Somewhere nestled among the rolling hills of Clark County are 66,000 dairy cows producing the milk that provides the backbone of the local economy. These cows sustain thousands of jobs, create cheese, ice cream, and butter which gives the opportunity for silly milk mustaches to kids throughout our nation’s schools. These cows, when combined with another 80,000 livestock annually, produce about one billion gallons of manure. Properly managed manure enhances soil quality and fertilizes farm crops. Improperly managed manure runs off the landscape and pollutes surface and groundwater.
In Wisconsin, county governments have a long history of working cooperatively with local farmers to implement soil and manure conservation practices. Conservation helps farmers achieve the local community’s desires to protect and enhance their shared natural resources for future use and preservation. In local government, all citizens have a place they can go to get help with sustaining our limited natural resources for the future. This place is their local conservation office. In this office, local conservationists recognize these citizens as more than just landowners, taxpayers, or clients. Here, landowners are recognized as individual people with names like Tom, Mike or Kayden. The local conservation offices know that the implementation of conservation is as much about working with people as it is about working with farms, forests, lakes and rivers.
Clark County has many dairy farms; more than any other county in Wisconsin. Mike Bruette and Tom Milz are two farmers in Clark County with very different herd sizes, but with similar conservation challenges and solutions. Mike and Tom recently worked with the Clark County Land Conservation Department (LCD) to implement numerous practices that better manage their soil and manure.
Mike Bruette is a third generation farmer. He has a large 900 head livestock farm on the border of Clark and Taylor counties. This 900 head livestock operation, Bovine Asset Management, is situated near a stream which flows towards Mead Lake. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) considers this water body to be impaired. In 2008, the LCD started discussions with Mike. At that time, the livestock operation consisted of forty acres of bare ground. When the snow melted or the rain fell, nutrients and sediment washed off of the bare ground and ran directly into the South Fork of the Eau Claire River. Eventually, these pollutants made the downstream journey to Mead Lake. Once in the lake, they contributed to unsightly and unhealthy summertime algae blooms.
In 2009, Bovine Asset Management received a grant from the DNR along with additional grant funding from the USDA-Natural Resource Conservation Service. The grants provided partial funding for the implementation of practices that collect and contain the manure and runoff. Matt Zoschke, County Conservationist, coordinated the grant and worked with Bruette to make sure the installed practices provided 100% collection and containment of the polluted runoff. The practices installed included rebuilding the existing manure storage by replacing the deteriorating earthen liner with a liquid tight concrete liner. The concrete liner was designed to prevent manure seepage into the groundwater. Another system collects, contains, and prevents waste feed and leachate from running into an adjacent road ditch. Diversions and concrete channels installed around the entire forty-acre area deliver all remaining runoff into a huge containment basin. When weather and soil conditions are favorable, the wastewater and manure is spread on cropland in an environmentally safe manner.
This project reduced the amount of phosphorus and sediment entering into Mead Lake by more than 3,000 pounds annually. Three thousand pounds of phosphorus can produce around one million pounds of plants and algae in our lakes and streams. When asked why he chose to invest more than one half million dollars into his farm, Bruette stated that it is “important to fix a problem before you have a bigger problem, be proactive. This is conservation on your own terms to benefit everyone and I am hoping to make this place better for the next generation.” This statement became reality when Bruette received his “Conservation Cooperator” sign from the Mead Lake and Watershed Partnership. Bruette’s seven-year old son Kayden (the fourth generation of Bruette farmers) proudly carried the sign for his father. Bruette reflected, “He (Kayden) has a journey ahead. He is the future.”
The Tom Milz farm is located on a dead-end road about 20 miles south of Bruette’s farm. This 70 cow red-barn dairy, built at the turn of the 20th century, is adjacent to a tributary of Rock Creek. This creek is considered by the DNR to be an impaired waterbody. Tom Milz has operated this farm, which he bought from his uncle, for a little more than ten years. Milz is the fourth generation of dairy farmers in his family. His family includes dairy farming parents, aunts and uncles, and many cousins. In 2011, Milz worked with the LWCD to eliminate the farm’s impact on the adjacent stream. A grant from the Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection provided cost-share funding for the implementation of numerous conservation practices.
Cody Overgard, the technician who engineered the practices, realized early on that the site was tight for space. Overgard worked one-on-one with Tom Milz and designed a system that collects and contains 100% of the farm’s runoff. All of the barnyard manure, milkhouse wastewater, feed leachate, and manure from the barn are collected. The collected manure and wastewater is land-applied in an environmentally safe manner. Milz is very happy with the outcome of the project. The cows are happier because they are comfortable and cleaner. The fish are happier because of the cleaner stream. During a recent visit by the LCD, Milz reflected on his project. “I wanted to clean up the stream. My manure wasn’t helping the fish and I needed the nutrients for my crops that feed my cows that eventually feed you. We now have a better environment for the cows and the fish.”
While Milz may be a bachelor, he is still interested in passing along his conservation ethic to the next generation. For occasional help, he mostly employs city kids. “I brought city kids out who wanted to work. I bring’em in, train’em, and let’em go to work. Who knows maybe I’ll pass this (farm) along to someone else, maybe a city kid,” he said with a smile and a wink. Milz still thinks his best farm help is Buttercup, his 11 year old farm dog. She helps him move the cows when it is time to clean the barnyard and she helps put them out on pasture. Milz believes the land is only as important as the people who work it. When asked about working with the LCD, Milz said, “The LCD treated me with patience and respect…just like my cows have names…so do I.”