Old Elk Lake shines like a jewel among Wisconsin''s rolling hills and fertile farm ground. For generations, the Harrison family has adopted leading-edge conservation practices to make sure this rare, shallow prairie lake stays in pristine condition.

Taking an even longer view of their environmental stewardship responsibilities, Lynn and Pat Harrison recently sold development rights on a field adjacent to the lake, where they raise row crops and finish hogs in a pair of confinement buildings.

The Harrisons, who own and operate E&L Harrison Enterprises, Elk Mound, WI, sold 77 acres that adjoin the lake outright to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR). They also sold the development rights on 360 additional acres to the DNR, but will continue to farm and raise hogs on that piece of ground, continuing to use Best Management Practices to protect the lake and other aspects of the environment.

The area is under significant development pressure from the rapidly expanding Eau Claire and Menomonie communities. Selling the development rights to the DNR “means that at least half of that lakeshore will never be developed,” Lynn says.

Pat adds that the decision was made with future generations in mind. “We wanted to see the lake continue to exist as it is for the kids and grandkids to enjoy,” she says. “We want to preserve the land, and make it better if we can.”

That kind of conservation-minded thinking has been passed down ever since Lynn''s grandfather, John Harrison, moved to Elk Mound and began raising crops and livestock in 1913.

John and his sons began soil testing in the 1940s, eliminated disking in the 1960s and went to a total chisel plow conservation tillage system in the 1970s. The family was among the first in the county to install contour strips and to adopt the grassed waterway. Lynn has operated the farm with 100% no-till for the past 12 years. The farm grows about 900 acres of corn and soybeans, with about 250 of those acres on highly erodible land, which is farmed in contour strips.

Production Adjustments

Similarly, Lynn operates the hog farms with the highest environmental standards in mind. He began using a no-till injector to place liquid manure from his deep pit buildings in 1998. This practice allows him to capture the benefits of injection without burying too much residue on highly erodible land.

The hog operation has changed considerably to reflect changes in the industry over time. “Back in the 1950s and early 1960s, we farrowed twice a year in converted dairy barns,” Lynn says. “In 1967, we built a slotted floor farrowing house. That started the process of moving our hogs inside. The next year, we built a slotted floor finisher and fed hogs outside on concrete lots.”

Another slotted floor finisher was added at the home place in 1986. “At that point we had everything inside except gestating sows,” Lynn recalls. “We were to the point where we were getting 17 pigs per sow per year, while other people were reporting that they were producing 22 pigs per sow or more. We knew we were at a competitive disadvantage.”

The Harrisons considered building a sow unit, “but I wanted to manage pigs, not people,” Lynn says. “So we put up two new finisher barns on the land near Old Elk Lake in 1998, and converted our other buildings to become an all-finishing operation.”

The farm''s one-time capacity is now about 4,000 head. “We have been buying our feeder pigs since July 1999 through a network arrangement associated with Big Gain feeds from Mankato, MN,” he says. “All but one load of pigs has come from the same farm.”

Manure Supplements Soybeans

All manure is handled from deep pits. The older slotted floor buildings from the 1960s have 4-ft.-deep pits, the two built in 1998 have 8-ft. pits, and the finisher at the home place has a 10-ft. pit. When necessary, manure from the 4-ft. pits can be hauled to the 10-ft. pit for storage until it can be applied. The 10-ft. pit is typically emptied twice a year.

The two finishers at the Old Elk Lake location are usually pumped out for injection each fall. Those pits actually have about a 14-month capacity, so “we have a lot of flexibility in handling our liquid manure,” Lynn says.

Most producers target their manure application to feed a corn crop, but not so on this farm. “We have been spreading more and more manure to ground that will go into soybeans,” he says. “We have seen a larger yield response on beans than corn. We have done some work with test plots, and our experience has been that soybeans have about a 10-bu. bump in yields following manure application. In corn, we think the yield increase is more like 5 to 7 bushels per acre.”

Lynn says some people expect soybeans to lodge when they receive additional nutrients from manure, but “we haven''t seen that with the newer varieties. Most of them don''t get as tall as the older varieties.”

Real-World Research

The Harrisons follow a regular soil-testing schedule on a three-year rotation, and make sure the crop needs are matching up to the manure application rates. A typical application rate is 3,000 gal./acre. In the past, he has used book values for nutrient content of the liquid manure, but recently has started sampling and testing manure.

The rate of application, manure sampling techniques and balancing of nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) nutrient application are just a few of the management practices that the Harrisons will be studying under their relationship with the Discovery Farms project.

That project is an integral part of the Wisconsin Ag Stewardship Initiative, a producer-driven program working to assure a healthy environment, as well as a healthy farm economy, through real-world application of environmental research. E&L Harrison Enterprises was accepted into the Discovery Farms Program in October 2001.

The program is an innovative research effort with cooperation from the University of Wisconsin college of agriculture and extension system and state agencies. Lynn says his interest in the program was sparked during his experiences with the Wisconsin Pork Producers Association''s Environmental Assurance Program.

“I got to thinking more about environmental issues in farming, and got involved in the regulatory process,” he says. “We need to have facts and scientific research behind the regulations, which is the idea Discovery Farms is founded upon. Farmers need to be able to live with the regulations and protect the environment, but they still need to make a living.”

Discovery Farms will be working with Harrison Enterprises on odor issues as well as phosphorus indexing, nutrient crediting and groundwater issues.

Lynn started testing manure as part of his first experience with the Discovery Farm project. He took samples last fall at various times during the pumping process. This spring, he experimented with core sampling a pit using a 3-in. PVC pipe with a rubber plug attached to a rod. By capturing a core sample, he was able to get an accurate reading of the entire pit before starting the pumping process.

“The sample was statistically the same as sampling the first, last and middle load,” he says. “We can take a core sample a few weeks ahead of time and have the test results before we start to haul.” A monitor on the tractor applying the manure keeps an accurate track of acres covered.

Lynn, who serves on the National Pork Board environmental research committee, believes in always keeping an eye out for new technology that will help advance environmental stewardship. “Environmental stewardship means getting involved and educated,” he says.

He points out that today''s farmer has seen his role expand from conservationist to environmental manager. “It is important to be proactive at all stages of farming practices to prevent pollution,” he says. “Preventing soil erosion, preserving water quality and providing wildlife habitat all are keys to improved environmental stewardship.”