@2010 Image courtesy of Jess Kruchoski. Used with permission.
"Wow, it's so green here!" my friend Scott, a Colorado native, repeated as we pedaled our bikes across the undulating farm roads in the Kettle Moraine State Forest. That's what I hear most from out-of-state cyclists when they come to race or train with me in my home state of Wisconsin. Each time one of these visitors arrives to ride the countless roads that wind past our thick forests and green pastures, I realize I am letting them in on one of the best-kept secrets of a state known mainly for its dairy products.
While cyclists live and breathe for the advancing technologies of carbon fiber, high-end components and faster machinery, we also value an environment that enhances our enjoyment of the sport. The balance between technology and conservationism is necessary to cycling enthusiasts. This balance, I've learned, is also necessary to dairy farmers.
What exactly do dairy farmers do to maintain Wisconsin's beautiful, clean landscape? I asked my dairy farm friends to describe what happens behind the scenes, and they shared with me a few facts and stories that show how dairy farmers do much more than make milk.
Responsible tillage methods
Recognized by the Sand County Foundation, the Koepke family of Koepke Farms, Oconomowoc, Wis., maintains cropland for future generations through strip cropping, crop rotations, responsible tillage methods and drainage tiles.
"Every day is Earth Day when you make your living off the land."
~ John Koepke
For more than 20 years, the Koepkes have been practicing no-till planting to minimize soil runoff and enhance moisture and nutrient absorption by crops. They apply organic fertilizer (cattle manure) and commercial fertilizer based on their annually prepared nutrient management plan. This plan outlines conservation practices designed to use fertilizer effectively, while also protecting natural resources. The plan involves soil and manure testing, erosion control practices and timing of fertilizer/manure applications. Through thorough planning and implementation, a nutrient management plan helps every farmer supply the proper nutrients for optimal crop yields, minimize runoff of pollutants to surface water and groundwater, and maintain or improve soil condition.
Sierra Club and farms—working together
Grassed waterways and small check dams on the Bragger Farm help prevent erosion, thus protecting waterways.
The Bragger family, who owns and operates a farm near Independence, Wis., earned the "Conservation Farmers of the Year" title in 2001. As a nature enthusiast, I can appreciate that contest! A participant in the UW-Extension Discovery Farms program, the Braggers have installed thousands of feet of grassed waterways and buffers on their land to successfully prevent runoff and allow sediment and nutrients to settle out prior to entering nearby waterways. The Braggers also built small check dams to reduce storm flow.
Dennis Frame, Discovery Farms co-director, and Joe Bragger shared some of the program's results with Sierra Club members, explaining that the natural contribution of woodland and grassland to overall phosphorus runoff into streams was significant enough to surprise even soil scientists. Once this natural runoff was identified on the Bragger farm, they installed grassed waterways downhill from the wooded areas to help filter out more nutrient runoff.
Water and energy conservation
Located on the other side of the state, near Lake Michigan, Soaring Eagle Dairy also participated in the Discovery Farms program. Buffer strips line their farm fields that lie adjacent to streams so nutrients seep into the soil and stay out of waterways. "In this region of Wisconsin, the establishment and maintenance of grassed waterways in areas of concentrated flow is critical," stated Frame.
Tile drainage systems and buffer strips next to streams are incorporated on Soaring Eagle Dairy Farm.
Subsurface drainage is used for agricultural, residential and industrial purposes to remove excess water from poorly drained land, without moving the soil and its valuable nutrients. For farmers, such drainage systems improve timeliness of field operations, enhance growing conditions for crop production, increase crop yields on poorly drained soils, and improve overall soil quality by decreasing soil erosion and compaction. Discovery Farms trials conducted at Soaring Eagle Dairy have helped researchers develop recommendations to most effectively use tile drainage systems.
Energy conservation complements soil and water conservation at Soaring Eagle Dairy, owned and operated by Jim and Sandie Fitzgerald and their three daughters—Kelly Goehring, Julie Maurer and Stacy Klotz—and their families. To conserve resources, they look for the most energy-efficient equipment. For example, water used in the barns goes through a plate cooler to pre-cool milk. A plate cooler is an energy-efficient piece of equipment that quickly lowers milk's temperature from 101 degrees Fahrenheit (its temperature at milking) to about 50 degrees. Milk cooling is a significant percentage of a dairy farm's electricity costs. Plate coolers cool milk quickly, which helps lower bacteria counts and is easier on compressors. A plate cooler is one of the best energy investments at Soaring Eagle.
Water management in dairy production
"When it comes to the environment, our family prides itself in employing best management practices," said Sandy Larson, business relations manager of Larson Acres in Evansville, Wis. "We're committed to protecting water resources and have installed a wastewater treatment plant that helps us provide safer application of manure solids, replaces most fresh water with recycled water, and optimizes the nutrient content of manure we use as fertilizer."
This wastewater treatment system eliminates the need for agitation, which reduces odors. Plus, the system reduces manure-hauling costs, helps recycle bedding sand and reduces the amount of liquid manure stored on the farm. And when it comes to applying fertilizer, the Larsons use a strip-till manure applicator. It does not disturb topsoil during application, and this helps keep crop residue in place to minimize soil and nutrient runoff.
Wisconsin's green advantage
Like the Koepkes, Braggers, Fitzgeralds and Larsons, Wisconsin's dairy farmers live and work on the land to support their families, livestock and communities. By maintaining these open spaces, farmers allow bicyclists, hunters, hikers and other naturalists to enjoy the land.
When I travel, people who have never been to Wisconsin ask me what cycling is like there. First, I tell them that the Wisconsin Off Road Series (WORS) is the largest state-run mountain bike racing series in the country and that the courses are unmatched by anything in other parts of the US. And that Madison is consistently voted one of the top cities in America for cyclists because of its aesthetic beauty and commitment to an enormous cycling population. Finally, I tell them that because we have a farming community that cares about the outdoors as much as we do, Wisconsin is simply the "greenest" state in America to ride a bike.