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Water quality a community issue: Investments necessary to make improvements


CHICAGO — Protecting and improving water quality is an environmental practice important to farmers.

“Wisconsin faces multiple challenges as it relates to water quality and agriculture and that can be extrapolated to the Midwest,” said Matt Krueger, executive director for the Wisconsin Land and Water Conservation Association.

“Water quality is not the sole responsibility of agriculture, but there is a relationship between the two,” said Krueger during the Improving Midwest Agriculture and the Environment meeting. “Consensus is we must do a better job on water quality issues, and we must invest in it.”

Wisconsin, known by many as the dairy state, has about 8,000 dairies, said Krueger at the annual Agriculture Conference at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.

“There are 1.27 million dairy cows in Wisconsin that produced 30.8 billion pounds of milk in 2018,” Krueger said.

“Despite the downturn in the dairy industry, it remains a significant economic driver in Wisconsin, generating $46.6 billion of revenue for the state,” said the executive director of the non-profit conservation association.

Over the past 15 years, Wisconsin has lost about half of its dairy farms.

“We hit a record of 691 dairies closing their door in 2018,” Krueger said. “Associated to that, we lead the nation in Chapter 12 farm bankruptcies.”

Even though there has been a decline in the number of dairy farms, milk production continues on an upward trend in Wisconsin as a result of efficiency, technology, animal health and improved genetics.

“Milk prices are down and some of the reasons include competition from the bottled water industry, other non-dairy drinks and the changing consumer preferences,” Krueger said.

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers designated 2019 to be the year of clean drinking water.

“As a result, there has been a lot of statewide discussion about policies and legislation that is still being sorted out,” Krueger said.

“One of the things driving the discussion is the area of the state that has fractured bedrock with fissures and cracks that can serve as direct conduits to ground water,” he said.

“In some cases, there is as little as two feet of soil over the bedrock, and the issue is not just about dairy farmers — there are also leaky septic systems, so this discussion has helped people realize it’s a community issue.”

Farmland loss has been occurring in Wisconsin for many years.

“We lose from 20,000 to 30,000 acres per year, and that has less to do with dairy farms shutting their doors and more to do with urban sprawl,” Krueger said. “A lot of population centers in the state are surrounded by prime farmland.”

About one-third of farmland in Wisconsin is owned by absentee landowners, Krueger said.

“That has implications on stewardship and the level of investment producers are willing to put into their operations,” Krueger said.

“We are blessed to have an abundance of really good conservation-focused farmers,” he said. “We have about 40% of our acreage in the state in farmland, in Illinois it’s around 77% and for Iowa it’s closer to 90%, so there are impacts from any high intensity use that has that much coverage across the landscape.”

As the trend continues for dairy farms to move towards concentrated animal feeding operations, Krueger said, “my members say small farms have as much potential to pollute as big ones and perhaps the reputation of large farms is unfair.”

In addition, Krueger said, CAFO operators say they’re among the most regulated farms.

“They have waste water permits, environmental compliance staff and zero-discharge requirements in their permits,” he said.

“Our 1.7 million dairy cows generate about 12 billion gallons of liquid manure, so the ability to manage manure in unpredictable weather is really key for the dairy industry to look at going forward,” Krueger said.

“We are hearing the conversation shift from yield to profitability,” he said. “Farmers are interested in finding more opportunities to diversify their operations with cover crops, managed rotational grazing and no-till.”

For more information about the Wisconsin Land and Water Conservation Association, go to www.wisconsinlandwater.org.

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