Shifting Local Trends with Cover Crops and Short Season Corn

Final report for ONC15-009

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2015: $29,870.00
Projected End Date: 04/30/2017
Grant Recipient: Land Stewardship Project
Region: North Central
State: Minnesota
Project Coordinator:
Robin Moore
Land Stewardship Project
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Project Information

Summary:

Summary for Shifting Local Trends with Cover Crops and Short Season Corn

This grant was written to address a barrier to the work of Land Stewardship Project (LSP), in the Shakopee Creek Watershed in western Minnesota and the Root River watershed in southeastern Minnesota, that “cover crops cannot work here”. The obstacles to this practice included heavy clay soils, farming in a flood plain and  farming cultures that resisted ideas focused on ramping up soil biology through continuous living cover.  The use of chemical or mechanical technologies is more familiar because it is pushed by most advisors and purveyors of inputs. We believed that if we could convince and support a few farmers in these regions to experiment with tillage radish and other cover crops to address their concerns, then we might be able to ignite some local curiosity and momentum.

Shakopee Creek Watershed:

At the onset of this grant, three farmers in the Shakopee Creek Watershed were willing to dedicate a minimum of 5 acres to the use of tillage radishes following a small grain or a short season corn. They wanted to see if it could help reduce the need for fall tillage in this heavy clay soil region that is a former lake bed. Once the grant was procured, one farmer realized that the equipment he thought he could borrow would not be available to him, making the experiment relatively impossible for him with his time constraints and available equipment.  He then backed out. This typifies one of the biggest barriers to experimenting in cover crops in the area. Because it is almost exclusively corn, beans, and sugar beets, very few people have the equipment for small grain crops or cover crops, either drills for seeding or the combine equipment for harvesting. The local Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) does have a drill for rent, but the farmers I worked with didn’t have the time to work with the SWCD for access, to go get the drill (the county is very big), or seed with a very small 8 ft. drill. (Or even have a small enough tractor to do that with.)

In 2015, another farmer who farms corn, beans, and rotates alfalfa in some of his fields agreed to try wheat and follow with a tillage radish/oats/clover mix… intending the wheat to also reseed to some degree. The radish was seeded at 2# an acre, the oats were at 40# per acre, and the clover was at 5 # per acre. These seeding rates were low, but there was also the anticipated re-seeding of the wheat. He hired a neighbor to use his equipment to plant wheat, hired that same neighbor to combine the wheat, and then borrowed another neighbor’s small drill to drill in the cover crop. The timing was correct, he planted the cover crop on July 20th, but unfortunately the setting on the drill was NOT correct and all of the cover crop mix was planted in the headlands and the first pass on the field. It was also a very dry late summer/fall. The radish germinated, but the competition was high as the planting was so dense, and although the field was green, the radish didn’t reach pencil size.   A picture is included in the attached PowerPoint in the last slide.

 During the spring of 2016 the farmer tried again, planting a short season 80-day corn, intending to broadcast a tillage radish mix into the standing corn. The farmer did forgo fall tillage in order to get the most benefit possible from the cover crop. The farmer did not note any difference in tillage on the headlands versus the rest of the field, and did not think that the tillage radish accomplished much as far as compaction or drainage were concerned. Drainage was not an issue that spring, as the dry fall carried over to a dry spring.

The second participating farmer in this project has a hog and cattle operation, both on pasture, and both requiring supplemental feed and hay that is also grown on their limited acreage. Their soil is quite heavy and this farmer saw the possibility that tillage radish might be a useful addition following an annual forage crop. Annual forage crops were something new that this farmer was trying, looking for a different or better hay source than his 2 years of grasses that he included in his rotation. The farmer planted an annual forage crop in the spring of 2015 comprised of sorghum, oats, soybeans, corn, spring field peas, rape/turnip hybrid, red clover and crimson clover. He hayed this field (about 40 acres total) in the middle of July, allowed regrowth, and then grazed the field for two weeks from the middle of August until Labor Day. He then drilled tillage radish into five acres of the grazed down annual forage field at the recommended rate of 8 pounds per acre. The peas and the rape/turnip continued to flourish and grew back vigorously, and the farmer turned the cattle back onto this piece in late October to graze the last of the annual forage crop.

We found that by the first week in October, there had not been good germination of the tillage radish. It had been a very dry fall, and we thought that the combination of established plants plus limited water must have made it difficult for the radish to germinate or establish. Cattle were also run on the field when the radish still would have been quite small, which may have set them back even further. In any case, by the time it froze hard and stopped growth, it was hard to find tillage radish in those acres.

During the spring 2016 the farmer tilled the acres and planted corn, and was not able to tell any difference between the ground with and without the tillage radish. He also decided he could not continue with the tillage radish experiment. First, he did not feel that the annual forage provided enough benefit, either in yield or diversity of feed, to offset the costs of seed, field time with tillage and planting, and the loss of one year of perennial hay in his rotation. He felt that it was more economically and environmentally sound to increase his hay field rotation to 3 years. However, this project did increase his interest in tillage radish as a nutrient scavenger and next year he plans to plant a short season corn, cut it for silage, and try a late season grazing mix with tillage radish in it. However, he could not get that arranged for the 2016 season, so he did not participate in the second year of the project.

Root River Watershed:

Three farmers agreed to participate by preparing fields, buying seed, planting cover crops, and managing the field.  They also allowed soil testing, agreed to participate in cover crop meetings twice a year and host a field event or speak at a public event about their experience.  All three farmers used cover crops again in 2016.  Accompanying photos as part of a PowerPoint were taken in the fall of the 2015 season for all three farmers in SARE-Partnership-Mar-18-2016-slidesLSP-.

One farmer planted tillage radish, hairy vetch and oats on 8/5/2015. Early maturing corn/small grain were used to open a cover crop establishment window.  This farmer used his combinations and double cropping for baleage and soil building.  He became a quiet champion of integrating livestock, feed, soil health, weed control, and cover crops within and beyond field crops

Another farmer planted field peas and barley cover crop on 4/28/2015.  It was used for baleage in June shortly after the picture was taken. Soybeans were then planted and planned to no-till a cover crop of winter rye after the beans were taken off. This farmer got in 3 different plantings last summer, ending with winter wheat he hoped to harvest in mid-May 2016.  He planted corn in 2016. He also sought both the long-term benefits of resilience as well as feed and grain income.  His longer-term goal to quit his day job.

A third farmer planted winter rye after 88-day corn. The corn was harvested on 10/19/2015 and the cover crop was planted 10/27/2015. This farmer co-hosted a field event explaining what happened after a corn field was flooded.  The farmer was cautiously venturing further into cover crops because of the visible success on his flooded field. However, he needed the organic corn seed and winter rye was new for him.  In 2016 he used buckwheat along with radish and peas.

Soil samples were collected in the fall of 2015 and fall of 2016 from plots ranging in size from 5 acres to 50 acres. Samples were shipped frozen to Ward Labs in Nebraska for analysis; results were mailed to each farmer and then discussed in general terms at a public meeting in early December, as were site specific aspects of each research farmer’s experiment.  There was a regular flow of communication between the farmers and Land Stewardship Project’s Caroline van Schaik, who took soil samples and photographs, helped with cover crop seed selection/sourcing, collected cultural data, answered questions, wrote about the work, and organized meetings in spring and fall where presenters included NRCS soil scientist Dan Nath, University of Minnesota Extension educator Jim Paulson, and these farmers (among others).

Cover Crop Network:

Biological soil testing and cover crops research gave structure to an active Cover Crops Network, from which a dozen new leaders gained experience and confidence as advocates for continuous living cover and the water/soil/habitat benefits that ensue.  A winter workshop was held in 2015 and 2016 to review the Haney soil test results of farmers in the network (in aggregate).  There were immediately followed by public meetings.

Multi-Platform case study:

A case study was done with Olaf Haugen who adopted multi-species cover crops for economic reasons and who speaks compellingly about the benefits to his managed grazing, bulk tank and to soil health. Comments about his system were included as part of a panel discussion at a workshop on Soil Health held on February 2017.  This workshop featured Kristine Nichols and included other farmers. His comments are part of an attached article called “Raising Expectations in the Field” in Land Stewardship Letter #2 2017.  A podcast was uploaded LSP’s website “An Ear to the Ground 192: Healthy Soil, Healthy Profits: A dairy farmer finds more microbes in the soil means more money in the bank.”  These pieces address benefits to water quality in the Root River Watershed as well as illustrate the evolution of a young farmer leader into an highly effective spokesperson for profitable stewardship farming.

 

Scenarios

Rick Bieber describes his approach to using cover crops and rotational grazing to manage soil water in South Dakota where he gets only 17 inches of rain.  He said because of integrating no-till and cover cropping, he has gone from producing three bushels of corn per inch of rain to consistently being in the eight bushels per inch range. He was featured at a winter 2017 Soil Health workshop in January 2017 and his experiences included in “Raising Expectations in the Field” in Land Stewardship Letter #2 2017, see “Case study OH and workshop LSL 2017.pdf.”  He is also interviewed in a podcast “Ear to the Ground 189: “A Farm Flourishes When the Soil Flourishes: Rick Bieber describes how building soil health saved his farm from financial ruin.”

Curt Tvedt was an early participant in the soil health work with Caroline van Schaik and the Cover Crop Network that included SARE-funded participants. An article was published in the Land Stewardship Letter #4 2016, called “My Contribution to Millions of Years of Research: A Farmer Reflects on his Land’s Past, Present and Future When It Comes to Soil Health.”  He describes why he farms with cover crops and how he uses rye and plants soybeans into it to protect the water and the resources of his farm.

 

Sharing LSP’s Methods of Farmer Engagement:

LSP staff used purposefully chosen ways to engage farmers and landowners in stewardship farming. This SARE project illustrated a robust and systematic approach to engagement. Each method of engagement is highly transferable, and a description of their collective measured experiences is provided that may be useful to organizations with a serious commitment to resource conservation and sustainable approach to agriculture.  A presentation was given by Caroline van Schaik in February 2017 at the Trout Unlimited 2017 Driftless Symposium’s watershed management session.  It was called “A System of Engagement: striving for perennial cover by watershed farmers and landowners,” the visuals for that presentation are attached.  A fact sheet was prepared “LSP’s Root River Initiative: Engaging Farmers & Landowners Around Continuous Living Cover,” based on the presentation (attached as a product).

Materials can also be downloaded from https://landstewardshipproject.org/stewardshipfood/rootriverwatershed

 

 

Project Objectives:

Project Objectives:

  • Field test radish/mix as an alternative to fall tillage of heavy soils
  • Field test short season corn as an economically viable option for cover crop establishment.
  • Introduce and reinforce soil health concepts to farmers, landowners, and ag resource staff in both projects
  • Plant crop land to cover crop rotations as local examples of soil building
  • Develop regional Cover Crop Network to support risk-taking farmers
  • Engage farmers in the collection of field data to tell their stories in scientific and anecdotal fashion;
  • Address local resistance to cover crops by engaging influential local farmers.

Specifically in the Shakopee Creek Watershed, we sought to have 3 farmers plant at least 5 acres of tillage radish following a primary crop on the same acreage for 2 consecutive years.  

In the Root River Watershed, we sought farmers who would plant a cover crop mix of tillage radish and at least one other species or early season forage followed by a cover crop mix of at least two species.

 

Cooperators

  • Jim VanDerPol
  • Keith Poier
  • Loren Donovan
  • Jeff Gillespie
  • Dean Richards

Research

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

15 Consultations
6 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
6 Published press articles, newsletters
1 Webinars / talks / presentations
6 Workshop field days

Participation Summary

110 Farmers
6 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

A. Factsheet and educational tools:

  1. A fact sheet was prepared “LSP’s Root River Initiative: Engaging Farmers & Landowners Around Continuous Living Cover,” based on the presentation noted below. LSP-root_river_fact_sheet
  2. Blog. “Cover Crops”: The Hardest Step is the 1st One. Caroline van Schaik • October 19, 2016 https://landstewardshipproject.org/posts/888
  3. Podcast. “Ear to the Ground 176: Testing Total Terra”  Caroline van Schaik. LSP experiments with a new test that provides deeper insights into soil’s productive potential.1/31/16. https://landstewardshipproject.org/posts/podcast/805
  4. Case study  Part A, Podcast: “Ear to the Ground 192: Healthy Soil, Healthy Profits.”  Olaf Haugen. A dairy farmer finds more microbes in the soil means more money in the bank. https://landstewardshipproject.org/posts/979 
  5. Case study Part B, Article: “Raising Expectations in the Field: LSP Workshops Focus on Making Soil Pay its Own Way,” Land Stewardship Letter #2 2017, Pages 18-19. Case-Study-OH-and-workshop-LSL-2017-OH. or  https://landstewardshipproject.org/stewardshipfood/rootriverwatershed 
  6. Scenario 1, Article: Soil-Health-Scenario-CT,” Land Stewardship Letter #4 2016, Page 13. Uploaded as Soil Health Scenario CT.pdf or https://landstewardshipproject.org/stewardshipfood/rootriverwatershed
  7. Scenario 2, Podcast: “Ear to the Ground 189: A Farm Flourishes When the Soil Flourishes.” Rick Bieber describes how building soil health saved his farm from financial ruin. https://landstewardshipproject.org/posts/939
  8. Article: Haney-Soil-Test-and-Cover-Crop-Network-2017-LSLLand Stewardship Letter #2 2017, Pages 16-17. Uploaded as Haney Soil Test and Cover Crop Network 2017 LSL.pd. or https://landstewardshipproject.org/stewardshipfood/rootriverwatershed

B. Field days/workshops

  1. Root River area: July 27, 2015. Three farmers in LSP’s southeastern Minnesota Cover Crops Network shared their experiments with cover crops, what didn’t work and what they learned from it.  About 40 people attended.
  2. Shakopee Creek: A small walking tour was held in early August 2015.  The corn was about head high.  There were 6 farmers and 3 ag professionals, and it focused on nitrogen management, bringing up cover crops as a nitrogen scavenging strategy, alongside some soil monitoring techniques. The use of  a drone for crop monitoring was also demonstrated.
  3. Root River area: Sept. 28-29, 2016. Participants visited 2 different farms on each of 2 days (4 sites total) to learn first-hand from each host farmer about soil health in action via short season corn, cover crop mixes that work, seeding conditions, the use of double-cropping to make cover crops pay for themselves, cover crops for weed suppression, role of livestock, field goals, fertility measurements and the Haney Soil Health test, and the importance of goals and constant cover for farm and soil stability. The events were designed to be farmer-centric though we also benefited from the able knowledge of NRCS soil scientist Dan Nath and UM Extension forage specialist Jim Paulson. Hosts – all members of LSP’s Haney Soil Health Project and the Cover Crops Network – were well prepared with LSP help, and after several opportunities to speak about their research and observations, their development as leader/spokesmen was evident from the beginning of this grant cycle to its end.   How many people attended? 10-20 each day
  4. Cover Crop Network meetings in southeastern Minnesota. We hosted winter cover crop meetings built around research farmer needs first and then open to the public; both were advertised on-line and in area newspapers, including the regional ag press. Some 35 farmers attended the public component of the December 2016 winter Cover Crops Network meeting, when host farmers each spoke about aspects of their research.  Several attended December 2015 meeting and it was covered by Agri News.

We advertised for the September 2016 and December events via the press, social media, web sites, and postcard mailings.

C. Newspaper coverage and other newsletter coverage

  1. Agri-News-cover-July-27-2015-event. Janet Kubat Willette. “Cover Crops: ‘Oops’ leads to learning”. Page B1.  Covering Cover Crop Network field day on July 27, 2015. Uploaded as Agri News cover July 27,2015 event.pdf
  2. Agri-News-page-1-Dec-cc-mtg-Dec-10-2015. Janet Kubat Willette. “Cover Crops: We are really learning.” Page B.  Covering Cover Crop Network public meeting on December 10, 2015. Uploaded as Agri News page 1 Dec cc mtg Dec 10, 2105.pdf
  3. Agri-News-cover-Sept-29-2016-event Brita Moore. “Soil: A farm’s no 1 investment”. Page B1.  Covering Cover Crop Network field days on September 28-29,2016. Uploaded as Agri News cover Sept 29,2016 event.pdf
  4. Sept28-29-earned-press11.17.16-Page-12. Jill Veerkamp. “Land Stewardship Project Field Tour Examines Effects of Cover Crops on Soil Health.” Page 12. Covering Cover Crop Network field days on September 28-29,2016. Uploaded as Sept28-29 earned press 11.17.16 Page 12.pdf
  5. lsl_no_2_2015-27-SARE-project “LSP Initiative Looking at Role of Short Season Corn & Small Grains in Cover Cropping” by Caroline van Schaik.  Land Stewardship Letter #2 2015. Pages 27.  Uploaded as lsl_2_2015 27 SARE project.pdf

D. Presentation

  1. A presentation was given in February 2017 at the Trout Unlimited 2017 Driftless Symposium’s watershed management session.  It was called “A System of Engagement: striving for perennial cover by watershed farmers and landowners,” the visuals for that presentation are attached.  Uploaded as LSP Driftless System of Engagement Feb 8, 2017.pdf or https://landstewardshipproject.org/stewardshipfood/rootriverwatershed Case-Study-OH-and-workshop-LSL-2017-OH

E. On-farm consultations

LSP staff assisted project cooperators through on-farm visits about cover crop seed, Haney soil test sampling and field-day planning.

Learning Outcomes

5 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key changes:
  • In the Root River Watershed, biological monitoring results helped the participating farmers along with a wider network learn about soil biology and bigger, deeper reasons for covering the soil for more than 4 months/yr. The three southeast Minnesota farmers were members of LSP’s Cover Crop Network, using the Haney Soil Test.

  • In the Shakopee, the learning outcome was that the farmer who continued in 2016 and beyond has been motivated to experiment and has gotten excited about the challenge of working with cover crops.

  • Another farmer did not feel that the annual forage using tillage radishes provided enough benefit, either in yield or diversity of feed, to offset the costs of seed, field time with tillage and planting, and the loss of one year of perennial hay in his rotation. He felt that it was more economically and environmentally sound to increase his hay field rotation to 3 years.

Project Outcomes

5 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
4 Grants received that built upon this project
1 New working collaboration
Project outcomes:

Project outcomes

  • Five of the six farmers in two distinct Minnesota regions field-tested a tillage radish mix as a soil conditioner or forage/ early-season corn to establish a timely tillage radish mix cover crop in the fall.
  • At least 30 additional farmers and landowners attended field days and thus better understand the critical role of healthy soil on their farm profitability and resilience in the face of climate change.
  • Farmers in this project have spoken publicly at field days and winter workshops through SARE and other funds to help others consider cover crops as a viable rotation after seeing research sites and local data. A survey of cover crop network participants took place in Year 1 and again in Year 2 in the Root that indicates growing conviction in the value of cover crops and greater interest in pursuing them.
  • At least four farmers continued to use cover crops in 2016.  In the Root, 3 farmers used cover crops for two seasons.
  • A cover crop network was established is southeastern Minnesota as part of the project. In the Shakopee farmers were invited to participate in a Cover Crops Network in the larger Chippewa River Watershed.  Both networks met at least twice each year for soil health education, peer support and network farmer exchanges related to seed, equipment, and practices that incorporate longer rotations into cash crops and livestock operations of a variety of sizes.
  • Several articles appeared in publications about this project, helping to show that cover crops build soil and farm profitability by changing cultural practices around tillage, livestock grazing, corn seed selection, and soil rest periods. These include earned press, Land Stewardship Letter articles, blogs, and a letter to the editor by one of the Root farmers.

Impacts

In the Shakopee creek watershed, the impacts included helping one farmer move past his comfort zone. There was no noticeable impact on compaction or drainage, however not only did the radishes establish poorly, but this was a dry fall and spring and there was no moisture pressure. The best impact was that the farmer who is continued in 2016 and beyond has been motivated to experiment and has gotten excited about the challenge.

In the Root River watershed, we saw an evolution among farmers moving from a desire to be told what cover crops to plant and by when, to a more courageous can-do attitude. An end-of-project review reflected a remarkable commitment to the benefits of cover crops, a certain unsureness about the merits of one species versus a mix, plans for next year, and an almost unanimous eagerness to meet again. In contrast, the initial review at the start of the project (and including other farmers participating in cover crop work with separate funds) reflected a mixed understanding of the benefits of cover crops and a general interest in doing something different with them. Participants then were largely unsure about the merits of multi-species planting versus a single cover crop; they were largely eager for additional gatherings. As happened at the December 2015 network meeting, many stayed late after the 2016 meeting to meet farmers they heard speak from across the room, swap cultural practices and hard-earned experiences, and from LSP’s perspective, nurture the thinking community behind a sustained culture of stewardship farming.

Accomplishments

Shakopee Creek Watershed: Both participating farmers managed to adapt their systems and rotations to include the cover crops. For the farmer who followed wheat, this meant overcoming many equipment obstacles as he did not have the appropriate equipment to plant or harvest wheat, or to drill in a cover crop, nor was he accustomed to including wheat in his rotation.  But he is very interested in reducing fall tillage and he felt it was a good opportunity to push past some of those up-front barriers.  The fact that he did manage to get all the steps in was an accomplishment.

For the other farmer with livestock who planted the tillage radish after an annual forage crop, he learned that the radish is not going to compete well with an established crop even if that crop has been grazed very hard.  He is still interested in tillage radish, but is now working on trying to adjust his corn planting and harvest to perhaps sequester more nutrients in the future. 

Root River Watershed: The cover crops network was built around the power of soil biology and measuring it with the Haney Soil Health test. Members were eased into discussing what they’re doing with each other around the coffee pot, on road trips to other field events, and in LSP workshops last summer and this winter.

Surrounded by a sea of corn and soybeans, 30-80 farmers attended our cover crops events, which feels like the early stages of a small revolution.  That work is being carried forward by LSP’s Bridge to Soil Health Initiative.

Success stories:

Multiple stories are included as part of the media uploaded in the Education and Outreach Activities section.

A dairy farmer in southeastern Minnesota said, 70% of our feed is derived from forage. Cover crops, such as annual forage sources, are a key tool to extend the grazing season, even the grazing season out and allow us to rest the pasture. We use MOB grazing in this system and have seen infiltration rates increase dramatically. Building soil health takes time.

“The vetch is like alfalfa,” says a farmer in southeastern Minnesota. “It puts nitrogen back in the soil. The goal of the oats is to fix nitrogen for corn next spring. The radishes pull up deep minerals.”

 

Recommendations:

We appreciate the funding from SARE that includes learning incentives for farmers and resources for them to share their stories with other farmers.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.