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This week’s podcast, sponsored by Montag Manufacturing, features award-winning no-tiller Loran Steinlage, West Union, Iowa.

Steinlage will discuss how growers are creating their own issues with weed resistance, what robotic options are out there for helping control weeds in cover crops, how he uses cover crops to mitigate weeds, 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:

Today, I'd like to introduce Loran Steinlage, an award-winning no-tiller from West Union, Iowa. Loran will be discussing technology to manage cover crops between rows of cash crops and cover crop management tips. Welcome to the podcast, Loran.

Loran Steinlage:

Thanks for having us.

Sarah Hill:

To get us started, why don't you tell us a little bit about yourself and your farm?

Loran Steinlage:

Oh, I'm a farmer here in West Union, Iowa. Started farming 1985, I guess, in the heart of the '80s crisis. I'm not that bright, so I buy into farm during that timeframe. Started out, we were a strong dairy farm, heavy on the livestock emphasis, but over the years, I've had to get away from the livestock and that, so cropping in that has become my focus. But my true passion is working with equipment, trying to learn how to make equipment work better in the instances that we're using it.

Loran Steinlage:

I'm to the point now, I took a job with Dawn Equipment here three years ago, full-time. Part of my job there is to help figure out how to make the tools work better for the farmers. One of the highlights this year already is, I spent a couple days down in Mississippi just going farm to farm, helping guys understand what their problem was and learning how to make something work better.

Sarah Hill:

Great. Well, let's go ahead and jump right to our topic for today. Why do you feel herbicides are the easy button when it comes to cover crop termination?

Loran Steinlage:

Well, I think they were the easy button, it would probably be the way to term that. I mean, this year, especially I think a lot of people are starting to realize, between the herbicide effectiveness and losing effectiveness, resistance, and just the overall price of the herbicides this year, we've got to start going back to basics. We're bringing forth some of the old principles, I guess that'd be the way I would describe it.

Loran Steinlage:

Fortunately for me, we recognized this, I'd say probably six, seven years ago. We were challenged to help with some organic testing and stuff like that. The RowMow was our introductory to the options. We always knew cultivators and stuff were there, but I really don't want to disturb the soil, so we know we've got to figure out better options. Then, the presentation we're going to do here, we're going to cover a lot of ground on that stuff.

Sarah Hill:

Awesome, and we're going to preview some of those topics into our discussion today. So, you mentioned that you think that maybe growers are creating their own issues. Can you expand a little bit on that?

Loran Steinlage:

Well, just some of the observations we've been seeing over the last several years. If you really start to focus on them little details, even your simple thing as your row cleaner, what does that do for your overall weed control spectrum? Just, are we seeding a lot of our weeds? Are we hurting our disease control aspect?

Loran Steinlage:

It's more than just weeds that we're all fighting. If you start thinking in the future, what are we going to be facing, I think the path is laid out in front of us. It's just, we need to be thinking ahead how we can wrap to that.

Sarah Hill:

Great. So, what are some perhaps biological controls that growers should consider when it comes to managing weeds between rows or managing cover crops between rows of cash crops?

Loran Steinlage:

Probably the simplest one that most people recognize is, zero rise in allelopathy effect. In some of our testing, it has affected the reason we do some of our cropping. If you start paying attention, in my fields, I've seen the herbicide action up to 12 inches away from the actual rye plant. So, start thinking how that can work into your cropping system, and that's why we've evolved to the twin-row setup and stuff like that, but it's even beyond that.

Loran Steinlage:

Couple years ago, I brought forth the ecological succession chart and I thought, man, I was really on to something. Well, the next figure was Nicole Masters and she just laid into it. She took the whiteboard and she just started, "Okay, if I do this, this happens. If I do that, that happens. What happens during a reset?" All that stuff, if you really start paying attention to them little details, affects how our weed control spectrums respond.

Loran Steinlage:

Why do we have foxtail? Nobody went out there and seeded it in the first place. Buttonweed is another thing. You move a building and you got buttonweed there. Where did that come from? It's them natural triggers. That seed is somewhere in the seed bank, what is the actual trigger for it to germinate?

Loran Steinlage:

Part of what's really getting me enthralled is one of the products we're going to talk about late in the presentation. To do that, we had to do a biological essay where they actually took a soil sample and counted all the weed seeds in a cubic foot of soil or whatever the dimension was. It was just mind boggling, how many weed seeds are actually in the soil. You dig up the soil and you're like, "Where's the seed?" We see the seed when it's fresh, but how does it last 100 years? It goes back to what I said about the buildings. If you tear out a foundation, the buttonweed is the first thing to come out. How did that last 100 years?

Loran Steinlage:

We can't even get corn seed and bean seed good germination for two to three years, let alone nature can get 100 years out of it. So, now that's just some of the fun part. I think we're going to be coming to a stage of farming where the mental gymnastics is probably going to pay bigger dividends than the products we can buy.

Sarah Hill:

That makes a lot of sense. In organic production, which I know you mentioned that you have a few fields that are organic, hand weeding has been a traditional option of pulling weeds. But what are some maybe tech options that will be coming down the pike that growers can use in the future?

Loran Steinlage:

Well, that's where the robotics and some of that is really going to start coming into play. I mean, there's lasers out there. There's mechanical hand picking weeders. There's all mower style ones coming in that, but Clint Brauer, Greenfield Robotics, I've talked to him several times. One of the best things he told me is, when you start thinking about some of that stuff, you need to start focusing on the weed density.

Loran Steinlage:

Everybody likes the See & Spray technology, that's coming on the herbicide, but some people are working on a laser that will spot burn a weed. Well, if you start looking at some of the weed spectrums we're facing, how many weeds per square foot is there? In some instances, when I talk about, we're going to need to be thinking different modes of action on some of these weeds, that's where some of that's coming from.

Loran Steinlage:

What kind of power demand will it take to spot burn with a laser 100,000 plants per acre? Versus, one of my favorite tool right now is the InRowl roller that we're working on, it's just the old KISS principle, keep it simple. Is that the ultimate tool? No, but it is a tool that we can get to producers right now and solve two or three different problems at one shot.

Loran Steinlage:

The knife option that came out this year is a prime example, it's adaptable. Some weeds are going to take a roll crimper, some are going to take a knife. With just that simple option add on, we can do both now. Best part about that product is, I can run it early in the season, I can run it late in the season. We're even using it to seed cover crops if we get behind, because at that point, we can just broadcast cover crops, run that roller chopper over there, get a nice residue mat on top of the seed and that's the future, I think.

Sarah Hill:

All right, what is revegetation and how can growers leverage that concept on their farms?

Loran Steinlage:

A revegetation is where you can start thinking ahead, how can I put a plant where the weed would want to be? That sounds extreme, but how many of us have been thinking about interseeding cover crops? For me, that mindset came back in 2006. Back then, the tech support line was pretty, pretty limited. It took us all the way to 2012 to really start understanding what it was going to take to make that happen, but soon as we did, hey, it works on every acre now. Every acre of corn we have, we're probably going to have interseed in it.

Loran Steinlage:

We start using different plants to prevent weeds and stuff like that. As we learned how to manage that, that's what led into the relay cropping or the companion cropping. Now, we're not using just cover crops to prevent weeds, but we're actually getting to the point where we're turning our cover crops into cash crops. One of the age old question is, how do we make cover crops pay?

Loran Steinlage:

Well, if you start using them as a cash crop, that works. Plus, as we start getting the mindset of the companion crop, if we get to the point where we're growing three to four or five different crops in the field all the time, that brings the diversity aspect to it. The weeds just don't have a chance at that point, because you're constantly keeping something growing there, keeping the canopy, keeping the cover. You bring all of them into one, the biological, the ecological, the mechanical, all that combines into one.

Sarah Hill:

So, you mentioned turning cover crops into cash crops. What might be some examples of that with different species?

Loran Steinlage:

Well, one of the craziest things we've been working on the past year is, take with the wide row corn that we've played with the last several years, we are now trying to plant vegetables in between there with the ideal of eventually harvesting them. The reason I'm pretty excited about that is, it separates our seasons where we get in there, take care of the corn crop. June 15th, come in and plant the vegetables, which would be about when we'd interseed, hey, plant the vegetables in there. September 15th, harvest the vegetables, come in and harvest your corn.

Loran Steinlage:

You've got all the diversity and stuff like that in place. Our biggest problem is mother nature fought us pretty hard on that and we'll figure it out. Give us a couple more years.

Sarah Hill:

I can't wait to hear more about that in a few years. So, of course, the next logical step in this spectrum if you will, with cover crops is perennial cover crops. Talk a little bit about your experiences with perennial cover crops.

Loran Steinlage:

Perennials is something we stumbled upon. Then, as we started researching it, there's plenty of guys trying to go down the path. I mean, for us, we'll start with the interseeding corn. I used to be heavy corn on corn, so the easy cover crop for me was clovers and lagoons and stuff like that, which would really help on our corn on corn situation. Well, a lot of people want to figure out when they're going to terminate a cover crop. We've moved more to the mindset where we're going to try to suppress a cover crop and just keep, okay, I don't have to kill something.

Loran Steinlage:

You get to that mindset and how can I punish it just hard enough where it suppresses it, but not kills it. I hate to say this, but it's almost like a sadistic mindset where it gets to be a little torture chamber and you start like, okay, how far can I take this without killing it and nurse it along just enough to get it to the next season? Some of that's the crazy mindset we're working with here because okay, if I can start nursing a crop from year to year while doing a cash crop, what's my cover crop expenses at that point?

Loran Steinlage:

Oh, by the way, we've taken as far as, like in corn, we'll do delay termination or stunt. We've tried to use Gramoxone, you name it, but that's really where the InRowl roller starts to shine. Just in one or two days, the nitrogen production on clovers can double. So, this year's going to be a prime example. If I can learn how to manage nitrogen and I don't have to buy it, that's going to become key.

Loran Steinlage:

Oh, by the way, if you're starting to pay attention on this carbon thing, everybody wants to talk the sequestration programs, well, what about when we got to start paying a carbon penalty or something like that? Nitrogen is one of our highest carbon use products. If you're going to stay in corn production, you've got to start thinking, how do I manage that?

Sarah Hill:

All right. So, what about using a controlled traffic type approach to managing weeds between cover crops and cash crops?

Loran Steinlage:

Well, we've been controlled traffic since 2009, I think it was. What was happening in some of our fields with the delayed termination, when we were using herbicide as our delayed termination, I started seeing our tramlines and how they reacted versus the rest of the field. That's where some of the suppression mindset comes in.

Loran Steinlage:

Our tramlines were a lot easier to maintain and manage than the whole field. So, we drive a weed down, that's almost like a roller and it just built from there. That's where, like I said, suppressing a weed is a lot easier than terminating with a herbicide or so something like that. Then, you start looking at some of the side benefits from that and some of that's going to come back to the exude dates. If you get some of the smarter people talking, you start paying attention to all that. If you're going to start reducing fertility and stuff like that, that all helps the big picture.

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 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. And now, back to the podcast.

Sarah Hill:

Another possible option is mowing between cash crop rows to help suppress that cover crop. Talk a little bit about your experiences with that and what mowing looks like.

Loran Steinlage:

Well, we're working with Dawn Equipment there. That was some of the early testing that I did with them is the RowMow. We tried... Well, I know there's four different versions out there, tried with a rotary first and then the impeller and then a sickle, and then back to the rotary design, just for simplicity in that.

Loran Steinlage:

I like what it does, but I also dislike some of the thing that it does. Number one, it's high dollars. It takes a lot of power. It takes a lot of moving parts, but probably the biggest thing that I forgot I addressed earlier was, if you're starting to think long-term weed control, maintaining your residue mat's key. When you mow something versus roll it, you shatter it into 1,000 pieces and it disintegrates and you lose your residue mat, so that's probably one of the things I really dislike about it.

Loran Steinlage:

If you're really starting to push the limit there... I talked with Rick Clark and John Kempf a little bit this winter, some of the problem with that is, as you shred them pieces of apart, you start volatilizing some of your minerals and stuff like that. When you volatize them, they're gone, you can't recycle them.

Sarah Hill:

All right. So, some of the more fun options that you talked about was like burning weeds and that approach. Talk a little bit about that. Some of our listeners may not have heard of that before.

Loran Steinlage:

Well, some of the stuff we do is not for the faint at heart. I mentioned earlier that we used Gramoxone in stunting corn. I know Rodale Institute, they're playing with fire, the weed zapper, the weed burner, all that. It gives a new meaning to burn down when you start thinking in that aspect.

Loran Steinlage:

When you light a whole field on fire, yes, we all try to farm in nature's image, but we need to remember fire was a part of nature's image and I don't advise it for your average person I will say that. But when you're trying to learn, as I've said many a times, if you're not afraid to push it to the limit, that's when you're going to learn.

Sarah Hill:

All right. What about Mike Shuter's hot water weeder, what is that concept?

Loran Steinlage:

Basically, a couple years ago, Mike had the concept to use steam to kill weeds, and I know that's been out there, but Mike is about the only one that I know that's trying to take it to field scale. I think it's a very viable thing, but it's got a steep learning curve just for the simple fact that, it takes a lot of power to create pressure and steam. How do you scale that?

Loran Steinlage:

Anybody can try it at home to see the effects, boil a pot of water and go pour it on a weed and you'll quickly see how effective it is. It's pretty dang effective, but how to get the efficiency is the long term hurdle I see on that.

Sarah Hill:

What about using light to kill weeds, that was a pretty interesting topic.

Loran Steinlage:

Well, that's one of the things I'm most excited about and that was the highlight to the whole presentation. I'm just sitting here thinking, I forgot to tell you guys one of the neatest parts about that tool. They're using UAV, I don't know, all the blue lights in different wavelengths and all, it's just really neat technology if you get a chance to talk to the people.

Loran Steinlage:

We got introduced to it on the combine side where they're actually burning weeds. We had them at our field day this past year. If we have a versatile tool suddenly, the only way I can describe is like dragging a tanning bed across the field. But if we have a tool that we can use pre-plant, you can get as narrow as four inches, any increment of four inches, so you could do a four-inch or an eight-inch band ahead of the planter and then manage in between the rows, that's one option. Or you can flip flop it, burn in between the rows, that's another option.

Loran Steinlage:

But the after harvest option is the part that I forgot to touch on. You can actually, after harvest, drag it across the field, stimulate all the weed seeds and then either mother nature takes care of them with frost, or you drag the machine back over and kill the weeds as they emerge. It's the tool I'm probably most excited about long-term and like I said, it's one of those you almost have to see it to believe it.

Loran Steinlage:

I've been aware of it for probably two, three years now. Well, actually five, six years ago, I first heard about it when I did the UW presentation, but never knowing how close it was going to be and how involved or where we were going to be in its progress. If they really want to start paying attention to technology, the AgLaunch Program is something I'm heavily involved in, farm journals, stuff like that, it's all involved in there. But it's a farmer-led movement where they're working with Venture Capital to... They got a team of farmers, the Farmer Network is the key to it where we do the testing for some of the new companies and stuff like that.

Sarah Hill:

Awesome. Well, I'm sure we'll be hearing more about that technology as it comes to market. So, with all of these different technological solutions, of course, what are some of the negatives to using some of those approaches?

Loran Steinlage:

Probably the biggest negative is going to be the developmental cost on a lot of them, and that's where my mindset... We start with the extremes, but it's usually best to narrow it down and get the simple products out first, but keep working on the future products and that's where the research and development really comes in.

Loran Steinlage:

I said, the RowMow's a great ideal, but the InRowl roller was the quick to market product. Can we keep it improving on that? Definitely, but in the meantime, we want to keep looking at the RowMows or the steam or in this light, it's technology. I mean, that's something I don't think anybody thought of even five, 10 years ago. So, as we move forward, the technology's going to catch up is my premises. How do we keep moving forward at the same time as we're actually producing a crop for most people is going to be the key.

Sarah Hill:

All right. So, one of those, you mentioned, old school type approaches of course, is grazing, which is great for soil health as well. What would be some examples of implementing grazing in an operation to help control the cover crops as well as weeds between rows?

Loran Steinlage:

I mean, if we go the technology side, I mean, one of the products that I'm excited about is the Vence, which is a European company, or I think there's a couple other ones now where they call them virtual fencing. Can you do that in a row crop is going to be the hard question to ask people long-term, but for right now, testing wise, we can do a lot with electric fence.

Loran Steinlage:

I know Underground AG, we've got the in row robots and that they're running chicken tractors, sheet tractors, whatever you want to call them down in between the rows grazing. Scalability is going to be something to think about on that stuff. I like the ideal, but long-term, we need to be thinking how your average producer is going to bring that to forefront. Like I said, that's part of the challenge.

Loran Steinlage:

We're trying to help establish numbers right now. I like the Rick Clark version, but I also like the diverse option. Rick Clark and Dan DeSutter, their biggest asset is they got the livestock that they can use to clean up any mistakes. Rick talks about the region here. Well, that's what we got to figure out. Can you afford to set a field aside and graze it? Or, can a guy figure out how to graze in between the standing crop?

Loran Steinlage:

We started that about 2017 with that mindset, but my challenge is, I can't be around livestock myself, so we've got to rely on other people to help make them projects work. Sometimes when you don't have total control, it takes time.

Sarah Hill:

Definitely. Well, so you just mentioned you had some grazing happening on your property. What species were you grazing and what were the results, or how did that go after?

Loran Steinlage:

This year, we had sheep grazing in one area in [inaudible 00:26:53]. On that field or area of the field we had up to 90 or 120 inch corn with grazing lanes down between. I mean, I guess I'll back all the way up to 2007, I think it was '16 or '17 when we first had the ideal. We've seen the value of the cover crop in the wide row corn and I happened to go to Ireland that year. When we landed at Ireland, I was with Chris Teachout and we saw the sheep and stuff like that.

Loran Steinlage:

Me and Chris just started talking a little bit and he started telling how he remembers as a kid when they used to get semi loads of use and drop them in the corn. Well, the way that worked back then, we were all wire checked corn. As everybody transitioned to narrower row corn or narrow row corn, that option went away because what the old guys told us is, sheep need to see daylight ahead.

Loran Steinlage:

Other reason we focused on sheep was, sheep graze down where like goats that graze up. So, you got to start focusing on what the animal does or you're going to have to go to more aggressive management with the pens or stuff like that. That was just part of the mindset as we move forward and this year, when our plot have a failure, it's like, well, we got nothing to lose. Let's see how far we can push it.

Loran Steinlage:

Long story short is, we ended up grazing sheep in standing corn without a fence. But the key is, they could see the sunlight ahead of them and stuff like that. I think moving forward that might be a pretty good option for people to start thinking about.

Sarah Hill:

All right. So, you mentioned that sometimes things go south when you're working with new technologies or even old technologies like grazing. What are some examples of disasters that have happened in your experiences that turned into educational experience for you?

Loran Steinlage:

Oh, I think we've figured out something every year. This past year, some of our weed control, we were playing with the fire in that. Well, mother nature threw us the curve ball of freezing two or three days after we did the burn down. We thought we had great success and then the frost hit. Well, I'll be darn this fall the clover was still there. We thought it was a total loss, but at one point, that whole plot, we just sprayed it off and I planted beans in there.

Loran Steinlage:

We kept probably 100 by 100 area of it just to see what happened. It was just neat to watch and learn some of that, but on the flip side, the vegetables, that was a total loss. I mean, I thought I was going to be the first Iowa cotton grower, that ended up in disaster, but I'm not giving up on that stuff. Some of the vegetables in that, I think we learned enough this year. We probably narrow it down a little more from next year. Probably the biggest thing is, we got to watch that planning date more.

Loran Steinlage:

This year was an anomaly. I'm not going to plan for a May 29th frost every year. Normally in my area, May 15th is probably the last frost date, but we might have to back up to that original mindset. Let's wait and plant the vegetable until June 15th.

Sarah Hill:

Well, Loran, that's all the time that we have for today. Thanks so much for joining us.

Loran Steinlage:

Thanks for having us.

Sarah Hill:

You can hear more from Loran and 11 other great speakers at the upcoming National Cover Crop Summit on March 15th and 16th. To register for this free online event, visit covercropstrategies.com.

Sarah Hill:

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, Montage'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 Montage Manufacturing website. For more information about all things cover crops, visit us online at covercropstrategies.com.