Not everybody would care to drive a tractor across a cornfield with a 30% grade. Some might even say, “You’d have to be crazy to farm these slopes!” says Joe Bragger, a dairy farmer from Independence, Wisc.

Bragger and his family raise crops and livestock on the steep hills and narrow, stream-laced valleys of west-central Wisconsin’s Driftless Region. His immigrant parents started a dairy farm here in the 1960s, drawn to a landscape that reminded them of their Swiss homeland.

Though fertile — in a good year the Braggers raise 200-bushel corn and 50-bushel soybeans — their clay-loam hills are very vulnerable to water erosion. It’s the kind of terrain that some believe should not be cropped at all. Yet the Braggers farm this fragile land intensively, achieving high yields with little soil loss. Their award-winning conservation system is a smorgasbord of best management practices, including:

  • Continuous no-till
  • Extensive grassed waterways
  • Check dams and basins in the upper watershed
  • Cover crops
  • Perennials in the rotation
  • Stabilized and maintained stream banks
  • Wide grass buffers at stream inlets

“We can be very productive here,” Bragger says, “we can farm intensively, and still maintain the water quality, soil and ecosystem.”

In fact, the Braggers’ farm overturns some common assumptions about runoff risk, says Dennis Frame, director of the University of Wisconsin’s Discovery Farms — among them: “Farm setting is a good predictor of loss” and “high slopes equal high runoff rates.”

Discovery Farms monitored edge-of-field nutrient and sediment losses in two watersheds on the Bragger farm from 2002 to 2008. “We chose the Bragger farm for monitoring because of the setting,” Frame says. “We expected to see high rates of erosion, nutrient losses and runoff. Yet our data showed that their impact on the environment was minimal.”

Averaged over the seven-year monitoring period, less than 3% of precipitation ran off their land, Frame says, compared to a statewide average of about 8%.

  • Annual phosphorus losses from cropland averaged 0.41 lbs./acre
  • Nitrogen losses averaged 4.2 lbs./acre
  • Sediment losses averaged about 700 lbs./acre/year — all well below estimated statewide averages, Frame says.

How do the Braggers do it? “It’s their entire system,” Frame says. “It’s no one thing; it’s all these things put together that make it work.”