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County payments nudge Wien farmers to try no-till

Can anything be done to halt agricultural pollution in the Big Eau Pleine Reservoir?

That’s what an experiment on the 425acre Dave and Terry Bauman farm along the south edge of the town of Wien has been set up to discover.

The farmers, former dairy producers who switched to corn and soybeans in 2016, will receive $14,080 over two years to plant a quarter of their tillable acres using no-till cultivation with cover crops. The goal is to keep 526 pounds of phosphorus out the Big Eau Pleine.

The cash incentive, paid by municipal sewer users across the state, calculates to removing phosphorus from surface waters at the rate of $26.77 per pound.

Dave Bauman said he’s on board with the experiment, but is not necessarily sold on no-till cultivation as the wave of future agriculture. He is one of those farmers who for years said that no-till ag would never work.

“Yeah, I was one of those guys, “ he said. “I’m very skeptical. I am a show me kind of guy. I want to see how it works.”

Still, Bauman said, he signed onto this Fenwood Creek Subwatershed Project because he could see the need on his very own farm.

“Our land has rolling hills with long, gradual slopes,” he said. “It is prone to erosion. In the spring, we’d have these big gullies after a big rain. You don’t like to see that. That’s soil lost that you’ll never bring back. They don’t make new soil. It’s just gone.”

Bauman, too, said his soil has lost fertility over the years largely through compaction. He said his land’s clay hardpan just keeps on getting harder. “Our Withee-Loyal soil just doesn’t drain like it used to,” he said.

Further, he said that his farm’s conventional cash grain business has not been making any money over the last several years.

“If you were to total up everything, we probably have been losing money,” he said.

The farmer, if skeptical, is hopeful that he’ll realize the same or better grain yields with fewer inputs on the experimental acres as compared to the rest of his farm.

“At the end of the day, this is about profit,” he said. “We’ll compare the notill yields to the crops we grow on other land. Then we’ll see which gets us to break-even.”

Bauman said he is comfortable trying no-till agriculture on a fraction of his acres. Even if the experiment is a flop, he said, he would not have a complete crop failure. “You don’t want a big loss on it,” he said.

Bauman said he will plant corn and soybeans this spring using no-till equipment. When the corn is in the three to six leaf stage, he will broadcast a cover crop mix of clover, radish and rye seed between the corn rows. The cover crop will germinate and grow, but, as the corn gets taller, it will shade out the cover crop, which will go dormant over summer. In the fall, after the corn is harvested, the cover crop will green up and come back to life, holding the soil in place during fall rains. Over winter, the annual cover crop plants will die off.

“We’ll repeat the process in the spring,” Bauman said.

Bauman said he’s looking to see whether the no-till and cover crop approach can help his land hold water better. Right now, water tends to run off the land. He would like to see the cover crops take up moisture when it rains, keep the land moist when the weather is dry.

Bauman, 54, said he’s lived all his life on his farm and, with his brother, took over the farm from his father.

He said he doesn’t regret selling his cows four years. That was a good change. With depressed grain prices, he said he, again, is open to changing up how he grows soybeans and corn.

He hopes that the Fenwood Creek experiment can deliver better water quality for “people down on the flowage” and, at the same time, help his farm’s bottom line.

“You got to be willing to try,” he said. “If you are stuck in your ways, you are in a rut.”