events for farmers and the public. The meetings will provide updates on cover-crop performance as well as how the watershed’s waterways are being monitored.

Brian McCulloh, a partner in Woodhill Farms of Viroqua, raises registered Angus. At any given time he has about 600 head of cattle on his farm. About 300 acres of his land is in permanent pasture; about another 260 acres is planted for corn silage and alfalfa hay.

He has planted cover crops and practiced rotational grazing on his farm for several years. He has now joined the Tainter Creek Farmer-Led Watershed Council.

“I want to continue to implement, evaluate and improve soil quality and the overall profitability of our operation,” he said.

The Tainter Creek group represents a diverse mix of farming operations. Three of the farmers have dairy farms while six individuals raise beef cattle. The remainder raises row crops, including one who specializes in vegetable production. The group represents about 3,000 acres in the Tainter Creek Watershed.

Tainter Creek begins in south-central Vernon County and flows into north-central Crawford County. According to the Wisconsin DNR, the drainage area of the Reads and Tainter Creeks Watershed is 136 square miles.

Funding from the Wisconsin agriculture department will serve as good seed money for the Tainter Creek Farmer-Led Watershed Council, Wojahn said.

“While applying for the grant, the group agreed that funding would not dictate if the group continued or not,” he said. “Even without funding, the group of farmers is committed to working together on the best, most profitable and most environmentally and socially-aware farming methods possible.”

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 to contact her.

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