High levels of nitrates in the groundwater of various parts of Wisconsin are spurring potential costly restrictions for agriculture, as manure and fertilizer receive blame for dirtying the waters.  As a result, farmers could face limitations in how they apply manure and fertilizer to their land.  
    The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) recently released a scope statement outlining the need for targeted performance standards designed to protect surface and ground water quality in sensitive areas. These standards would restrict manure and fertilizer applications in areas of the state sensitive to nitrate pollution – areas which have yet to be defined.
    “We are at the beginning of a long rulemaking process that will include all stakeholders,” said Mary Anne Lowndes, runoff management section chief at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. “We have not yet determined everything this new rule would include, but we will rely heavily on the agricultural industry for input on what is practical and what would be too difficult for achieving these goals.”
    The rule could potentially impose restrictions on how much manure and fertilizer can be applied, when and where they can be applied, and in what manner – a rule that would impact dairy farmers and other agricultural producers and supporting businesses. The potential combined cost to all stakeholders is estimated to be between $50,000 to $5 million per year.
    “While we understand there is a need to address nitrates in some parts of our state, we don’t think the state has done nearly enough to utilize existing statewide water quality standards to do so,” said John Holevoet, director of government affairs at the Dairy Business Association (DBA). “How do we know if additional regulations are necessary when we haven’t fully implemented those already on the books?”
    Some areas are more sensitive or prone to nitrate pollution than others. Permeable or sandy soil is often most problematic because rain washes it down more readily than clay or silt soils, making it more susceptible to ground water contamination. The higher percent of fine material in the soil, the better. Smaller particles make the soil more condensed, making it harder for water and nitrogen to pass through. Therefore, Lowndes said they want to pinpoint what can be done with permeable soils to ensure nitrogen in the root zone is retained by the crops and not lost to groundwater.
    “We need to determine how current manure spreading practices exacerbate the nitrate problem,” Lowndes said. “Then we need to find out what we can do differently in regards to spreading manure and fertilizer to limit the leeching of nitrogen into ground water.”
    If restrictions are based on the rate applied, manure would have to be spread across a greater area, which might mean a famer would have to rent or buy more land. If the restrictions are not based on rate, then finding other ways to keep nitrogen in the root zone will be the focus. In that case, farmers could possibly apply manure at the same rate but via different practices to prevent runoff, such as injecting manure into the soil or using a nitrogen inhibitor during manure application. The inhibitor forces a slower release of nitrogen, thereby reducing the likelihood of leeching while retaining more nutrients for the crops. Another possibility is applying manure in split applications.
    “We want to utilize as much of the nutrient as possible and apply nitrogen in a way that it’s not lost to the environment,” Lowndes said. “If we keep nitrogen with the crop and out of the ground water, farmers won’t have to put down additional nitrogen.”
    The proposed standard comes on the heels of a targeted performance standard that went into effect last year impacting 15 counties in northeast Wisconsin – a standard that restricted manure spreading in response to pathogens found in drinking water.
    “In most parts of the state, there isn’t the sort of data needed to develop and effectively implement targeted standards,” Holevoet said. “We must first fully understand the scope, cause and factors, and then work together to create practical solutions that are sustainable both environmentally and economically. At the DBA, we believe that more direct, tangible improvements to water quality could be achieved in Wisconsin if the time, money and other resources required to develop this new regulation were instead devoted to implementing water quality protection practices on more farms.”
    Farmers will have a chance to express their opinions at a public hearings held across the state. Dairy farmers and other stakeholders will also have the opportunity to be part of an advisory committee in the future.
    “We need all interested parties to work as a team on this and come up with effective science-based rules that could benefit the whole system,” said Andy Buttles, who milks 1,200 cows and farms 2,200 acres in Lancaster, Wis. – an area that could be deemed one of the areas sensitive to nitrate pollution. “We can’t let it become an us-against-them scenario.”
    Buttles said the impact to individual farms would likely vary based on size and would probably be more detrimental to smaller dairies that do not have a form of manure storage in place. When it comes to fertilizer application, he said cover crops would help prevent nitrogen leeching and increase absorption by the plants.
    “Farmers haven’t always done a good job of explaining what we do and how we do it,” Buttles said. “The public hearings are an opportunity to let people know that. We all need to work together to figure out how to best solve this problem.”  
    The Wisconsin Natural Resources Board is asking for the public hearings relating to this process be expanded to three cities across the state including Fond du Lac, Hancock Research Center and Blackhawk Technical College in Janesville to be held after Nov. 1.
    “If this new regulatory process does move forward, it’s imperative that farmers have a seat at the table,” Holevoet said. “They live, raise their families, raise their animals and make a living on these farms. They also care deeply about their neighbors and communities. We all want clean water, and we all should want a thriving agricultural community. Both are achievable.”