David Stelter, Wood Lake, Minn., has wanted to be a farmer since he was a small child. Today, the fourth-generation dairyman focuses on boosting yield outcomes and improving the condition of his land with cover crops.
In 1970, the family bought the dairy and 500 acres where Stelter’s father, Dennis, built one of the first milk parlors in southwestern Minnesota. Stelter’s job was to help his grandfather, Herbert, with the crop work. Stelter’s rotation includes corn, soybeans, oats, wheat and alfalfa.
Stelter started using cover crops in 2010 after his father encouraged a practice he had followed in the past — seeding winter wheat after corn silage. He’s become a leader in his area for cover cropping.
“I was the first one in this area to plant triticale and I planted oats with it into winter wheat stubble,” he says. “I got a second cutting of feed out of it. I realized this would give me 3 crops in 2 years. As a dairy operation, we can utilize feedstuffs that a grain farmer can’t utilize.”
Check The Specs...
NAME: David Stelter
LOCATION: Wood Lake, Minn.
YEARS USING COVER CROPS 12
CROPS: Corn, soybeans, oats, wheat, cover crops
ANNUAL PRECIPITATION: 28 inches
PRIMARY SOIL TYPE: Clay loam
LIVESTOCK: 300 Holstein cows
Not Mining the Soil
Stelter aims to leave his land better than he found it.
“My main goal is to try to make the soil as good as it can be, by keeping it alive,” he says.
Stelter says he sees proof that his methods are working when he’s in the fields — his soils, which are between 7-9% organic matter, are “alive” with earthworms.
“Somebody else is going to get my land someday,” he says. “If I mine it and there’s nothing left, then I haven’t done my part. There’s some of us out here who are doing what we need to do to continue to provide food while still taking care of the land.”
Stelter says growing different crops for as much of the year as possible brings a variety of beneficial bacteria into the soil.
He says that while multi-species cover crop mixes are best, if a grower can seed winter wheat or rye, then they should do so, because it’s better than nothing. Rye has helped suppress his weeds, it has amazing root structure for breaking up the ground and it can also be utilized as cattle feed.
- Planting cover crops can help livestock producers grow additional feed for their animals.
- Use the mindset when renting land that someone else will be using that land someday, whether it’s the next generation or another renter.
- Applying manure as fertilizer can allow growers to put on more nutrients than were taken off.
“I try to no-till 40-60 acres of rye into my corn stalks in the fall, giving me a jump on next year’s feed needs,” he says. “By March 10, the rye is usually already getting green.”
Feeding for Milk Production
Stelter’s dairy herd is 250 milking cows and about 45-50 dry cows at any one time, for a total of 300, maintaining a rolling herd average of 30,000 pounds of milk per year.
Stelter uses rye, triticale, sorghum, forage sorghum and sorghum-sudangrass as well as corn and alfalfa for silage. The triticale has a 21% protein value, far exceeding Stelter’s goal of 17-18% protein value.
Stelter believes that cow comfort, feed quality and feeding practices also contribute to high milk production.
“Feeding cows is an art. The feed has to be palatable and timing matters,” he says. “Slug feeding can throw off their milk production.”
One of the keys to Stelter’s success has been adding sorghum into his rotation. He started feeding sorghum in 2016, and milk production has gone from 90 pounds of milk per day to its current level of 101 pounds per day. He says his Holsteins love the sorghum, as it is full of sugar and drives feed intake, which then fuels milk production.
“I’ve interseeded sorghum-sudangrass into old alfalfa fields to try to get another year out of them,” he says. “The sorghum-sudangrass will grow where the alfalfa isn’t growing anymore, increasing the tonnage and feed value.”
“I’ve been asked why I plant sorghum,” he says. “My cows are eating up to 67 pounds of dry matter per day. I get 101 pounds of milk per cow. My feeder has less than 5% feed refusals, and I always try to feed for 5%.”
Every Year Is Different
In 2015, Stelter had 675 of his 750 acres growing a living crop going into winter. Since then, Stelter says he’s fought mud each fall, making it difficult to get cover crops established.
“We’ve tried all different kinds of things,” he says. “The first year we seeded cover crops with a 120-foot Hagie sprayer converted to add a seed box and drop tubes on the booms. It rained right after we seeded and when we chopped silage 5 days later, the rye was already coming up. I could see it as I was chopping. That was ideal.”
On the other hand, he says he seeded rye in in October 2019 but only about 10% germinated in the spring. “We ended up spending another $5,000 on triticale seed to get the stand we needed.”
“My main goal is to try to make the soil as good as it can be…”
The same year, Stelter planted forage sorghum after harvesting the fall-planted rye/triticale. The sorghum yielded 20 tons per acre.
“It was beautiful,” he says. “All headed out, probably about shoulder height. It was a godsend.”
In summer of 2020, Stelter interseeded cereal rye and Italian ryegrass into corn, but neither germinated until the following spring.
“We found out that cereal rye planted when corn is at the V6 stage doesn’t germinate because it gets shaded out.”
As technology and equipment improved, the Stelters found they could do a better job applying manure from the livestock. He uses an Artex manure spreader for applying dry manure in the fall and winter. He uses a no-till hose machine/drag line to apply liquid manure. The only other thing Stelter ever adds to his soil is nitrogen (N), since cattle manure tends to be fairly low in N due to the volume of water.
“When we take all the crop off, we put the nutrients back on as manure,” he says. “If I have to buy hay or anything that wasn’t raised on this farm, I’m actually returning more organic matter to my ground than I’m taking off it.”
Stelter does as little tillage as possible. He notes that 2020 was the first time he worked the soil in 5 years, either because he had covers growing or because he couldn’t do any due to muddy conditions.
“We have heavy clay loam soils here,” he says. “Normally, I can get by with one tillage pass.”
For the one tillage pass, he uses an IH Vibra Shank field cultivator and a John Deere crumbler.
“My field cultivator has a 3-bar disc harrow mounted to it,” Stelter says. “I pull he crumbler separately because sometimes it’s too muddy to use it. But when conditions are right, it works really well.”
Stelter tried strip-tilling and loved it. “Strip-till saved me in 2017,” he says. “We had strip-tilled some alfalfa. That was the only field we got sprayed. Because that ground hadn’t been worked we could get across it with the sprayer.”
He’s considering investing in a Rapid Till machine, which is made for strip-tilling in low-residue conditions.
Experience & Experiments
Stelter has a 20-acre field that he uses for experimenting with cover crops. In mid-May 2021, he decided to interseed corn with a custom cover crop mix of 1 pound of rape, 4 pounds of red clover, 4 pounds of radish, 2 pounds of turnip and 1 pound of hairy vetch for N fixing.
The cover crops were about $33 per acre in seed, and he intended to seed the mix at 13 pounds per acre. But when he went to seed it, he was 6 acres short on seed. The seed size had been so small that it had seeded faster than he anticipated.
“I didn’t have my seeding rate correct on my interseeder,” Stelter says. “I probably planted it at about 16 pounds per acre.”
In 2020, Stelter also began experimenting with 60-inch corn interseeded with soybeans, Italian ryegrass and clover. His goal was to increase protein levels without compromising starch.
It was all growing very well, he says, and he had plans to chop everything together using a Kemper head when a storm with 100-mph winds came through and flattened most of the field.
Despite the damage, Stelter says it was a success. A 4-pass strip of 60-inch rows that didn’t get flattened adjusted to 203 bushels per acre, which was just a tad behind the 205 bushels per acre he got from his 30-inch rows.
In addition, the silage tested at 11% protein, 3 points higher than normal, and the starch levels were normal.