Daniel Olson has been trying to incorporate cover crops into his Lena, Wis., dairy farm for several years. There is a lot of trial and error that comes with the process, but he says there’s one main thing that has helped him start to have some success.

“The important part is rethinking our crop rotations entirely,” Olson says. “That's allowed us to have a much higher degree of success and a lot more consistent success with the cover crops that we've used. There are some pretty big efficiencies that can be gained, both in ration cost and overall farm performance, along with the soil health benefits that we know that come along with cover crops.”

Olson’s ancestors first settled on the farm in the 1800s. He is a 7th generation dairy farmer, and one of his primary motivations for using cover crops is being able to pass land with healthy soil onto his sons, who will hopefully become the 8th generation of farmers in his family.

“When I look at our forage systems, they have to do two things for us,” Olson says. “They have to not only build soil health, but they also have to be able to generate income in the short term because we need to continue to be able to cash flow and be profitable. We have animals to feed and milk to produce.”

Currently Olson’s operation involves milking about 350 cows on two locations. He has a home dairy farm that's a lot more of a grazing-based crossbred animals operation, and he also has a newer dairy farm set up as more of a research farm to test new concepts and strategies. Olson also does forage consulting with dairy farms all over the country, and he uses the research he finds on his own farm to help other farmers. For Olson, research is one of the most enjoyable parts of his farming career.

“Even in our main cropping practices, we'll take double rates or cut rates or do leaf strips,” Olson says. “The neighbors probably look at our fields and think we're crazy, but there's some method to the madness. We're always trying to learn things. There's nothing like real world research that's done on your farm.” One major takeaway that Olson has gained from his research is that cover crops are not easy to establish in his region of northern Wisconsin or other parts of the country where the weather can be extreme. Olson says it took a lot of trial and error and for every success they had, and there were probably 2-3 failures with each. But it’s important to push through the struggles and stay focused on the goal of increasing soil health.

“I started rethinking our crop rotations altogether. What we were typically doing was about 4 years of corn, 4 years of alfalfa and then coming back in with corn,” Olson says. “I kept thinking, what happens if we eliminate the alfalfa? And what happens if we eliminate the perennial in this rotation? Instead, drop an annual crop in the middle between these corn crops. And so that's what we've done. We've largely eliminated our perennials on most of our acres.”Olson also says that harvest management has been one of the aspects of his operation that he’s been paying close attention to, and it has paid off.

“Some of these alternative forages can be easy to mess up and to not get the management right,” Olson says. “When we're cutting cool season grasses, I like to keep 3-4 inches of residue. That would be Italian ryegrass, sorghum and any sort of cool season grasses. Even perennials like meadow fescue, they should be cut high if you want regrowth. Much of the energy is stored above ground in that area, and it's going to drastically cut down on your regrowth if you cut into that.”

For warm season grasses like BMR sorghum-sudan, Olson says the best rule of thumb is to cut 10% from the total height.

“So if it's 4 feet high, you should be cutting at about 5 inches to get regrowth,” Olson says. “You need these growth nodes to get regrowth. As the plant stretches and grows up, those growth nodes get farther apart.”

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