Water management on Wisconsin farms

Originally published in the Kenosha News

By Agriculture Educator, Leigh Presley

Water, and lots of it.

May and June have pushed precipitation totals well above what’s considered normal for our corner of Wisconsin. As I watch local stream and river levels rise, I think about how water moves throughout our area’s watersheds and what it comes in contact with along the way.

Mother Nature either gives or withholds water, and how we humans manage it has a big impact on the quantity and quality of water ending up in our ground and surface water systems. Each one of us plays a role in managing water — from how much we use during a shower to how we direct, divert, or collect rain that falls on our houses, yards and driveways.

As owners and stewards of over 40 percent of Kenosha County land, our area farmers play a particularly big role in water management.

As we’ve seen locally lately, sometimes water on farmland can be too much of a good thing — drowning out growing plants in low areas, ponding for weeks or months. Water can also be a blessing, particularly during dry spells — it’d be great if we could send a bit of our recent rain down to the farmers suffering in the southwestern U.S. (visit droughtmonitor.unl.edu to see just how bad it is).

Blessing or curse, farmers usually have to manage their land for either extreme, or in the less likely event that Mother Nature is reasonable, somewhere in between. Fortunately, there are several tools for managing water on-farm, and some Wisconsin farmers are adopting new strategies as they try to become even better water managers.

Managing streambanks

Farmland often borders some sort of waterway — either a stream, river or drainage ditch. This provides an opportunity for heavy rainfall to carry soil and nutrients right into surface waters. But by maintaining a vegetated buffer between a field edge and waterway, farmers can help slow this runoff down, the vegetation filtering out nutrients that would otherwise have an easy route to water.

Consistent groundcover

Plant roots are pretty good at infiltrating water into soil. By maintaining land in pasture or hay or planting cover crops, farmers can help water seep in slowly, reducing runoff and managing it on site.


A farmer recently said to me that the most widespread conservation practice in our area is subsurface drainage. The statement may have been made tongue in cheek, but drainage is a common form of water management, making farming possible on nutrient-rich, but poorly-drained soils, such as those found in our part of the state.

Grassed waterways

Grassed waterways help manage water within fields, providing a grassy, contoured channel that can direct water from adjacent cropland slowly into a discharge area. Grassed waterways can reduce the potential for severe in-field erosion during heavy rainfall events.

Local efforts

Wisconsin farmers are leading the way in watershed management through the Producer-Led Watershed Protection program, coordinated by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. This program provides funding for farmer-led projects that help prevent and reduce runoff from farm fields, through implementing practices like cover crops and grassed buffers.

The program also focuses on education and networking, providing an opportunity for farmers and local agencies to share strategies for improving water quality in their local watersheds. One such group, the Watershed Protection Committee of Racine County, is focusing efforts on three local watersheds.

Find out more about this exciting program at www.datcp.wi.gov/Pages/Programs_Services/ProducerLedProjects.aspx.