Sometimes when it rains, Ruben Schloneger can hear the ground gurgle. The soil in his family’s fields near Shell Lake, Wisc. is so porous that the water soaking in and pushing the air out is audible. This is a happy sound for the milk producers, their cows, and the Clam River.
Such loose soil can soak up a lot of water, and hold runoff, sediment, and nutrients on the fields. It grows better crops and protects nearby waters. But managing fields so the soil stays healthy and loose is not easy, especially when using manure produced by the cattle as fertilizer.
The farm sits in the upper reaches of the Clam River watershed, some 60 miles above its confluence with the St. Croix River near Grantsburg. These upper reaches of the Clam contain high-quality trout streams in good condition.
Schloneger’s parents started the farm in 1978 with a herd of 40 cows. The dairy industry has changed drastically since then, and so has their operation. Today, the family has 1,450 cows, which means it qualifies as a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) and is required to abide by state rules for managing manure and more. The operation produces about 13.6 million gallons of manure per year.
There are currently few CAFOs in the St. Croix River region, but a proposal for a new swine facility with 26,000 hogs near the Trade River has raised alarms about the risks to lakes, rivers, groundwater, air, and community health.
Legacy Farms is a different animal, literally and figuratively. Cattle pose different risks than hogs, though both produce significant amounts of manure. Legacy is also family-owned, with the operators living on site and in the community; the proposed Trade River hog facility would be owned by an Iowa corporation. But both are based on the idea of raising crops to feed animals and using their manure to fertilize the fields.
Even though comparisons are limited, the story of Legacy Farms is instructive.
In October, the Schlonegers opened their barn doors to their peers and community. The farm hosted a workshop geared toward their fellow farmers, explaining how they have recently changed their manure management, restoring their soil to full health, and reconnecting with their land. The event was hosted by the Yellow River-Shell Lake Farmer-Led Watershed Council and University of Wisconsin-Extension.
“Everything we do is supporting dairy cows on the farm,” Schloneger started by saying. ”The better you take care of land and cattle, the better it treats you.”
Legacy carefully manages their animals’ diets and health, and measure the effects on milk production. The quality of the feed shows up in the quality of the milk. Each day, Legacy Farms sends 109,000 pounds of milk to Burnett Dairy Co-Op — enough to make more than five tons of cheese.
The October event was held in the equipment shed at the farm, and it was full of people and implements. Rows of farmers listened attentively as Schloneger and other speakers offered practical advice based on their experiences. This type of peer-to-peer information sharing has become a key strategy for the farmer-led watershed councils that operate across Wisconsin, including three in the St. Croix River watershed.
The presentations covered Legacy’s efforts over the past few years to convert farm systems to improve their crops and protect nearby waterbodies. It laid out how other farmers might follow a similar path. Wisconsin’s proud dairy farming history has been beleaguered recently, with operations consolidating from traditional family farms, and milk prices plummeting. Reducing environmental impacts is another expense.
Spreading manure usually means trucks and tractors driving across fields over and over, compacting the soil. The nutrients are spread inconsistently. It’s often hard just finding trucks and drivers when they are needed. Manure might get spread at the wrong time or place.
This can cause a cascade of costly complications.
The problems with trucking were laid bare four years ago in an incident at Legacy. It was the last time they ran afoul of DNR regulations.
In October of 2017, two DNR employees responded to a report of manure pooling on a field and running off it. They talked to a contract driver named Jeff. Their conversation illustrated the difficulties of working with outside haulers.
“Jeff didn’t know the name of the field he was working on, did not have any restriction maps present, and wasn’t aware the planned application rate for Field D according to the Nutrient Management Plan. He did say that they were under the maximum application rate,” the DNR’s Leah Nichols reported. “He just gets told where to go.”
The hauling company later said all their drivers were trained and provided with maps. Clearly, minor mistakes can have major impacts.
Legacy Farms is north of Wisconsin’s prime farm country, and that means there are fewer trucks and drivers available in the area. One of the keys to applying manure safely is doing it at the right time: not when the ground is frozen or rain is imminent. But when it’s hard to schedule anyone to haul the manure at all, it’s hard to do it at the right time.
Other challenges were also apparent during the 2017 incident. Legacy reported the weather forecast had called for just 0.25 inches of rain after spreading, but instead the area received three inches. This saturates soil, making it harder for manure to soak in, and causes runoff that can carry soil and manure downhill.
Nichols took water samples on the fields and nearby waterbodies. Later lab analysis showed extremely high levels of the bacteria E. Coli, ammonia, and other contaminants. The agency met with Legacy and agreed on several steps to prevent similar problems.
New ways of working
By 2020, it was a different story. The DNR inspected Legacy Farms in November of that year, as part of a permit renewal process, and found it was in compliance with regulations, observing no violations. That means manure storage was well maintained, feedlots were well drained, and systems were in place to make sure manure goes where it is supposed to go.
The improvements can largely be attributed to an approximately $1 million investment Legacy has made over the past three years. Their new method depends not on a fleet of trucks, but two miles of hose that transports manure from storage to the fields. It reduces traffic on rural roads, and on the fields.
The farmers in the equipment shed in October sat next to some of the new equipment. A tractor was hooked up to a dragline manure injector, an expensive implement the Schlonegers recently purchased. After the presentations, the audience walked around the implements, examining and discussing them.
The system includes two miles of heavy duty hosing, the pumps required to push manure through it, and the big, complicated injector.
Converting from truck hauling to hose and pumps has been a significant undertaking, but it has put the Schlonegers in power over their own land, crops, and livestock. They can now spread manure at the best times for their operation and the environment.
It has also helped make other stewardship efforts possible.
Primarily, Legacy’s cows eat corn silage. More accurate manure spreading and the effects of that have also made it possible to try other feed, with its own set of benefits.
Legacy has also started using cover crops when and where it can. Perennial plants like Italian rye can grow on fields before and after corn, keeping continuous vegetation on the land, absorbing water and holding soil in place. Last year, Legacy even won an award for their Italian rye, based on its high nutrition content.
Cover crops such as rye can help protect lakes and rivers from farm runoff. Italian rye will keep growing until temperatures stay below freezing. But these plants can be difficult to work with on the northern edge of the corn belt, where they might result in lower yields and shorter growing seasons for corn.
Schloneger says water is the most important nutrient, and the benefits of cover crops usually outweigh the costs. They help keep the soil healthy, and that makes for healthy crops, cows, and milk.
Schloneger told the audience that the benefits have been significant. They’ve gone from 45 days of manure spreading per year, with 100 trucks per day, to pumping and injecting manure 12 days per year.
This resulted in reduced soil compaction and better water absorption, which has boosted crop yields 10 to 30 percent higher than before.
And when rain falls, most of it stays on the fields. This summer’s drought demonstrated that. After an eight-week period with almost no precipitation, the farm got hit by a three-inch rainfall. Schloneger says in the past, an inch-and-a-half of it might run off the fields. This year, it was between a quarter and half inch.
The soil is alive and unconsolidated. Erosion is nearly nonexistent.
Also in attendance at the October open house was Dave Vold, a retired employee of the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service. He is now vice president of a local conservation group, the Washburn County Lakes and Rivers Association.
“I was impressed with their software program which listed each field and identified the conservation practices needed to control erosion,” Vold said. “I was also impressed with their use of cover crops, conservation tillage and nutrient management, including the incorporation of manure. All of these practices go a long ways to improve runoff into our lakes and rivers.”
The steps are also saving Legacy Farms money. The more precise manure injection has helped them reduce nitrogen fertilizer costs by $40,000 this year. They’ve raised starting wages for their 20 or so employees by $3.50 per hour.
“When we take care of our soil, it returns dividends,” Schloneger said.
Prospering with stewardship
Legacy’s changes have been complex and challenging, but they are based on a pretty simple concept.
“Farmers that do not take care of their land or cattle struggle,” Schloneger says. “But, those that take excellent care of what they steward prosper.”
Changing how Legacy Farms spreads manure has been one part of significant changes across the operation. The Schlonegers believe it will help them stay in business despite economic difficulties, and it will help protect their local waters.
Schloneger also mentions there is one downside to the improvements: it’s a lot harder to find agates. Before, the beautiful stones were often exposed by erosion in the fields, but now they remain buried.
It’s seems to be a small sacrifice for healthier soil and cleaner water.