Cows, crops and caring for our lakes

When we talk about our lakes, we often end up talking about our farms. This should come as no surprise: if you walked onto a random acre of land in Dane County, chances are two times out of three you’d be looking at a farm.

According to U.S. Department of Agriculture, agriculture in Dane County accounts for $3.4 billion in economic activity annually. From our multi-generational dairy farms, to our land-grant university, to the Dane County’s farmer’s market, agriculture is part and parcel to our identity.

Quick stats – via Dane County UW-Extension factsheet

  • Ag provides jobs for 17,294 Dane County residents.
  • 97.1% of our local farms are owned by individuals or families, family partnerships, or family-owned corporations.

The majority of our 500,000-plus farm acres— 2,749 farms — are used for crops, including 191,500 acres of corn and 79,000 acres of soybeans. Most of these crops are used to feed the animals that create our dairy, eggs and pork: in fact, there are nearly as many cows, chickens and pigs raised in Dane County (134,000, 72,000 and 27,000 respectively) as there are people living in Madison.

Animal manure is then used to fertilize fields, helping to restore nutrients depleted by crops and ensure another productive growing season. But this relationship is growing and changing as our communities change. While these nutrients are valuable and useful in the fields, nutrients that escape into waterways represent a loss for agriculture and a threat to our lakes.

To protect our lakes and use nutrients more efficiently, farmers and local leaders continue to add tools to the toolbox for manure management, from digesters to manure-injection equipment to techniques like windrow manure composting, for which Clean Lakes Alliance recently received a $60,000 project grant from the Fund for Lake Michigan. These strategies not only protect our water, they also can often benefit the farmer’s bottom line.

Other important conservation strategies our farmers employ include:

  • Applying nutrient management plans, which help farmers reduce fertilizer use and apply fertilizers at the right time
  • Planting cover crops, such as barley or oats, in the fall to protect soil during winter and early spring
  • Using no tillage or reduced tillage to keep soil where it belongs: in the farm fields
  • Embracing precision agriculture tools (highlighted as the keynote topic at the 2015 Yahara Pride Farms Watershed-wide Conference)
  • Using crop rotation to reduce pest problems
  • Creating buffer strips and grassed waterways to slow water runoff, trap sediment, enhance infiltration and enhance wildlife habitat

Shawn P. Conley, whose research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison focuses on addressing real-world problems in soybean and small grain production, recognizes the benefits of working together. “It is important for the agricultural and urban communities to partner and work together to develop reasonable sustainability solutions that work for the community as a whole.” Conley is the lead author for a study addressing the $11 billion in hidden costs of climate change for soybean growers, published last month in Nature Plants.

Our community has recognized that pressures like climate change, increased urbanization, and intensification of agriculture mean that we must be proactive and push to find creative solutions that improve soil health and water quality alike.

Our lakes and our farms depend on it!

Learn more about the future of our watershed

To learn more about how issues like climate change and land use factor into the future of our watershed, please register to attend our upcoming Yahara Lakes 101 talk: “Water Quality and the Yahara 2070 Scenarios,” presented by Dr. Stephen Carpenter, Director of the UW-Madison Center for Limnology.


  • 2012, US Department of Agriculture, National Agriculture Statistics Service
  • 2014, Dane County UW-Extension, Value & Economic Impact of Agriculture
  • 2016, Just the Facts – Dane County Agriculture, Wisconsin Soybean Marketing Board
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