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Ben Peterson, farmer panelist, describes his farm’s challenges.

The 4th Annual UW Discovery Farms Conference offered farmers a forum to connect with other farmers and experts interested in refining practices with water quality in mind. This year’s conference titled, “Farmer-tested, environment approved: Develop a winning cropping strategy” focused specifically on manure incorporation strategies and tillage.

The day began with an overview of the water quality and agriculture landscape in the Midwest. “Activists, agencies, media and the public are placing increased attention on the relationship between agriculture and water quality and quantity,” explained Dr. Adam Birr, Executive Director of Minnesota Corn Growers Association. “We know water quality improvements and continuous progress are only going to be made through good research, education and innovation. That is the model we have to follow.”

Dr. Clint Church, a chemist with the USDA-ARS, and a manure panel of farmers discussed manure application strategies. Dr. Church described the environmental pros and cons of incorporation versus surface application. Surface application can result in increased odor, ammonia volatilization, and dissolved phosphorus loss, but too much soil disturbance with incorporation has very clear soil erosion and phosphorus loss risks.

He reported results from a two-year study comparing four liquid manure applicators designed to get manure off the surface without resorting to full blown tillage: aeration, disk injection, anti-leaching sweeps, and pressure injection. The research suggested that the more phosphorus on the surface, the more dissolved phosphorus in runoff.

Similar conclusions can be drawn from Discovery Farms’ 85 site years of on-farm research in Wisconsin and Minnesota. “Soil loss is closely tied to phosphorus loss during the growing season,” explained Amber Radatz, Discovery Farms Co-Director. “Delivering nutrients below the surface reduces dissolved phosphorus loss, especially in winter runoff.”

The fact that there is no single solution or silver bullet was reiterated throughout the day, with several farmer panelists describing what has worked in their specific situation.

Ben Peterson of Four Cubs Farm, a 900 cow dairy in Grantsburg, has switched from surface applying with incorporation to manure injection and vertical tillage. He uses a Dietrich toolbar that injects the manure at a 6 to 8 inch depth.

Dan Brick, a dairy farmer in Brown County, tried a Bazooka manure applicator for the first time this year after using a no-till drill to establish cover crops. “It really did a nice job. You’d never be able to tell we put 14,000 gallons of manure on,” Brick explained during the manure panel. “Neighbors couldn’t even tell because the manure application went on so smooth.”

For the past two years, Jason Cavadini of Marshfield Ag Research Station and the Central Wisconsin No-tillers have been working to unlock the best equipment combinations for no-tilling into heavy, often wet soil. It turns out the closing wheel and lead coulter can play a big role in success or failure.

“In our conditions a closing wheel with more surface area works best,” stated Cavadini. “We’ve also found that we are better off without the lead coulter. If there is any moisture in the soil, the lead coulter can actually throw out chunks of soil and then it is not there when the closing wheel comes through.”

Attendees were able to hear about replicable field trials, Wisconsin specific on-farm water quality monitoring, and individual practices that are working for Wisconsin farmers. Discovery Farms brought together examples of good research, innovation and useful information for developing a cropping strategy that is a win for farm management and water quality.

About UW Discovery Farms

For 15 years, UW Discovery Farms has worked with Wisconsin farmers to identify the water quality impacts of different farming systems and settings around the state. The program, which is part of UW-Extension, conducts on-farm research to identify practices with environmental impacts and works with farmers to implement practices to reduce losses. UW Discovery Farms is under the direction of an industry led steering committee, and takes a real-world approach to finding the most economical solutions to agriculture’s environmental challenges. For conference materials or more information on Discovery Farms visit them on the web at