Stearns County dairy farmers add water quality to chores

Contact: Forrest Peterson, 320-441-6972

In spring amid the newly planted fields and rolling forested hills in central Minnesota, sunlight sparkles off its many streams and lakes. Working to keep the water sparkling, several farmers in the Sauk River watershed chain of lakes southwest of St. Cloud stand out for their conservation farming practices that benefit water quality.

An increasing number have signed up for the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program (MAWQCP). This voluntary program for farmers and landowners helps farmers identify and mitigate on-farm risks to the state’s water resources. So far, more than 400 farms are certified statewide.

Stearns County far outranks all Minnesota counties for conservation grants to farmers through the federal Environmental Quality Incentives Program. From 2000 to 2015, more than $20 million in grants funded hundreds of projects for water quality. Stearns County farmers and landowners have long understood the value of conservation and are now realizing how the MAWQCP can help them improve their stewardship. Farmers and landowners who participate in the certification program work with dedicated conservation professionals to create whole-farm conservation plans that focus on water protection.

Farmers participating in the certification program are also eligible to receive financial assistance through the MAWQCP’s dedicated pool of federal conservation grants, including the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

Dan Schlangen’s dairy farm sits just across the road from Vails and Eden lakes north of Eden Valley in southern Stearns County. Like many small farms of the past, over many years the manure and cropland runoff degraded water quality in nearby streams and lakes. When contacted several years ago by the Stearns Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) about the need to improve a manure storage pit, it led to a new basin, manure stacking slab, and a 60-foot-wide, mile-long grass waterway.

“It was a lot of meetings, paperwork, and cost,” Dan says. “People hesitate to do anything because of that. But we were near two lakes, and we like to use them for recreation, too. We realized that the SWCD was on our side, and it was good working with them.”

A new scientific study of the Sauk River watershed points to “bacteria and phosphorus causing an impairment, and quantifies necessary reductions… restoration strategies will require significant reductions of both pollutants from predominantly agricultural lands.” Another report on progress in the watershed shows improvement during the past 10 years from a decline in sediment and particles, and excess amounts of the nutrients phosphorus and nitrogen, which fuel algae growth. The reports are available on the MPCA Sauk River watershed webpage.

A few miles northeast of Schlangen’s, Mill Creek wraps around the barns of MAWQCP-certified dairy farmer Tom Gregory’s home place about five miles southeast of Cold Spring. Today, after major improvements, it would be a challenge to find evidence of excess pollutants in runoff to the creek.

As it meanders from Goodners Lake toward Pearl Lake, Mill Creek flows through Gregory’s property where it is protected by wide buffers and proper manure storage. A major expansion to about 600 cows moved the dairy to a new barn across the road and farther from Mill Creek. A large storage basin contains manure. A variety of cover crops provides soil protection and additional forage.

As a Stearns SWCD supervisor, Tom Gregory sets an example noticed and emulated by other farmers. “Buffers definitely filter out runoff, including manure runoff,” Gregory told newspaper columnist Dennis Anderson.

Where cattle once wallowed in Mill Creek behind the old barn, “I moved all that back and fenced it off. We got a grant to build a manure pit if we kept the animals out of the creek — and we did that.”

Gregory is also introducing other farmers to the certification program, including Dave and Jayne Lochen, whose Shore Acres Farm also includes Mill Creek and Pearl Lake shoreline. Recently, Gregory joined Dept. of Agriculture officials at the presentation of certification to the Lochens. A video of the event is available on the MPCA YouTube channel.

As of June 2017, certified farms have added 716 new conservation practices keeping more than 14.7 million pounds of sediment out of rivers while saving nearly 20.6 million pounds of soil and 8,919 pounds of phosphorus on farms each year.

After being certified, each farm is deemed to be in compliance with any new water quality laws and regulations for 10 years. Certification is also an approved practice farmers can use to comply with the state buffer law. To get started contact your local SWCD office. More information is available on the Dept. of Agriculture Water Quality Certification webpage.