On-Farm Stewardship Research Group: Farmer-Led Research to Promote Working Lands Conservation for Soil Health, Water Quality and Biodiversity.

Progress report for ONC20-069

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2020: $40,000.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2023
Grant Recipient: Valley Stewardship Network
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Project Coordinator:
Shelly Gradwell-Brenneman
Valley Stewardship Network
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Project Information

Summary:

The Kickapoo River Watershed (KRW) region in SW Wisconsin is experiencing significant loss of livestock integration and thus grass cover. From 1997-2012, the counties in the KRW lost around 18% of their pastureland and a staggering amount of dairy farms, burdening the economic vibrancy and ecological resiliency of this community. Decreased grass cover is associated with increased nutrient loss to waterways, reduced biodiversity, and poor flood control (Atwell et al., 2010). Almost 45% of the KRW’s subwatersheds are in the top 20% of Wisconsin HUC12 watersheds for water quality sensitivity to agricultural BMPs (WBI, 2005). Valley Stewardship Network (VSN) is a KRW non-profit with 19-years experience in water quality research and working lands conservation. VSN partners with farmers to measure impacts of BMP’s; supports watershed councils; and is well prepared to initiate and sustain an on-farm research group, based on the model of Practical Farmers of Iowa.

Project focus is on-farm research/education on benefits of reintegrating forages and native grasses on mid-sized diversified crop and livestock farms in 4 components:

  • 1: Cover Crops and Prairie Strips for Soil Quality
  • 2: Cover Crop Seeding, Management and Grazing
  • 3: Bird Friendly Haying and Grazing
  • 4: Prairie Filter Strips for Soil Quality & Biodiversity
Project Objectives:

Overall: Create an on-going structure for on-farm stewardship research with motivated farmer leaders in priority subwatersheds.

Component 1: Demonstrate cover cropping and native prairie strips for soil quality, increasing water infiltration and grazing.

Component 2: Demonstrate cover cropping seeding techniques, equipment, management, and grazing. 

Component 3: Test and establish verification standards for bird-friendly grazing and hay production, including haying management and nest refuge paddock guidelines for rotational grazing systems.

Component 4: Demonstrate the infiltration, soil quality and biodiversity benefits of prairie filter strips adjacent to row crop fields.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Jim Munsch (Educator and Researcher)
  • Dave Van Dyke (Educator and Researcher)
  • Brad Robson (Educator and Researcher)
  • Jeremy Nagel (Educator and Researcher)
  • Jason Vidas (Educator and Researcher)
  • Shelly Gradwell-Brenneman (Educator)
  • Dave Krier (Educator and Researcher)
  • Dani Heisler (Educator and Researcher)

Research

Materials and methods:

COMPONENT ONE :  COVER CROPS AND PRAIRIE STRIPS FOR SOIL QUALITY AND GRAZING

Jeremy Nagel, Soldiers Grove, WI

 

Demonstration of cover crop seeding, grazing and management. Establishment and assessment of prairie strip soil benefits. 

 

Cover Crop Establishment and Grazing

Jeremy Nagel planted 7 acres of a Brassica, clover, warm season mix as an annual in early June 2021. Directly following the planting there were 2 weeks of dry weather resulting in only minimal growth in the early season. He was able to graze it for 2 days in mid-July, followed by 30 days rest. Then grazed it for a week in mid-August. He applied a herbicide late season to kill off the clover, as the following spring (2022) he plans to rotate the field into corn. Marginal crop ground was converted to native prairie strip to reduce nutrient and sediment loss.

 

Soil Nutrient Assessment

Soil sampling was completed in 2020 by VSN staff.  Each site Haney and UW lab analysis. These tests should be repeated to determine soil quality benefits of cover crops and prairie strips.        

 

Prairie Strip Establishment

Working with the Nagels, VSN staff developed an area to be planted with a grazable native prairie strip using a mix we have designed to specifically allow for warm season grazing.  1 acre was planted by VSN staff in November 2020.

Water infiltration rates improve through native plantings, and data was taken by VSN staff in August 2020 in soybeans and in a grassed waterway.

 

 

COMPONENT TWO:  COVER CROP SEEDING, MANAGEMENT AND GRAZING

Brad Robson Farm, Viroqua, WI

 

Demonstration of cover crop seeding, management and grazing.

 

Equipment Development/Use/Lease

Through coordination with the Township of Franklin (Vernon Co), VSN was able to procure a Yetter 15’ Rotary hoe. This hoe is the implement used to mount the Gandy 6212 Orbit Air Seeder to. Thanks to the township, they offered their services and expertise to engineer and attach the Air Seeder to the rotary hoe for functional inter-seeding. The seeding can occur into row crops, ideally until leaf stage V5 or in the early fall months after row crop harvest. In 2021 the seeder was utilized to do some experimental rye inter-seeding, as well as continue to calibrate for seed types.

 

Cover Crop Establishment

On July 23, 2021 a drone inter-seeded red clover into 20 acres of soybeans. The clover germinated quickly and grew for about 2 weeks before terminating. We speculated that it was due to residual chemicals in the field. The chemical program is depicted below.  We will repeat this process again in 2022, also into standing beans with the intention to fix nitrogen for the following year's corn crop, which will be tested through corn tissue sampling.  

Spray Program:

5-10-21 First pass

Bucaneer + 1 quart

Sonic 4 oz.

2-4-D 1 pint

$26/acre application paid by farmer

 

6-25-21 Second pass

Bucaneer + 1 quart

Dual 1 pint

Enlist(24D) 1 pint

QLF Boost 2 gal.

CX-1 Biological 2 gal.

$45.80/ acre application paid by farmer

 

 

COMPONENT THREE: BIRD FRIENDLY HAYING AND GRAZING

Jim Munsch, Deer Run Farm, Coon Valley, WI

Jason Vidas, Bird Friendly Wisconsin, La Farge, WI (VSN Consultant)

 

Test and establish verification standards for bird-friendly grazing and hay production, including haying and grazing management, bird surveys and nest refuge paddock guidelines.  

 

Verification Standards and Bird Surveys

Verification standards were researched, established and tested for bird-friendly grazing and hay production. Bird survey point counts at 5 locations (2 in rotational grazing, 1 in grazing refuge, 1 in late-cut hay, and 1 in conventional hay) were completed weekly for 8 weeks in Summer 2020 and 2021. Market research and outreach in progress and included a November 2020 Bird Friendly meal collaboration with a local caterer and community outreach.  

 

REPORT 1: 2020 OVERVIEW

In 2020, in order to refine and better understand the challenges to creating a Bird-Friendly Beef certification protocol that is both farmer-friendly (economically viable) as well as beneficial for grassland bird breeding populations, we had the following goals:

- Divide the grazing and hay ground into different treatments and study how the grassland birds utilized these different treatments throughout the breeding season.

- Quantify the economic costs of setting aside breeding refuge in managed grazing pastures

- Quantify the economic costs of Late Cut Hay (cut after July 15) and quantify the nutritional content of late-cut hay.

We started by:

- Divide his hay ground into two treatments - 1)Hay harvested on conventional schedule and 2)Hay harvested on "bird-friendly" schedule of no cutting till after July 15th.   Bird Surveys were completed on both treatments throughout the breeding season and we also did a nutritional analysis of the hay from both treatments and attempted to quantify the economic costs of the bird-friendly schedule

- Divide the grazing ground into two treatments - 1)conventional rotationally grazed land that is rotated approx every X day and 2) grazing ground that is kept as breeding bird refuge (no grazing or mechanical intrusion) from May 1 - July 15th.  The "refuge" made up approx 9 acres.  Bird surveys were completed on both treatments throughout the breeding season and we also quantified the economic costs to the farmer of creating a breeding refuge.

Bird surveys were done as point counts of 10 minutes each with diameter of 100 meters.  A total of eight surveys were completed between June 6 - July 23rd. .  3 of these locations were conventional Rotationally-grazed pastures, 1 was breeding refuge, 1 was conventional hay, and 1 was bird-friendly hay field.  We also did some territorial mapping on the breeding refuge to better understand how this was utilized.

Financial analysis both late-cut hay and grazing refuge.

Hay nutrition compare and contrast.

 

COMPONENT FOUR: PRAIRIE STRIPS FOR SOIL QUALITY AND BIODIVERSITY

Dave Van Dyke Farm, Viroqua, WI

 

Prairie strip planting, sediment trapping, water infiltration, soil health and biodiversity (pollinator) data collected to demonstrate the effectiveness of the adaption of the ISU STRIPS model to SW Wisconsin.

 

Prairie STRIP Establishment

VSN staff planted 1.6 acres of STRIPS on Dave Van Dyke and his neighbor’s property, to add to the 3 acres of STRIPS planted three years ago on his property. VSN staff worked with Shooting Star seeds to modify the mix from that previously used on his property to meet farmer goals. Photo of the study area is in media library.

 

Seed Mix Developed

VSN staff worked with John Delaney and Shooting Star Native Seeds to understand seed mixes that we have been using developed by John versus standard mixes available.  We developed a new tall grass native mix that is $250/acre (compared to $640/acre for our current premium tall grass mix). It has more seeds per square foot, and 21 vs 27 forbs, but still has 30 species (compared to 3-17 species and 30 seeds/ft2 for more traditional mixes).  This should allow us to implement native seed tall grass plantings much more economically. 

 

Water Infiltration Test

VSN staff conducted water infiltration tests at Dave Van Dyke’s established prairie STRIP (two locations) (corn field and STRIP).

 

Soil Quality Assessment

VSN staff conducted soil sampling at Dave Van Dyke’s farm (three locations, second sampling with previous data from two years ago at same sites).  Soil samples were sent to Midwest Labs to get the ‘Haney Test’ and to the UW labs for a traditional soil test on the same grab samples.

 

Pollinator Survey

VSN staff conducted a pollinator survey at Dave Van Dyke’s prairie strip with John Delaney.  (9/10/20) 

 

Research results and discussion:

COMPONENT ONE :  COVER CROPS AND PRAIRIE STRIPS FOR SOIL QUALITY AND GRAZING

Jeremy Nagel, Soldiers Grove, WI

 

Demonstration of cover crop seeding, grazing and management. Establishment and assessment of prairie strip soil benefits. 

Jeremy Nagel planted 7 acres of a Brassica, clover, warm season mix as an annual in early June 2021. Directly following the planting there were 2 weeks of dry weather resulting in only minimal growth in the early season. He was able to graze it for 2 days in mid-July, followed by 30 days rest. Then grazed it for a week in mid-August. He applied a herbicide late season to kill off the clover, as the following spring (2022) he plans to rotate the field into corn. 

 

Soil Nutrient Assessment

Results forthcoming

 

Prairie Strip Establishment

1 acre was planted by VSN staff in November 2020. Nagels mowed planting several times.  

Water infiltration test was 2.5x higher in grassed waterway than soybeans.  Increasing the areas of perennial cover should help improve water infiltration rates.

 

COMPONENT TWO:  COVER CROP SEEDING, MANAGEMENT AND GRAZING

Brad Robson Farm, Viroqua, WI

 

Demonstration of cover crop seeding, management and grazing.

 

Cover Crop Establishment

On July 23, 2021 a drone inter-seeded red clover into 20 acres of soybeans. The clover germinated quickly and grew for about 2 weeks before terminating. We speculated that it was due to residual chemicals in the field. We will repeat this process again in 2022, also into standing beans with the intention to fix nitrogen for the following year's corn crop, which will be tested through corn tissue sampling and those results are forthcoming.  

 

 

COMPONENT THREE: BIRD FRIENDLY HAYING AND GRAZING

Jim Munsch, Deer Run Farm, Coon Valley, WI

 

Jason Vidas, Bird Friendly Wisconsin, La Farge, WI (VSN Consultant)

 

Test and establish verification standards for bird-friendly grazing and hay production, including haying and grazing management, bird surveys and nest refuge paddock guidelines.  

 

Goals achieved

Verification standards were established for bird-friendly grazing and hay production with 4 additional producers are beginning to adopt these practices. Further impact will be measured by value-added bird friendly beef and hay education, marketing and sales.  Bird survey point counts at 5 locations were completed weekly for 8 weeks in Summer 2020 and 2021. As a result of this project success, several regional partner organizations have initiated bird friendly beef projects in collaboration with VSN.

 

Summary of 2020 breeding bird survey results:

- On the rotationally grazed pastures, we noticed many birds - Bobolink, Eastern Meadowlark, Savannah Sparrow, and Dickcissel utilizing the ground to attempt breeding before any grazing occurred.  Once grazing moved into an area, the breeding cycle of all birds was disrupted, with the exception of Savannah Sparrows, which seemed to continue in certain areas even after grazing occurred.  We did note that Eastern Meadowlark was noted carrying food on June 17th in a pasture that hadn't been grazed yet, so that species may see nesting success in some late-grazed paddocks owing to its early start to breeding.

- On the breeding refuge, we noted likely breeding Bobolinks (at least 2 pair), Eastern Meadowlarks (at least one pair) , and Field Sparrow (likely one pair).  We did not attempt to locate nests.  We did notice Bobolinks carrying food, so likely breeding success confirmed.

- On the conventional hay fields, all breeding was disrupted upon hay harvest. 

- On the bird-friendly hay (late cut) - There was likely some breeding success of Eastern Meadowlark and Bobolink and Field Sparrows.  Owing to the shape of the late-cut hay (a long rectangle), there was noted some disturbance and contraction of signs of breeding after the hay directly adjacent was harvested, but hard to confirm this with 10 minute surveys.

It is fair to say that the breeding refuge and the late-cut hay were both more successful in allowing grassland birds to breed than the other treatments.

 

2021 Bird Survey Results 

2021 Breeding Bird Survey (1)

 

 

2021 YIELD AND FINANCIAL IMPACT

This is a report on the yield and financial impact of following the WI Bird-Friendly Beef Certification Protocols.  The main thrust of this system is setting aside 15% of the grazing acreage to make a “refuge” that will not be grazed or hayed from May 1st – July 15th, which will allow grassland birds to successfully reproduce.  My refuge was 7.6 acres of our 50 acre pasture system used for our cow/calf operation. It was not grazed until July19 thru July 24.  The refuge area was located central to the whole pasture system so that non-refuge paddocks surrounded it and separated it from wooded land.

Protocol for measuring yield was to take clippings from established areas (4 sq ft) in 5 locations selected by a consistent sampling pattern in a paddock the day cattle were introduced to it. Clippings were taken to 4 inches of residual.  Samples were taken from a baseline paddock adjacent to the refuge on 5 grazing events from May 10 to Oct 10.  Management of the baseline paddock was consistent to management across the majority of the whole system. The refuge was grazed the first time on July 19 and then two additional times through October 11 - each time on the day following the baseline paddock.   All clippings were dried to 0% moisture to determine tons of dry matter yield (TDM/a.) 

There was a 9.1% yield reduction in the refuge area vs yield in the adjacent, baseline paddock. Over the whole refuge area this was estimated as 0.75 TDM. Yields throughout the pasture system were suppressed this year due to early and persistent drought and unusually cold weather in April and May.  Across multiple years our average forage is 5,000#/a (DM basis) or 2.5 TDM/a. Therefore, in a normal year the total reduction in the refuge would have been 1.73 TDM (9% reduction on 2.5 TDM/a over 7.6 acres in the refuge.)

Samples that were taken to determine yield were not sent for nutrient analysis but it was obvious that the quality of forage was poor at the time of the first grazing of the refuge. Calves were 6 weeks old on average at the time of the first refuge grazing so milk production by the cows was high; poor quality forage probably suppressed milk production during the days that the cows were grazing the mature forage. They grazed mature refuge for 5 days.  Furthermore, palatability was reduced as indicated by the relatively high forage refusal rate.  This was not measured but only observed after grazing.  Therefore, while DM reduction was measured as above, forage intake was probably reduced to a greater extent.

An interesting positive outcome for pasture health from refuge management was increased grass density.  Dominant species in these pastures are meadow fescue, smooth brome grass, timothy and blue grass.  Meadow fescue had viable seeds by the first grazing date in the refuge; there was an obvious increase in number of plants late in the year.

If you consider that the shortfall in a normal year would be made up with harvested hay @$100/TDM, it means the increased cost of the refuge system was $173 for establishing a bird-breeding refuge.   We believe the total cost might be slightly greater due to reduced DM intake rate and reduced forage quality but there also may be benefits to using this system beyond natural re-seeding.   

To summarize, the external costs to a farmer to follow the certification are minimal when you consider that being certified allows a farmer to market their beef as Certified WI Bird-Friendly Beef, which will likely allow a producer to get a higher price and increased demand for their beef.

 

 

 

COMPONENT FOUR: PRAIRIE STRIPS FOR SOIL QUALITY AND BIODIVERSITY

Dave Van Dyke Farm, Viroqua, WI

 

Prairie strip planting, sediment trapping, water infiltration, soil health and biodiversity (pollinator) data collected to demonstrate the effectiveness of the adaption of the ISU STRIPS model to SW Wisconsin.

 

Prairie STRIP Establishment

VSN staff planted 1.6 acres of STRIPS on Dave Van Dyke and his neighbor’s property. Dave mowed the strip consistently and performed mechanical weed removal. Due to excellent week control before and after planting, this planting developed near perfectly and featured an ideal selection of native species, rare for a Year 1 planting. 

 

Water Infiltration

VSN staff conducted water infiltration tests at Dave Van Dyke’s established prairie STRIP (two locations) (corn field and STRIP). Results are summarized here:  Van Dyke Research Data and Pollinator Data 09132020 (1)

 

Soil Quality Assessment

VSN staff conducted soil sampling at Dave Van Dyke’s farm (three locations, second sampling with previous data from two years ago at same sites).  Soil samples were sent to Midwest Labs to get the ‘Haney Test’ and to the UW labs for a traditional soil test on the same grab samples. Results are summarized here:  Van Dyke Research Data and Pollinator Data 09132020 (1)

 

Pollinator Survey

VSN staff conducted a pollinator survey at Dave Van Dyke’s prairie strip with John Delaney.  Results are detailed here:  Van Dyke Research Data and Pollinator Data 09132020 (1)

 

 

 

Participation Summary
4 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

10 Consultations
5 On-farm demonstrations
1 Published press articles, newsletters
5 Tours
2 Webinars / talks / presentations
5 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

75 Farmers
15 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

COMPONENT TWO:  COVER CROP SEEDING, MANAGEMENT AND GRAZING

 

Brad Robson Farm, Viroqua, WI

  

FIELD DAYS

Two Farm Field Days were held in 2020. The first field day featured inter-seeding cover crops on 30 and 45 inch rows. The second field day featured cover crop identification, consultations and economics, soil pit, corn tissue sampling and late season cover crop grazing.

 

One Farm Field Day was held in September, 2021 and featured drone cover crop seeding demonstration, soil pits, rainfall simulator, and cover crop consultations. There were approximately 20 attendees at each field day. Attached is a photo of Brad Robson with drone seeder at his field day in September, 2021. 

 

 

 

COMPONENT THREE: BIRD FRIENDLY HAYING AND GRAZING

 

Jim Munsch, Deer Run Farm, Coon Valley, WI

Jason Vidas, Bird Friendly Wisconsin, La Farge, WI (VSN Consultant)

 

2020 CONSUMER OUTREACH MATERIALS
(Used for November 2020 Bird Friendly meal catered for a VSN member presentation)

Valley Stewardship Network’s Bird Friendly Farming Initiative made good progress this year as we continue to pursue our goal of creating a consumer market for Bird-Friendly Beef and Bird-Friendly Hay in Wisconsin.

Thanks to a SARE grant, we started testing out our ideas about Bird-Friendly Beef on an actual farm – Jim Munsch’s Deer Run Farm near Coon Valley.  Our plan for Bird-Friendly Beef centers around the farmer creating a grassland bird refuge in the grazing paddocks that won’t be grazed from May 1 – July 15th.  This refuge will make up between 10-20% of the grazed land and needs to be contiguous.  This year, Jim set aside around 10% of his grazing area for the refuge.

On Jim’s farm, we did a breeding bird survey for 8 weeks throughout the grazing paddocks (both the paddocks utilized as well as the refuge paddocks) and his hay ground.  The data still need further analyzing, but I can report that the refuge was a success for breeding grassland birds such as Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark. 

This winter we will sit down with Jim to better understand the financial aspects of the refuge system.  When we learn what the external costs to the farmer are of the refuge system, we can then figure out ways to make up these costs – either increased sales or higher prices.  A firmer understanding of the financial picture also will allow us to figure out the maximum amount of refuge area we can give the breeding birds and remain viable for the farmer.  Bird-Friendly farming needs to be financially sustainable for the farmer in order to gain widespread acceptance. 

We are still working out the details, but we hope to be able to offer Bird-Friendly beef from Jim Munsch’s farm this winter to VSN members.

On the Bird-Friendly Hay side of things, we are also working with Jim Munsch to produce a guide for hay producers.  Bird-Friendly Hay is basically hay that is first harvested after July 15th.  Over the years, Jim has experimented with different seed mixes and has found a mix that allows hay to be harvested in a Bird-Friendly way and still have a high relative feed value.  Look for this guide to be ready by the end of winter.

Changes to more Bird-Friendly ways of farming will ultimately be driven by the consumer.  Our role here at VSN is to try to bring these products to market and educate the consumer about the real positive differences they can make to our endangered grassland birds.  After that, it is up to the marketplace to decide whether these products have value for the consumer.

Do you purchase hay and would you like to find a Bird-Friendly version that meets your needs?  Do you eat grass-fed beef and be willing to pay a little extra for Bird-Friendly beef?  If so, we want to hear from you (and your friends).  Having a list of real people willing to spend real dollars is the best leverage we can have to encouraging farmers to give these practices a place on the farm. 

If you are interested in purchasing Bird-Friendly beef or hay or learning more, please check out our website:  https://birdfriendlyfarming.org/ or contact me at Jason@Birdfriendlyfarming.org

 

 

 

COMPONENT FOUR: PRAIRIE STRIPS FOR SOIL QUALITY AND BIODIVERSITY

 

Dave Van Dyke Farm, Viroqua, WI

August 2021 FIELD DAY

VSN staff worked with Dave Van Dyke to coordinate, promote and host a STRIP Field Day at the Van Dyke farm in August 2021. There was an excellent article in the Crawford Independent on STRIPS and the Field Day:  Van Dyke Prairie STRIP Article 8-21  A photo of farmer Dave Van Dyke, leading the field day is attached. 

 

Learning Outcomes

25 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation

Project Outcomes

12 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
2 Grants received that built upon this project
3 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

All four components of the project have been well received by farmers and rural landowners, and especially members of 4 watershed councils in our area, who have come together for the social benefits of farmer-led learning. Through on-farm research and outreach, this project has helped prove the agricultural and ecological benefits of the pioneering practices of cover crops, prairie strips and grassland bird refuges in grazing systems. In addition to the current 40 acres, 17 additional acres of new prairie STRIPS will be planted in 2022. These local successes have attracted the attention and support of regional and state-level partner organizations that are likely to help take these practices to the next level by providing support and cost share for large numbers of farmers. For example, a new RCPP grant is beginning this year in our area that includes these practices. 

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.