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Nutrient Pollution

Farmer Story: Why What Happens in a Little Creek on My Farm Matters Downstream

Chuck Uphoff and his wife, Deb, operate Uphoff Dairy on their century-old, 500-acre family farm near New Munich, Minn. Uphoff also is chairman of the Stearns County Soil & Water Conservation District.

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I love to watch the little creek that flows through our century-old family farm. My father and grandfather enjoyed the creek when they were young and I hope my grandchildren will, too. However, because of soil erosion and nutrient runoff, there was a time when I wondered if my dream was dying.

I’ve learned that the pleasant stream passing below our home eventually drains into the Sauk River, which, in turn, empties into the Mississippi River.  My message to other farmers is do not wait until soil erosion and nutrient runoff become a problem for you and those downstream. Do something now to strengthen your business, stabilize your land, and prevent nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from affecting folks downstream.

Do something now to strengthen your business, stabilize your land, and prevent nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from affecting folks downstream.

I remember the day several years ago when I realized that portions of the hillside on my family’s 500-acre dairy farm were washing down to the stream. It was an unsettling sight because I viewed my land near New Munich as the rock-solid foundation on which I had built our family’s future.

As if runoff gullies were not upsetting enough, I also noticed more frequent algal blooms in the creek below. I knew that I had more to worry about than just milk production from our herd. Commercial fertilizer from our fields and animal waste from our feedlot were running down the hills, along with chunks of pastureland. It was hurting us, our stream and, potentially, our neighbors. My wife, Deb, and I knew we had to move quickly to save our livelihood.

We found help from members of Stearns County Soil & Water Conservation District. Following their advice, I started contouring the hills to slow down storm runoff and hold in water. We put grass buffers around the creek for the same reason. We also built a manure storage area to capture the runoff from the 120 head of cattle that use the feedlot. With that, we prevented 600,000 gallons of waste from reaching the stream each year.

I changed our plowing methods, too. Instead of turning the ground over to prepare it for alfalfa and oats, we now leave remnants of the most recent crop on the ground to protect our land from wind, rain, and snow. The decaying vegetation also naturally fertilizes the soil. Indeed, we produce excellent crops of hay on fields that I haven’t tilled for several years.

It’s not just good stewardship. It’s good business. Each time soil washed down the hill, the dollars spent on seed and commercial fertilizer went with it. We found ourselves losing ground both physically and financially.

However, today, we save money by fertilizing our fields with the manure that collects in the well-engineered storage pit. Not only has this stopped all runoff from the feedlot, but I haven’t purchased commercial fertilizer since 1994.

We also take samples of the soil and the manure to analyze levels of nitrogen and other nutrients to figure out exactly how much manure we need to apply to the fields. These methods have improved our profitability by at least 10 percent.

After seeing the benefits, I became active with the Stearns County Soil & Water Conservation District and am now the chairman. We’ve been fortunate to have some federal funding to assist 20 to 25 farmers a year with the design, construction, and financing of manure pits.

Besides helping to protect our waterways, those federal dollars will circulate several times through our local economy. And I’ve learned some other interesting facts as well. For instance, streams like the one on my farm are part of a larger system that provides water for countless numbers of people who rely on public drinking water.

We all have a stake in keeping water and soil safe for the future, even if the potential payoffs still seem a long way off. It’s like when you plant a tree on the farm. You’re not just doing it for yourself; you’re doing it for your grandchildren – and their grandchildren.