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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

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June 2003

Keeping nutrients down on
the farm

Farmers are working to keep manure and soil
out of the creek.

Carol Holden


What will the new regulations mean for Wisconsin farmers?

Soil and its nutrients are among the farm's most valuable assets. But sometimes those assets turn to liabilities when rainfall or snowmelt washe them into the nearest creek or lake. Keeping livestock manure and soil out of the water, and keeping clean water clean are basic tenets of the agricultural performance standards and manure management prohibitions – key provisions of the new regulations. By meeting these standards, farmers not only protect water quality but protect their soils and nutrients as well.

The new standards and prohibitions apply to farms large and small. Livestock operations with 1,000 or more "animal units" are required to have a state discharge permit that will include standards prohibitions and manage manure (1,000 animal units = 1,000 beef cattle, or 710 dairy cows, or 2,500 hogs (55 pounds or over), or 55,000 turkeys, or 200,000 broiler chickens).

To meet the performance standards, some farmers may need to change tillage methods to bring their field's soil erosion down to tolerable rates. Many livestock producers may need to take extra steps to ensure that manure is managed in an environmentally sound way. That means no manure stacks near waterbodies (300 feet from a stream, 1,000 feet from a lake or areas susceptible to groundwater contamination) or making sure that manure from feedlots or barnyards doesn't directly flow into waterways. Cattle access to state waters will be restricted to protect shoreline plants, and starting in 2005, producers will need to follow prescribed plans if they spread manure or other fertilizers on their fields.

Although the rules do not require manure storage, it may be necessary to build a holding structure or enlarge an existing one to properly contain the manure from a livestock operation. If a manure storage structure is needed, the operator will need to ensure that any new construction, maintenance or abandonment of a structure meets accepted standards. Structures that are failing or leaking and pose an imminent threat to public health, fish and aquatic life or groundwater must be upgraded, replaced or properly abandoned.

Contour plowing is one of the ways farmers can minimize runoff from their fields. © DNR file photo
Contour plowing is one of the ways farmers can minimize runoff from their fields.

© DNR file photo

Most agricultural performance standards can only be enforced if the state has offered to share at least 70 percent of the cost with the noncompliant landowner. The cost-sharing amount can go as high as 90 percent if the farmer demonstrates economic hardship.

Livestock operations that are required to have a discharge permit are not eligible for cost-sharing to meet the conditions of their permits, but may be able to have other costs partially covered such as conservation tillage practices. Once a cropland or livestock operation meets a performance standard, the standard must be maintained in perpetuity without cost-sharing, even if land ownership changes.

The task of moving the performance standards from paper to farm practices will mean that major players such as county land conservation departments, the Department of Natural Resources, Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service must work cooperatively. County staff will play a key role in helping landowners meet these new requirements. Farmers may find themselves dealing with DNR staff in some cases where the county is unwilling or unable to work with a landowner to achieve compliance. The Department of Natural Resources also will continue to work with landowners to meet standards at large livestock facilities and other livestock operations covered by WPDES permits.

One standard that would have required buffers along rural waterbodies was put on hold pending research on their effectiveness under Wisconsin conditions. Buffers are, however, voluntary and eligible for cost-sharing and a one-time payment of $500 an acre. After the University of Wisconsin completes its research, the Department of Natural Resources will draft an "agricultural riparian buffer performance standard" by the end of 2007 that will be based on the research results.

"The runoff performance standards are really a work in progress," says DNR Runoff Management Section Chief Russ Rasmussen. "As we learn more and gain experience, we will make continual improvements that ensure we get the best water quality return on our investment."

Carol Holden is a DNR Water Program education coordinator.