E-News Updates

​​​​​​Producer-Led Grants - E-News Update for Spring 2021​

F​armers for the Upper Sugar River Continue to Grow and Trying New Things 

Article by Dana Christel, DATCP Conservation Specialist ​ ​

Farmers and others gather for a field day organized by the Farmers for the Upper Sugar River hosted by Sunburst Dairy in Belleville, WI.   

Farmers, conservation professionals, agronomists, and others gathered at a rye cover crop field on a cold and cloudy Tuesday in April for a field day at Sunburst Dairy in Belleville, WI.  Brian Brown operates the farm and is also the chair of the Farmers for the Upper Sugar River.  This group started loosely forming even before DATCP grants were available to farmer driven watershed groups, so once the grants program became available, they pursued the opportunity to formalize their group and begin to provide programming and education to other farmers in their community. 

“Since day 1 of being a recipient of the DATCP grant I've seen thoughts and ideas flourish from the Farmers for the Upper Sugar River group. So far we've seen more interest in cover crops and requests for our cost share program, and we know more acres are being protected."

The group's collaborator, Wade Moder from the Upper Sugar River Watershed Association has noticed this himself in riding around the countryside in this area. “When I started with Upper Sugar in 2014, seeing cover crops around the watershed in the spring was the exception. Now as I drive down county roads between Mount Horeb and Belleville, it's just a wall of green. It's amazing to see what an impact the farmers have made is such a short time."

The topics of this field day spanned cover crops, no-till and nitrogen management.  Here are a few highlights from the day:

Closing Wheel Demonstration 


Area crop consultant Eric Birschbach talks to farmers about different closing wheel options.  The UW Biological Systems Engineering Department is loaning several closing wheels to the group for farmers to try out in 2021.

Eric Birschbach, a crop consultant that works closely with the farmers in the group, led a discussion and demo on choosing different types of closing wheels for a no-till planter.  Birschbach explained some of the nuances between them, pointing out the difference in effectiveness between the rubber closing wheels that typically come with a planter and the others on display that day.  This was made evident from the in-field demonstration, as the rubber wheels still left a wide slit where the seed was placed, whereas many of the others did a better job closing the seed slot.  Birschbach also explained that if the seed is planted deep enough and soil conditions aren't terribly dry, the rubber closing wheels can do the job, however in challenging field conditions, toothed closing wheels have a measurable benefit over standard rubber closing wheel systems. The group also collaborates with Dr. Brian Luck from the Biological Systems Engineering Department at UW-Madison.  Farmers in the group will be able to try out these different types of closing wheels that are on loan from Dr. Luck's lab this year.  

Roller Crimper Demonstration 

A roller crimper was also on display for the day. Area farmers Carl and Bruce Sine[CDM1] , who are involved with the new farmer-led group, Biological Farming Friends own the equipment and let the neighboring group show how it worked at their field day. A roller crimper is a ground driven drum with chevron-patterned blades that mounts on either the front or back of a tractor. As the farmer drives over the cover crop, the roller crimper mows the plants down, cutting the stems.  This terminates the cover crop and it remains on the ground where it forms a mulch that smothers weeds. The rye on the field wasn't tall or mature enough to crimp, however the demo gave farmers an opportunity to view the equipment in action (Photo 3).  Dane County Extension Specialist, Chelsea Zegler made the point that the rye cover crop maturity should be at anthesis (flowering) in order to effectively kill it.  At this point in the plant's maturity, the stem will actually break; too early or late and the rye stem won't snap, and the action of the crimper can actually promote further tillering or regrowth of the cover crop.  Recommendations coming out of UW roller crimper organic systems research are two bushels per acre planting rate for a rye cover crop to be terminated in this way. The earlier a farmer can plant at this higher rate, generally the better weed control the rye residue can provide throughout the season.  An additional benefit of this system is that if the roller crimper is mounted on the front of the tractor, cover crop termination and planting can occur at the same time, saving a trip across the field.  Conventional farmers also have the option of utilizing herbicides, should rye regrowth occur in the system. 

Rye on this field is too short to crimp, but a roller crimper was at the field day to give participants an idea of how it worked 

Rye Cover Crops and N Management 

Dr. Matt Ruark from the UW- Madison Department of Soil Science was at the field day to talk about nitrogen management in a corn crop after a rye cover crop.  Ruark has been studying nitrogen dynamics in cover crop systems for the past several years.  He touched on the importance of carbon to nitrogen ratios (C: N) of the cover crop residue preceding a corn crop.  To gain a better understanding of carbon to nitrogen ratios and how those impact the soil microbial community and nitrogen availability to cash crops, check out this excellent video published by University of Minnesota researcher Dr. Caley Gasch. ​

​​Dr. Matt Ruark talks to the crowd about nitrogen management in cover crop systems.  

Rye residue has a higher C: N ratio, and can therefore cause nitrogen to be tied up by microbes in the soil. Because of this, Extension experts like Ruark, along with agronomists and experienced cover crop farmers recommend applying around 30 units or more of N if planting into tall, thick stands of rye yielding about 1,000 lbs/ac in biomass. This shifted the conversation towards the value and importance of farmers designating zero-N test strips on at least one, if not more of their fields.  A zero-N test strip can provide valuable insight to farmers on the efficiency of their nitrogen program.  Ruark noted that the strip does not have to take up a substantial portion of the field; it only has to be long enough for a yield monitor to pick up any changes in yield.  Yield can also be evaluated using hand-check methods.  UW-Discovery Farms works with farmers to evaluate their Nitrogen Use Efficiency and can assist farmers in setting up and evaluating zero-N test strips for farmers.  This year, the Farmers for the Upper Sugar River will be including this practice into their group's incentive program.  This is the first year that they will be offering a $200 incentive payment to farmers to designate a zero-N test strip in their fields.  Group Chairman Brian Brown mentioned he thought it was a good idea to include as an option in their program given the importance of water quality issues and the focus on cover crops in the group.  Understanding how nitrogen dynamics change in the soil as soil health improves is important for optimizing any nitrogen fertilizer program. 

A group of 35 turned out to learn about these different topics and network with each other.  The willingness of the group to work new topics and practices into their events and programs contributes to their success and growth as a group.  Reflecting on the past year, Brown stated, “This last year we have had so much interest in the group that we've actually outgrown our current meeting space, which is quite the humbling experience. There is real interest in the Farmers for the Upper Sugar River. It's really rewarding when a new person is interested, or if someone cannot get out of farm work to be at the meeting but are asking questions or participating in other ways."  

Farmer-led group engages dairy supply chain in pilot project to measure farm sustainability 

Article by Lauren Brey, Dairy Strong Sustainability Alliance and Dana Christel, DATCP Conservation Specialist

The Dairy Strong Sustainability Alliance (DSSA) is a collaborative effort to promote and support farmer-led solutions to today’s environmental challenges, taking into account business viability and community engagement. The DSSA supports farmer-led groups including Calumet Co. Agriculture Stewardship Alliance, Lafayette Ag Stewardship Alliance, Sheboygan River Progressive Farmers, Peninsula Pride Farms, Western Wisconsin Conservation Council and Yahara Pride Farms in a multitude of ways depending on each groups’ unique goals and needs.   

An exciting project developed and coordinated by DSSA in partnership with Lafayette Ag Stewardship Alliance (LASA), Grande Cheese and other key stakeholders is focused on fostering dairy supply chain transparency through analysis of on-farm conservation and soil health practices.  This work aims to create a replicable framework for farmer-led sustainability projects that incorporate both environmental and financial aspects of sustainability.  

LASA and project stakeholders are exploring the impacts of conservation practices used by LASA members through this project.  Results will help communicate the sustainability of farming practices to other farmers, customers, the local community, the agricultural supply chain and regulatory agencies. 

Benchmarking and tracking sustainability in farmer-led projects 

The project is designed around three phases. Phase one, currently underway, is the development of a framework document for establishing and conducting local farmer and industry-led sustainability projects. The framework consists of assessments of on-farm sustainability metrics to help farmers determine what is most useful for their operation and explains how to document the impact of on-farm conservation practices through use of available sustainability assessment tools and financial analysis. This framework will be available at no cost to farmers and others interested in creating similar projects, with an expected release date in late 2020 or early 2021.  

Exploration of evaluation tools and methods 

Phase two implements the framework in a pilot project. This phase includes environmental and financial analyses of participating farms and has several components. The environmental analysis portion includes on-farm metrics through Field to Market’s Fieldprint Platform and a local water resources assessment using the Prioritize, Target, Measure Application (PTMApp). All 12 participating farms are completing this portion of the analysis. Field to Market’s Fieldprint Platform (FPP) is a web-based software program designed to measure current conservation performance using sustainability metric scoring. The FPP is currently being used in over 50 Fieldprinting projects throughout the U.S., and is currently viewed as an industry standard in agricultural supply chain sustainability projects.  

Many farmers in Wisconsin currently utilize SnapPlus, Wisconsin’s nutrient management planning software, providing Wisconsin farmers with a tool for protecting soil and water quality. Through this project, stakeholders are also exploring the opportunity to integrate SnapPlus into the FPP to reduce redundancy with data entry between the platforms and to determine areas of commonality for a future project for possible integration. This could promote increased adoption of these tools among farmers and their partners for understanding the impact of conservation practices. 

The financial analysis of three dairy farms will be done by Farm Business Management experts at Southwest Wisconsin Technical College. Using a software called FINPACK from the University of Minnesota Center for Farm Financial Management, Farm Business Management experts at Southwest Wisconsin Technical College will be working with farmers to evaluate aspects of financial sustainability.  FINPACK is an analysis software built for agriculture farm communities that assists in building annual balance sheets, annual financial analysis, and cash flow projections. This software allows for an in-depth whole farm analysis as well as individual crop and livestock enterprises. In addition, farms receive a first look at their 21 farm financial ratios established by the Farm Financial Standards Council. This will aid in this project by providing annual financial benchmarks for each participating farm as well as a comparative to similar farms in FINBIN, a national database that provides farm financial and production benchmark information.  

Additionally, this project will include a FARM Environmental Stewardship (ES) evaluation for the three dairy farms that are also participating in the financial analysis 

Looking beyond the farm through the supply chain 

Information generated during project implementation will help supply chain partners better understand the positive and impact they can have with on-farm sustainability by supporting farmer-driven efforts, as well as the pressing need for their involvement in further driving and scaling farm sustainability and conservation solutions.  

Desired Project Outcomes: 

  • Create a positive and meaningful experience for farmer participants with regards to engaging public and private entities in conservation. 
  • Assess if current farming practices in conservation-conscious areas are having a positive impact on sustainability and water quality. 
  • Demonstrate the financial benefits of conservation practices on farms. 
  • Increase the use of sustainability measurement platforms by farmers to inform land and water management decisions leading to increased adoption of conservation measures.  
  • Provide public and private support and assistance to farmers pursuing conservation on their land. 
  • Increase the effectiveness of local, state and federal conservation programs by demonstrating tools that can assist in prioritizing, targeting and measuring performance of conservation practices. 
  • Increase engagement and landowner involvement in conservation groups and studies. 

This pilot project is anticipated to run through 2022. Having three years of data will help the participants and partners have a better picture of the impact of LASA member’s sustainability efforts as well as to share findings with other industry partners and farmer-led groups for adoption.  

This project has the potential to positively impact sustainability practices not only in Wisconsin but beyond. Other key stakeholders include The Nature Conservancy, Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, Lafayette Land Conservation Department, Ross Soil Service, Southwest Wisconsin Technical College, GPS Dairy Consulting, UW-Madison SnapPlus and Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin. Houston Engineering Inc. (HEI) has been engaged as the consulting firm for the project. 

Perennial Fund Offers Organic Transition Assistance for Conventional Farmers


Mad Agriculture is a non-profit organization focused on strategies to advance regenerative agriculture throughout the U.S. through unique farm financing programs, farm planning, and new agricultural markets. Read more below about the Perennial Fund, their organic transition assistance program.

Mad Ag believes that farmers considering organic practices and certification ought to have supportive financing opportunities to aid them through the transition to​ organic. No farmer should struggle to find a long-term, reliable lending partner if they are considering transitioning parts or all of their operations to organic. But ordinary bankers can struggle to understand the transition years and offload all of the risks onto the farmer. In their work to regenerate over 25,000 acres with dozens of farmers, it has become clear we need to re-humanize finance and align loan terms with long-term stewardship. They believe that lenders should share risk and multi-year financing should be a new normal. That's why they launched the Perennial Fund.

The Perennial Fund works to design a low-cost transition finance package that works for your operation. This is a custom plan for your individual farm and comes with a commitment to you through your whole transition for 8-10 years. It’s their goal to remove the anxieties of wondering i​f your bank will fund your next season or seeing a mailbox full of bills. Their terms include an 8-10 year commitment, deferral years for unexpected weather, access to new crops markets, and on-the-ground technical assistance. Mad Ag works tirelessly to help you transition to 100% organic, years sooner while creating a legacy of stewardship.

Mad Ag is currently looking for broad-acre row cropping farmers in the Midwest and High Plains. An ideal candidate is a farmer who is in the midst of transitioning land to organic or is starting to transition more acreage in 2021. They are giving high priority to localized groups of farmers who are transitioning land and have experience with the basics of soil health such as cover cropping, long rotations, and animal integration, which might make this program a great fit for certain Wisconsin Producer-Led Watershed Groups!

Contact Brandon Welch at brandon@madagriculture.org, 312-380-1411 if you would like to apply or have questions.

Manure Spills: How not to be the lead story on the 6 pm newsmanuretanker.jpg

Article and photo by Kevin Erb, University of Wisconsin-Extension, Conservation Professional Training Program​

Do you know what to do if a manure dragline coupling fails or a manure tanker takes a corner too fast, and the soft shoulder causes it to roll over? What if the neighbor calls you and says his manure is running out the barn door because a reception pit pump failed?

 While every farmer should take steps to reduce the chances of a manure spill or incident, mechanical breakdowns and equipment failures do happen, as does driver error.  Every livestock producer should have a manure spill plan in place, so they, and their employees, know:

  • Where they can find a copy of the plan quickly when needed
  • What steps should be taken immediately to address a manure spill
  • Who is responsible for reporting the spill?
  • Who is responsible for staying on-site during the entire clean-up process?
  • Who is designated to answer any questions from neighbors, agencies, or the media?
  • Who documents the response and cleanup process, and files the appropriate paperwork?

Where they can find a copy of the plan quickly when needed: The best plan means nothing if it's locked in the owner's office or stuck in an unlabeled binder. It should be readily accessible (a copy in each vehicle, on Google Drive or another private location accessible by any employee with a cell phone).

What steps should be taken immediately to address a manure spill: Each plan should contain these simple steps:

  1. Human safety is always your first concern. Get medical aid to any driver/operator as needed.
  2. Control the spill. Turn off the pump. Clamp the hose.
  3. Notify your supervisor. The business owner/your boss can get more resources to the site and help deal with the situation
  4. Contain the spill.  Build a dam. Run a chisel plow through the flow.
  5. Contact the appropriate authorities. Report as required
  6. Clean up and restore the site. Flush solids off of vegetation. Remove as much manure and avoid soil disturbance if you can. Reseed the area if needed
  7. Document the spill and file any necessary reports.

The plan should contain not only the simple steps to deal with a situation, but also phone numbers and locations of resources (backhoes, pump trucks, supplies) Each situation is unique. If it happens on a busy highway, you may want to call 911 right away to have traffic rerouted to make cleanup safer.

Who is responsible for reporting the spill? Under state law, manure spills (like diesel fuel, oil, and other spills) must be reported. If your farm is a CAFO, you should report to your CAFO contact. If that person is not reachable, or if the farm is smaller than a CAFO, spills should be reported to the 24-hour DNR Spills Hotline at 800-943-0003. You should always talk to a person and not just leave a voicemail message.  When a spill is reported, basic information will be collected, and, depending on the situation, DNR may or may not arrive on site.  Who on your operation does the reporting is up to you – but it should be done as soon as practical. It is better for the farm to self-report before a neighbor reports the problem.

Who is responsible for staying on-site during the entire clean-up process? This step is not found in most spill response materials, but the image of your tipped over manure tanker, with no one around, is not one you want to see on social media or the TV news. When a problem happens, one person should always be on site to manage the situation.

Who is designated to answer any questions from neighbors, agencies, or the media?

Employee or family member comments can be devastating if taken out of context.  Everyone should carry business cards with the owner's or spokesperson's cell phone number, and when asked “what happened" by a neighbor, citizen, or media, should hand them the card and let them know they should speak to the person in charge.

Who documents the response and cleanup process, and files the appropriate paperwork?

Depending on the size of the farm, county ordinances and other regulations, you may need to file a written report outlining what happened, what steps you took, and what you are doing to prevent it in the future. Take plenty of photos with your cell phone and keep them organized in a file.

A question often asked is: Do I need to report even a small spill? Under state law, a spill is defined as a discharge that causes, or threatens to cause, chronic or acute human health concerns or adversely impacts, or threatens to impact, the air, lands, or waters of the state in accordance with Wis. Stat. § 292.11(2) and Wis. Admin. § NR 706.05.  For example, a manure spill is a discharge that has the potential to impact human health—directly, or indirectly when it impacts surface or groundwater. There is not an amount “less than which you do not need to report".  A small leak in a manure hose sprayed in an agricultural field with a nutrient management plan does not need to be reported if there is no human health or environmental threat. On the other hand, the same amount of manure sprayed on a neighbor's yard or areas where manure is not intended to be applied, or in a wetland, would be reportable. That said, there are two aspects to consider:

  • CAFOs are required to report every spill to the DNR, even if it does not meet the standard above
  • If a neighbor is likely to call in a non-reportable event, self-reporting is a proactive approach to consider.


The bottom line is: Accidental spills are not illegal. Failing to report or clean-up is where your farm may get into trouble.

Communication Strategies for Producer-led Groups: Recap of 2021 Workshop

Article by Whitney Prestby and Michelle Probst, University of Wisconsin Division of Extension 

This year's workshop focused one of the biggest challenges that many producer-led groups face—reaching more farmers. One of the main concepts covered in the workshop was the importance of understanding your audience and what motivates them to change.  We then focused on how to incorporate these concepts into presentations through storytelling and best language to use for audiences.

Understanding how people make decisions is an important first step to building your outreach plan. A common misconception is to focus on information driven strategies, where it is believed that the more information a person has on a new idea or behavior, the more likely they are to change. However, it has been proven that humans are more complex than this and to create lasting change we must address the degree to which a behavior is valued, the social pressure to act on that behavior, and the barriers that exist to adopting that behavior. 

In addition to understanding how individuals make decisions, we also need to understand how new ideas and behaviors are adopted in social networks. The Diffusion of Innovation outlines the five adopter categories and the key characteristics for each group (Rogers, 2003). Understanding where your target audience is in their adoption of conservation practices and then taking those key characteristics into account when developing your outreach plan is very valuable.

  • Innovators: This is the smallest group. They're interested in new ideas and tend to cope well with uncertainty and risk. Their desire for new ideas tends to lead them out of local circles.
  • Early Adopters: This group represents the opinion leaders for their community. Their peers look to them for advice and information. They have similar characteristics to innovators, but they maintain a strong local connection.
  • Middle Adopters – Early Majority: This group is deliberate in their actions, but seldom lead. They interact frequently with early adopters in their communities.
  • Middle Adopters – Late Majority: This group is skeptical of change. Adoption of new ideas or behaviors is often triggered by economic necessity or peer pressure.
  • Laggards: This group is often seen as traditionalists. They are often more isolated in the social network and tend to interact with only like-minded individuals.

As you build your outreach plan, it is important to recognize the differences among these categories and adapt your strategies accordingly. The messages and language we use with innovators and early adopters are not going to be as effective, and in some cases may deter, those who represent other categories.

For many groups, their main outreach strategy is through field days and workshops in which many farmers and collaborators are asked to present at. After understanding your audience as described above, incorporating storytelling into your presentations can serve as a way to connect with your audience and motivate them change. Everyone has a story, and therefore, a way to connect with their audience. When telling your story for the purposes of enacting your audience to change, there are three elements this type of story needs:

  1. Human (character)-- Audience needs to understand a few things about the character so they can empathize with it
  2. Emotional change—Audience follows the emotional journey of this character. Throughout the story the character goes through different emotions while going through the different events of the story
  3. Call to action--this is the message you want your audience to walk away with. ​Stated at the end—MUST be clear, concise, and inspiring.

Once you have your story, it is now time to put it into structure. A simple story structure to follow is the 4 C's: Context, Conflict, Choice, Conclusion

  • Context: Life as it was, what were you or the world like before?
  • Conflict: Also called the inciting incident, where you (the character) are motivated towards a goal. Typically, there are multiple conflicts or roadblocks that you must overcome.
  • Choice: How you responded to conflict
  • Conclusion: the outcome of the choice you made that drives home your controlling idea. This should also be the call to action.

As we develop programs and initiatives to advance conservation in Wisconsin, it is important to understand your audience and the messages that best resonate with them. We challenge you think about how your group can work different messaging into your group's initiatives that will connect with middle adopters. An important tool for building connecting is storytelling and following the strategies above will help you tell your story in a clear, concise, and inspiring way. If you need assistance in applying these strategies, feel free to connect with an Extension Educator near you. Now, keep doing the good work, and spread the good word!