A local farmer is breaking up his rotation, reducing erosion and providing additional forage benefits for his cow-calf operation by planting cover crops. Aarik Deering, who farms near Postville with his wife, Haley, tried a unique sequence of cover crops on an 11-acre field near his home. Deering is no stranger to no-till and cover crops. He credits his start in no-till to his father, Dave, who has been no-tilling for the last 25-30 years. The younger Deering has been using cover crops for seven years now, and it has been a learning experience. The first year Deering planted cover crops he was not impressed.
“We tried a mix of oats and annual ryegrass flown on aerially in August. We did not catch a rain and found out better seed-to-soil contact was needed to establish the stands we wanted,” he said. Deering began drilling his cover crops after that and has stuck with it ever since. Fall-seeded cereal rye is his go-to cover crop. However, he has been trying to incorporate more and more diversity every year. Deering seeded pearl millet June 2 last year into corn stubble with his Case 5400 no-till drill. Prior to seeding, he applied a light rate of hog and beef manure. That crop was baled and yielded around three tons per acre of forage.
Next, on the same acres, he drilled a 50 lb./acre mix of triticale and hairy vetch August 26. Deering grazed the mix during late fall with 80 head for two weeks. This spring he grazed it again with the same 80 head for another two weeks. June 16 of this year, he cut and baled the regrowth which yielded around one ton per acre of forage. He planted silage corn immediately following the cutting and plans to seed a cover crop after chopping the silage. If it comes off early enough, Deering hopes to seed a diverse mix of brassicas and cool season grasses. However, if it turns into a later harvest, he will opt for a conventional rye cover crop. Deering’s goal with planting the cover crops is to produce more forage for his cattle. However, he is also very interested in soil health and wants to keep living roots in his fields continually. This sequence of cover crops gives Deering the benefit of additional manure application widows. Eventually, he hopes to grow less corn and rotationally graze more acres of his farm.
When asked if he would try the cover crop sequence again, Deering said, “I would do it again but next time I want to add more diversity to both the summer and fall mixes. I would add in species like radishes, legumes and annual rye grass.”
One lesson he learned planting pearl millet was it likes a firm seed bed. “I drilled it in before a rain, thinking it would be enough to firm the seed bed, but it wasn’t. I ended up having to go back out and reseed some areas. I ran a cultipacker over it that time and those areas turned out much better.”
The five principals of soil health are:
1. Armor the soil.
2. Minimize disturbance.
3. Increase plant diversity.
4. Keep living roots in the soil.
5. Integrate livestock. If livestock can not be put on the field, utilizing manure as a nutrient source can have some of the same benefits.