A lot can change in 30 years. In the early 1990s, Perrysville, Ohio, brothers Steve and Carl Ayers were adopting no-till and cover crops on 700 acres of continuous corn on their 650-cow dairy operation, creating a standard for other growers in the area to emulate.
Today, the operation includes Steve, his wife Deb, his son Jesse, Carl, his wife Janet, and his daughter Kathy Davis. The farm is on the western edge of the Appalachian area of Ohio, where the farmland is terminal moraine, littered with hills and valleys of all shapes and sizes and various light, non-organic, mineral-based soils.
The Ayers’ interest in no-till dates back to 1969, thanks to a neighbor who bought a no-till planter. He planted a large, hilly field for the brothers. Ten inches of rain fell overnight on July 4, causing flooding which tore out fences and resulted in livestock getting out.
“When we went past our bowl-shaped no-till field that funneled into a drainage area, water running off that field was clear, but everywhere else, there was just mud,” says Carl. “That convinced us to try no-till, since a lot of our ground is hilly.”
The Ayers bought a no-till planter later that summer and converted to no-till within 3 years, soon using no-till for all crops.
Many Uses for Cereal Rye
The Ayers began using cover crops on 100% of their acres in 2000, and have seeded small amounts of crimson clover, radish, winter peas and turnips along with cereal rye.
The continuous corn fields close to the dairy barn are seeded in the fall with cereal rye, with 450-500 acres chopped for ryelage before planting to corn silage. Fields farther from the dairy are rotated between high-moisture ground ear corn, shelled corn, soybeans, wheat and cereal rye.
Another 100 acres of wheat and 150 acres of cereal rye are raised for cash grain and rye seed as well as straw for feeding and bedding the dairy herd. After the straw is removed, manure is applied and oats are planted as a double crop. The oats are chopped and ensiled in October.
Early on, only cereal rye was used as a cover crop. Learning to deal with slugs and armyworms was a big challenge. They soon learned how valuable the rye was to chop as a double-crop as well as soil-saving winter ground cover.
Cereal rye is the preferred cover crop because the Ayers raise their own seed, so the cost is fairly nominal. They seed 100 pounds per acre in fields with corn stalk cover with a Case International 7250 tractor pulling a 15-foot John Deere 750 no-till drill with a 7½-inch row spacing to help mash down the cornstalks.
“We don’t skimp on seed, because we like a dense cover,” says Carl. “Even in the years we don’t see a lot of growth in the fall, we get good residue matter in the soil come spring. If we need straw for the dairy cows, we can sell cereal rye as grain, use the cereal rye straw for the livestock and some of the seed for cover crops.”
Any cereal rye seed that is sold is an extra income source for the operation.
Cover crops are so important to the Ayers that they’ve opted to plant short-season corn and soybean varieties to be able to seed covers earlier, typically during the first or second weekend in September until the end of October. Custom harvesters are hired to harvest soybeans earlier so covers can be seeded in a timely manner.
“We’ve seen a dramatic difference in fall planting dates and the amount of growth we still get in the fall,” Carl comments. “We like to have a cover crop that grows all winter.”
Cereal rye is harvested for silage at a tender stage so it will help their dairy cattle produce more milk, typically around May 1. The biggest challenge the Ayers have had to deal with is the weather during cereal rye harvest in the spring, according to Carl.
A custom harvest crew with 2 choppers puts up 800 acres of cereal rye in 12 hours. The Ayers use a trio of 14-foot Hesston/Massey Ferguson discbines. They also hire someone with a disc mower and use a pair of 33-foot Vermeer 3300 tedders to help wilt the crop and aid with drying the crop to the desired level of 30-35% dry matter.
“We get really good growth on the cereal rye in the fall, and have excellent ground cover,” says Carl. “We sacrifice a little tonnage to gain quality. When the cereal rye approaches optimum forage value, we cut the whole crop down, rain or shine.”
Harvesting is delayed until the cereal rye reaches boot stage to boost the protein level for the dairy herd. Four inches of cereal rye stubble is left after harvest to provide residue for no-till corn, while the rest is made into cereal ryelage.
After the cereal rye is cut, corn is no-tilled into the cereal rye stubble. The root mass left from the cereal rye helps with soil health, soil tilth and compaction.
“When we go out in the spring and dig into the cereal rye stubble, the roots are a huge mass in the ground,” Carl says. “We’ve documented cereal rye roots down as far as 35-40 inches.”
Manure Critical to Success
Having a large herd of dairy cows means a constant supply of manure, so applying manure as fertilizer with a dragline is convenient and economical.
The Ayers wanted to apply manure to the corn they’d already no-tilled green into the cereal rye. A quarter-mile dragline was pulled across the field, and the Ayers noticed it smashed the cereal rye down in either direction.
“It wasn’t uniform, but the cereal rye was down,” Carl comments. “It wasn’t pretty, but it worked. The corn was spindly to start with, but it came right through the cereal rye and was excellent. We’d stumbled onto a really good practice.”
Now, the Ayers bring out the dragline when the corn has less than 4-5 leaves, applying 8,000-10,000 gallons of manure per acre. An 8,000-foot long, 12-inch diameter underground pipeline helps convey liquid up to 2½-miles away from the dairy.
The Ayers’ dairy has a passive manure separation system, so any liquid manure applied to fields as fertilizer is about 97% water after going through the separation system and a 2-stage lagoon system, according to Carl.
Three different forms of manure result from the separation system, explains Mike Snyder, the independent agronomist who has worked with the Ayers for more than 30 years.
Manure comes out of the barn through a flush system and goes into the solid separation cells. The liquid is pumped to a 4 million gallon pond where more solids settle. The liquid from the stage 1 pond passively flows into a nearby, 11 million gallon stage 2 pond. The water from the stage 2 lagoon is used to flush the barn, completing the flush cycle.
“The liquid from the stage 1 pond tends to be high in potash and low in phosphorus (P),” says Snyder.
When water is pumped out of the stage 1 lagoon onto the corn fields at a rate of 12,000 gallons per acre, it’s applying 31 pounds of P and 132 pounds of potassium (K) per acre.
Solid manure from the separation system packs a different punch and is applied to fields too far away from the dragline using a Case IH 7250 tractor pulling a Knight 8040 slinger spreader. At 10 tons per acre, it leaves behind 54 pounds of P and 30 pounds of K per acre.
Manure from the dry cows’ and heifers’ bedding, or pen pack, is applied at 10 tons per acre, applying 66 pounds of P and 145 pounds of K per acre.
The practice of using a dragline on emerging corn began in 2019, due to the extremely wet weather rearranging the Ayers’ cover crop termination schedule. The termination date varies each year, thanks to several factors, including the custom spraying schedule, the weather and what herbicide program the Ayers are using. They typically use glyphosate and 2,4-D to terminate the cereal rye.
“Sometimes, we spray right away, and sometimes, we wait,” Carl says. “In 2019, it was so wet, we couldn’t get into the cereal rye to spray it until it was pretty tall.”
“Cereal rye is burned down after no-till corn planting with 1.6 pints of a PowerMax concentration per acre, so a little green has time to grow back,” says Snyder. In addition, a little atrazine or Princep are used as a residual.
“Along with the combination of manure and slug activity, we now have to deal with waterhemp, so we have to plan on a post-emergence application,” Snyder says. “With the 15-inch row silage corn, we’ve tried avoiding that by using long residual Corvus herbicide, but crabgrass around the edge of the field gives us a problem.”
A post-emergence application of 1.6 pints-1 quart of Roundup plus a product like Realm Q that contains mesotrione and a low rate of dicamba and atrazine kills emerged weeds as well as giving additional residual for late-emerging waterhemp. Although the crabgrass isn’t as competitive as foxtail, Snyder says if there’s any gap in the stand, the annual grasses and waterhemp can be a real issue.
The Ayers and Snyder scout the fields to fine-tune the post-emergence herbicide program.
Snyder says the Ayers soil test every other year and have records going all the way back to 1974.
“We like to keep the soil fertility levels in a good range,” Snyder says. “If things are too high, you can run into micronutrients like zinc getting tied up. Too low, you run into yield issues, so we’re trying to maintain that sweet spot.”
That sweet spot for no-tilled corn is 60 pounds per acre of P and 250-350 pounds per acre of K. Potash levels depend on the cation exchange capacity (CEC), usually running about 7-11 meq/100g.
“With double-cropping, there’s a tremendous amount of nutrients to replace each year,” Snyder says. “Utilizing that manure is absolutely critical. With a CEC that low, it can build the soils up fast or pull it down fast, so we really have to monitor them.”
Following wheat and rye harvest in early July, liquid manure is applied to the stubble using the dragline. Oats are then planted for a forage/silage crop to be harvested in early October. Following the oat harvest, rye is planted for a winter cover crop.
The Ayers have had good luck with continuous no-till corn, especially since they seed cereal rye immediately after chopping silage. The operation averages 180 bushels an acre of no-till corn, 60 bushels an acre of soybeans and 90-plus bushels per acre of wheat.
About 450-500 acres of 15-inch corn near the dairy are chopped for silage. The narrower rows provide a lot of shading, so there are fewer weeds.
Any acres not intended to be harvested for silage are no-till corn for grain, Carl says, with the help of a custom planter in addition to their own International 9330 4WD tractor pulling a Kinze 3650 12 by 23 planter. Corn is usually planted the second week of May.
As early as possible in the spring — usually in March — anhydrous ammonia is injected using a Deere Nutri-Placer applicator into the cereal rye where corn silage or grain are planted. The Nutri-Placer causes very little damage to the rye as long as it can be applied before the rye has grown too much. In fields where the rye will be chopped, an additional 100 pounds per acre of urea is broadcast.
Marestail and waterhemp are major weeds the Ayers brothers have to deal with in soybeans. The operation’s herbicide program uses residual, systemic and contact herbicides. A post-emergence Xtend dicamba program worked well in the past, but with the new Xtend application regulation changes, the Ayers switched to an Enlist program with glyphosate, 2,4-D LV 6 and Liberty.
“We sometimes have trouble in our soybeans, but overall, broadleaf weed control has been pretty successful,” Carl adds. “We try to choose soybean varieties with good disease resistance.”
Armyworms and garden slugs are the primary pests that cause issues. Armyworms are a perennial problem in corn planted into cereal rye. Armyworms are controlled with low rates of Warrior or Baythroid insecticides added to the burndown herbicide application.
The severity of slug damage varies from year to year, necessitating regular scouting to monitor damage levels. The Ayers have two ATVs set up to apply slug bait. Some years, it takes more than one slug bait application to adequately control an outbreak, but other years, no bait is needed. Slugs are usually more of a problem in low spots in fields, in which case, spot-baiting those areas controls the problem. Some years, whole fields can have economic levels of slug damage.
“Planting green has reduced slug issues,” Carl says. “The slugs have something to eat besides the crop. We remain convinced that even with the potential problems of slugs and armyworms, cover crops and no-till are essential soil-building practices.”