Aquatic Insects as Indicators of Water Quality

Photo above: Cybister fimbriolatus: Dysticidae (predaceous diving beetle) would have a tolerance score of 5.

Author: Dr. Hope Q. Liu (Biology)

Aquatic insects, also called benthic macroinvertebrates, are ideal bioindicators of water quality. What the heck is a benthic macroinvertebrate? Benthic means “bottom of a body of water” and macroinvertebrate means you can see the insect with your eye and insect has no backbone. Benthic macroinvertebrates are used as bioindicators of water quality because they are sensitive to environmental changes and its presence or lack thereof determines clean water or polluted water. 

How can an aquatic insect like a dragonfly, which lives in the air, help us determine the quality of the water? Aquatic insect adults lay their eggs in the water. The eggs hatch and the immature form lives in the water, sometimes for years, before transforming into winged adults. The composition of the aquatic insects population (aka bioindicators) is used to ascertain water quality and reveal pollution impact. Much like plants are assigned conservation numbers, aquatic insects have a numeric designation, too. This designation is called a Tolerance score and ranges from 0-10 with zero being the least tolerant to pollution.

Peltodytes edentulus: Haliplidae, benthic macroinvertebrate, aquatic insects

Photo above: Peltodytes edetulus: Haliplidae (crawling water beetle) would have a tolerance score of 7.

Photo to the right: This Hydropsychidae (common net spinning caddisfly) nymph would have a tolerance score of 4.

Hydropsychidae , caddisfly

Aquatic insects are a great starting point to get a sense of the water quality.  To assess a body of water using water sampling would require repeated testing visits to the site. Aquatic insects are not highly mobile and reside in the body of water for long periods of time. This means monitoring and testing the water isn’t needed as often.

For example, you are monitoring the water quality of Stream A. You sample the water for aquatic insects in June 2015, June 2016 and June 2017 and find diverse insect populations – stoneflies, caddisflies, beetles, dragonflies – and then you sample 

again in June 2018 and only find beetles and dragonflies. Generally, stoneflies and caddisflies are less tolerant to pollution when compared to beetles and dragonflies, so you deduce that somehow the water was polluted over the past year and wiped out those populations. You determine, based on talking to people along the stream, that the paper mill accidentally polluted the water in November 2017.

Now, let’s imagine you are sampling Stream A using water samples and laboratory tests. You sample in January, March, June and September of 2015-2018. Based on the tests, you determine the water is clean. Because you didn’t sample in November or December of 2017, there were no indicators showing the stream was polluted.

Now that you know WHY aquatic insects are great indicators of water quality, you may be wondering what they look like and how you can identify them. Purdue Extension publishes a Bioindicators of Water Quality Guide that provides detailed instructions for using bioindicators to determine the water quality. Using this excellent guide, the insects and their conservation values (known as a Tolerance Value) can be identified and calculated to estimate the water quality. Remember, there are other factors that impact the ability of aquatic insects to live in water, such as temperature, sediment, etc. Generally, where possible, it’s always best to collect other water data such as pH, temperature, and dissolved oxygen.

Additionally, the University of Wisconsin Extension offers citizen science training for monitoring water quality using benthic macroinvertebrates. For more information on that, check out the Water Action Volunteers (WAV) site. These classes will teach you how to sample bodies of water using a combination of tests, including aquatic insects.

Entomology Today has an article about insects and mites and what they tell us about water quality

Confluence, our Water Ways in art

The Blanchardville Public Library’s summer theme is “Library’s Rock”  which makes the art exhibit depicting the hydrologic cycle perfect. Ten community artists came together (confluence) to create a beautiful and educational exhibit illustrating elements of the hydrologic cycle — our “water ways.”

Land use and water quality

All land uses have an effect on water flow and water quality; some are positive, some are negative. In healthy ecosystems receiving little human disturbance, most rainfall soaks into the soil rather than running off the ground, stream flows are fairly steady, and water quality is good. In built-up areas with pavement and buildings or agricultural areas where land is bare rainfall causes runoff and poorer water quality. In fact, land use practices are the most important water quality factor.


Runoff is the water draining off the land; it is a natural and necessary part of the landscape. Water will follow the rules of gravity and move from a higher point to a lower point. If the water is filtered through native plants’ roots, it is important for recharging our groundwater. Negative runoff situations arise when the land becomes bare. When the water runs off hard surfaces and accumulates contaminants. In urban areas, these hard surfaces are pavement and concrete. In rural areas, solid surfaces are created by bare land. Other runoff occurs in cropped lands via drain tiles or land tilled too close to a stream. These negative situations are mitigated with good conservation farming practices, maintaining native wetlands, planting native plants along streams, and ensuring stormwater is filtered before it enters our waterways.

Photo to the right: As the streambanks build up with erosion, the water channels scoop out the sides causing the land to cave. Drone photo by Jim Hess

Livestock create a direct channel for water runoff and the resulting erosion, emptying topsoil and manure into the stream.



Karst is a topography characterized by carbonate rock (limestone, dolomite, gypsum) that easily dissolves in rainwater forming cracks, sink holes and even large cave systems. Water quickly moves through the cracks in karst and enters the groundwater. These cracks act as direct conduits for pollutants to enter our groundwater, wells, springs, and streams. There are many regions in the world that have karst geology, southwestern Wisconsin is one of them so are areas of Mexico, Germany, and Florida to name a few.

Lafayette County is sensitive to water pollutants because of our karst landscape. Whenever material above the aquifer is permeable, pollutants can readily sink into groundwater supplies and our drinking water supplies. Good conservation practices can ease the statistic that croplands are responsible for 96% of nitrates leached into groundwater.

Karst landscape is particularly easy to see in the winter. Where the road cuts through the earth you can see the beautiful icicles! This is the water seeping through the rocks, then freezing.


Groundwater is the water found underground in the cracks and spaces in soil, sand, and rock. It is stored in and moves slowly through geologic formations called aquifers. Groundwater is a necessary resource; it supplies drinking water for 51% of the total U.S. population and 99% of the rural population.

Groundwater is also a limited resource. It’s difficult to think this is possible when we currently average 34.5” every year, but only about 25% of all rainfall in the U.S. becomes groundwater. In the past that average has fluctuated from 21-44”annually.

Agriculture is the largest consumer of freshwater resources. In the United States 64% of groundwater is drawn down to irrigate crops. 


Well Depth and Construction

The safety of the water in your home is dependent upon proper well location and construction.  The well casing needs to extend into a confined aquifer, which must be quite deep in our karst landscape. As you can see from these diagrams, if the casing doesn’t extend deep enough, your water could be receiving contaminants from one half to one mile away from your home. The well should be located so rainwater flows away from it. Rainwater can pick up harmful bacteria and chemicals on the land’s surface.

Surface Water

Surface water is freshwater you see on the top or surface of the landscape. It includes rivers, streams, creeks, lakes, and reservoirs; these are vitally important to our everyday life. The amount and location of surface water changes, varying in response to climate and human activities.

Surface water represents only about 3% of all water on Earth. Freshwater lakes account for a mere 0.29% of the Earth’s freshwater. Lake Baikal in Asia has 20% of all fresh surface water; another 20% is stored in the Great Lakes.  What a precious resource we have near us!!

Runoff and erosion have negative effects for surface water and eventually our groundwater. Excess nitrogen and phosphorus from runoff causes the algal blooms on our lakes, subsequent deaths of animals, and a loss of tourism dollars. Excess nitrogen in the streams where livestock drink can cause disease. Pesticides are dangerous too and are found in surface water 97% of the time near agricultural areas and 61% of the time in other landscapes.


This shows how surface water is filtered thru confined and unconfined aquifers.

In karst landscape, it’s imperative your well supplying your drinking water is deep enough to draw from a confine aquifer.

Hydrologic Cycle

The hydrologic cycle is the way water moves through our world. Water falls to the ground in the form of precipitation which either evaporates into the atmosphere, soaks into the ground, or runs off into surface waters like lakes, rivers and oceans. The water that infiltrates into the ground is either picked up by plants and organisms that transpire it into the air or it becomes groundwater. Groundwater is stored in an aquifer. Some water spends hundreds of years beneath the surface in deep aquifers; other groundwater is drawn back to the surface through manmade wells. Shallow aquifers feed into our surface water through seeps or springs in the ground. All the water that evaporates enters the atmosphere, becomes clouds and the cycle continues.

The main elements of the hydrologic cycle are:

  1. Evaporation
  2. Precipitation
  3. Transpiration
  4. Runoff
  5. Infiltration



Precipitation is water released from clouds. It is visible to us in the form of rain, freezing rain, sleet, snow, or hail and is the primary method for water in the air to be delivered to earth. Most precipitation falls as rain. In our area, we expect an average of 34.5” of rainfall each year. Clouds are small droplets of water too small to fall to the ground. They create a vapor that appears as white fluffy objects in the sky. How many types of clouds can you name?


Evaporation is the process by which water changes from a liquid to a gas or vapor. Studies have shown the oceans, seas, lakes, and rivers provide nearly 90% of the moisture in the atmosphere via evaporation, with the remaining 10 percent being contributed by plant transpiration. Once evaporated, a water molecule spends about 10 days in the air.

hydrologic cycle


Transpiration is how we describe plants’ breathing. Plants’ roots draw water and nutrients up into the stems and leaves; some of this water is returned to the air by transpiration. Transpiration rates vary widely depending on weather conditions. During dry periods, transpiration can contribute to the loss of moisture in the upper soil zone, which can have an effect on food-crop fields.

An acre of corn gives off about 3,000-4,000 gallons of water each day, and a large oak tree can transpire 40,000 gallons per year. Keeping the numerous oak savannas in Lafayette County healthy would be very good for us!!


A watershed is the land where all the water drains off of it before entering into a particular water body. Watersheds can vary in size and are determined by topography (the peaks and valleys). In southwestern Wisconsin, we are located in the Upper Mississippi watershed. Everything we do on our land here travels to the Mississippi River and eventually reaches the Gulf of Mexico either from overland flow or through underground channels. Major watersheds like the Upper Mississippi are made up of many little watersheds. In fact each creek or pond has its own defined watershed.

What watershed do you live in?

Lafayette County, watersheds, conservation

A depiction of the watersheds in Lafayette County. Courtesy SWWRPC

Freshwater ecosystem

Freshwater ecosystems – such as wetlands, lakes and ponds, rivers, streams, and springs – are a critical part of the global water cycle. The water in these ecosystems is our surface waters; the ones our watershed catches and directs to our drinking water source.

Freshwater is also imperative to the survival of humans. We cannot stay alive without fresh water, yet we are facing a number of threats to our supply: 1) runoff from agricultural and urban areas, 2) draining of wetlands for agricultural uses and development, 3) overexploitation (i.e. high capacity wells) and pollution, and 4) invasion of exotic species.

All freshwater ultimately depends on the continued healthy functioning of organisms interacting in the aquatic environment. These organisms include fish, aquatic insects, amphibians, turtles, water fowl, and mammals such as otters and beavers. Freshwater is home to 40% of the world’s fish species. At present, more than 20% of these fish species are extinct or imperiled.

Fish living in our creeks and streams need clean, fresh water to survive. Lafayette County is home to one of the best smallmouth bass fishing places in the U.S. Yellowstone Lake is also a source of pride and brings in tourism. 



There are three basic types of freshwater ecosystems:

  • Lentic: slow moving water, including pools, ponds, and lakes.
  • Lotic: faster moving water, for example streams and rivers.
  • Wetlands: areas where the soil is saturated or inundated for at least part of the time.

What types of freshwater ecosystems do you have near where you live?

Insects are great indicators of safe, clean water because they are not highly mobile; they reside in the water for long periods of time. Insects offer a method of testing water less often and more accurately. Many of them are not tolerant of pollution and will die off when the waters become contaminated.


Freshwater ecosystem

Ducks and waterfowl are indicators of the environment. If they’re in trouble, we’ll soon be in trouble. They rely on wetland areas for food and nesting. The primary threat to waterfowl is the loss of wetland quality and function by agricultural activities that aren’t complying with conservation practices.

Freshwater ecosystem

Streambank Erosion

As topsoil erodes from higher elevation it collects along the streambanks which funnels water flow to continue cutting into and eroding the banks.

Where water is not slowed down it erodes the land, sending the topsoil to the streams where it builds up our stream bank sides or silts in our lakes. Our hilly Driftless Area landscape is conducive to erosion. Losing soil and nutrients to streams isn’t good for the farmers or the environment. Soil is precious and losing it hurts a farm’s productivity.

Streambanks historically were feathered out to allow water to ebb and flow. The steep-sided banks we often see in our streams are the topsoil from the ridge tops and hillsides that drained to the valley streams and built up along the edges. Once the streambanks are built up with this excess topsoil, water cannot gently flow but rather is blasted through the channels. This creates more and more erosion. With every turn of the stream the water grooves out more and more soil; eventually the hollowed out bank crumbles. This topsoil becomes nutrient-laden sediment, clogging our streams and lakes, and de-oxygenating the water. Insects and fish cannot thrive and the ecosystem begins to fail.


The stream in the photo on the left has been feathered to prevent the sides being “cut out” by the water flow. These steep banks of the right hand photo are caused by topsoil eroding down from higher ground and depositing along the streambanks. Then the water cuts into the banks.

Wetlands and Infiltration

The negative effects of runoff and erosion are prevented by the deep roots of native plants. Wetlands adjacent to streams are important and positive for healthy, safe, and clean water. The root systems of native plants reach deep into the soil, many of them stretching 12-20 feet downward. Nonnative plants do not have long roots. The root length allows more microbes to exist in the soil; these microbes are responsible for absorbing the additional nutrients from crops and livestock waste and pesticide runoff from urban areas.

Nonnative plants do not have the same nutrient-absorbing abilities as our natives. Their root structure is short; this means they are dependent on water supplied by precipitation. Native roots extend far into the soil where they can extract water in times of drought. This increases their importance as they can continue to filter surface water when other plants have died. This filtration service is the most significant method for purifying our drinking water.


Lafayette County Well Testing Results

This year the Lafayette County Commissioners voted to subsidize well water testing for the county. They decided to begin with 2 townships at a time. The first of these were Wiota and Seymour. Testing was conducted by UW-Stevens Point Extension and in late August, Kevin Masarik with the Center for Watershed Science and Education presented the findings to a group of interested citizens.

The following is a synopsis of his presentation. 

Groundwater is a local resource that generally comes from within a half to 1 mile of our wells. This means our activities affect our neighbors’ and visa versa.

While well water testing is not required, it is a voluntary activity and something well owners should do on a 12-18 month cycle. Rotating on an 18 month basis gives us information on how our water is responding at different times of the year. Water is never 100% pure and many contaminants are undetectable without this test.

Kevin discussed each of the health concerns water tests assess. As he talked about these and their importance, he discussed the overall outcome of each for these two townships. While it is easy to discount because many of us live in other townships, what is imperative to remember is that everyone in Lafayette County lives with the same fractured bedrock and relatively thin soil. Also, none of these health concerns is detectable without a test!

Of great importance is the test for coliform bacteria. A simple present or absent result is provided to the well owner. If coliform is present, “we generally encourage people to avoid using the water for drinking and cooking until sampling error is ruled out or steps are taken to ensure bacteria are no longer entering a well” Kevin explained. While the coliform is not the direct cause of disease, their presence could indicate a pathway for other pathogens to enter a well, including animal and human waste. Forty-six percent of the wells tested in Wiota and Seymour townships detected coliform bacteria; a few also had E. coli, a bacteria associated with human or animal waste and therefore a greater health risk.  Kevin pointed out, “We expect to see 15% of all wells in Wisconsin with coliform and 1% with E. coli. It is rare to see almost half with coliform bacteria. While it’s difficult to make conclusions from a small number of samples, the higher than typical bacteria positive results likely reflect the susceptibility of the area geology and reveals the soil may not always adequately filter the water.”

Nitrate and nitrite levels are other important water quality indicators. These chemicals are found in fertilizers, both ag and lawn sources. Measured in milligrams per liter, anything 10 or above is unsafe to drink and is known to cause birth defects; numbers from 1-5mg/L reveal the human influence of fertilizer additions. “Across Wisconsin, we expect to see 10% with 10mg/L or above,” Kevin noted “these two townships had 20% of the wells testing over 10mg/L, similar to other agricultural areas, but higher than the statewide average.”

Arsenic was another test offered. The standard is for water to be below 10 parts per billion (ppb). Arsenic in Wisconsin’s groundwater is most often from naturally occurring sources found in soils or bedrock.  Out of 26 samples, more than half detected some amount of arsenic, but only 1 was greater than the drinking water standard.

Another aspect testing analyzes is pesticide levels. Pesticides can be found in water as a result of their use on application on agricultural crops, spillage, and improper storage. The DACT screen looked for a breakdown component of the compound atrazine, a commonly used corn herbicide, and one that is commonly found in groundwater.  Of the 28 households that performed the test, 43% of those had a small amount detected

Lafayette County, well testing

Certainly, we wished all wells checked out safe, but that would not be realistic. In our fractured dolomite bedrock, our aquifers are generally more susceptible to contamination. This vulnerability is increased each time it rains. Lafayette County residents must be cognizant that our groundwater – our drinking water – is very prone to contamination. “Being a good neighbor,” as Kevin emphasized, “means remembering that your actions affect everyone’s drinking water, including your own, within a mile diameter.” Acknowledging this, participating in conservation practices, and regular well testing will keep us healthy and safe. Testing is critical because none of these health concerns is detectable without a test!


Test Your Wells Every 18 Months

To get your well tested, contact UW-Stevens Point Water and Environmental Analysis Lab either by calling 715-346-3209 or emailing They will send you a water testing kit with complete instructions. This will need to be returned via an overnight carrier.

Lafayette County Rivers, Streams, and Watersheds

Lafayette County has some great water features. Not only for the county, but some rank excellent in relation to the whole United States!! This according to Bradd Sims, the Lafayette County Fishery Biologist for the Wisconsin DNR, who presented the following information to the Lafayette County Conservation Committee.

The two most important watersheds in Lafayette County are the Fever River and the Yellowstone River.

Fever River

The Fever River (AKA Galena River) is of great importance, not only to our state but to the United States!! “It’s one of the best “small stream” or “wadable stream” smallmouth bass fisheries in the United States. There are not too many regions that have this good of small stream fisheries,” Sims reported. He added, “the Galena River watershed also includes the Shullsburg Branch which is another good smallmouth bass stream.” This coupled with the miles of public easement along this river bring in outside resources to the region and the state. Sadly, it is showing signs of nutrient loading. Nutrient loading is a term used when excessive amounts of phosphorus enter an ecosystem. This loading can be discovered in a couple of ways.  One is with monitoring by a citizen science team, known as Water Action Volunteers (WAV) and another is by noticing algal buildup covering rocks or aggregating at the edges. In the Fever River, the resulting blanket of algae from the nutrient loading is very detrimental to the smallmouth bass population. They require a clean rocky bottom for spawning and foraging.

So what causes this nutrient loading? In The Driftless Area it comes from surface soil runoff from farm fields, pastures and feedlots or faulty septic systems and manure containment systems. The slow day-by-day chronic seepage of outdated and defective manure containment systems is far worse for our waterways than the periodic manure spills because spills will eventually flush through the system. According to the Wisconsin DNR, there are 59 tributaries to the Fever River. Of those, 53% are unknown and untested, 35% are classified as poor or suspected of degradation. Only 12% are fair or good and none, yes none, are considered excellent.

Yellowstone River

The Yellowstone River watershed is the second most important watershed in our county. It also is in need of some attention. The Yellowstone River has some smallmouth bass populations but no public easements above the Yellowstone Lake dam. While some landowners do not deny access, obtaining these easements in perpetuity is important for continued economic viability.

Yellowstone Lake (the largest in The Driftless Area) is a popular recreational lake, not only for anglers but campers, swimmers, hikers, and birdwatchers. There is plenty of public access to this lake, which is home to largemouth and smallmouth bass, walleye, muskie, crappie, and catfish. Yellowstone Lake is a favorite summer spot for locals and tourists, making it a great economic resource to Lafayette County. Like all natural resources, this lake needs to be maintained and managed. At present, the lake needs to have the rough fish removed. Rough fish, such as common and bigmouth buffalo, refers to fish species that are not commonly eaten or are not sought after by anglers for sporting purposes. They also outcompete desired fish for food sources.

Some of the maintenance needed is the occasional dredging. It’s past time for that at Yellowstone Lake. It was built in the 1950s and dredged once in the 1960s. Since then the lake has built up 18-76” of “modern” sediment, often referred to as muck, which is mostly found in the upper areas of the lake. This muck is from soil runoff and silt and the buildup affects the water quality, which affects sporting and recreational activities. The soil runoff can be loaded with nutrients as well, which causes algal blooms making the lake unsafe to use.

The Yellowstone River watershed has 24 tributaries. Of these 58% are unknown and untested, 16% are poor and suspected, 16% are fair and good, and 10% or 2 tributaries are considered excellent. It gets a slightly better scorecard than the Fever River. 

Instilling conservation-minded land use practices in watersheds within The Driftless Area are imperative; not only for our streams and lakes, which provide economic resources to our communities, but for the quality of our groundwater, which we drink and depend on to maintain land values. Streams with buffer strips decrease the nutrient loads. If those buffer strips are native plants, they serve as a high-quality filtering system because the native plants have very deep roots, sometimes extending 15-20’ into the ground. These native plants do double duty by providing habitat and food to insects, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals.


small mouth bass

The Driftless Area contains 25% of the state’s smallmouth bass habitat and this includes streams found in Lafayette County. There are few areas left in the United States with these small streams which support fishable populations of smallmouth bass. Lafayette County is unique because it has cold and warm streams and natural smallmouth bass fisheries and small trout streams. 

All watershed areas have seen a loss of streams over the last 10 years. Our coldwater streams are warming because there is less spring flow, more sediment loading, and more nutrient loading due to land use changes. There is little state budget for warm water stream improvement. The coldwater streams have funding because of the trout stamp. This stamp is now necessary for anglers 18-64 years old who wish to fish in designated trout water or possess trout. Funds raised through the sale of trout and salmon stamps go into an account that can be used only for trout stream and lake habitat development, restoration, maintenance, identifying easements, or for rearing and stocking trout and salmon. Wisconsin should consider establishing a smallmouth bass stamp.

Some of our modern and corporate practices are damaging the health of our streams, lakes, and groundwater. These practices include the elimination of contour and conservation strips, plowing up to the edge of rivers and streams, and plowing up pastureland for operations keeping their cattle inside exclusively.

A Couple Examples of Negative Ag Practices

Negative ag practices near a stream

Lafayette County has five streams that do not support fish any longer due to degraded water quality. Fortunately, they have not been deemed lost. When the DNR classifies a stream as “lost” it means it is so irreparably damaged it’s not worth the resources to clean them. The Apple Branch, Whiteside Creek, and Wolf Creek do not support fishable populations of brown trout any longer and Wood Branch and Otter Creek no longer support smallmouth bass. If the water quality along these streams improved, they could be reclassified. In general, much of our stream degradation is due to sediment and phosphorus loading. To improve the water quality, current agricultural practices in this watershed would need to incorporate conservation measures to prevent runoff. 

Stream losses do not need to continue.

There’s a perception that conservation practices are time consuming or cut into productivity, but reality is quite the opposite. Conservation practices often increase productivity and as an inducement to use them, there are many cost share programs available.

Success begins with educating everyone living within these watersheds and getting landowners involved. The Dept of Ag (DATCP) has begun to implement grants targeting watershed programs initiated by producers. For info about this program.


The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) offers financial assistance and technical assistance for improving water quality.  The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) is the primary program that provides funding to install conservation practices such as managed grazing plans, filter strips, cover crops, nutrient management, contour strips, and streambank stabilization (riprap) just to name a few.

Lafayette County has also been awarded additional dollars through the RCPP (Regional Conservation Partnership Program) that will likely be available for 2018.  This will be an opportunity to get more landowner projects funded than ever before.  If you have been putting off doing a project or would like someone to do a walkover of your property, now is a great time.  All NRCS programs are voluntary and producer information is private and not shared with other agencies.

Rotational grazing

s it easier to get more land or improve production of land you already have?” This is the first question Gene Schriefer at the Iowa County Extension office asks when talking with livestock owners. As I researched this article, the consensus is rotational grazing will reward those who apply it.

Since getting more land isn’t always possible, improving production becomes the focus and rotational grazing is the solution. It results in profits from your pasture. It is also known as managed grazing or prescribed grazing. However it is called, it optimizes the number of animals without increasing acreage; it results in healthier animals, healthier pastures, and greater livestock production per acre. This practice is effective for either beef or dairy cattle. Beef cattle will have higher weight gains and dairy cattle will produce more milk per acre. Pat Leonard, a Lafayette County farmer who has used rotational grazing for 15 year, has found his milk production increased an average of 15-20 lbs per day once he began this practice. His family farm is consistently in the top 10 in Lafayette County for milk production.

Continuous grazing results in the lowest yields since there’s no grass recuperation time. It’s hard on plants; it uses up their root reserves and slows their recovery. Livestock having full access to pastures eat the most desirable plants first, create trails that increase erosion, and allow no time for grasses to recover. Rotational grazing allows forage plants to renew. Leaves are more palatable than stems, and new growth is more nutritious than older tissue. Plants have a chance to lengthen their roots and restore vigor to the plant. “Having fresh grasses and clovers provide the highest quality proteins, which produces quality milk at a lower cost,” said Pat Leonard. This is a very important point – rotational grazing helps keep family farmers competitive and producing quality product. 

Increased labor and time are perceived drawbacks to this management practice. On the front end, there is a need for time and money to be invested but the increased production and subsequent time savings make this investment worthwhile. Training the cattle to move between paddocks is fairly easy. Mike Balch, a rotational grazer in Iowa County, uses a cow bell to collect the cattle and move them to a new paddock. He says “by using this method, if I need someone else to move the cattle, it’s simple and the cattle are responsive.” Checking cattle in a 2-5 acre paddock is much quicker and easier than in a 40 acre pasture.

Good fencing is required to make this a success but it doesn’t need to be expensive. Here’s an example of how spending on infrastructure gets additional productivity. Typically, 40 acres will produce 1 ton of forage per acre. The fencing investment for this same 40 acres will improve grass by 50%, resulting in an additional 20 acres of forage. That’s 20 fewer acres you need to hay! And, according to Gene Schriefer, 50% is a conservative estimate.

Livestock water systems are another consideration once paddocks are created. Robert Bauer at Southwest Badger RC&D explained that how this is handled is very site specific but there are a number of inventive ways to keep this a manageable task.

Once in operation, cost reductions in equipment, herbicide, fertilizer, and labor are realized and a healthy soil profile develops.  Fertilizing is not always necessary in this well-managed system, because manure and urine will be fairly evenly distributed, providing the required NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) for plant growth. 

Producing good healthy soil is a result of rotational grazing. The outcome of allowing some portion of a pasture to regenerate is the accumulation of soil organic matter (humus), which captures and stores the moisture and nutrients from rainfall. This positive feedback loop is crucial to soil fertility and productivity. With no bare ground, soil compaction from rainfall is reduced and runoff and erosion are eliminated.  When soil fertility is preserved, yields increase. 

Rotational grazing, Managed grazing

It’s easy to see how rain runs off the soil so easily when there’s little vegetation. Photo courtesy: TheOrangeGardener.Org

Gene Schriefer says, “Rotational grazing makes pastures and farms more resilient, especially as we experience more frequent droughts and higher temperatures indicative of the changing climate. Remember the super hot year of 2012?” Rotational grazers had lush, nutritional grass in their pastures. Grasses allowed to renew grow taller which provide a microclimate of shade and collect water. The positive feedback loop becomes more important in drought times.

When allowed to rejuvenate, grasses put their roots down further and have more vigor. Photo courtesy Colorado State Extension

Rotational grazing, Managed grazing

Another aspect to consider is having a paddock or two in warm season grasses. They are ideal for those hot dry months of June and July in The Driftless Area. They have a different management technique but are good livestock feed.

There are numerous environmental benefits to this management. Preventing erosion and barnyard runoff are at the top of the list. Runoff is particularly nasty in our karst landscape (fractured limestone under the topsoil) of The Driftless Area. Preventing this runoff from contaminating streams and wetland areas reduces nitrate and pesticide leaching, which contaminate our groundwater and are detrimental to humans, livestock, and wildlife. The resulting healthier soil from the management means a healthier stream corridor with healthier livestock, healthier wildlife and healthier groundwater.

In addition to the benefits mentioned, this management extends pasture time, averaging 1-2 fewer months a year requiring hay feeding. What could you do with an additional 1-2 months if you didn’t need to make hay? Build the fences and let the cattle do the work to improve forage and soil conditions.

Who doesn’t want more productive land? Who doesn’t want to make it as productive as possible and as well managed as possible? Each pasture and each farm will have unique opportunities and grazing systems are designed according to the individual’s goals. Technical and financial assistance are a phone call away!

NRCS has many assistance options through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).  NRCS can write the prescribed grazing plan for free; this provides info about the soil, its expected yield and what seeding (if needed) is best suited for the site. With this info, we’ll know the how many animals the pasture can support and can layout paddocks to aid pasture rest and rotation. Rotational times are set by nature and the grass growth not by the calendar. Understanding pasture management is part of the assistance NRCS provides. NCRS also provides financial assistance for interior fencing, cattle lanes, water tanks, water pipelines, wells, windbreaks, and rock surfacing around water tanks, and seeding cropland to pasture or interseeding existing pasture. There is additional money available for beginning farms.


Woodland Restoration Efforts

We bought additional acreage in 2012 and this summer the work in the woods begins. The additional land consists of 12 acres of prairie and about 2 acres of woods. These woods are adjacent to the other 3 acres we bought in 2005. Below are a couple of photos before any work began.

While one could walk through the woods, visually, it was just a wall of invasive brush.

While one could walk through the woods, visually, it was just a wall of invasive brush.


A different angle shows the complete neglect of this woodland ecosystem.

Our initial viewing of the first 3-acres of woods in 2005 was a struggle because it was filled with garlic mustard, box elder trees, and brambles. They had harvested the lumber many years ago and left the slash (tops of the trees) laying wherever it fell. These issues made managing it difficult because walking through it was a challenge. We tackled the box elder trees first, then the garlic mustard, and lastly the brambles – and we learned a great deal from this.

As we thought about and decided on a management plan for the new wooded acreage, we took our education from the prior woodland work and applied it. We reversed the plan, brushcutting through the brambles and non-native herbaceous plants using the saw blade of the brushcutter. Then we treated the clumps of stems from the brambles with 20% Garlon 4 and made the stems into brush piles. By doing this first, it allowed us to work on removing the boxelder trees without the tripping hazards of these brambles and also without them ripping at our clothes and skin. We realize some stems were probably missed being spraying; our plan is to spray the re-sprouts in spring.

Next we tackled the boxelders (and continue to tackle them at the writing of this). This is a difficult tree rid the woods of with one cutting because when the cut portion is treated, it will resprout around the base, underneath the felling cut! We are prepared to re-cut and treat those in the spring as well. We have a pretty good system where Jim fells the larger trees and I cut them up and we both work to pile them into brush piles. It’s amazing how much more can be done with both of us on chainsaws!

We have discovered many native plants in the woods already – Wild columbine and Blue cohosh to mention just a couple.  We’ve also seen some new types of fungi. Our first 3 acres has yielded some very nice native plants without having to plant or seed the woods. They just needed to be free of the invasive plants! 

We’ve made great progress as shown by this photo, which is the same location as the first one commenting on the “wall of invasive brush.” There is a view into the woods now!

An after view into the woods, showing the wall of invasives has been "tamed."

This fall, we will go through and spray for garlic mustard. We use the Escort cocktail (see below), applying is as a foliar spray using our backpack sprayers. This will be the first treatment of garlic mustard in these woods. In the other 3 acres, we worked diligently, spraying in spring and fall. We began treating with 2% glyphosate but after 4 years found the plants were coming up deformed, flowering, and setting seeds; we did not test to see if the seeds were viable as it didn’t matter at this point — we were not going to do double work, meaning spray AND pull the same plants!!! We now only spray in the spring and then go through and hand pull any that we missed or any that came up after our spraying. We consider this 3 acres to be “under control and manageable” for garlic mustard. So, there is hope!!

In winter, we will burn the many brush piles we have created by clearing the invasive bushes and trees. Although the brambles are native, we remove them because they wreak havoc with anyone who wants to manage the land for other invasives and they spread prolifically, creating less diversity.  They do not produce fruit so they have little value as food for wildlife.

In spring of 2014, we’ll do another spray of garlic mustard before any of the other herbaceous plants have popped through the soil, then we’ll include this acreage in our hand pulling efforts. We’ll also blow the ashes from the burned brush piles using our backpack blower. Ashes are quite acidic and if left will change the composition of the soil. The goal is to allow the soil to rejuvenate its healthy microbes and other life forms. We will have to control weeds in these areas for the first year but we aren’t planning to seed these areas. Our hope is that the natives will fill in these spots as they have done in the first 3-acre woodland.

Escort cocktail is a 2 step process:

1.  Make stock solution

  1. 2 oz Oust® or Escort®
  2. 1 gallon water
  3. 4 oz ammonia
  4. 16 oz Activator 90 surfactant

2.  To mix foliar solution

  • 8 oz stock solution
  • 3 gallon of water
  • Blue Hi-liter dye

NOTE: We no longer use Escort, but have switched to Garlon (trichlopyr) mixed with water.