A no-tiller from Wisconsin recently shared how he’s making cover crops work on his 500-acre crop and beef farm in western Wisconsin.
Dan Shellium, who farms with his wife, Kristie, provided the keynote speech at the “Farmer to Farmer: Regenerative Agriculture” event hosted recently by the Grant County Rural Stewardship, UW-Platteville Sustainability, Crawford Stewardship Project and the Food, Faith and Farming Network, where challenges with changing weather patterns to depressed prices was discussed.
Shellium told about 70 farmers, educators and agriculture officials how he’s used cover crops at Windy Hill Ranch in rural Hazel Green in Lafayette County. The operation includes 200 head of cattle and cash corn and beans, winter grains and alfalfa for crops.
He used the analogy of a book with many chapters: Shellium is continuously adding chapters to his farm’s story as goals and management tools are added and updated.
“Each year is a different chapter with cover crops,” he said. “And we’ve incorporated and applied cover crops at every angle of the farm. We’ve really embraced it.”
The first chapter of Shellium’s book began in 2012 when he started using cover crops extensively, also increasing his use of no-till practices and rotational grazing cattle in the same year.
He started with three goals in mind for his farm: to have better erosion control and make sure manure and other fertilizers were going into the ground; to increase soil nutrient cycling as the farm had been exposed to detrimental mining operations of the past; and to have a forage supply for the cows.
His main goal, however, was quickly realized as Shellium found cover crops provided an excellent forage for his cattle.
“If you have cattle, you can’t afford to not have cover crops,” he said. “The different options we have for feed from this are crazy and there are still a lot of options out there.”
Along with about 200 acres of cover crops, he now uses a 13-way mix interseeded into his corn crop to keep soil in place, boost soil fertility and enhance grazing nutrition. The mix includes radishes, oats, rye, peas and others, with Shellium commenting that each part of the mix has a rhyme and reason for its selection.
He has now set a goal to see if he can feed his cows in December, January, February and March, and then have them graze on cover crops the remainder of the year.
After more than 5 years of observing, adding a new chapter each year to his book, Shellium has noticed the benefits of his cover crop and no-till practices. Working with University of Wisconsin Extension, he was able to test water infiltration on his farm and found a soil plot tested was capable of absorbing 6 inches of water in an hour.
Shellium has also noticed more microbial activity, such as earthworms in the soil. In fact, a soil pit dug for a demonstration day on his farm yielded incredible worm tunnels, with his local Extension agents taking notice. And just this past January, Shellium was able to photograph a radish that an earthworm had been eating in the midst of winter.
He has also seen an increase in butterflies, bees and other pollinators, attracted to the cover crops growing in his fields. “You see so much coming back to the farm,” Shellium says.
Shellium has also seen gains in residue management, soil health and compaction. While many fields surrounding his farm are plagued with ruts and erosion this time of year, not much of that can be observed in Shellium’s fields.
And while his neighbors are wrapping up and the leaves are falling from the trees later in the year, Shellium’s cover crops are still going strong — growing roots and encouraging other activity in the soil where no one can see.
“We just keep adding chapters,” he said. “And it’s not just one thing that has made us successful — it’s all of the things.”
The next chapter he will be writing will focus on weed control, with Shellium moving to experiment with one pass of herbicide with a cover-crop mix in soybeans.
While he continues to experiment with cover crops on his farm, Shellium keeps in mind that someone is always watching, whether it be county, state and federal officials, his neighbors or the public. It makes it important to share with others, and more importantly to Shellium, to show to others, what he has implemented on his operation.
It is also important to Shellium to share his failures, as even the best laid plans can go awry due to a number of factors, including weather and timing.
“I swing for the fences sometimes and we walk back to the dugout,” Shellium said. “But the more we learn, the more we understand that every cover crop has a purpose to it as to why we use it, and you can watch the soil come to life.”