“We really didn't start out trying to improve the soil. We started out just needing some grazing. It’s interesting that soil health came along with it.”
— Lucinda Stuenkel, No-Tiller, Palmer, Kan.
No matter where or what you farm, your operation can benefit from cover crops. Planting covers improves soil biology, increases water infiltration, saves money and more.
In this episode of the Cover Crop Strategies podcast, Jim Denys of Parkhill, Ont., Dean Jackson of Columbia Crossroads, Penn., and Lucinda Stuenkel of Palmer, Kan., join us for a panel discussion about the benefits of incorporating cover crops into your operation — wherever you farm.
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Welcome to the Cover Crop Strategies Podcast, brought to you by SOURCE by Sound Agriculture. I'm Michaela Paukner, Managing Editor at Cover Crop Strategies. In today's episode of the podcast, Jim Denys of Park Hill, Ontario, Dean Jackson of Columbia Crossroads, Pennsylvania, and Lucinda Stuenkel of Palmer, Kansas join us for a panel discussion about the benefits of incorporating cover crops into your operation, wherever you farm.
My name is Lucinda Stuenkel and we have a diversified thousand-acre farm in North Central Kansas. We grow wheat, rye, oats, triticale, milo, soybeans, brome, alfalfa, and native prairie hay. We raise beef cow calf and we finish grass-fed beef on the prairie grass and with cover crops.
My name is Dean Jackson. Along with my wife Rebecca and our family, we own and operate Mount Glen Farm located in Northeastern Pennsylvania. We have a dairy operation with a lot of diversity. We're in the purebred Holstein business. We market our breeding age bulls and cows and semen sales throughout the United States, and our crop rotations are we grow corn for silage and grain, some soybeans, grow mostly grass with an alfalfa base, a grass base with alfalfa in our better fields for all of our forages. We market extra hay, different types of hay for horse people or beef cattle or dairy cattle throughout Northeast Pennsylvania and New York State, as well. We have about 900 acres and about half of that is tillable in these rolling hills in Northeast Pennsylvania.
Yeah, my name's Jim Denys. I farm in Ontario, Canada, not far from London, right along Lake Huron. I guess I started farming grade 11, when I started buying wieners, and after high school, went off to Ag College and started farming full-time shortly after that in '98, so it's been 25 years or more I've been at this. We run average sized crop, cash crop, farm for our area, as well as fair to finish swine. We help do some seed sales for a Canadian seed company called Maizex. We do corn and soybeans out of that company and we also do some custom farm service work, as well.
How long have each of you been using covers and what was that motivation to start the transition to using cover crops in your operations?
I was very fortunate here, had a neighbor that had no-tilled, experimented with no-till, going back probably 30 years now, and so I got to watch him and watch that evolve without doing it myself and see his successes and failures. When we finally made that transition to no-till, it just made sense that we needed something on the ground. In this area, they were starting out with some oats just to get something quickly established, a single crop species, either oats or rye, but it didn't take me long to realize that diversity is key, just like everything. We started putting in blends of different species and I really enjoyed watching that work. I like the oats, because they would grow quickly in the fall and then die out over the winter, so you had something laying on the ground for the earthworms to feed on early spring, and then of course, your wheat or rye would take off and grow and you could terminate that later.
As far as cover crops, we've always used them as long as I can remember. Even my dad, we've always used just basic red clover, interseason into the winter wheat, and he did that for years. I guess one of our goals has always been to improve the soil. That's one of our core values of the farm. One of the issues we ran into with, it was always a struggle to consistent stand with the red clover into the wheat, so that's when we started looking at other options. We started messing around with drilling in some oats to start, I guess that's pretty common way for people to start into this thing, and we progressed to include multispecies. We added and subtract different things as years went on, tweaked our mix that way. Some of the challenges we face have been learning when to investigate the crops, what species to incorporate into our system. The seeding rates were also a big lesson in bringing us along. We found out pretty quickly that less seed is probably better for you than more.
Well, it's interesting, because we've been no-tilling for 18 years and we started using cover crops 16 years ago. My husband planted spring oats into wheat stubble one summer in the back half of the field, so that no one could see it from the road, and it did so well. It was chest-high on me when it was done. We were low on hay that year, so we put a hot wire around it and we put the cattle in there, and they did so well that we grazed them until the end of February on that grass. When the cattle came off the oat grass, they looked like they were ready to earn a prize at the county fair, so we decided to keep using it and then we eventually started adding other things into it.
The first thing we added back in with it was radishes and then we started adding other things, like winter peas and that sort of thing, but we, again, started with oats because they grow quickly and they're very versatile and the cattle love them. You can graze them, but you can also hay it, and they love that hay in the wintertime, which was a surprise to us. It looks like straw, but it has a lot of nutrition in it and when we mix it with winter peas, then the peas give it some nutrition, as well. They really like those bales.
Great. So, Lucinda, Jim had talked a little bit earlier about what challenges his operation has had with cover crops. What are some of the challenges that your operation has had with covers?
Well, we really didn't start out with trying to improve the soil. We started out just needing some grazing, and so it's interesting that the soil health came along with it. In terms of trouble, we have had droughts, three the last 10 years, severe droughts, and the cover crop isn't as tall as normal, but amazingly enough it's packed with more nutrition, so you have just as much nutrition, even though it's not tall. So, what appeared to be a problem, ended up not actually being a problem for us.
Yeah, there's one glaring problem that we have here in our area of Northeast Pennsylvania. We're a short growing season and when we get take that corn silage off, we don't have much time. I have shortened up my length of day varieties of corn and we have a no-till drill right behind the chopper. I have somebody that is ... We don't want to waste a day, because we just don't have much time to get anything established. I remember, three out of the last four years, it's been soaking wet here in the fall and it is right now very tough to get things established whereby they do much good.
That's what we do, we shorten up our length of day varieties of corn silage and we have that drill right in there right behind it and then we'll let that come. Then when we get manure on it, we get manure on it, and so I have cover crops that are up. We'll go right out in there with a tanker and the tractors and cover up and it'll grow right through that. If you waited the life you put manure on, it's too way too late, and that has worked, but I remember one year we had a two-acre field is all, and it was the only one we could get on, it was so wet. We chopped it and I had dad go down there that next morning, just a two-acre field, and put a cover crop on it and then it started raining and it never stopped hardly, and that was the only two acres we got covered that whole fall with cover crops, was those two acres. That's the challenges we have here in this area with a heavy clay soil and wet ground.
We never take a tractor off of our drill. It's always ready to go, right behind the combine.
All right, so what changes have each of you seen to your soil health that you can directly attribute to using cover crops? Jim, why don't you start us off for this question?
Well, we've definitely seen lots of positive effects on the soil. The inclusion, we've always been no-till farm. The only thing we conventional till in the past was our corn crop. We've always done three crop rotation, but so the no-till I've always said has helped us hold onto what we had. Adding the cover crops in the no-till system with the strip till now, we've moved on from hold on to what we have, to building what we have with the soil. We essentially eliminated the erosion, because we're still seeing some erosion on some of our hillier ground with no-till. Definitely better aggregation of the soil, better water infiltration, really noticed more resilient soils in more extreme weather, like extreme dry or extreme wet periods. The crops, seems are holding there better with the better water holding capacity and water filtration that you get along with improving the soil health.
We've noticed equipment really carries better in the fall, too, especially wet falls, like we've had the last five years here. We're not dragging mud around. Our tires are clean, where if we did have a conventional farm that we tilled or something we had to work up, it's just mud one end to the other, where you're growing covers in no-till, your wheels are still clean, you're not rotting everything up. It's really night and day difference that way. Yeah, you attribute that to the soil structure and the extra organic matter between the rows, the matter cover and the roots. Also noticed tons more worms, less issues with compaction. We're predominantly clay loam soils, so compaction is always front of mind with us, and this seems to be helping us with that for sure.
We naturally have a tan clay soil and now ours is dark brown, which is just really exciting. We have much better aggregation. It looks like brown cottage cheese instead of a chalky tan, which is also very nice. We have a much higher organic matter. We've been able to double and triple our organic matter. Now it sounds great, but we started out pretty low, so it's easy to double or triple it, and now the water infiltration is less than 10 minutes to infiltrate an inch, so in an hour, I can infiltrate six inches now. That really helps, because we can keep the limited rainfall that we do get in our soil and it doesn't cause erosion, it doesn't run downstream. That really helps our situation in being able to grow crops. During the three years of drought that we had, I still had crops and the neighbors didn't. We received the Grassland Management Award, because we were the only ones in the county that actually had grass, so it really helps to do the no-till and the cover crops.
I will just echo everything the two before me have said. To go out in the evening during the summer and during a rain event and see the earthworms, worm castings, the cottage cheese, the organic matter, the darkening of the soil, all that, that is just so exciting to watch that develop over the years. It's almost like you're just letting Mother Nature do the work for you and alls you are is a manager and not be out there when you shouldn't be. With us, we have the dairy manure to feed those worms. It is incredible, the crops we can grow with very little fertilizer versus decades ago, it's just ... Like I said, I was very fortunate to have a neighbor that I could learn from and dare to do it, dare to get started. That was very helpful.
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We do several fields of sequential cover crops for grazing. They're dedicated to one cover crop after another, where it's primarily for grazing, but it also improves the soil. The basic premise is to take half and leave half. We do want the livestock to trample, to defecate and urinate, because that creates compost. Nothing is wasted. We started out March 1 with the spring cover crop for grazing. It's basically oats, winter peas, and a hybrid kale. We graze that April 15th and then we let it rest and regrow to graze again. We can get sometimes three grazings out of it with a third one sometimes being an oat hay, and this is what it looks like.
In the summer, we graze the native prairie grass, and every time that the spring cover crop is rested, we do a sequence of cover crops in the same field, one right after the other, primarily for grazing, but to improve soil. The premise is to take half and leave half, because we want the livestock to trample, defecate and urinate, because this creates composts that improves the soil health. Nothing is wasted. First we start March 1st with a spring cover crop for grazing. We also include winter peas and hybrid kale. With this, we plant it March 1st and then we graze it April 15th. We let that rest and regrow so that we can graze it up two, three times depending upon how much rain we get. That third grazing might actually be hay, then that oat pea hay is very nutritious for the cattle. They love it in the wintertime. We graze native during the times when we're resting the oat pea cover crop.
There's also a summer cover crop for grazing. This includes legumes, like cowpeas, mung beans, and Sunn hemp, that includes grasses like sorghum-sudan, and we like the dwarf brown midrib, pearl millet, Japanese millet. We also add some forbs, like the spineless okra and the sunflower and buckwheat. This is planted on May 15th, somewhere between May 15th and June 15th, but do test it for nitrites before you graze it. It's grazed July 15th to September 15th. Then we have a fall cover crop and we sometimes stockpile this for late winter grazing. It's triticale and oats basically for the grasses, twice as much triticale as oats.
If it's late, we may skip the oats and just put 90 pounds of triticale in. The legumes are hairy vetch, forage pea, crimson clover, and we sometimes add an annual ryegrass to that. The brassicas are radishes, turnips, and collards. We have found that no more than two pounds of brassicas, otherwise the cattle get too washy or have too intensive diarrhea. You can plant this anytime between July 1st and September 1st, and it just depends when we harvest the other crops, and then we graze it any time between October 15th to March 1st. If they need more protein, we either give them a protein tub or roll out some alfalfa bales, then repeat this as many years as you need to to heal the soil, reducing the fertilizer each time, and we have grown it without any fertilizer. The more vegetation that's left as residue, the shorter the regrowth period, so don't try to graze all of it out.
We also interseed covers into our row crops and this has helped tremendously. Here's some soybeans with companions and those companions are buckwheat, mustard, and radish, just one pound each per acre. It doesn't take much to add this to the planter or the drill. Milo with companions, buckwheat, flax, mustard, an annual lespedeza, mung beans, radishes, either mini pumpkins or squash, and wheat. Add some common veg, which is an annual, lentils and radishes, and then in the middle of the winter when it's going to snow or towards spring when it's going to snow, frost seed about 10 pounds of red clover and let the melting snow take that seed into the soil.
Our goal with our cover crops is three things, really. It's to build the soil, help cycle nutrients from our hog manure, and to stop erosion. So, keeping that in mind, we use a base usually of oats, cereal rye, dicon, radish, fava beans, kale and turnip are the main ones, sometimes throw in some crimson clover, rapeseed, phacelia. We've tried sunflower and flax. We find that a lot of the broad leaves and stuff like phacelia and flax, as well as a lot of the legumes, when we're doing manure on it, they get choked out. They can't really compete with a lot of the grasses and they don't really amount to much, so we've gone away from some of those types of seeds.
When we're seeding, we seed it with a 40-foot New Holland 2080 disc drill. We seed our cover crops after our wheat harvest. We usually harvest around mid-July and we usually wait till August to seed our cover crop for a couple reasons. We want the volunteer wheat that's going to come up from the combine to come up so we can desiccate it, we can kill it off before we plant our cover crop, or we have nothing but problems with it when we go to strip till.
The other part, is the oats will get too wirey by the time we go to strip till and they're just a nightmare to deal with, so we've learned that we have to wait a little longer. We can't go in right after. It just causes too many problems. The field does sit bare there for a couple weeks, but it gives us a good opportunity for some weed seeds to come that we can kill off. As far as seeding rate goes, when we started this, we started going about 50 pounds an acre, and we've dropped that back drastically. We found, especially with newer, we can get it in with ... This year, I'm down to 30 to 32 pounds, so we're talking like $12, $13 an acre in cover cover crop seed costs. I may even drop back further next year. We've got a lot of growth there this year even with the ... We didn't get seed till mid-August, and at 30 pounds, we've still got pretty lush growth.
We've also tried aerial broadcasting cereal rye into soybeans in September at senescence, as well as the standing corn at the same time. We've had, I guess, variable success with that. It's good catches to zero catch in the soybeans and the corn's basically you couldn't find any rye in it, so we've experimented with that. I don't think we'll do it again. We're at one-third rotation of corn, soybeans, and wheat, so really the only thing that doesn't have something green growing all year round is just the corn stowed over after harvest, which gets planted into soybeans in the spring anyways. Otherwise, there's winter wheat or cover crop growing there throughout the winter and spring and fall, so that's our system.
Being a dairy operation, most of our ground is in hay grass mixtures and it goes for baleage, haylage, and dry hay, and then all of our corn ground is the only thing that we put cover crops on. We don't do any grazing or we have some established pastures for bred heifers. We use a mixture of ... Like I said, we try to have our corn silage harvest in motion by September 1st, and right behind that, we're coming in with sometimes a few pounds of oats in either wheat or rye, and we'll also throw in turnips and radishes. That's my son's recommendation, because he's an avid hunter. He wants anything planted that'll draw deer in. Then we let them go. In the spring, we will terminate them before we plant our corn or put our new seedings down for that next spring.
Now, we have experimented with planting green, and that's the next step for us, is to go right in and just let that go and go right in. I've done it with rye about four feet high and I thought it was going to be a nightmare, but I was surprised at how well that came. I did not terminate it until after I planted the corn. That's something that, if we could get a normal spring that wasn't real wet, we would probably lean towards doing more and more of that green planting, but that's the extent of our cover crops we want.
Right now out there, everything ... We still have corn to shell, but everything we took off for silage. We were fortunate by September 15th, I think we had it all in, the cover crops, so we hadn't even had a killer frost yet, which is very unusual for Northeast Pennsylvania here, and so we have a nice establishment this year. Yeah, but to have something growing and living on that soil at all times. Something that people don't understand, I think, is I've heard it said this way one time, rain droplets, and they hit hard, they displace soil. Every drop of rain will displace bare ground. It'll displace soil and make it move, and so if you have a cover crop or something living on top of that soil, so that is catching those raindrops and letting them just fall gradually under that soil. That's a huge difference, but when I had it explained to me like that, it made sense. It sunk in a little bit, that raindrops displace soil and cover crops catch those raindrops.
Jim, you had mentioned that you all use cover crops to mitigate soil erosion. What have you seen with using covers to help capture some of those nutrients from the soil? Have you made any adjustments to your fertilization program as a result of implementing cover crops?
Yeah. Well, I guess for us it's all ... For the interest, I will focus around the manure, trying to spread that, not full-time where you're not mudding it on in the spring or in the fall, so that's why we try to stay cogs, where it's generally dry. That's why we include the radish and the turnip, which seemed to work better for cycling some of those nutrients and turn it into an organic form where it's available for the corn crop the following spring. That's our strategy with that. Yeah, like I said, it's basically eliminated erosion.
Have you seen any changes in weed pressure or insects or disease pressure as a result of implementing covers?
Yeah, definitely with the cereal rye in the mix, we've definitely got, I think, a little better control of things like Canada fleabane, or I guess Mare's-tails, also known as, where we have shift the spectrum a little bit. We're seeing more foxtail and perennials, like perennial sow thistle and Canada thistle are becoming an issue, but we've also decreased on other wheat species. As far as disease goes, I haven't really noticed a difference, and same with insect pressure. I thought one of my concerns going in with this planting of the green cover was we'd be seeing a lot of slug pressure, but it hasn't been an issue at all. If anything, it's actually even better than what we've seen when we were conventional.
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We had a lot of weed pressure at first when we started going to cover crops and we have glyphosate resistant pigweed out here in a big way, but the rye over the winter really helps to mitigate that because it's a nitrogen hog, so it soaks up the nitrogen so that it's not available to the pigweed, so that when the pigweed does sprout, it stays about a couple inches tall and doesn't really get much taller than that. The rye also shades it out to keep it from getting very tall at the beginning also. Then, when we roll it, has an allopathic effect with the pigweed as well. Then when we plant green, and then roll it down later or just knock it down with the drill, then that really helps that problem without having to spray, because if you can't use glyphosate ... If you're going to spray, you need to use a mix of chemicals and they get more and more hazardous.
An interesting thing, since we haven't been using insecticide for quite a few years now, the neighbors had an army worm infestation and it just marched across the field and took out everything in its path. We scouted and found one army worm in an acre and we just haven't sprayed, so our natural insect predators are still there and they take care of the problem before it becomes a big problem. Once you start spraying insecticide, you're killing the good guys, as well as the bad guys, and so your problem just compounds and becomes worse and worse, so getting away from using insecticide has really helped us a lot.
Then, in our milo, a problem with that has been the sugar cane aphid. It leaves a honey goo over the top of the heads and you can't combine it, because the goo gets stuck in the inside of your combine and you need very hot water to get that out of there, plus you can't really harvest the miler then. You would have to graze it. We found that the ladybugs and the lacewings, which are prevalent in our fields because of not using the pesticides, and they're the good guys, they eat the aphids. Then if any of the aphids escape being eaten, the native bees, the ground bees, come and mine the honey off of the top of the milo heads and it's nice and clean to combine, so that's really helped, as well.
We haven't used fungicides in years either. When the soil becomes healthier, it just really benefits you all the way around, so you have less inputs. We also use the dollars that we save from the inputs to buy cover crop seed and also to improve our grazing infrastructure. We've fenced around all of our crop fields now and we're adding watering systems to them or to the adjacent pasture, so that we can graze at a moment's notice whenever it's ready to be grazed, and then we can take them out when it's time to plant something else.
We also use the Haney Test to determine what fertilizer our soil really needs. That is a water-based test instead of a chemical-based test, so it gives you a more accurate picture of what your soil is actually needing. Then we only add back to that what is needed and we're exploring and using other things. For example, if we need more nitrogen, we're putting in legumes. As long as you can get those legumes to bloom, then you're starting to sequester nitrogen in the root nodules, so that helps a lot, too. We've been weaning the soil off of the chemical fertilizer, and instead of going cold Turkey, we're trying to slowly wean it off by replacing that with legumes. As the soils become healthier, it just actually needs less fertilizer, so we're trying to get our soil to not be addicted anymore.
Yeah, I agree that rye is a tremendous weed suppressant. We've seen that rye cover crop or in a mix does a tremendous job. When you're transitioning to no-till, you're going to see all kinds of things come in for a rotation or two, nothing serious, but rye in a mix has helped us a lot on that. Insects, we have no more than a three-year rotation in corn before we go back into grass sods, so we never see any insect problems. I mean, when we had alfalfa more in our rotations, we would have leafhopper troubles that we'd have to spray for once in a while. Again, when you did that, you killed all the good stuff as well, but we're grass-based mostly now, so that eliminated all that kind of spray.
Yeah, I'm right with everyone else, and that is the fact that we want to mimic nature. We want inputs as low as possible and soil samples has taught me that there's a lot of times when we think we need something, and in reality, we really don't, but we just got to trust the soil sample, whether it's ... No matter what kind it is, and do the nitrate test. We've done that, both soil and tissue, and I'm just amazed that it's technically not enough nitrogen out there on the field, but it says it is. I've just noticed more and more of that. I don't have a lot of technical data to share with you, but I'm just amazed at the crops we can grow with the amount of inputs we have. Of course, the cow manure is a big deal, no-till, and cover crops. That's the secret right there, and that that's worked great for us.
All right. Well, our time is coming to a close, so before we wrap up here, I'd just like to give each of you one last chance to share your parting thoughts and comments related to cover crops.
I would say try cover crops on 10% of your acres to see how they do. If you're afraid to get started, just try 10% of your land, and try cover crops for at least three years on that field before you make the decision about them. Use the dollars that you save from your using fewer inputs to purchase your cover crop seed, and then cover crop mixes always outperform the single species, so go with mixes. The more items in there, the better, the more species in there, the better. Mix all of the cover crop seed in the drill box, set it on medium, and go. We also calibrate the drill to make sure we're getting the right number per acre, but you don't have to worry about the seed not going through the drill, because it will. All different sizes will go through.
I guess, just anyone looking to start into the cover crop thing, I guess best place to start is start with a plan, and that's from planning through to termination, what species of seeds, what rate to seed at, the goals, what you want to accomplish with your cover crop, how and when to terminate. It's best usually to start small and get comfortable with a system before you jump fully into it and build from there. Talk to as many people experience as you can before making a plan. When it comes to seeding rate, for sure, we found out less is more. You don't need to be pounding 50, a hundred pounds an acre of seed. You're just wasting money at that point and probably going to cause yourself more headaches than help.
Again, having a plan for termination is critical, like the timing and stuff. You can get into trouble there. Don't be afraid to experiment with different things, different species, different timing, all that kind of stuff. For our system, we found out don't plan too early, the issues, but I think there's not a lot of downside and a lot of upside to moving to this thing, and that's what we found when we moved into it. Our yields were climbing and they've continued climbing every year since we've done this. We haven't seen a lag at all, while having less input costs. Our net income rate here is up substantially without sacrificing any yield. Yeah, give it a try. I think it works great for us anyways.
I remember when I first started looking into no-till and cover crops, I'd go to some meetings. At those meetings were people that were established and have already done it. When you're around those people, those people, they're not going to talk about their successes as much as they talk about the problems. I remember walking out of one of those meetings one time thinking, "I'm never going to do that." They might talk about slugs and weed pressure and transition. Being a young guy that was just trying to get started, I thought, "Wow, I don't want nothing to do with this," which was all false. You have to overcome that, so stewardship is another big thing.
I mean, folks, we're on this earth for a short period of time and we're here to take care of the land. We can talk about different seeds, we can talk about dollars, and all that's important, but it's just the right thing to do to have our ground covered. It's the right thing to do in every aspect of it and so that's very important, again, having good mentors in your area. Talk to those in your area who have done it already and get a plan with what they're doing and that can help you get started.
I agree, you got to dive in. You can't just try it one year or two and that's it. It takes time. Do not let the cost of seed deter you. It's a theory and a philosophy and it takes time. You think about all the money we spend on farms, a person shouldn't let a few dollars on a cover crop seed deter them. Most importantly, just do it. Put that seed in, like she said, and just get in that tractor and do it and have fun. Your conservation districts, at least in our area, are a great resource, as they talk with other conservation districts and other farmers to help you get pointed in the right direction. Maybe rent a drill the first time or two instead of buying one to get your feet wet. Try new things, and again, like I said, have fun.
Thanks to Jim Denys, Dean Jackson, and Lucinda Stuenkel for today's conversation. The full transcript and a video for this episode are available at covercropstrategies.com/podcasts. Many thanks to SOURCE by Sound Agriculture and the National No-Tillage Conference for helping to make this Cover Crops Strategies podcast series possible. From all of us here at Cover Crop Strategies, I'm Michaela Paukner. Thanks for listening.