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This week’s podcast, sponsored by Montag Manufacturing, features grower David Miller, Red Lake Falls, Minn.

Miller will discuss how he utilizes interseeding, relay cropping and polycropping, what his goals are for no-till and cover crops, growing with only 20 inches of annual precipitation, 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. Today, I'd like to introduce David Miller, a grower from Red Lake Falls, Minnesota. David will be discussing interseeding, relay cropping, and poly cropping. Welcome to the podcast, David.

David Miller:

Thank you.

Sarah Hill:

So to get us started, tell us a little bit about your farm.

David Miller:

We farm in Northwest Minnesota. We raise about eight or nine different crops and a lot of different cover crops as well. We raise about 160 cow-calf pairs of beef livestock on just over 1,200 acres and about 600 acres of pasture land.

Sarah Hill:

Great. Talk a little about your motivation to start no-tilling and strip tilling.

David Miller:

We started farming in 1989. My father did a good job with conservation with the tools he had, but we saw some problems. There was a lot of erosion, especially wind erosion with the tillage. We have some very light soils in this area and also in college, I learned the value of organic matter and I really wanted to increase that. Our organic matter was probably either side of 2% way back then. So, that was my primary goals at the time. So we started no-tilling in about '94 with a 750 drill and also built a interseeder at the time. We had our interseeder. So that was our start, and we went with that for quite a while and we improved on the erosion side of things pretty well, but I never really saw the improvement in organic matter that I wanted to see. So cover crops kind of seem to be the next thing to make that piece of the puzzle work. And I think it's been a good addition.

Sarah Hill:

Awesome. So talk a little bit about your soil type and maybe also how that influences your cover crop decisions.

David Miller:

Yeah, so our soil is the sandy loam, but we do have some clay down about three feet. So we do have the ability to hold some moisture in most of the areas, but drainage is an issue. Getting the soil to absorb the water is an issue. The cover crops are helping with the infiltration and also the water holding capacity. They're very prone to wind erosion and water erosion. So getting that soil covered and having roots in it is a big plus.

Sarah Hill:

Okay. So you mentioned that you have beef cattle. Do you graze those cover crops then?

David Miller:

Yes, we graze just about every acre. We start out in the spring by calving on cereal rye. Once that cereal rye has been grazed and calves are all born, we'll go to the native pastures through much of the season. And then that cereal rye will get planted into sunflowers. So that's kind of another way the sunflowers fit into the operation as a later planted crop. But then once that pasture is kind of run out, we've got interseeded fescue to go to. It works out really well, very high tonnage quality crop, and eventually we'll go to corn stalks, fall seeded cover crops, and we'll graze well into the fall. And even as late as January and February. Sometimes we'll plant a crop just for grazing or a corn field, just for grazing for the purpose to stay above the snow.

Sarah Hill:

Sounds good. So can you quantify for our listeners how you've been able to reduce fertilizer and pesticide use by leveraging cover crops?

David Miller:

My daughter does kind of the financials, and she assures me we're making more money doing it this way, but I would say we've reduced our fertilizer by maybe close to 40% at this point, especially phosphorus. We've been able to cycle that a lot better with the cover crops. Little reduction there, but not quite as much.

Sarah Hill:

All right. What are some challenges that your operation deals with that maybe cover crops have been able to help with?

David Miller:

Well, the erosion of course, is a big one. Infiltration of water, water holding capacity. We control, we found that the better cover crops we have, the less weeds are an issue. I've talked about in my presentation, how there's a void out there. If you don't fill that void, weeds are going to fill that void. Nature wasn't meant to have a mono crop. It was meant for diversity. So that's really our focus is diversity.

Sarah Hill:

Well, that's a perfect lead into my next question, which is kind of explain how cover crops help you adding diversity to your operation.

David Miller:

Well, versus a mono crop, we're trying to in a wide variety of grass and broad leaves, warm and cool season species. And our goals are to provide some nitrogen from legumes, but more so to feed the livestock in the soil. We're trying to provide root exudates that'll feed all the different species of soil biology. And also, we want to give the beneficial, both insects and soil organisms, a leg up on the pathogens. Pathogens are a fairly small portion of the biology. But if we give the beneficials the heads up, they can kind of take care of that.

Sarah Hill:

Great. So specifically, which cover crop species have you had success with?

David Miller:

Now, cereal rye is the king. You can plant it just about time, even in the late October. So that's the king, but the interseeding gives us that ability to bring in a lot more. We can bring in the warm season species where you just can't do that if you're doing fall seeding and aerial seeding. It just doesn't pay. We kind of find once you hit September 1st, there's not much to plant that's going to growing enough to do any good. We do mess around with winter camelina a little bit as well. Vetch and rye would be the ones that'll survive planted that late. Everything else has got to be earlier than that.

Sarah Hill:

Okay. So how does interseeding then allow you to use that diverse mix of cover crop species?

David Miller:

We can go in after the crop is established, hopefully not providing too much competition, but we still want to get that cover crop established early enough, so it can get a heads up while you still have some light he in the ground. So we get it growing early enough in the season, so it can establish. And then once that crop in the fall starts senescing a little bit and the canopy starts opening up, it can really take off and get some fall moisture. We can build some good biomass both for grazing above ground and below ground biology.

Sarah Hill:

Okay. How does interseeding help you to extend the growing season for those cover crops?

David Miller:

Well, the alternative is, in corn, is to either aerial seed or in our case, you really don't have the possibility of seeding after harvest. It's just too late. So it's really the only opportunity we have to get good cover crop establishment in corn, especially. We've tried aerial seeding and it's kind of a hit or miss. We've had good success and we've had very poor success and the ability to put on our nitrogen at the same time also makes the rig that we're using pretty effective. So we're not making an extra pass we do it all at the same time.

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. How do you find a balance between interseeding and getting a good cover crop establishment, but at the same time, not competing too much with the cash crop?

David Miller:

Well, there's a lot of components there. It's timing. We've kind of played with the timing anywhere from V3 to V6 or so. We want to get a cover crop established, but we don't want to see that competition. And we do tests and do yield check strip to look at that, but we do want to get some establishment and get some grazing out of it too. So it's a balancing act and it's going to depend on species as well as timing. So, I think that's very site specific, and even environment specific, and year specific. So we use a lot of different species so that we can take advantage of that different season and different conditions.

Sarah Hill:

Okay. You mentioned that you want to get more crops per square acre in your cover crop mix. Can you talk about maybe why you have that philosophy?

David Miller:

It's actually plants per square yard or square foot we're looking at. The philosophy is that you have a diversity and you have a plant that the roots can extend out a certain distance for each species, and it's going to be a little different for each species. And it's going to be based on your seed size and to some degree, even your seed cost and try to keep your cost down. Some of your are larger seeded ones, you're going to have to maybe stretch out a little bit. Say a cow pea, for instance, you can plant a cow pea. It's a big seed. It's a fairly expensive seed, but it can really fill a big void. So you don't need a lot, one per square yard is probably adequate. But something like a flax, it's going to go straight up for the most part, and smaller seed, you afford to put a few more per square yard. So we look at things like that. So it's kind of a benefit cost ratio and species type. So there's a lot of considerations there.

Sarah Hill:

Okay, great. Talk a little bit about how you use biostrips in your corn crop?

David Miller:

Okay. Well, I mentioned how our drill is kind of set up for paired rows, and this gives us the ability to plant those different species in different rows. So we're trying to put something there that's going to capture the nutrients that are left over from the previous crop, and also prepare that soil for the coming corn crop. So we have something like a radish in there that's going to break compaction, maybe pick up some extra nitrogen that's left over. We got a flax in there that's going to help with the mycorrhiza fungi, things like that. We're looking at things that are going to prepare that soil, capturing nutrients, maybe have some legumes in there to try to build a little bit of nitrogen. We don't have a lot of time to do that at that point, but it all helps with the biology to get it going.

Sarah Hill:

Very good. So you mentioned that you built your own interseeder. Talk a little bit about that experience.

David Miller:

Well, the first one was done on a shoestring budget. We just bought a little row crop cultivator and found some openers on Craig's List. And I picked up a little Gandy box on an auction sale. I think we had less than $4,000 into this rig that we put together for an eight row machine and just wanted to see if it worked. We tried different timings. We had to modify it a couple times to make it work and it actually worked out quite well. So we did that about three years and we did that. The experiment that I had in my presentation was done with that machine.

David Miller:

And we found it to be pretty successful. So we wanted to go to the next step where we could kind of get rid of a pass and build a machine that could put on the nitrogen as well. We found that we needed more seed capacity, so we bought a bigger box and this really worked out quite well. We actually went with the same openers as that original machine because they were adequate. We did add some drag chains to them the last couple years because some of the wetter conditions, we were finding the seed wasn't getting covered very well. So we've made some improvements that way, but yeah.

Sarah Hill:

Awesome. So why have you found that using more cover crops or at least having cover on your operation is more beneficial?

David Miller:

Oh, weed control is a big one. The more cover we have, the more species we have, it seems like the less weed issues we have. With other plants, we were dealing with weeds on our farm is land that we've more recently acquired. It's problems we've brought in upon ourselves. Not our own problems, land that we've had in our system since the nineties, we just have very few weed issues at all. So it helps save a lot of money in the long and we don't need hardly any residuals, but some of the newer fields we've got, we've got ragweed in water, a little more challenging situations and we have to modify our rotations a little bit until we have some weed control options. Wherein, some of our other soils that have been in the system longer, we can kind of do whatever we want.

Sarah Hill:

You mentioned that you are aiming for some long-term benefits when you use cover crops with your corn crop. Talk a little bit about those long-term benefits you're aiming for.

David Miller:

Well, the big one is probably reduced fertility or input use. We've kind of gone to doing [inaudible 00:14:14] tests on most of our farm now. And we do our testing on a geo reference point versus the old days when we just did a composite sample. So it's hard to track where organic matter is at compared to then, because it's not comparing apples to oranges, but I think we've improved organic matter. Perhaps... I wouldn't put a number on it, but I've seen improvement and I've seen improvement in soil structure. I've definitely seen improvement in infiltration and water holding capacity. The straw field this last year, some of the fields that we're in have been in longer term [inaudible 00:14:50] practices definitely performed better. So long term, we're just looking at that reduced weed control, less input costs.

Sarah Hill:

Of course that's always the big one. So talk a little bit about the interseeding trial that you conducted on your farm.

David Miller:

It was actually done through NRCS. They had a program, was a three year study. So we did a corn followed by beans and went back to corn and we don't normally do that, but we did that for that trial. And we were just looking at the effect of different species and how they would do, whether they affected the corn yield, and whether they affected weed control, or the big things we were looking at, measurements we were taking, and biomass production as well.

Sarah Hill:

Specifically, talk a little bit about the economic outcomes that you saw with the different species.

David Miller:

Okay, so we had rye grass and we had red radish, turnip, we had a couple different clover mixes and we had a complex mix in this, and we measured the biomass production and it ranged anywhere from basically nothing for the clovers to 500 pounds of dry matter for the complex and the red radish, turnip mixes. And we looked at yields as well for both the corn and the beans. And what we kind of found was the higher biomass might have had a slight reduction in yield, but very little. It wasn't statistical. The following year in beans, we actually saw a little bump in yield on the complex cover. So we did see some longer term benefits from that. I don't know that the loss in yield was significant or not on the corn. The second year was... Or the third year we grew corn was corn again. We didn't see any difference there either., so.

Sarah Hill:

Okay. Do you alter the cover crop mix if you plan to use a field for silage purposes?

David Miller:

We do. When we go to silage, we're looking at some different priorities, I guess you could say. It's going to be chops. So we're trying to increase our tonnage. We're trying to our feed quality. So we've been putting things like millets, and sudan grasses. Sometimes they'll grow taller than the corn will so it looks a little crazy, but we'll also get some legumes in there. Yeah, we're trying to just improve that quality of that forward, get a little higher protein energy, and still have that added diversity, which we always want.

Sarah Hill:

Yeah, for sure. So talk a little bit about your experiences with poly cropping.

David Miller:

Okay, poly cropping, growing more than one crop together, it's been kind of hit and miss. The first time we did it was the best time. Of course it always seems like it works that way, but we planted a small field that was oats, peas, and canola together. I called it peola. I don't know if that's the term or not, but we kind of quantified it. We harvested it, collected the pounds total, and then I had it separated by a professional separating outfit to get the percentages, worked it back economically, and it penciled out really nice. The best peas we've ever grown in our farm was about 62 bushels. So that year, that mix, when we figured it back, it equated to about 70 bushel peas economically. So the mix was very good. The reason we didn't go forward was because of the marketing aspects and separation logistics costs.

Sarah Hill:

Sure. That is all the time we have for today. Thanks so much for joining us, David.

David Miller:

You're welcome. Thank you for having me.

Sarah Hill:

You can hear more from David and 11 other speakers at the upcoming National Cover Crop Summit on March 15th and 16th. To register for this free online event, visit 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 options for your production and conservation goals with your Montag dealer or on the on manufacturing website. For more information about all things cover crops, visit us online at covercropstrategies.com.