“We have three crop fields that have easy access to our pasture, and we've been able to get the cattle out there for the last 15-20 years for grazing. We then took soil samples, and soil fertility is going up on every single one of those fields.”
— Jeff Gaska, Director at Dodge County Farmers for Healthy Soil & Healthy Water, Beaver Dam, Wis. no-tiller
In this episode of the Cover Crop Strategies podcast, brought to you by Montag Mfg., assistant editor Mackane Vogel sits down with Jeff Gaska, who farms outside of Beaver Dam, Wis. Gaska uses almost every soil health practice in the book to build healthy soil and farm profitability. He focuses on grazing and frost seeding, but he also does fall cover cropping, no-till and interseeding. Listen to this episode to find out why Jeff thinks it’s important to incorporate not just one, but all components of the soil health holy grail.
Plus, stay tuned at the end of the podcast for a preview of one of the sessions from the upcoming 2023 National Cover Crop Summit, Finding the Right Mix: How to Get Started with Cover Crops & Cocktail Mixes with TJ Kartes.
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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.
Welcome to the Cover Crop Strategies podcast, brought to you by Montag Manufacturing. I'm Mackane Vogel, assistant editor at Cover Crop Strategies. In this episode, listen to a conversation between myself and Jeff Gaska, a farmer from Beaver Dam, Wisconsin who uses almost every soil health practice in the book to promote soil health and farm profitability. Plus, stay tuned at the end of the podcast for another preview of one of the sessions from the upcoming 2023 National Cover Crop Summit, Finding the Right Mix: How to Get Started with Cover Crops and Cocktail Mixes with TJ Kartes.Jeff Gaska:
So I grew up on a farm in southwest Dodge County, Wisconsin. Basically we started from nothing. The farm was purchased by my parents after we moved up from Chicago, and my two older brothers kind of convinced my dad to get trying some farming, and so they started when I was pretty young. But I remember sitting in the tractor as we were moldboard plowing all of our fields and planting corn on corn back in the mid-70s, that would've been, early '80s, and then slowly making that transition from moldboard plowing to chisel plowing, and then adding soybeans into the rotation, and then adding winter wheat, some winter wheat into the rotation, and then going from conventional tillage to more conservation tillage with the chisel plow, and then to really starting to look at no-till as an option probably in the early '90s, I would say, is when we started to look at that.
And then through the '90s we kind of practiced with some different options. We had a Rawson unit on the front of our corn planter that basically was strip-tilling and planting at the same time. That was the early adoption of strip-till, I think, three coulters on a toolbar, like I said, right in front of our corn planter, and kind of learned from that that we could do something along those lines, that tillage wasn't that necessary. That was for corn. We switched to a no-till drill then for our soybeans and our winter wheat, and as we played around with the Rawson unit found some issues with it where it was doing a great job working up that soil in front of the corn planter, but it was wet soil because when you went from a field that had nothing done to it to tilling about four or five inches deep in an eight-inch strip. But it was bringing up a lot of moisture, and so that was kind of causing some issues with the corn planter following right behind. So we decided to take off the Rawson unit and try to go straight no-till, and that worked quite well.
Then we started to go back and look at strip-tilling as an option. Just knowing what that Rawson unit did for our corn planter and how it worked, it was a great idea; just you needed some time for that soil to dry out in between the planting. So my brother and I built our own strip-till machine from a cultivator toolbar, kind of looking at all the designs that were out there, and none of them did everything we wanted. Each one had its good points and points that we weren't really happy with, and so we kind of decided just to look at all those and build our own unit. We built a 12-row strip-till unit and started playing around with that a little bit and found that it worked, but we were a little short on horsepower with our tractor. So then we started weighing the option, do you buy another tractor to make that work? We went back then to just straight no-tilling and giving that a try.
And we're still not sure what is the best option. We might try and rebuild the strip-till unit. I think we want to get away from the shank that we have on there to going back to something like what the Rawson unit was, with just coulters and working up three or four inches of soil deep instead of a six or seven-inch deep, because then you're kind of going back to tillage. Even though you're not doing it field-wide, you're still doing some tillage. So we're playing around with that yet, but we've had good luck with just going on the straight no-till with the corn planter, still doing beans and wheat with a no-till drill and having good success with that.
Through that conversion and the changes in the farm, we've added beef cattle to our operation, so we've got a herd of about 35 beef cow calf pairs. We raise Simmental cattle and do some cross-breeding with Red Angus on them and really trying to integrate the cattle into the whole farming operation. One of the ideas I have and I'm trying to work with and get the cattle out on that ground... Everyone's always raising grain to feed the cattle to make the cattle operation work. I kind of want to switch that around and raise cattle so that we can feed the grain as well and kind of get that holy grail of soil health where we can get the livestock in on the farm and make that work. We're making progress with that. The big issue, of course, fencing and water and things like that for the cattle if they're out on the crop fields, and trying to get all that figured out, but really want to try and integrate the cattle in.
So one of the first steps to doing that was to go to a corn/beans/winter wheat rotation on all of our acres. We run about 450 acres total. Little more than half of that is owned, and then some is rented. And basically we've gone to a third, a third, a third with our crop rotation, and that's setting us up to be able to utilize that land better for the cattle. We can get cattle out there two out of three years then. So after we take off the winter wheat, we plant cover crops, we can graze cattle. Then once the cattle are pulled off of that, that field will go into corn. When we harvest the corn, we've got corn stubble for the cattle, or the fodder for the cattle to graze on in the fall. And then the only year we can't put cattle on is when we go from soybeans to winter wheat. But again, trying to get the cattle out there out of three years, utilizing that.
We've also gone to some rotational grazing for our cattle. During the summer months we used to just have a couple of real small pastures and we would graze it... It looked like a golf course, constant grazing out there, just a bluegrass pasture... and realized that that wasn't sustainable and it wasn't real beneficial to the pasture and to the cattle. So we've taken some crop land out of production, fields that would go from steep, rocky knolls down to wetlands and water and really inconsistent yielding for our crop production, and we've put those into a permanent pasture now. We're putting up fencing for that and doing rotational grazing and a daily move with the livestock and hoping that that can get us... The cattle can be out on that from the middle of May till September or the 1st of October. And then from there we can put them out on the winter wheat stubble, which would be planted to cover crops and then onto the corn stubble and trying to extend that grazing period from what would've been May to September or early October to hopefully May through the end of the year and get to January. Then we only have to feed our cattle January through May. And the goal ultimately would be to really cut that even shorter and really try and get the cattle to utilize the crop ground and our rotational grazing areas through maybe stockpiling or something like that.
So that's kind of the story, I guess, where we came from and where we're trying to head it to and really be able to utilize all of our acres all of the time and try and improve our soil health and save money by not tilling and get a better crop of grain off of it, as well as a better crop of cattle.Mackane Vogel:
So I want to kind of back up in your timeline just a little bit. You guys sort of made a conscious decision then to add livestock to the production to complement the no-till farming you were doing. Is that right?Jeff Gaska:
Yes. So we had raised cattle for quite a few years before we integrated them into the cropping part. Like I said, we had a few pastures that we couldn't... They were too steep to farm, too wet to farm, and they made great permanent pasture, but it was only maybe 15 acres and it wasn't enough to sustain the cattle. Like I said, it was mostly bluegrass pasture and it just wasn't working for the cattle operation. So we took a look at that. It was either get rid of the cattle and just forget about it, or make some changes with the farm to include the cattle more. So, yeah, it was a conscious decision to try and integrate them more into the farming operation. And what we noticed as we started to do that, we were getting better yields on our corn, on our soybeans, especially the soybeans, noticing after we grazed cattle on corn stalks in the fall, those fields that we planted the soybeans always were our best yielding soybeans. So it made you start to think a little bit that maybe there was some benefit to that, and from there it just made sense to really try and get them out on as many acres as we could.Mackane Vogel:
Yeah, that's really interesting. I know I recently read an article that was discussing four or five main things that really increase soil health and, like you were saying, that holy grail. It was sort of arguing the point that a lot of farmers will come around a no-till, they'll come around to the cover crops, but it's oftentimes the livestock or the grazing that is either just harder to implement if you're not already doing it or just something that a lot of farmers aren't necessarily sold on is going to help. But it's interesting to hear your opinion on that and that you do think it's been making a big difference on the yield and on the soil health.Jeff Gaska:
Yep. Yeah, and we've had three crop fields that have easy access to our pasture, so we've been able to get the cattle out there probably for the last probably 15 or 20 years has had some grazing on it. Usually it was after corn stalks, but after we had done that for 20 years and we're kind of looking at those fields, I said, "Well, let's look at the soil sampling on those fields." We went back and looked at fertility levels, and every one of those fields, the soil fertility is going up, the P, the K. We're adding less as far as pH. It seems to be pretty nicely balanced. And it was interesting to actually see that happening. Where all my other fields were stable, we weren't mining the fields or the soil, but those fields in particular kept going up for us. You don't put two and two together right away until you really start looking at that, and seeing that made me really realize that, again, not only seeing the yield in the soybeans going up, but also seeing the fertility levels of those fields going up with putting on... We were doing the same fertilization with P and K on those fields as we were all our other fields, and most of our other ones were just maintaining, whereas these were going up. And really the only difference was the cattle on them.Mackane Vogel:
So, what, a couple weeks ago now I think was when I met you at the Dodge County Soil Health event, and we'll talk a little bit more about that in a couple minutes. But I want to go back to some of the things that you discussed there. I know you mentioned, I believe there was the 60-inch row corn that you guys were starting with. Is there an update on that at all or how that worked out for you guys? I was just curious.Jeff Gaska:
Yep. So one of the things that we were really looking at, again, being able to get the cattle out on the crop ground and get more benefit for the cattle, one of our ideas was to try the 60-inch row corn and then interceding that with cover crops so that we could have more biomass for the cattle once we harvested the corn and give them more opportunity to graze and increase our grazing period in the fall. Instead of just going out there and having them forage through the corn fodder, we're hoping to get some good cover crops with some better nutrient value and biomass out there.
It's been a two-step process so far. We're going into the third step of that this coming year, but I started by just doing a test plot with 60-inch row corn. We'd always done 30-inch rows. We shut off every other row on the corn planter, and I did some replicated trials with that. And we found... This would've been in 2021... We found that the yield difference between the 60-inch row corn and the 30-inch row corn was negligible, two to three bushels I think we came out with. I think, if I remember right, the 30-inch row corn did about 220 bushels, 222 bushels per acre, and the 60-inch row corn was about 219 bushels, so three bushel difference. That was without any cover crops, so it was just testing that.
And what we did with the 60-inch row corn is we basically doubled the population in the row. We were still planting on a per acre basis 35,000 seeds per acre like we did in the 30-inch rows, but because you're skipping every other row, we had to put those seeds in the rows that we were planting. So we were at about 70,000 seeds in the 60-inch row corn. In 2022 then we tried replicating that, but then we put in cover crops, interceding cover crops in between. What we noticed is we did take a bigger hit on the yield on the corn in the 60-inch row corn. We did two things not necessarily by mistake, but as we were doing the 60-inch row corn, as we were at 70,000, I was talking to some people; they thought to really get a better yield out of that 60-inch row corn, we had to push the population higher. So I went up to 80,000 seeds in row, and we put cover crops in. So as far as a real tried-and-true study, we changed two things. Not the best idea, but we figured we were going to just try this. This isn't meant to be in some publication or anything. It's just what we wanted to see. So we did lose some yield on the corn in 2022.
I really feel a lot of it was because of the population increase. When we started looking at that corn as it was coming up and as it was maturing, it was a solid stand of corn. It was inches between each plant. And what we had noticed is that there were corn plants in the row that were not producing a cob. So we really feel that we probably stressed that corn too much. The population was too high. We ended up interfering with the corn plant growing, and so all those corn plants that didn't produce the cob were basically weeds in the row and took away from our yield. The interceding, we did a mix of... It was about a 16 or 17 species mix with brassicas and some grasses, oats and rye, barley, and I think a little bit of clover in there too, a couple species of clover.
What we noticed is that the grasses and the clover did very little as far as growth, and we ended up with a stand that was almost all brassica in the end. And the brassicas, they're great for grazing, there's a lot of biomass, but they also take up a lot of nitrogen as they're growing. Any of the radishes or the kales or things like that probably took up some of the nitrogen from the corn, and so I have a feeling that's what kind of dinged our yield a little bit as well. So in 2022, the difference between the two yields was we were at about 209 bushels per acre in the 30-inch row, and we were down to about 178 bushels in the 60-inch row with covers. So we had, I would say, a significant decrease in yield by going to the 60-inch row with that planning population and with the covers in between. And so, again, learning as we go, trying to figure out what's working and what's not working.
What we did is we looked with the UW extension person, Will Fulwider, from Dodge County, we looked at the economics of doing that and trying to see... We knew we took a yield hit, but could that yield hit in corn be made up with additional grazing in the cattle and maybe weight gain in the cattle? And when we pencil out all the numbers looking at the biomass and the loss and yield, we came up with, it did not. The loss and yield was greater than what we could make up by having the cattle out there for... We figured we could probably get another 15 to 20 days of grazing out there by putting the cover crops in, and it didn't work out that well. So it told us a couple of things. One, we need to work on that 60-inch row corn and trying to get that yield back up so that the yield hit isn't as great, because if we can get that close to what I would be getting if I planted 30-inch row corn, then the opportunity to gain from grazing those cattle increases significantly. We have the potential, I think, to not only keep the cattle off of hay for a longer period of time in the winter, but also maybe gain weight on those cattle and put them into winter in a better condition.
So what we're doing now in 2023 is we're going to do two different trials. One is going to look specifically at planting population of corn in 60-inch rows, and we're go up 10,000 seeds per acre from about... I think we're going to start at about 50,000, do a 50, 60, and 70,000 seeds per acre and replicated trial with that, and then on a separate field we're going to do three different mixes in our cover crop mix. One is going to be more of a grass mix, grass with clover mix, one is going to be a mix of grasses and brassica, and one is going to be almost a straight brassica mix. And then in the end what we're going to look at, one, does it affect the yield of the corn, does one of those affect the yield of the corn more or less, and two, what do we get for biomass? Because that's ultimately what we want is biomass for the cattle to be feeding in those corn stalks after we harvest. So we're going to do some replicated trials on that this year and see if we can't learn a little bit more about how to tweak the system and get a better gain from the cattle and a better yield from the corn on those. So we're looking forward to that and pretty excited about kind of trying again to figure out, what are we missing there?Mackane Vogel:
Yeah. That's really interesting. I think, as you said, as long as you're continuing to learn things, it's okay to obviously make some mistakes as long as you're taking that info and learning, and especially also sharing it with others so they can kind of learn from it too.
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Going along those lines, it should be a nice transition for us to talk a little bit about the Dodge County group that you're involved with. Do you want to talk a little bit about that and what the goal there is and the mission?Jeff Gaska:
Sure. Yep. So about six years ago or so in our county, there was a resolution brought forward to the county board to horse land farmers to put a buffer strip around all the ditches, all the waterways. And I wasn't involved at that initial beginning, but a group of farmers kind of got together and said, "There might be a better way to do this. Instead of making rules, making laws to force farmers to do something, why don't we look at some other options and seeing if we can't get farmers to work together and increase cover crops, do soil health things to try and improve that and try and keep our rivers and lakes clean, versus, again, mandatory legislation or enforcement of rules."
So that group started and got together, tried to figure out a way to work together with the lakes people also... And I think that's the key to our group. Our group is Dodge County Farmers for Healthy Soil-Healthy Water. There's a, I would call them maybe a co-group... We call it the Alliance now, the Dodge County Healthy Soil-Healthy Water Alliance... which brings together the farmers and the lake associations, the lake districts, and anyone interested in clean water, healthy soil, together as an organization as well. They're two separate organizations, but we work together quite a bit and we are in communication all the time.
I'm a board member for the Dodge County Farmers Group, and I'm also the co-chair of the Dodge County Alliance, so we have a lot of crossover. We have representatives from the lake districts, and we're trying to work together in solving this problem. Instead of pointing fingers at each other and blaming each other for what we're seeing out there, we're trying to be friends, we're trying to work together, we're sitting down at the same table and discussing ways to improve the education of people, the needs for clean water, the needs for clean soil, and how can we do that, as well as putting together programs to get farmers started with cost sharing on cover crops and doing pay-for-performance-type programs where we encourage landowners to use what they want to do to try and reduce phosphorous runoff and erosion on their farms and then pay them according to what they're doing and making it a feasible option for them to look at some better conservation efforts.
And so our group, again, we're about six years old. In February, we had our annual meeting, our soil health expo and had Dave Brandt come up and talk from Ohio, did a great job explaining what they've been doing down there and some of the benefits that they're seeing, and so hopefully getting more farmers interested in it, to start looking at cover crops, looking at buffers, anything that we can do, no-till to help them improve their soil and reduce their inputs and try and get some better rivers, cleaner lakes, things like that in our county.Mackane Vogel:
That's awesome. Yeah, as I mentioned, I attended the most recent one with Dave Brandt. I thought it was a really good event, great presentations, a lot of good conversations with people, so really cool to see that kind of stuff. Seems like we're seeing more and more of that in lots of different counties across the state of Wisconsin, which is definitely really encouraging to see. And while we're on the topic, I remember you sort of talking about during the panel that you're a part of at that event a interesting strip-till story that you had involving some deer that you had problems with. I thought it was a really interesting story if you wouldn't mind telling our audience about it.Jeff Gaska:
Yep. So one of the first things I tried on my farm, the land that I owned... I had been reading about the, not strip-tilling, but strip-farming, so basically planting our crops in narrow strips, especially for the corn, to get as much sunlight. The outside edges of the corn have more sunlight so we can improve yield. What we did is we did 30-foot-wide strips on our farm. We planted 12 rows of corn, 12 rows of soybeans, and then 30 feet of winter wheat. So we did a corn/beans/wheat rotation, each of them in 30-foot-wide strips, the length of the field. And then every year we would just move over one and do your crop rotation, but in those strips. Again, the idea was that corn, you'd have the sunlight hitting the two outside rows the most; we can increase the yield of the corn because we have the effect of the sunlight on the narrow strips of corn in there.
And the first couple years it worked out really great. The farm average of corn was... This was probably six or seven years ago when we started it. We were in the 190s or somewhere around there with corn yield. And the first year we did it, I think we hit 230 on the corn in those 12-row strips. The second year we were at about almost 275 in those rows, and comparing it to our regular corn, which was right around that 200 bushel mark. I really had a goal of 300 bushels per acre on those strips of corn. It seemed like we were heading in the right direction, we were making things work, and then basically what happened is the deer found the farm.
What we realized is deer are a species that love edge. They like a lot of edge. That's where they find their protection, they can find food. So all my fields were edges to them, and so the whole farm turned into a buffet basically. So we had winter wheat out there, and the deer would come... As soon as winter was over, the deer would come and start eating the winter wheat, which was greening up right away. And then as that got taller, we would get out and plant our soybeans and our corn, and the deer would switch to eating that. And as the corn was growing, he had those outside edges, and the deer would just walk right down the edge of the soybeans or the winter wheat and start eating the corn. Basically we lost production in those two outside rows, which was where we were supposed to get our big yield influx from, and basically ended up having to stop that practice. Like I said, I had really high hopes for it, but it was just too good of a deal for the deer, and we were really losing production.
Basically really ended up being two effects. One, they would eat the corn, so we weren't getting cobs on there, and they would hamper the growth of that corn on the outside edge so much that we were ending up getting a lot of weed pressure. So much sunlight was coming in that the weeds, even though we did a herbicide program, the weeds would just start growing in those outside rows. So not only were we battling weeds on the outside edges, but the deer eating the corn on that. So unfortunately we had to pull the plug on that. Couldn't really find a way to control the deer well enough economically to make that work, so we went away from that. But those fields are still... We're still doing a corn/bean/winter wheat rotation on them and trying to get cattle out on those fields as well. But yeah, it's one of those things you wouldn't have expected. We thought we were heading in the right direction, everything seemed to be working good, and then out of the blue we end up with this issue with deer damage and causing us enough to cause us to stop the practice.Mackane Vogel:
Yeah. It's, like you said, unexpected, but really interesting story there, for sure. Couple more questions for you. I'm curious, with all your experience, is there any, it doesn't have to be one necessarily, but one or two or three cover crops that have been really reliable for you? I know obviously it's different for everybody, but something that has worked really well for you specifically.Jeff Gaska:
Yep. So my first real foray into cover crops was frost-seeding clover into winter wheats. I've done that for probably almost 20 years now. What really got me going on it, one, was looking at the nitrogen credit that I could get from the clover, but also it was kind of start into grazing cattle on cover crops. So we would harvest the winter wheat, and then we had a cover growing there already. We had the clover in the field already established, and we could get the cattle out on that field sooner than if we went in and planted that after winter wheat harvest. So it worked out well for us.
We even did some studies on it. We did some trials to see, one, there was concern that was the clover impacting the winter wheat yield, and we did two years of replicated studies on that and found no impact whatsoever on the wheat yield from the clover. I will say, though, that the clover can impact your straw, so depending on what you need as far as straw, because that clover at times can get growing pretty good in the winter wheat, we were having to harvest that straw, the wheat at a higher height which, again, for cover crop purposes was great as far as cover on the soil was great, and we were still able to get a pretty good yield of straw. It had clover leaves in it, but they always managed to dry down pretty good, and we were able to harvest that straw.
We don't use much straw ourselves, a little for bedding, but I was selling most of it to local dairy farmers to mix in with their feed rations and that. And they weren't having any issues with it. It was working great for them. So we were able to get probably about three to four big square bales per acre of straw, which translates to about a ton-and-a-half to maybe two tons of straw per acre, leaving probably about six to eight inches of stubble. So we certainly could have gotten more straw yield out of there, but I felt getting a couple bales per acre was good enough. It added to the income from the winter wheat. It left us a lot of stubble out there and a lot of material out there, and it allowed that clover to really take off and get going. So we were able to utilize that clover for grazing our cattle. And then I would also count between 40 and 80 pounds of nitrogen credit the following year on corn. So that worked out really well for us. I still do some of that.
We're playing around with tweaking that program a little bit because knowing that we're going to go into doing covers and grazing cattle, if I plant everything to clover, my cattle can't get at all of it at the right time. So we're going to run into issues if it's all clover. Some of it's going to be over-mature when we want to put the cattle out there. So we're looking at utilizing that clover on the winter wheat that we want to graze the cattle on right away in early to mid-August. And then the other fields that are winter wheat, we want to plant a cover in there so that we can have some grazing in September, and then we're looking at planting some species that we're going to be grazing after frost and into winter. It gives us an opportunity to try some different species after winter wheat, but give us that opportunity to get some clover going right away so we can graze right away.
Red clover was my first, like I said, my first foray into cover crops, and it seemed to work out really well for us. We've played around with cereal rye and run into some issues with that if we're going to go after soybeans and before corn. This was before I was at a third, a third, a third in my rotation, so there were points in the last five to 10 years where we had soybeans that were going to be going into corn and not into winter wheat. We were able to plant rye on those fields after we harvested the soybeans. The issue we ran into is terminating that rye with the corn growing in it. That rye in the spring just takes off. It's a fast grower, which is why we like it. It's got a lot of roots, it's got a lot of biomass, but if you run into a delay in spraying or getting behind or you have weather conditions that rye can have a pretty good impact on the corn, a negative impact on the corn, and take away a lot of nitrogen and cause that corn to really get narrow and kind of floppy because it's got a lot of competition when it starts to grow. It's not a bad thing, but you have to be prepared with the management of that to get it taken care of.
It does do a great job of suppressing the weeds. Not saying that we're at the point yet where we can take out a spraying, but what we've noticed is we can delay some sprayings. Maybe instead of having to go with a two-pass in corn, we can go with a single-pass in corn because that rye is in there helping us. But again, I want to really stress that you have to be ready to manage that rye in the spring. Where it's not as big of an issue is if you go from corn to soybeans, and if we can drill some rye into our corn after we harvest it, the soybeans seem to be able to handle that rye a lot better and you'd have more time to terminate it in the spring without it hurting your soybean yields.
So I like rye yet. I want to use it where I can when we're going into a field going into soybeans. For us, the issue is we're not harvesting our corn until October and sometimes well into November, so getting that rye planted in a timely fashion is not always easy. The good thing about rye is that it can make it through just about anything. We've been in situations here where we've planted rye in early December and had it come up the following spring with no issues. So we do have that opportunity. It doesn't come up as much as we had hoped. What I've also been able to do is harvest the corn, plant the rye, and then graze cattle on that stubble as well. There's no rye coming up yet. It's all been drilled in with a no-till drill, but we still can utilize that cornstalks for cattle fodder for feed during the fall and winter. And then when they graze that and we pull them off in the winter, and in the spring it comes up with rye, and we can go into that with our soybeans and plant that. So I do think cereal rye has a good place yet on the farm, but again, just really being cautious of the management.
The other thing we're looking at next is more of a cocktail mix after our winter wheat. Again, kind of looking at two different scenarios there, one that will probably be more of an oat/pea/barley, maybe like a vetch and a clover mix that we can plant immediately after we harvest that winter wheat and give us green forage in September and October for the cattle. And then another mix would be more of the sorghums probably, or pearl millet, some brassicas in there probably, and again, some legumes, clover or hairy vetch, things like that that we can plant that, leave it go all fall, and then put the cattle out on there after we have frost, after they're off the corn stubble and more of the green forage in the winter wheat. So looking at those species and putting those in some anywhere from five to 10 species mix, trying to get some... Since all of our winter wheat is going to be going to corn, we want to get some legumes in there to get some nitrogen credit, but also a lot of biomass for the cattle to graze on. I would say those would be the species that we're really working with and trying to tweak, again, seeding mixes and stuff like that to really get it to meet the forage demands I guess is probably the biggest thing.Mackane Vogel:
Sure. All right, so just want to close out with sort of a two-part question for you, a little more general. First part would be, what's the biggest surprise that you've learned from either no-till or cover crops with all your experience in both? And the second part would be, what do you think is going to be the greatest challenge for you during your 2023 growing season?Jeff Gaska:
So the biggest surprise... I guess the fact that cover crops work and don't necessarily have to impact yield and impact negatively farm income and that. I guess it was always the hope that that would be the case. You're always thinking, boy, if you can do something different to save money or whatever, that it's not going to cost you money, that it's going to be able to at least keep things at the same level, if not improve them, and knowing that when managed properly and you manage it like you would the rest of your crops, it can make a very positive impact on the farm. I think both economically and just as important I think is the soil health part of it and the health of the environment and everything that we're putting into the soil and taking out from it, really being able to see that this can work. We can replicate it and we can talk to other people about it and show them that it works, and it's not that pie-in-the-sky, latest fad type thing. This is something that I think is going to stick around and really last. I think people can find, like I did with our operation, ways to make it work in different ways than maybe we originally thought it might, by being able to increase our cattle herd or increase our income from our cattle and trying to make that all work.
That's not for everyone. Every farm is different. We have the opportunity to utilize the cattle, so we can, but if it does anything, maybe it's helping other people think about that and say, "Well, boy, maybe I could add cattle," or "The neighbor has cattle; maybe I can get him to use them on my farm and benefit my soil and benefit him." I've actually been able to do that with a neighbor of mine that they don't have cattle, but they're for cattle, pro-cattle, I would call them. One of the pieces of land that they rent is adjacent to ours, and we were able to get the landowner and them to agree to let me graze that field, so we grazed it after winter wheat and we grazed it after corn. So here's an opportunity for me to add acres to the farm without having to buy them, basically renting them and giving them the benefit of having cattle on their land and me the benefit to my cattle. So being able to think about things like that and how we can make that work. That's been, I think, a great benefit of what we've been able to do and see. Hopefully that will continue and people will continue to see that this is something that can make sense. And again, each farm is individual, but hopefully they can find something in it that they can use on their farm.
Biggest challenge upcoming, for me it's going to be... I think what I really want to focus on is trying to cut inputs. How can we do that? Looking at the numbers that Dave Brandt was presenting, where he's going on fields where he's adding no additional fertilizer or maybe just nitrogen, can I go to that level? I think we're going to try that on maybe one field. We've got great history of soil samples on all of our fields; can we show some benefit to that? So the challenge is trying to make that work and see if it does work. How can we fit that in? Can it be done economically? Can we still get a good yield? How long does it take to see the benefits of that? So trying to work around that.
And then I think also the other challenge is our weather patterns are changing, and we have to be ready for that. How can we do that? I do think cover crops are the answer to that, and how can we implement that to help us not necessarily solve, but live with those changes and deal with three-inch rains or four-inch rains or Februaries that are warm and you got to deal with the freezing and thawing and stuff like that, or dry weather during the summer; can cover crops come in and play a role in helping us mitigate a lot of that? So it's a challenge to me, I think, to see if we can, like I said, solve or live with those issues and make cover crops part of that to work. I'm challenging myself to try and reduce inputs and make the farm more viable, not looking at the soil as just a median to grow something in, but as a integral part of the operation and something that needs to be taken care of, just like the cattle need to be taken care of or something like that.Mackane Vogel:
Awesome. Well, some really good insights. Just want to thank you again for joining us and having these discussions with us, so thanks a lot for your time. We really appreciate it.Jeff Gaska:
Yep, you're welcome. I was glad to be able to help you out and give you some insight in what we're looking at here.Mackane Vogel:
Thanks to Jeff Gaska for that great discussion. And now, check out this preview of a session for the upcoming National Cover Crop Summit with TJ Kartes. TJ's presentation is called Finding the Right Mix: How to Get Started with Cover Crops and Cocktail Mixes.TJ Kartes:
So TJ Kartes, I live in Blooming Prairie, Minnesota, which is in southern Minnesota. I have been selling cover crops for Saddle Butte Ag now since 2014, '15, somewhere in there. What we do in this area is we actually promote the use of covers and try to really help guys transition from full-tillage to strip-till to using cover crops to regenerative ag type situation on a profitable level. So a few take-home messages, what we're going to try to get across today is the different species of cover crops that are out there, the location we're in, how you make this work on your operation. The different species, I think that is really critical is what each one of them does or tries to do for you, and then at the same time, how many do you need? Do we need these massive cocktail mixes day one? I think that gets to be an area that gets to be a little confusing or overwhelming for producers. I like them to start lower and work up the ladder. So that's what we'll kind of cover today in today's presentation.Mackane Vogel:
In terms of experience level, what do you think somebody from more of a introductory standpoint, somebody who's maybe just looking to get into cover crops versus somebody who maybe is a little more experienced, what's something that each of those different types of farmers could possibly take away from your presentation?TJ Kartes:
So we'll try to hit on some of the basics. Starting out, I always tell guys corn and beans is really an easy entry point. Beans respond well to cereal rye; it's easy to plant into it; it's easy to terminate it out; it gives you that idea of the overwintering. For the guys that are farther up the ladder, what I tell them is now he's start looking at the multi-species, maybe you're adding the third crop, maybe you're doing more in front of corn. And that's always been a big area, especially the farther north is that in-front-of-the-corn crop is we don't want to ding the corn crop. So how do you get more things established in front of that corn crop versus soybean's a fairly easy entry point. The corn is more of an advanced point. And then there's always the interceding, and we'll touch on that a little bit, where you go into V2/V3 corn. I tell everybody that's a very 202/303 type level presentation or steps to go forwards with.Mackane Vogel:
And lastly, you obviously work with a lot of different farmers. Why do you think it's so important to foster this level of educating each other and kind of bouncing ideas off each other in terms of cover crop strategies?TJ Kartes:
Well, everybody's had different levels and good experiences and bad experiences. And if you had a bad experience, I tell everybody, talk about it. Let's talk it over and figure out why it happened, but at the same time so the next guy doesn't have to do it. We've had enough bad experiences, I tell everybody, you don't have to reinvent the wheel. We've had some train wrecks. We'll tell you what they are, why we think they happened, how to stay away from them. So that networking, a farmer to farmer is huge. I tell everybody, when I get down to the presentation, the part I love is when I look around the room and I have some of my advanced producers there, some of my medium, and then the early guys, and they're networking around with each other. I always figured my job is done at that point because they're starting to teach each other. Our goal is to teach them; their goal is to teach each other. So it's that whole networking, where at the no-till conference, strip-till conference, this kind of stuff, it's that whole networking that lets their media brings together for us to really tie it into that whole program of everybody can work together. There should be no trade secrets out here. We should share everything very openly with each company that's producing.Mackane Vogel:
Thanks again to Jeff Gaska for today's discussion. The full transcript will be available at covercropstrategies.com/podcasts. And thanks again to TJ Kartes as well for that preview of his upcoming presentation at the National Cover Crop Summit. Don't forget to register for the free event at covercropsummit.com. Many thanks to Montag Manufacturing for helping to make this Cover Crop podcast series possible. From all of us here at Cover Crop Strategies, I'm Mackane Vogel, thanks for listening.
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