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Planting crops by plane; new method for area farmers

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WAUNAKEE, Wis. - Farms across Dane County are planting their crops from high in the sky this September in an effort to improve water quality.

Farms in DeForest, Waunakee, Sun Prairie and Fitchburg are participating in a project to help clean up Dane County lakes. Around nine farms are partnering with Dane County land and water resources department, UW-Extension, Yahara wins, and the natural resources conservation service.

"We value our soil, keeping soil in its place and preserving the quality," Jeff Endres, owner of Endres Berry Rich Farms, said.

From a bird's eye view, Endres and eight other farms are applying cover crop seeds by plane.

Cover crops are planted to protect the soil after a cash crop like corn is harvested. With a cooler summer, the method is helping jump start growth.

"This really helps us with the timing; it allows the seed to be put in place prior to the harvest. We can get a head start on the growth and then we don't have to take the time to actually come in and seed it," he said.

Taking flight allows farmers to cover more ground. Dairyland Aviation applied seeds to more than 1,000 acres Tuesday to test the method. Farmers aren't the only ones benefiting from the project, their efforts are helping improve water quality in the area.

"We really don't want soil leaving farm fields and adding to the phosphorous in the lakes and causing algal problems in the lakes. So it's really a win, win for us to have things growing in the fields, keep the soil there and keep it from reducing water quality," said Heidi Johnson, Dane County UW-Extension crops and soil educator.

Different from traditional planting, the seeds lie on the ground. Which means their success depends on the weather.

"It does present a little more risk that way but generally we have seen it works pretty well on a general basis. We just need to have a good amount of rainfall and the right environmental conditions to get it going," she said.

In Wisconsin, Johnson said the benefits of getting an early start on the crops season outweighs the risk.

"We can see the cover crop earlier. As we all know, we run out of warmth and sunlight in the fall and as you start to run out of that, you run out of time for it to grow. When we have all this extra time, it gives the cover crop extra time to get bigger in the fall," she said.

Dane County's Regional Conservation Partnership Program grant is funding the project. Johnson said the selected farms will continue to test the method for an additional three years.

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