What Practices are Reducing Environmental and Economic Risks on Wisconsin Farms?

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This workshop will focus on how dairy farmers in Wisconsin evaluate the risk of nutrient and sediment loss on their operations and what best management practices are adopted to reduce these risks.  Dennis will describe how farm families evaluate all the risk factors facing their operation (weather, production, marketing, labor, safety and environmental risks) and discuss how a farmer has to balance the risk and rewards for each of these challenges.  It is helpful to gain an appreciation for the numerous challenges farmers face on a daily basis and the amount of time committed to the evaluation and implementation of soil and water best management practices on each farm. Conservation practices are often applied in a “one size fits all” approach and are not developed and implemented to fit the needs of each farming operation.  The large diversity of both farming systems and physical settings require a collaborative evaluation and implementation process between producers and conservation technicians to develop economic, effective, and practical conservation practices to fit the specific circumstances of individual farming operations.

What Are Some of the Lessons Learned in Managing Environmental Risks?

The focus of this talk is to explain when and where we saw nutrient and sediment losses that could have been avoided with improvements in management.  We will also discuss what we have learned about unavoidable losses and try and explain the difference between unacceptable risk and acceptable risk.

What Did We Do?

Over the past twelve years UW – Discovery Farms has worked on many farms evaluating a variety of farming systems and identifying the positive and negative impacts that production agriculture can have on the environment.  Data collection through this program includes over 120 sites years of edge-of-field monitoring, in-stream monitoring and monitoring tile drainage systems.  All the monitoring was done in partnership with the United States Geological Survey (USGS)  and this data set is one of the largest and best on-farm sets known to exist.

What Have We Learned?

Discovery Farms has studied a variety of farming systems including no-till, minimal tillage, tillage and rotational grazing.  The settings for these farming systems ranged from very steep (the driftless region with slopes up to 32%) to gently rolling (<3%) with a variety of unique challenges including manure management, tile drainage systems and close distance to surface water.  On each of the operations that were studied, the farm operators have selected a farming system (tillage, planting, pest control, manure management, harvest, crop rotation, etc) that works for them.  For the first two years of the study we asked the producers not make changes to their farming systems so that we could evaluate nutrient and sediment loss from their current practices.  It quickly became apparent that on real farms, nothing stays the same.  All of our cooperators made adjustments in management based not only on the data we were collecting, but also based on economics, changes in demand and changes on the operation (equipment, land base, labor, increase in cattle numbers).  It is also apparent that even with the best farming system, implemented almost perfectly; mother nature can throw some unanticipated events which have a tremendous impact on nutrient and sediment losses. 

Future Plans

In 2010, the UW – Discovery Farms Program expanded their on-farm research program to include not only edge-of-field and in-stream work on individual farms;  they are now working with multiple farms in small watersheds.  The goal of these studies is to better understand the relationsihp betweeen edge-of-field losses and what actually happens in lakes and streams.


Dennis R. Frame, Director, UW – Discovery Farms Program; Professor UW – Extension,  drframe@wisc.edu

Amber Radatz, Outreach Specialilst, UW – Discovery Farms

Eric Cooley, Outreach Specialist, UW-Discovery Farms

Additional Information

UW Discovery Farms makes every effort to develop materials from all of the on-farm research projects.  These materails are available on our website (uwdiscoveryfarms.org or by contacting our office at 1-715-983-5668).


The authors would like to thank all the farmers who have participated in our program.  Without their guidance and support this program would not be possible.  We would also like to acknowledge the support and guidance of all the non-governmental agricultural organizations in Wisconsin who continue to provide support financially and politically.


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