People standing around a lysimeter installation

Wisconsin Discovery Farms Programs works to answer key questions when it comes to phosphorus runoff and nitrate leaching

When Amber Radatz took an internship with the Wisconsin Discovery Farms program in 2004, she had no idea how the experience would change her life. Dennis Frame – a co-founder of the Discovery Farms Program – knew Amber from his time working as a county agriculture educator where she grew up in Trempealeau County, Wisconsin. “I needed a summer job after my freshman year in college and Dennis needed an intern for the relatively new Discovery Farms Program,” notes Radatz. “I had no idea how much that experience would change my career path.”

Amber now works as an Extension Outreach Program Manager at UW-Madison where she works to communicate the water quality research and monitoring efforts of the Wisconsin Discovery Farms program and related agricultural water quality research.  Through her work, Amber works to use the on-farm research conducted through the program to improve education and communication among the agricultural community. The program was used a model for the Minnesota Discovery Farms program which begam in 2009, and similar programs in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Vermont.

Amber has been working with the program since 2009 and during that time has seen a transition in the type of research and monitoring being done. “When I started, phosphorus issues, like how and when surface runoff happened, and the factors causing runoff were the issues that really needed clarification from the research community.”

An edge-of-field runoff monitoring station in the Dry Run watershed.

An edge-of-field runoff monitoring station in the Dry Run watershed.

Data from Discovery Farms and other sources has demonstrated that no-till can dramatically reduce erosion and reduce particulate phosphorus runoff. Now, the focus of the program’s phosphorus research is determining the right balance of practices and making those solutions widespread within the farming community. “Now it is really a matter of researching strategies for reducing dissolved phosphorus. So – can we effectively use tools like cover crops to cycle nutrients instead of disturbing the soil with tillage?” notes Radatz.

While on-farm research on phosphorus is now focused on striking the right balance in a suite of practice solutions, research on nitrogen and nitrate leaching are really focusing on answering those basic water quality impact questions Discovery Farms helped answer about phosphorus over the past 20 years.

“Nitrogen is really a public health concern in addition to a recreational concern.  High phosphorus levels have negative impacts for water resources and is a major concern for people living and spending time on lakes. High nitrogen levels can impact drinking water regardless of where you live and can have major health concerns, so it is an entirely different set of circumstances,” explains Radatz. With increased well-testing programs, new research on the health risks of high nitrogen levels, and new policies in other states, nitrogen has received additional awareness in recent years. And this increased awareness has demonstrated how much we don’t know explains Radatz.

“We are working with our colleagues to establish equilibrium tension lysimeters on fields across the state to monitor nitrate leaching and take a closer look at what circumstances and what practices lead to increased nitrate leaching and what types of solutions can control leaching,” notes Radatz. For example, one dairy located in Pepin County, Wisconsin has eight lysimeters installed on corn, soy rotation fields to determine the effectiveness of cover crops to control nitrate leaching over a multi-year period.

Amber notes that these results will go a long way in determining how to keep nitrogen out of the groundwater and help producers determine practices that are effective in achieving this goal.

And for Amber – it is the hope of finding solutions that are agriculturally profitable and environmentally beneficial that motivates her. “I think I am just wired to be a connector and liaison between agriculture and the environment, and I have a real desire to see how we can make things better. I grew up on a small dairy farm in western Wisconsin and I always had a sense that we had something we really need to work to preserve,” notes Amber. “I think that ethic has really carried through and translated to my work today.”

Amber Radatz, University of Wisconsin-Madison Division of Extension

Amber Radatz is the Division of Extension Ag Water Quality Program Manager which houses the Discovery Farms Program. She has a technical background in manure management and nutrient loss, and an expertise in program development, grant writing and communications. Amber received her B.S. and M.S. in Soil Science from UW-Madison. As Ag Water Quality Program Manager, Amber oversees project development and outreach coordination of water quality research conducted by Discovery Farms and Ag Water Quality Outreach Specialists.


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