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Grazing becoming a hot topic in Kickapoo River Watershed
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THE ABUNDANT PASTURES where Bruce Ristow grazes grassfed beef along the banks of the Tainter Creek Watershed are a great example of the kinds of practices that have potential to have a profound positive impact on water quality in the watershed. Here, DNR Fish Biologists are demonstrating the diversity of fish species in the healthy trout stream to a group attending the Tainter Creek Watershed Council’s 2018 Free Fishing Day event held at Ristow’s farm.

KICKAPOO RIVER WATERSHED - Grazing is becoming a hot topic in 2019 in the Kickapoo River Watershed. The increased focus builds on long years of dedicated work by groups like the Kickapoo Grazing Initiative/Great River Graziers, the Pasture Project, Southwest Badger RC&D, the Wisconsin Meadows grassfed beef cooperative and the Driftless Area Back to the Land Pastured Pork Cooperative. 

Combine a special project focused on demonstrating the connection between increased grazing and improved water quality, the hiring of two new grazing specialists in Crawford and Vernon counties, and you have the makings of an exciting year for the future of grass-based production in the area. The stars are aligned in 2019 for interested farmers to access resources to help them pursue the management shifts they may be contemplating.

KGI/Great River Graziers

The Kickapoo Grazing Initiative (KGI) began as a partnership of Trout Unlimited, Valley Stewardship Network, Vernon County Land and Water Conservation, and UW-Extension: Crawford County in June of 2012.  In 2013, the Mississippi Valley Conservancy joined the outreach efforts.   KGI believes the grass-fed meat market provides a powerful incentive to implement more sustainable land management practices.   

Now in its seventh year, the KGI focuses on promoting incentives for farmers and landowners to adopt managed grazing in the Kickapoo Valley.  

Each year, from May through October, KGI offers an on-farm education series of pasture walks. The events feature farmers that are working with grazing, and bring interested producers together with experienced grazers to share knowledge and practical experience. Participants also can meet knowledgeable professionals from county, state and federal agencies who can help to connect them with additional resources and funding.

In June, KGI will offer two pasture walks:

Tuesday, June 11: visit the farm of contract grazer Claudia Berres, 21602 Berres Lane, Richland Center. The event focus will be water systems for grazers. From Richland Center, go north on Highway 80 about two miles to County A; turn left onto A and drive 2-3 miles, and Berres Lane will be on the right.

Tuesday, June 25: visit the farm of Don Boland, 18732 Highway 27, Gays Mills. The event focus will be paddocks, sizing paddock, and grass species for grazing. From Seneca, go north for three miles on Highway 27; Boland’s farm will be on the right.

The series will continue with one pasture walk in July, two in August and September, and one in October. To see the full line up of KGI’s 2019 pasture walks go to  www.kickapoograzinginitiative.com/events.

New grazing specialists

Crawford and Vernon counties are poised to be the fortunate recipients of a vast wealth of experience and enthusiasm in the form of two new grazing specialists. The two, Jacob Hawes in Crawford County, and John Zinn in Vernon County, work for Golden Sand RC&D out of the USDA-NRCS offices in Prairie du Chien and Viroqua.

Jacob Hawes brings a boots-on-the-ground background with the Iowa DNR as a resource technician for habitat management to his new role as a grazing specialist in Crawford County. He also worked in northwest Iowa on a project that supported grazing on public lands.

Hawes grew up in Harper’s Ferry, Iowa, on an Angus beef farm. He worked on the farm until he left to attend college, but he was “always aiming to get back home.”

He returned just in time to be part of an exciting renaissance in grass based production in a region that some see as ideally suited for it. With its abundance of highly erodible lands, and high runoff potential on the steep gradients, the Driftless Area can benefit in so many ways from increased adoption of grass-based animal agriculture.

“I am just getting my feet wet, and trying to learn as much as I can from mentors like Dennis Rooney,” Hawes said. “This summer my goals are to begin to know the producers in the county, participate in pasture walks, and generally to connect producers with resources and funding to help them work toward achieving their management goals.”

Jacob Hawes can be reached at 608-326-7179, ext. 110, or by e-mail at Jacob.Hawes@usda.gov.

John Zinn of Westby, has also found a way to come home and make his many years of grazing experience available to the community.

Zinn grew up in northern Illinois. Zinn has a degree in agronomy from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. He first came to the Driftless Area in the early 80s when he began looking for a place to farm. He and his family landed here because land prices were less expensive.

On his rural Westby farm, Zinn ran a small dairy herd and employed rotational grazing methods. He got his first taste of working to help others interested in grazing, working as a grazing specialist in Grand Rapids, Minnesota from 2004-2007.

“I really learned to enjoy northern Minnesota,” Zinn said. “If a person wanted to, they could fish a different lake every day of the year. From one of the farms I worked with, we could look out and see Canada.”

In 2007, Zinn accepted the position as Minnesota State Grazing Specialist, based in Rochester, Minn. 

His work involved helping to set policy and direct teams dedicated to maintenance of conservation standards, grazing planning, and coordinating work with farmers and research partners.

Zinn retired in 2017, but quickly found his vast body of experience and knowledge to be in demand. He has worked as a consultant with the Pasture Project, and now in his position through USDA-NRCS.

“My role at USDA-NRCS will be as a soil health generalist available to producers who are looking to explore a variety of conservation management practices in their farm operations,” Zinn explained. “My job will be to connect them with resources and help to write grazing plans.”

Zinn reported that farmers who are having challenges with fencing, water systems, sizing of paddocks, and improving their forages can call on him for assistance.

“One of the major things I can do for a producer is to sit down with them and help them consider their options,” Zinn said. “I can also help to connect them with USDA-NRCS programs such as EQIP and CSP.”

John Zinn can be reached at 608-637-2183, ext. 3, or by e-mail at john.zinn@usda.gov.

Pasture Project

The Pasture Project of the Wallace Center/Winrock International has long been active in the Kickapoo Valley. The group has provided funding and knowledgeable staff as resources for producers, and helped many producers to make shifts in their farm management to promote increased profitability and conservation gains.

Longtime Crawford County grazing consultant Dennis Rooney will continue his work in assisting producers with writing grazing plans and consulting around grazing management issues. While Southwest Badger RC&D for whom Rooney worked for many years ceased operations recently, the good news for area grazers is his invaluable services and knowledge will continue to be available to the community through the Pasture Project. Rooney can be reached at 608-874-4239.

Tainter Creek project

There is an exciting new development for grazing and water quality in the Tainter Creek Watershed. The producer members of the Tainter Creek Watershed Council (TCWC) have entertained a proposal from the Wallace Center-Winrock International about a three-year grazing and water quality study in the watershed. The project was initially discussed at their meeting in Liberty Pole on Monday, March 4, and expanded last week at their April 4 meeting.

The project, the farmers learned, has been recommended for funding, and will begin in May 2019. Valley Stewardship will be a key partner is helping to implement the project locally.

The proposed partnership, to be funded by the U.S. EPA Gulf of Mexico Program, would be dedicated to directly reducing nutrients and sediment in the Kickapoo River Watershed and its sub-watershed, Tainter Creek, through expanded adoption of conservation grazing best management practices (BMPs) such as grazing cover crops, improving existing grazing practices from continuous to adaptive grazing, and converting cropland to pasture.

The EPA's Gulf of Mexico Program serves to protect, maintain, and restore the health and productivity of the Gulf of Mexico in ways consistent with the economic well-being of the Gulf region. 

The local program proposal focuses on voluntary, non-regulatory solutions; sound scientific and technical information; identifying priority areas and actions; and providing federal leadership in research, monitoring, scientific analysis, and financial resources to support state and community action.

“Our focus would be on collaboration from the ground up,” said Pete Hoff of The Wallace Center/Pasture Project. “First, we are concerned to identify practices on the farm that will be profitable, and then related, that promote soil health and water quality.”

At the April 4 meeting, producers shared their challenges and concerns about launching or expanding grazing on their farms in a round-robin format. Issues that emerged from the discussion included the need to find more available pasture nearby, fencing and access to water, and helping the next generation make management shifts.

 “Our goal will be to use the study to learn what works best in the Tainter Creek Watershed, and then replicate it elsewhere,” Hoff explained. “What we want to do is to demonstrate improvement in water quality through changes in land use.

Brian McCulloh of Windward Farms queried Hoff about the project, asking if the Pasture Project would share the history of similar projects in other watersheds with group members.

“We bring lots of history to the table that we will share, and will develop more useful information through this project that others would be able to use,” Hoff replied. “We’re not purists, we’re not in the business of judging producers for the constraints they’re dealing with. We work with producers where they’re at.”

McCulloh said, “that’s the key - helping us with the cookbook.”

Hoff responded that in their work, the Wallace Center/Pasture Project often finds that producers just need to sit down with someone neutral who isn’t trying to sell them anything. They simply need to look at different options, weighing them all.

Local producer Josh Engel queried Hoff about whether the assistance would be just for technical support or infrastructure support.

“Both, potentially,” Hoff replied. “Our focus in having these front-end discussions is to make sure that we are correctly identifying the priorities from the start, and although we’ll only be here for three years, our goal is to leave the area better than we found it.”

Project goals

The three stated goals for the proposed project would be:

• Expanding farmer-to-farmer outreach to increase adoption of target grazing best management practices (BMP): the objective would focus on deepening engagement with TCWC producers through raising the profile of leading conservation BMP practitioners and their watershed impacts; providing conservation grazing trainings hosted by leading farmers and regional experts; and providing targeted follow up; providing cost share, technical support, and decision-support for implementation; and increasing capacity of farmer-to-farmer networks to sustain expanded engagement beyond the scope of the project.

• Work with farmers and local organizations to build an easy-to-use decision-making support tool to improve cost-effectiveness of grazing operations: developing a web-based geospatial decision support tool that will help farmers, technical service providers, conservation staff, and other local stakeholders adopt cost-effective BMPs by showing the modeled financial and environmental impacts of changes on specific fields.

• Performing water quality assessment to tie conservation grazing to water quality impact: the focus will be on a paired watershed design to test impacts of target BMPs on reducing nutrient and sediment loads in Tainter Creek against a control watershed, which has a similar land cover and agricultural profile. Activities will be aimed toward ‘seeing the needle move’ on water quality improvements in Tainter Creek during the three-year project period.

Expected results

A number of farmers in the Tainter Creek watershed would receive direct support to implement and sustain a new target BMP on the land they manage during the project:

• a reduction in nutrient and sediment load in Tainter Creek will be demonstrated and related to water quality improvements in the Kickapoo River, the Upper Mississippi River Basin, and ultimately, to the Gulf of Mexico;

• farmers will have access to and use data-backed tools to help them choose the most cost-effective and ecologically beneficial changes to make in their land use decisions and management practices; and

• local organizations and watershed councils in the Kickapoo River Watershed will have increased support and capacity to address water quality issues.
“We bring lots of history to the table that we will share, and will develop more useful information through this project that others would be able to use,” Hoff replied. “We’re not purists, we’re not in the business of judging producers for the constraints they’re dealing with. We work with producers where they’re at.”
Pete Hoff, Wallace Center & Winrock International Pasture Project
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WISCONSIN DNR employees engage in a fish shocking exercise in Tainter Creek to demonstrate the abundance of fish species in the creek, surrounded by Bruce Ristow’s pastures.
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THE GLOWING GREEN of Bruce Ristow’s pas-tureland makes a beautiful backdrop to the burbling creek for fishing enthusiasts to enjoy.