Cover Crop Network Costshare
In this project, we have 8 farmers experimenting with cover crops, all with different operations and different goals. Seven of the eight have livestock, one of the eight has no row crops. This network of farmers existed for a year before applying to the grant, gathers in the winter to go over their Haney soil tests with a soil scientist from the ARS lab in Morris and share their experiences. This was a hard year, much wetter and colder than the previous 6 years, and affected all of the farmers’ work with cover crops this year. Two farmers were unable to plant cover crops as planned with wet, delayed harvests, and several of them are reconsidering future cover crop plans that leave more room for weather variation. Many of the farmers discussed that custom application of cover crops made it harder to get them in in a timely manner. They all seem to feel that cover-crops are an important practice to move forward with and many will be purchasing their own equipment for 2015 to make sure that the cover crops get in as soon as possible. This year’s experiences are documented in the following summary:
Mark Halls– Mark farms with his son and father, raising cattle, hogs, and row crops. He has been experimenting with cover crops to build his soil, to provide late fall/early winter forage for cattle, and to provide feed for wildlife to keep the deer pressure off his feed and hay. For this grant he planted 18 acres total into a cover crop that followed a small grain harvest. His primary goal for this field was to cover the field after harvest with a diverse mix that provided feed for wildlife. The field was planted into oats and forage turnips along with the usual re-sprouting of the fallen wheat. In the cool weather, the wheat did not mature until later in the season, it rained a lot around harvest and then the field took a while to be fit for drilling in the cover crop. He would have liked to get the crop in at least 3 weeks earlier, but in spite of the late planting, he felt that he got a lot of feed for the deer out of it, and the deer are still feeding off of it as of December 15th. He has also been pleased with the fact that people have been stopping and asking what he has in that field because they have seen so many deer feeding on it and it was all green after this latest melt. He feels that he is getting a lot of good information to locals and neighbors about getting better cover and food plots for wildlife. He hopes to get the cover crop in earlier next year.
Mark also hosted a field day this fall, called “Farmland Wildlife Food Plot Field Day” where the Halls described how he takes a proactive approach to keep deer out of his feed pile while keeping the ground covered, improving both soil health and water quality. Twenty-four people attended the field day and several people expressed interest in working with us to plant cover crop food plots next year. The workshop also sparked a conversation with the local DNR to put some cost share money into cover crop food plots as an effective method to protect local crops and feed stockpiles while feeding wildlife for more of the winter, relative to corn food plots. This conversation is still going on and we hope to have some DNR policy results by early spring. There has also been interest expressed in hosting a spring “how-to” workshop to help people source seed, plan seeding, arrange for equipment, and connect with funding sources. This workshop will be organized by the Land Stewardship Project.
Jim Wulf– Jim put 110 acres into a cover crop cocktail (he was unable to locate records of the exact mix for this report) following the harvest of an oats, peas on 40 acres and wheat on 70 acres. His goals for the cover crop were to improve soil fertility and structure, break up some compaction, and provide late season feed for some of his cattle. He had trouble getting the wheat off, as it had matured late and there was a lot of rain around harvest, so like the rest of the participants, the cover crop went in later than hoped, and consequently, he had less feed than he had hoped as well.
Jim planted the cover crop by having it broadcast then working it lightly afterwards with a cultivator. He had some missed communication with the custom broadcasters who ran out of seed and he found out after cultivating that 35 acres still hadn’t been planted, so he broadcast the seed on top of those acres, which was followed by a heavy rain that night. He saw that the seed that was on top of the cultivated ground germinated much better than the seed that he had cultivated over, assuming that the latter seed had been buried too deep. Jim decided that he needs to invest in a drill to plant the seed more precisely and to be able to follow the combine with the drill, planting the cover crop as early as possible. He is also convinced that cover crops pay in feed and soil building even in a more difficult year like this one.
John Ledermann – John planted 35 acres into a cover crop of white clover, tillage radish and Austrian field peas following wheat harvest this summer. He used a drill to plant the peas and radish, and broadcast the clover over the planting. His goals for the cover crop was building soil structure, nutrient building, especially nitrogen, and weed suppression. John is using cover crops to help with his strip tilling operation and to reduce input usage and costs.
He felt that he had good germination with clover, but not consistent spread and he wants to add a grass box to his drill and follow the combine, much like Jim Wulf described. He also noted that where the clover germinated well, all the plants did better, where germination was sparse, the plants seemed to be smaller. John said that after looking at his soil tests, he was impressed with how much the soil improved. The overall soil health score went from a 15 to a 19. John felt the clover did an especially good job at building soil structure.
After seeing how much better the peas and radish grew with the clover, John wants to plant his clover at the same time as the wheat next year with the addition to his current drill. He feels like the slow establishment of the clover will not compete with the small grain, it will keep the ground better covered, and there will be no break in cover at harvest. Judging from the soil tests he does not expect to reduce nutrient inputs much next year, but hopes that over several years the cover crops will reduce input costs.
Jess Berge– Jess had planned to plant cover crops following silage removal, as he had success with this last year. However, because of the cool wet summer, silage on this field didn’t get chopped until late September, and he wasn’t able to get a cover crop planted after flushing the ewes following the silage cutting.
He did, however, try an experiment with a different field where he inter-seeded Italian ryegrass into an alfalfa pasture that was performing poorly. He drilled the grass in May and planned to harvest the rye grass after he had taken the first cut of alfalfa, anticipating that the alfalfa would continue to do poorly. What he found instead was that the rye germinated but did not produce much tonnage. The alfalfa however seemed to respond notably well to the increased diversity in the field and he got much more tonnage than in the previous years.
In response to the difficulties with planting after silage, Jess has decided that planning to put in cover crop for grazing after silage chopping is a bad bet. He is going to increase his rotation to include more small grains and follow their harvest with cover crops for grazing. If he can plant any cover crops after silage, that would be a bonus, but he doesn’t believe it’s wise to plan on that for grazing.
Randy Mitteness – Randy had planned to put 27 acres into cover crop following wheat harvest. However, due to late wheat maturation, difficult harvest (the end of September), the wet weather and the need to spread manure on that field, the cover crop didn’t get planted this year.
Randy has come to the same conclusion as Jess Berge, that he would rather plan to follow a small grain with cover crop for grazing than silage. He had originally thought he would put cover crop into the same field as he had planned on this year following silage harvest. Instead, he has decided to put in oats on a different 58 acre field and follow that with cover crop for grazing.
Randy also feels that his dependence on custom hire for the cover crop planting also makes it more difficult to get the cover crop planted in a timely manner. He is now looking into getting his own drill to make sure that he can get the cover crop in as early as possible.
Tyler Carlson –Tyler planted 6 acres of poorly performing pasture into an annual grazing mix. His goals were to provide good annual forage for finishing some grass fed beef, to break up the pasture’s compaction problem, and to build soil fertility and structure. He also feels that adding the diversity to the poor pasture could help build soil heath and improve production in the future. Tyler took a harvest of baleage off of the perennial stand in late May. He then used shallow chisel plow to set back the perennial stand, broadcast annual cover crop seed at 50 lbs an acre in early June, and then went back over again with a disc to cover seed. His cover crop mix included: Brown Midrib grazing corn, Brown Midrib sorghum sudan grass, pearl millet, Iron and Clay forage soybeans, turnips, Nitro radish, and oats.
The annuals performed well, and the perennial stand while set back, did not die. He strip grazed the pasture and there was plenty of feed, although Tyler felt that he didn’t really have enough animals on it to properly graze the stand, the steers were “cherry picking” and seemed to prefer the turnips and radish, grazing only about 20% of the stand total. He was able to graze the stand for 6 weeks, moving the cattle daily. He felt weed suppression was good, perhaps due to the sorghum, and also hopes that the sorghum and the radishes helped with the compaction issues. Next year he plans to drill annuals into this field, hopefully having loosened the hard pan and built enough tilth to have better germination without disturbing the soil again. He plans to treat the same pasture and hopes to see the difference over two years of annual cover crops in the poor pasture. His goals will be the same and, long term, he hopes to double or triple the production on this pasture by increasing soil nutrients and structure. He hopes to remain no-till from here on.
Dan Jenniges- For this project Dan put 12 acres that had been corn the previous year into a cover crop mix that included corn, soybeans, sugar beets, rape, kale, purple top turnips, Italian rye grass, oats, wheat, barley, red clover and cow peas. Dan’s goal for the cover crop was to see if he could build enough nutrients in that field with a diverse cover crop to avoid putting fertilizer on the field the following year. He also hoped to do late season grazing on the field.
Dan drilled the mix in in mid-May, which is why he did not include tillage radish as they tend to bolt if planted too early. He reported that all the plants seemed to germinate and thrive with the exception of the sugar beets, which germinated but didn’t seem to grow. Dan was pleasantly surprised by the lack of weeds. Without any round-up or other herbicide, the field was almost completely clean except for the control strip where no cover crops were planted which was choked with weeds.
We had early snow in November and then with the melt in mid December, the field was too muddy to graze. As of this report, he hasn’t been able to graze it but still intends to turn some cattle out once the ground is firm, he has seen them eating frozen greens and licking the mush of frozen turnips before. From the results of the Haney test, he feels that he won’t have to use any inputs for the next year, and he is confident that the existing residue has sequestered plenty of nutrients for the no-till corn he intends to plant in 2015.
Next year Dan plans to put 50 acres into a similar mix of species after he harvests oats. He also planted an extra 35 acres of winter rye that he intends to use as a seed source for more cover crops, hoping for 2000 or so bushels to plant 1000 or so acres the following year for grazing, haying, and spring plow down. A couple of other neighbors thought they’d like to try it too after talking with Dan about what he’s doing with cover crops.
Tyler Morical- Tyler planted crimson clover on approximately 5 acres immediately before planting spring wheat on May 5th. He broadcast the clover and applied it at 5-10 pounds per acre. His goals were to provide weed control and to reduce nutrient and chemical inputs on the wheat.
The weed suppression worked well and no in-season herbicide was needed. Through the season, the clover stayed below the canopy of the wheat and by harvest, it seemed to have died back a little and did not interfere with harvest in any way with the exception of one low spot that was very wet. In that area the clover out-competed the wheat. Taylor did a soil test to compare the under-seeded, untreated wheat with wheat that had received 10 gallons per acre of 28% N fertilizer, amounting to a difference of 30lbs per acre of Nitrogen fertilizer between the clover and the treated acres. The wheat receiving the top-dressing yielded 58 bushels per acre and the under-seeded wheat yielded 57 bushels per acre. The cost of the fertilizer and its application cost $35 per acre. The cost of the clover seed and seeding totaled $20 per acre, resulting in a $15 per acre savings in input. One bushel of wheat was about $5.50 at harvest, resulting in a $9.50 per acre savings, which does not include herbicide and application savings.
Taylor wants to try this test again next year to see if he has consistent results. He would have liked to make one more test this year, but with the slow, rain delayed harvest he was racing to harvest the wheat. He did not test the wheat quality from the two trials and would like to next year to see if there is any difference in protein content.