Brian Brown knew he had to educate and grow relationships with other farmers and landowners if he was going to achieve conservation success on his family’s farm and throughout the watershed.
“I figured I had the most to learn because I didn’t do much as far as conservation,” said Brian, who co-owns Sunburst Dairy near Belleville with his wife Yogi. “I knew I wanted to set up our farm as an example for other farmers in the Upper Sugar River Watershed.”
The Upper Sugar River Watershed covers about 110,000 acres in the Madison to Belleville area and the Sugar River Watershed covers a half-million acres in south-central Wisconsin and northern Illinois. It stretches from near Madison to Shirland, Illinois, where the Sugar River flows into the Pecatonica River.
“Although the watershed is mainly rural, with more than 50 percent of the land used for agriculture, it also includes urban areas,” explained Wade Moder, executive director of the Upper Sugar River Watershed Association.
In addition to working with farmers, Wade notes streambank erosion as a focus of the association, “because as the soil is loosened along the streambank, more nutrients such as phosphorus leach out of the soil, which in turn affects water quality.”
Years ago, after Brian graduated from UW-Madison Farm & Industry Short Course he bought a neighboring farm near his parents and noticed erosion along the Sugar River streambank that dissects the farms.
“That’s really what started things in motion,” said Brian. “I decided to learn everything I could and pursue efforts in land conservation.”
Brian says a two-year streambank project he conducted with the Natural Resources Conservation Service captured the attention of Upper Sugar River Watershed Association staff while canoeing and collecting vegetation data.
“They were impressed by the streambank work we did,” he said.
He later attended one of the watershed association’s meetings and left as a farmer representative to the watershed board.
“I thought, this group wants to build better relationships with farmers, that’s a good idea. What could it hurt?” asked Brian.
“Brian talked to us about the challenges with working with agriculture, but he wanted to ‘plant the seed’ about conservation and the possibilities if we worked together,” said Wade.
At about the same time the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection was investigating farmer-led watershed groups and offering grants for conservation efforts.
“During the first year, 14 producer-led groups submitted applications totaling more than $242,000,” said Kevin Hoffman, DATCP’s public information officer.
“We were one of those initial 14 producer-led groups,” said Brian proudly. “Now, the Farmers for the Upper Sugar River Group has more than 50 members who are continuing to learn about cover crops, grass strips along stream banks and waterways, no-till options and other practices that aid in enhancing water quality and reduce soil erosion and protecting and conserving our watershed for future generations.”
In response to an increase in applications and interest in the program since its inception, Governor Tony Evers increased the annual program funding to $750,000 in the 2019-2021 state budget.
This year, DATCP’s grant program added a conservation benefits tracking component. DATCP will use this to measure the water quality benefits associated with the conservation practices implemented by participating farmers throughout the state.
“Brian is great to work with, and I’ve seen him grow into his leadership role within his group,” said Rachel Rushmann, a producer-led program manager in DATCP’s Division of Agricultural Resource Management. “He leads the Farmers for the Upper Sugar River group, hosts conservation events and field trials at his farm and spends a lot of time developing partnerships within the watershed.”
Initially, the farmer-led group needed a fiscal agent and the Upper Sugar River Watershed Association agreed to serve.
“It’s developed into an incredible partnership,” added Wade, who said Brian is the poster child for trying something new. “Brian helped to knock down barriers and build the trust. He often says, ‘We’re going at the speed of trust.’”
Brian has embraced cover crops and no-till planting to enhance soil health and water quality.
“Four years ago, I never planted cover crops,” said Brian. “Now, we are doing no-till planting with 70 acres of alfalfa, 450 acres of corn and 95 acres of soybeans.”
Eric Birschbach, an independent crop consultant with Ag Site Crop Consulting LLC in Verona, has assisted Brian with his transition into no-till.
“It takes proper planning, preparation and execution,” Eric said of the challenges of no-till alfalfa. “In 2018, Brian no-tilled one alfalfa field, which was the first spring after he bought a no-till drill. We made mistakes. By 2020, Brian no-till seeded all his 85 acres of alfalfa seeding. We continue to learn and adjust, but in the process, we have reduced our soil erosion by 1.0 ton per acre per year in a corn-soybean-alfalfa rotation. Brian realized the need to make no-till seeding of alfalfa successful to achieve these soil saving results.”
Brian’s first year of no-till planting was 2016 when he only no-tilled corn following alfalfa. Now he no-tills most of his corn, and all the soybeans and alfalfa.
In 2017, Brian started experimenting with cover crops after harvesting corn silage.
With funding from DATCP’s grant program has experimented with winter rye, winter barley, winter wheat, radish, berseem clover, oats, barley, rapeseed, and cowpeas as cover crops.
“We’ve had varying success with these cover crops, but to Brian’s credit, he continues to embrace innovative ideas to continuously improve his farming operation,” said Eric.
The Upper Sugar River Watershed Association will host a field day on Tuesday, April 13, to discuss cover crops and to demonstrate no-till roll crimp cropping.
“We are fortunate to live near UW-Madison and to work with UW Extension and the amazing experts on staff and to have other resources nearby,” added Brian. “If we work together for water quality, we will continue to make a difference and build even more relationships.”
Brian and Yogi have four adult children: Erin, Chris married to Rachel, Cory married to Katy, and Whitney; and three grandchildren. The Browns own Sunburst Dairy, milk 500 cows and grow crops on 1,000 acres. A constant consideration is improving feed quality and enhancing environmental stewardship.
Story originally appeared in the April | May 2021 Rural Route. Story and photos by Marian Viney.