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This week’s podcast, sponsored by Montag Manufacturing, features strip-tiller and cover crop advocate Wayne Fredericks, Osage, Iowa. Fredericks will discuss how he transitioned to using crops on 100% of his acres, his cover crop goals, how using covers has helped him reduce fertilizer use, and more.

The Cover Crop Strategies podcast series is brought to you by Montag Manufacturing. Montag precision metering equipment is helping producers achieve their yield goals while saving on seed and input costs. For establishing cover crops, Montag’s family of seed platform equipment adapts to a variety of major brand delivery systems that will conserve seed and nutrients along with soil and water. Explore new options for your production and conservation goals with your Montag dealer, visit www.Montagmfg.com or call Montag at (712) 517-2775.

 
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The Cover Crop Strategies podcast series is brought to you by Montag Manufacturing.

Montag precision metering equipment is helping producers achieve their yield goals while saving on seed and input costs. For establishing cover crops, Montag’s family of seed platform equipment adapts to a variety of major brand delivery systems that will conserve seed and nutrients along with soil and water. Explore new options for your production and conservation goals with your Montag dealer, visit www.Montagmfg.com or call Montag at (712) 517-2775.

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Full Transcript

Sarah Hill:

Welcome to the Cover Crop Strategies Podcast. I'm Sarah Hill, Associate Editor. Montag precision metering equipment is helping producers achieve their yield goals, while saving on seed and input costs. For establishing cover crops, Montag's family of seed platform equipment adapts to a variety of major brand delivery systems that will conserve seed and nutrients along with soil and water. Explore new options for your production and conservation goals with your Montag dealer or on the Montag manufacturing website.

Sarah Hill:

Welcome to the Cover Crop Strategies Podcast. I'm Sarah Hill, Associate Editor. Today, I'd like to introduce Wayne Fredericks, a strip-tiller and cover crop grower from Osage, Iowa. Wayne will be discussing how he has reduced his fertilizer use by 30% by using cover crops. Welcome to the podcast, Wayne.

Wayne Fredericks:

Well, thank you. And I'm happy to be here and looking forward to our conversation this morning.

Sarah Hill:

Great. Well, to get us started, tell us a little bit about yourself and your farming operation.

Wayne Fredericks:

Well, we started in 1973. So I'm an old timer. Been around here a long time. Graduated from Iowa State University and jumped right into agriculture. We farm up here about 15 miles south of the Minnesota border in Northeast Iowa. So there's a lot of my friends in conservation say, "My God. You're just south of the North Pole, aren't you?" When it comes to talking about cover crops and no-till, and so we've been able to make it work. So it's been a passion of mine to help fellow farmers and mentor them and help them get started doing the same things we are doing. We're a corn/soybean rotation pretty much 50/50. We've been no-till soybean since 1991. We've been strip-till corn since 2001.

Sarah Hill:

Okay. Great. So how long have you been using cover crops?

Wayne Fredericks:

We got started working with cover crops in the fall of '12. I was working with the Iowa Soybean Associations On-Farm Network doing replicated strip trials in our farms. So we were putting out strips just trying to see what would work, what would grow, how to plant it, how to terminate it, what effect it might have on yield, what species to plant. All the questions everybody had in that early timeframe of cover crops and especially here in Iowa. So that's when we got started there. In '15, we went to where we... That fall, we seeded 100% of our ground going to soy to cover crops. So then we got moved into corn the following year on 100%. So we've been 100% cover crops in our operation now for quite a period of time.

Sarah Hill:

That's great. So talk a little bit about what your goals are for using cover crops in your operation.

Wayne Fredericks:

I want to be able to successfully implement a cover crop system that enhances our soil, enhances the production capacity of the farms, is great for the environment and maintains our profitability. I think it's as simple as that, it's just trying to find a system that works. We understand that across this country, there's extreme variations in soil and climate and crops, and it's not going to be the same everywhere. So these can be localized and that's going to be the key to making it work, is finding what works past for you and your location.

Sarah Hill:

Wonderful. So talk a little bit more about how strip tilling and cover crop in combination have helped you reduce fertilizer use. I know right now with fertilizer costs being sky high, that's a question that a lot of growers are looking at is how can we reduce our use of a very expensive input right now?

Wayne Fredericks:

We move to grid sampling about the same time we moved into 100% cover crops. And I work with a crop consultant of Southern Minnesota, utilizes a lot of University Minnesota recommendations. And when we sit there and look at the fertilizer recommendations of the U of M in a banded fertility program which our strip till would be, we try to put our P and K and some sulfur down about six, seven inches deep when we stripped till, and we put it there for two crops, the corn and the soy. We feel that, or university of Minnesota should say feels that 70% of a broadcast rate will give you equal performance. So we're looking at what's being cost effective. So that's basically a 30% reduction in the amount of P and K.

Wayne Fredericks:

Take that and add a cover crop to the system. We know that with cereal rise there's a mainstay for our operation. That it gets down there roots 30, 40 inches deep, pretty consistently. It's pulling nutrients, phosphorus and pot ash and nitrogen back to the surface, redeposit them in that six inch zone. And that six inch zone is what we always continue to measure usually when we're doing soil sampling. So there's nutrient value in that cover crop as it decomposes. So we're recycling some of those deep in the profile nutrients and bringing them back up to where they can be more readily available for crops. So I feel in the combination of the strip till efficiency and then the cover crop there that we've got our bases covered on nutrients and it's an easy place to save some money and we got to credit that cover crop for doing some of that.

Sarah Hill:

Definitely. Something that I think our listeners will find really interesting is that you've been collecting soil data since the 1980s. And over time and looking at all of that data, what have you learned about soil health on your farm?

Wayne Fredericks:

It was interesting because back in the early '80s there, I was working with crop consultants then as well. And they decided that we'd take organic matter samples on the farms that we were operating at that time. So we would know what herbicide rates to use. Other than that, we would file him away and not worry about it anymore. And we did that and he was like 2.3 to 3.3 on three main farms that we had at that time. And very typical of what you see up here in this part of the country. And the next decade we adopted no-till in strip till. '91 no-till of 2001 strip till. And it wasn't until I think 2005 when we did another organic matter solicitation, when we were doing our soil testing... Now we soil test all the time. That's a common practice but at that time, it wasn't common to ask for organic matter in that test.

Wayne Fredericks:

But we started to notice an uphill trend in the organic matter. And then in 2007 and '11 and '15, we insanely saw our organic matter starting to go up. And in fact, when we sit back and look at the big pitch here over that 25 year period of time that was covered in that, we saw organic matter average go up about two and a half percent or roughly one 10th of a percent per year on average, we saw the organic matter go up. Now, if you'd reach out and talk to Iowa state or University of Illinois or University of Minnesota, they'd all tell you the same thing that you could simply do this by discontinuing your full width tillage. And that's what basically it was because our cover cropping really didn't enter the picture until about 2015 to any great amount.

Wayne Fredericks:

So that was basically a tillage study and that it just showed that organic matter is very fragile and tillage is very destructive of organic matter. You can look across the country at other studies and see the same things the moral plots and in Kentucky and the plots in Missouri also show that tillage has been destructive to the fact of there's 30 to 40% of the original parent organic matters all that's left in our soils in a till lead system. See, it's taken me 25 years to get half that loss back and we call it regenerative in a way. And now that we know cover crops, we could have cut that time dramatically by instituting a cover crop or living crop in there that could capture carbon for another four months of a year, basically up in this climate. And that would've been huge in moving that organic matter up at a faster rate.

Wayne Fredericks:

Now, what does organic matter worth? That's always the question that comes out. And it was an interesting study that was done by the Iowa division of NRCS back in, I think in 2012, 2013 was the date of that publication. But they actually sat down and tried to put an numerical value on organic matter. And they come out and they said that it had water or a crop production value, I should say, water enhancement value of $18 per 1%. And to dive in that little deeper, always remember some of the presentations that Dr. Jerry Hatfield from USDA ARS in Ames always used to say, and that was that we lost 20% of our crop, 80% of the time or 20% of our potential yield, pardon me. 80% of the time because a lack of plant available water.

Wayne Fredericks:

And that time in July, August here when the Midwest we're really packing the bushels on both corn and soybeans, and that's often a time when it's hot and gets dry. So that's where that organic matter enters into the picture is that it predisposes soil to absorb more water, to hold more water, less water runs off, it makes more water available for of the crop. So that's $18 value that comes from that enhanced water availability. And there's also a fertility value in that organic matter of about $11 for the NNP. Yeah. There's huge value to that as we start to talk about it. So building organic matter is something surely we want to do on our farms because it's the bank that we can pull from to raise a good crop.

Sarah Hill:

I really like that metaphor of calling them a bank, that's really great. Even after you added cover crops to the system in 2015, have your cash crops still remained competitive with yields?

Wayne Fredericks:

We've done strip trials there in '12, '13, '14, didn't see much difference, much change. So it gave us confidence that we weren't kicking ourself in the chin for trying this. And then we basically moved into 100% beans one year and the next year, 100% on corn. And we haven't had any untreated strips since, but we have sit here and calculated our yields against county yields ever since we went to no-till and strip till. So we've got that comparison over the years. And as I go back and try to do a deep dive into that, okay, we started cover crops at this time, what happened to our yield differential? And in corn, it's actually looks like we've gained maybe three to four bushels versus the county yield on corn. Soybeans, we stayed right at steady with our differential and county yield.

Wayne Fredericks:

And of course, up in our county, we're seeing pretty rapid adoption to cover crops and no-till beans. So my comparative components on the other side of it are doing a lot of the same thing I am. So I wouldn't expect there to be a huge differential there, but yields have not taken a hit because of it. Where I have seen yield hits and not on my operation. But when I get involved working on a larger scale with Iowa Soybean and some of the studies and so forth that are going on, are the early adopters, not doing things correctly? Not maybe getting the right advice or not planning deep enough? Not getting out and checking behind the plant and a lot of things, cover crop can have an effect upon on a lot of those things.

Wayne Fredericks:

So it's a learning tool. We got a five year study at Iowa Soybean that went into building, their economic cover crop simulator. And in there we saw first year participants in that trial, majority of them lost it. And by year five, majority of them are seeing enhanced yield. So as they have learned to work with cover crops, they've learned to make the right decisions to adopt and plan them right and fertilize them right, and are making the system work successfully.

Sarah Hill:

We'll be right back to the podcast. But first I want to thank our sponsor. Montag precision metering equipment is helping producers achieve their yield while saving on seed and input costs. For establishing cover crops, Montag's family of seed platform equipment adapts to a variety of major brand delivery systems that will conserve seed and nutrients along with soil and water. Explore new options for your production and conservation goals with your Montag dealer. We're on the Montag manufacturing website. And now back to the podcast. All right. How would you say that cover crops have helped improve water quality on your farm?

Wayne Fredericks:

Well, be honest, the water quality thing was what drove me the quickest to 100% adoption of cover crops. Like I said, in 2016, during that planning year, I was 100% cover crops in our soybeans, not yet corn. That was also the year I was president of Iowa Soybean Association. That was the second year of the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit in Iowa, where they were claiming that tile drainage systems in Northwest Iowa were raising the nitrate level so high in the Raccoon River. And that's the river that they were pulling the drinking water from to a point that was costing them thousands and thousands or dollars to treat the water. And it was at the fault of the farmers. And at that same time, I had already been doing tile water analysis on our farms, undercover drops.

Wayne Fredericks:

And we had seen significant nutrient reductions, especially in nitrate coming out of our tile from fields that had cover crops on. In fact, we got a long term study. We do have a nutrient bio-reactor on one of our farms. And prior to the establishment of the bio-reactor, we had two years worth of water sampling data showing nitrate levels that were roughly 14 parts per million of nitrate. And the drinking water standard is 10 for those listening. So that was the impetus of the lawsuit from the Des Moines Water Works was anything over 10, they had to treat it before they could disperse it to their users in the city. So that's a common nitrate level for our soils in our area in a conventional farming operation, either in an no-till or a strip operation. '13, '14 was normal for our landscape. You get west into some of the heavier soils in Iowa, and those numbers can even go up a little higher than that.

Wayne Fredericks:

But in the six years, since we put that bio-reactor in, and we analyze that bio-reactor four to five times a season measuring the water coming in and the water going out to see the effectiveness of the bio-reactor. Just seeing the water coming in off of that field under cover crop, we've calculated about a 35% drop in the nitrates compared to prior to the installation of that. We're down around eight on our average nitrate concentrations coming in. We're now down below that drinking water standard. And of course, once it goes through the bio-reactor, it comes out considerably about 40% less than that.

Wayne Fredericks:

And on another farm, it was real interesting. In 2017, it's when I planted green and we had two tile that were draining into Rock Creek. Rock Creek is our watershed. And eventually ended up being in the Cedar River, which is at tributary of the Mississippi, but... Oh, we had two tile samples there taking mid-June. It was 3.2, two and 3.46 milliliters per in rams and nitrate. And I reached out to the sampling team that was doing the analysis, and I said, "Do you happen to know where Rock Creek is?" And they said, "Yes, it's right at 10." And it was a real aha moment to me, because at that time I like I said, I was president of Iowa Soybean. I was actually making drinking water the river cleaner with my tile drainage water. And that was not the story that was happening across Iowa at that time.

Wayne Fredericks:

That was a very controversial lawsuit. It pitted rule against urban. And I just ultimately decided being in the leadership position I was that I was going to walk the talk and I was going to put cover crops on my land at 100% and figure out how to make them work. Whether they did or not, I was going to have to figure out how to make them, because I see this as something that we, as farmers will face continuously. And that is the thread of litigation from environmental groups that consistently measure our performance by what's happening in the Gulf of Mexico and that hypoxy zone. So I've been a real advocate for cover crops and the main thing is figure out how to make them work. So people can actually improve the environment and still maintain their good production and their profits.

Sarah Hill:

That's amazing that you were making the water cleaner. That's really cool. So talk us through that process. When you decided to go 100% cover crops on your farm, what was the process that you went through to accomplish that?

Wayne Fredericks:

We got a watershed group up here in Mitchell County. After Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy of 2013, Iowa Soybean was doing watershed plans. And my Rock Creek watershed decided to participate in that process. I got a strong group of farmer leaders in conservation to be part of that advisory board for Rock Creek watershed. And we sat down and worked with our person from Iowa Soybean. And actually we put together a very aggressive watershed plan to meet the goals of the Iowa plan. And of course in there, we virtually got to have 100% cover crops in our watershed to meet that goal, to get that 43% reduction in nitrate and 29% reduction in phosphorus. And I would gladly say as of this past season, we're 21% of our watershed. Rock Creek has cover crops on it.

Wayne Fredericks:

So we are slowly making strides but that's considerably higher than the state is on a percentage basis. As that engaged group, we had a watershed, a staff person we hired. We put on meetings. Engaged in bringing speakers in. We wanted to make a very educational process out of this, trying to help farmers learn. One of those watershed leaders eventually started a cover crop business, got a huge business going, doing a tremendous job. And he's continued to carry on the educational aspects of cover crops and how to make it work and work fast. And as they built that cover crop dealership, they basically made it one stop shop. I mean, you can go there and you can get your cost share information and they can help you make that application.

Wayne Fredericks:

If you're eligible, they'll sit down and do your seeding plans and species selection. And they will set up the flight plans and field plans for those of us that want to fly it on. And they'll set up the field plans and maps for those of us that want it drilled. And I think that's key. The easier we can make cover crops for farmers to adapt, the quicker it's going to happen. And if it is extremely difficult for somebody to do it's not going to happen. So one of the keys, one of the things we're working on across the state, and I think even across the nation is how can we make this work better and easier?

Wayne Fredericks:

And of course in that we learn, especially plant corn into cereal rye, how move your nitrogen around, move it up earlier in the application. How do you get it close to the seed and different types of nitrogen and so forth? We're not about putting more nitrogen on out there. It's just the timing is different. So we can escape some of that early season competition that the bacteria has for the nitrate at the same time the seed needs it. So we've been able to do it very well and successfully, and like I said, it's find a manner, find somebody that's doing it right. And ask a lot of questions. And I think that's worked well for us.

Sarah Hill:

Fantastic. So talk a little bit about from the economic perspective, how have cover crops helped save you money, equipment, time, fuel, all of those areas of savings?

Wayne Fredericks:

To look at a cover crop system, you got to start and look at your tillage system first. I say it's really not a system that I think you're going to get a great benefit out if you're going to continue heavy tillage, do your full with tillage to any extent, some people might argue with me, but I think if we're going to really talk about building soil health, soil biology, we need to graduate away from intensive tillage as much as we can. So that aspect law was huge for me. I mean, even before the cover crops just the changing the no-till beans and strip till corn, we saw on every to $44 equipment savings. That covered your fuel and machinery repair and that. And we saw $27 labor savings because when you're not out there running equipment all the time, it doesn't take the labor.

Wayne Fredericks:

So those two factors on equipment and then labor were huge. And then as we brought the cover crops in, you sit there and you looked at initial cost to cover crop and you say, "Well, how do you mitigate that?" Because it doesn't directly pay back. So in my presentation, when we do this in March, I'm going to introduce the cover crop economic simulator that Iowa Soybean has developed in conjunction with the NRCS to show how we can calculate mitigation. And mitigation is the offset income that you got to apply against that cover crop. And you'd be surprised. It doesn't take a lot to mitigate that cost of the cover crop and to make it into a profitable system. You talk about anybody that does any grazing, that's got livestock, boy, that's an instant saver in the bucket.

Wayne Fredericks:

We've got [recla 00:24:54] crops up here now that they're no tilling soybeans into cereal rye and then harvest rye. And then later the beans harvesting two crops, talk about a tremendously lucrative program. But we need seed and we're going to need more of that type of application to get the seed is if cover crops grow across the front. But we've got carbon programs out there. We've got cover crop insurance credits available. Iowa five hours in federal last year had five. I think that's going to continue. So you got a lot of those mitigation practices in there that help offset the cost of the cover crop to where pretty soon you find that the cover crop becomes profitable as well, especially when you bring in the fertilizer savings, as we talked about earlier in the discussion. I automatically credit my cover crop 20 pounds [inaudible 00:25:45]. The time we terminate it, we got 20 pounds of plant available and in there at knee high stage, you might say. It's another benefit to calculate in there. And in this high price nitrogen right now, we got to take every means we can.

Wayne Fredericks:

It's not about always saving money and getting the maximum yield. It's also maintaining a good environment out there and protecting our water sources and so forth. I see some 300 bushel projects going on up here. It's heavy manure, heavy fertilizer, heavy fungicide, but I would hate to measure what's coming out of the tile lines on them farms. So I know that without a cover crop, a lot of that's getting lost. And that's been another aspect that some of our high yield corn producers look at is that I don't want to be short on end, but I don't also want to pollute. So I will for sure, always have a cover crop following my corn to help pick up that nitrate that I didn't use and keep that back into an organic form when or a form that can later be to another crop.

Sarah Hill:

Finding that sweet spot there with the nitrogen.

Wayne Fredericks:

Yes it is. And we're learning and I mean, you take a cover crop that's 30, 40, 50 inches deep. It's putting a lot of nutrients up there other than nitrogen as well. So we just want to put that back into use for our plant systems.

Sarah Hill:

For sure. So last question for you, then we're going to have to wrap it up. Which cover crop species have you found to be most effective in your operation, where you're 100% cover crop using?

Wayne Fredericks:

Our baits of our cover crops always cereal rye. I want to have something there living green to plan in the following year. That's the only way that I can number one, sequester the most amount of nutrients from going out my tile draining systems. It's also one of the beneficial ways to reduce herbicide cost, because if we get a vibrant cover crop out there, we save $10 savings on herbicide programs versus those without. So that's another savings attribute to the cover crop, but we are also trying to put some variety into our mixes. We've added some oats and kale to our cover crop that we seed in to the standing corn. And this last year we added camelina. We added camelina to the cover crop we drilled behind soybeans to our cereal rye mix. So we'll get a pollinator benefit out of that one as well.

Sarah Hill:

All right. Well, I have time for one more question. Talk a little bit about how you go about terminating cover crops, especially the cereal rye.

Wayne Fredericks:

We're far north in Iowa. Usually it doesn't get that tall. In fact, we usually need more growth. So we're about when the soils fit, plant corn and, or beans. We're in there planting. And then we terminate after planting and usually prior to emergence and we'll usually use roundup or roundup in a pre-emerge herbicide with that. If it's corn, we'll also combine UAN that pass. So that's not an extra pass and we're getting some broadcast UAN out there as well as banded UAN over the row with our planner.

Sarah Hill:

Sounds great. Well, thank you so much for joining us today, Wayne. I really appreciate your time and hearing you talk about cover crops. You most certainly are a cover crop advocate.

Wayne Fredericks:

Well, thank you. Have been enjoyable.

Sarah Hill:

If you'd like to hear more from Wayne about his experiences with cover crops, make sure to join us for the National Cover Crop Summit on March 15th and 16th. You can register online for this free virtual event at covercropstrategies.com. Once again, I want to thank our sponsor. Montag precision metering equipment is helping producers achieve their yield goals while saving on seed and input costs. For establishing cover crops, Montag's family of seed platform equipment adapts to a variety of major brand delivery systems that will conserve seed and nutrients along with soil and water. Explore new option for your production and conservation goals with your Montag dealer or on the Montag manufacturing website. For more information about all things cover crops, visit us online at covercropstrategies.com.