Dairyman involved in runoff monitoring project

By Ron Johnson, Dairy Star

Originally published in the Dairy Star online on June 27th

Malin hopes to prove his farm not at fault for fish kill

WESTBY, Wis. - The mystery of the dead fish might never be solved. But dairyman Paul Malin hopes to prove that his farm was not a culprit in this rural whodunit.
The Malin family milks 80 Holsteins in Vernon County, near Westby. Wis. The fish kill occurred in nearby Jersey Valley Lake in early March 2005. Now, as part of a multiyear project, Wisconsin Discovery Farms is monitoring the amount and type of runoff from the Malin farm and several others.

On June 7, Discovery Farms and the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin (PDPW) teamed up for a water quality tour that included the lake and the Malin farm. The 30 or so people attending got a close-up look at the runoff monitoring station in a grass waterway behind and down a hill from the Malins' dairy barn.

Malin said right after the fish kill, people began pointing fingers of blame. Among those accused were the dairy farmers in the Jersey Valley Watershed for spreading manure that supposedly ran off into the man-made lake.

When farmers, tired of being blamed for the fish kill, invited the Discovery Farms team to investigate, Malin volunteered to participate. "I'd rather be part of the solution than part of the problem," he said. The Malins' part of southwest Wisconsin is marked by rugged land - steep hills, ridgetops and valleys. Malin grows 323 acres of corn, hay and soybeans.

Along with allowing Discovery Farms to set up a monitoring station and weather stations, Malin calls the headquarters at Pigeon Falls, Wis., whenever he does something that might affect the land and possibly the amount and kind of runoff. He reports such things as cutting hay, spreading manure and applying fertilizer. In addition, a camera at the station records nearby activities.

There's also a monitoring station in the West Fork of the Kickapoo River - a trout stream - where it meets Jersey Valley Lake. Four more stations are in farm fields, one is in a wooded ravine and one is in town.

At the Malin farm, Discovery Farms Co-Director Amber Raddatz explained how the monitoring equipment works and what it does.

The computerized equipment is housed in a metal box. A solar panel provides electricity to power everything. A steel flume in the waterway channels runoff, whether it's from rain or melting snow. A line runs from a canister of gas in the metal box and into the bottom of the flume.

When the computer senses water in the flume, a jet of gas is shot out every 15 minutes, Raddatz said. The amount of pressure needed to push the gas out rises when water is in the flume. From the amount of pressure required, researchers can calculate the amount of water flowing through the flume.

Researchers also know the size of the area being drained. From that, they can calculate the amount of runoff in inches, and the pounds of nitrogen, phosphorus and soil that are washing through the flume.

A water line sucks samples out of the flume. Discovery Farms employees collect the sample bottles and send them to a lab in Stevens Point, Wis. There they are analyzed for the amount of sediment, phosphorus and nitrogen they contain. In addition, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) monitors, via computers, what's going through the flume.

Meanwhile, the on-farm weather stations collect data on the amount of precipitation, the wind speed, soil moisture, soil temperature and solar radiation. Putting all the information together lets researchers figure out the conditions that lead to runoff. That information, said Raddatz, can help farmers decide whether or not they can apply manure without having it wash away.

Kevin Klingberg, outreach coordinator for UW Discovery Farms, said after gathering information for a couple years it's possible to start seeing the outlines of the bigger picture. From their work in the Jersey Valley Watershed and other parts of the state, Discovery Farms staff has learned that a typical Wisconsin year brings risky times for applying manure.

One of those times is when winter begins to change to spring, generally late February through March. During those few weeks, Klingberg said it's wise for farmers to apply manure - if they must - on higher ground and away from streams and other water courses.
"Another risky time is sort of right now," Klingberg said.

That's May into June. Fields have been tilled and crops have been planted. Yet much of the soil lies exposed to the eroding force of raindrops because crops have not had time to form their protective canopy. Overall, Klingberg said data collected by Discovery Farms shows there's a danger for runoff from farm fields about 15 days a year.

At the flume on the Malin farm, nearly 400,000 gallons of water flowed through during 2015, according to Discovery Farms. If it was spread over a football field, the water would be a foot deep, and over the entire drainage area it would be 1.39 inches deep.

To protect the soil, more and more farmers, including Malin, have turned to no-till and the use of cover crops.

Malin said this is his third year of planting cover crops. He thinks the cover lessened soil erosion last year.

Raddatz said Malin is doing other things right to keep soil and nutrients in place. They include planting in contour strips, keeping much of his farm in hay and using no-till planting on part of his farm.

The Malin farm does not have manure storage, which means hauling manure is nearly an every day occurrence, Raddatz said. Even though, the relatively small area being monitored received manure last November, December and January,

"The phosphorus numbers (in the water samples) are real similar to what we've seen in other areas of the watershed," Raddatz said.

Raddatz praised Malin for his nutrient management, pointing out that the highest sediment losses found in the waterway were about 700 pounds per acre.

Discovery Farms has found that 90 percent of the farms it has monitored have soil losses under 1,000 pounds per acre. During some years, the losses are as little as 100 pounds per acre.
"So really, sediment loss is not an issue on this farm, from the field sites here," Raddatz said.
Perhaps just as important as minimizing the loss of soil and nutrients is the increased understanding and trust the Discover Farms project has cultivated among farmers and nonfarmers.
Said Klingberg, "I think we have, pretty successfully, opened up a dialog here."

This article originally appeared in the online edition of the Dairy Star: