VIROQUA, Wis. - One of the first things Grant and Jenny Rudrud did when they bought their farm was begin conservation work. Now, 29 years later, the Rudruds are the Vernon County Conservation Farmers of the Year. Jenny and Grant were given the honor Feb. 21 by the Vernon County Land and Water Conservation Department. According to the department, the Rudruds have a reputation for applying the principles of land and water conservation to their farm. Grant and Jenny were nominated by former award winners, Ralph and Sheila Petersheim. After moving from a rented farm near Westby, Wis., in 1988, Grant and Jenny wanted to improve their 240-acre farm. They began by targeting an old pasture with box elder trees and ditches you couldnot cross, Grant said. With the help of cost-sharing, in 1988, the Rudruds and the conservation department converted the pasture to a quarter-mile-long grass waterway. Grant seeded the waterway, but no rain fell between Mother's Day and the end of July. To encourage the grass seeds and provide a bit of moisture, he applied a light coating of manure. Then at July's end, rain arrived. The waterway greened and is still holding the soil 28 years later. "Last year we had a big rain in September that washed a lot of things out. But that waterway still held," Grant said. As a bonus, the Rudruds gained six acres of usable hay ground. They do not till or plant the waterway, but they do take as many as three cuttings a year off of it. In 2014, Grant and Jenny had a second waterway built to intersect with the first one. An aerial view of the Rudruds' Gran-J Holsteins, a few miles south of Viroqua, shows the waterways and another of the farm's conservation practices: contour strips. Vernon County, in southwest Wisconsin, has a rolling, rugged landscape in many places. The Rudrud farm has 30 contour strips. The concept of farming on the land's contours, Grant said, involves following the same elevation around hills. Since there's no tillage up and down the slopes, water is not encouraged to flow downhill and take valuable soil with it. While the many contour strips remain intact and grow corn and hay, they are being changed to better fit the farming methods of the 21st Century. Some of the strips are being widened every year to accommodate the Rudruds' six-row corn planter, which replaced a four-row model. The Rudruds have planted part of their corn ground no-till for the past 15 years. Grant said he likes that the soil is not turned over with no-till, minimizing the chances for erosion. Plus, no-till requires less fuel, time and labor compared to other field preparation methods. The Rudruds haul manure daily and sometimes use tillage to incorporate manure. For approximately eight years, the Rudruds have farmed according to a nutrient management plan prepared by county conservationist Ben Wojahn. Grant said he appreciates the guidelines the nutrient management plan provides. It has proven its worth from a practical standpoint, too. Thanks to diligence in soil testing and good records, the plan has let the Rudruds cut back on their use of commercial fertilizer. They've also been able to target manure applications to areas of fields that need them the most. The plan gets updated every few years to reflect changing field conditions. "This is good soil right around here," Grant said. "It's pretty deep black topsoil with clay underneath." That soil, according to Grant, has provided the Rudruds with corn yields as high as 220 bushels per acre, with 180 bushels being common. Corn silage yields on the Rudrud farm typically run 30 tons or higher per acre. "It's been many years since we've been below that. We've rented some ground over the years, and you can see if it's been abused ... things don't grow as well. And you can feel it. You can feel it in the dirt," Grant said. The Rudruds have begun to plant cover crops, such as rye and tillage radishes, as an effort to protect the soil when it would otherwise be somewhat bare and susceptible to erosion. Grant credits his sons, Heath and Brody, with the idea. Brody and Heath rent 250 acres on their own and grow corn and soybeans, and also handle much of the cropping work for Grant and Jenny. The Rudruds also have a daughter, Sanna Hennes, in Kaukauna, Wis., and Grant's brother, Jeff, pitches in with fieldwork and chores. Grant and Jenny are taking their interest in soil conservation off the farm. They are involved in forming the Tainter Creek Farmer-Led Watershed Council. Grant and Jenny milk 80 registered Holsteins. On a twice-daily schedule, the herd average is 24,500 pounds per cow. The butterfat numbers are 950 pounds per cow and a 3.98 percent average. For protein, the numbers are 734 pounds and 3.05 percent. Last year, the somatic cell count averaged 190,000. On being chosen to receive the conservation award, Jenny said, "It's very nice to be recognized. The contour strips are beautiful. I love cutting hay and looking at all the strips. It's just beautiful."