- Agronomic: annual ryegrass, corn, soybeans, vetches
- Crop Production: cover crops
- Education and Training: demonstration, farmer to farmer, networking, workshop
- Production Systems: integrated crop and livestock systems
- Soil Management: soil quality/health
- Sustainable Communities: social networks
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.
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).
- 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.