Recent research from the University of Wisconsin Discovery Farms Program shows that forage-based livestock systems, including dairies, do a better job at reducing soil loss to surface water than farms without cattle.

The study compared soil losses on three Wisconsin dairies that had significant differences in slope, soil type and farm-management systems. In order to determine how these dairy systems impact soil loss, the Discovery Farms Program installed surface-water-monitoring equipment on each of the operations. Each farming system was compared to a typical corn and soybean crop rotation with either 30 percent or 50 percent residue remaining at planting.

On all three dairies, soil losses would double if the operation switched from a forage-based cropping system to a reduced-tillage corn and soybean rotation, says Dennis Frame, Discovery Farms director.

If the trend of selling the cows and moving to cash-grain production doesn't cease, soil erosion and nutrient losses will continue to climb, Frame adds.

The table at right summarizes the predicted average soil loss for the three dairies involved in the Discovery Farms study.