“Is it what the crop looks like in the field or what your bank account looks like at the end of the year? It's not a beauty contest.”
— Jim Stute, Grower & Independent Research Agronomist, East Troy, Wis.
In this episode of the Cover Crop Strategies podcast, brought to you by Go Seed, a panel of 3 farmers discuss how they use cover crops with their varying tillage practices. Jim Stute of East Troy, Wis.; Tim Recker of Arlington, Iowa; and Jacob Bolson of Hubbard, Iowa, talk about their own trial and error periods of adopting cover crops and what they’ve learned through the process.
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Full TranscriptMackane Vogel:
Welcome to the Cover Crop Strategies Podcast, brought to you by Go Seed. I'm Mackane Vogel, Assistant Editor at Cover Crop Strategies. In this episode, listen to a presentation from the 2023 National Cover Crop Summit featuring a panel of three farmers discussing how they use cover crops with their varying tillage practices. First you'll hear from Jim Stute of East Troy, Wisconsin, followed by Tim Recker of Arlington, Iowa, and Jacob Bolson of Hubbard, Iowa.Jim Stute:
Hey, I'm Jim Stute, farmer and also an independent research agronomist here in Southeast Wisconsin. So I've been farming with cover crops since the get-go since 1994. My farm is in southeast Wisconsin, my home farm is a former dairy farm, it was made for a production, but with the combination of cover crops and no-till, I protect my soil really well and my ground was made for both no-till and cover crops. My soil type, pretty typical in the neighborhood, it's a Fox silt loam, it's a lighter, low organic matter soil. Really prone to erosion, so conservation is top of mind for me, and the thing to keep in mind is I've got about two feet of topsoil and I am perched over gravel, so soil moisture is definitely something that's on my mind and impacts my management.
So I've been in continuous no-till since 2003. I did phase in no-till, so no-till soybeans from the get-go, but everything since 2003, and I do rent additional land, and that's all treated as my own land, and that's just because the system works here. So to me, soil health and conservation are a given. When I think about cover crops, it's purpose driven, and from the beginning I wanted to get some kind of agronomic benefit. So I'm going to talk about two systems here today. The first one, interceding red clover. That decision was driven solely by the desire to get additional nitrogen to cut the fertilizer bill. I quit growing wheat 10 years ago, so then I switched to cereal rye after corn, and the idea there was to capture or scavenge residual nitrogen.
And then a couple of things happened to me weather wise and starting last year, everything is in rye, and that's specifically to manage soil weather. I'm 40 miles from Lake Michigan, we have a pronounced lake effect, it's more prominent in the spring so it kind of slows things down. As far as getting going in the spring, we tend to stay cooler than the rest of Southern Wisconsin. In southeast Wisconsin, precipitation we get 39 inches annually and then 23 inches on average during that growing season. Our growing degree day accumulation is about 2,600 growing degree days. For corn, that translates into relative maturities of 102 to 105, and then for soybeans it's group two and on the lower end so I would say typically my neighbors and I were around two, three. And our optimum planting date for both corn and soybeans is May 1st.
And we typically see a frost in the first couple of weeks in October so that kind of shows you our growing season. So I've been on the farm for 30 years and I've been keeping track of my precipitation, and looking at my rainfall over these 30 years, things are really changing. And what we're seeing is an increase in both total seasonal precipitation, variability between seasons, within-season variability, and an increase in intensity in single events, which really is driving my management, and I'm using the cover crop system to manage this precipitation. So if you look at the graph, I plotted it there using the 30-year average. If I were doing it representing the mean as a 10-year rolling mean, what you'd see is an increase, and over the 30 years we've seen an increase in about two inches per year.
The red line shows the seasonal accumulation for the growing season, and as you'd expect, it varies. And you can't see the whole thing because our pictures are kind of blocking it out, but what we're seeing is roughly three years of dry weather followed by three years of wet weather. What you can't see is the last five years that's blocked by the speaker screen, but what we've experienced is the two wettest growing seasons, the driest growing season, which had two inches less moisture than the drought year of 2012, and then a couple of years that came out, they shook out as being average, but really that rainfall came, it appeared in the growing season when it really didn't help yield, so our crops were impacted by dry weather.
So accompanying this is our within-season precipitation pattern. So that's at the bottom of the graph there, and what we're seeing is a huge increase in variation. 2007, it's like you flipped a switch, we're seeing a doubling in the amplitude of the monthly precipitation and we can go from having 10 inches in a month down to zero, and so I'm really thinking about moisture management as I talk about my cover crops. The pictures on the left hand are my CoCoRaHS rain gauge. The one on the left, that's the month of June. Look at the lawn there, it's dried up like we would typically see in midsummer, and that's in June. And that's a landmark photo for me, so I've been a reporter for CoCoRaHS for nearly a year before I got my first one-inch rainfall in my fancy gauge. The other one is from last year. That's a picture in mid-September, and what that shows is a five-inch rainfall that fell in a very short period of time. So thinking about precipitation and managing my soil moisture.
So the first system I'm going to talk about is frost seeding red clover into winter wheat. So we call it frost seeding, which is kind of a misnomer. What we're really looking at is cracked soil surface seeding. So that doesn't sound as sexy as frost seeding, but really that's what we're looking for to make the system work. We want the soil to crack, we broadcast seed, the seed falls in the crack, and you get beautiful stands almost like you put them in with a drill. So on my farm, the way I do it is with a UTB and a broadcast cedar. So the system that I used was 10 to 12 pounds of VNS seed per acre, and we use a non-improved variety, and the reason is the seed is cheaper but you also don't want an improved variety because improved varieties are bred for persistence. We want one year growth, we want to kill it, we don't want to struggle trying to kill it.
10 to 12 pounds per acre, my seeding is guided by a light bar, so I've got guidance, but that being said, I double spread at half rate. And the reason for doing that is number one, to make sure I've got complete coverage of seed because you can't take a nitrogen credit if you've got stand variability. So by going over it twice, I cover the ground and make up for any variation in the spread pattern. The other thing is it's really hard to calibrate this kind of equipment, so I go across the field once, calculate what my seeding rate was, and then make any adjustments necessary, and then come back to finish up.
So that's establishment. This is what it should look like when the wheat's starting to dry down. We've got the stand established but the plants are really small, they're just holding on. We don't want them to compete with the wheat but we want them in place, so once the stand starts to open up, they can start to grow and fix nitrogen. If they're any bigger than this, they're going to interfere with harvest and reduce yield. And I say, and I've often said this to people, that if there are any bigger than this, you're not doing a good job on wheat management, you got to focus on the wheat because you're not making money out of it. The picture next to that, the harvest time picture, that's what it should look like at harvest time and you shouldn't see much green above this stubble height. What you're seeing here, this is a headland shot, so it's showing rabbit runs in areas where the wheat maybe was dealing with compaction or something, so it grew up a little more. You should be able to look across that field and only see the golden of the wheat straw.
The two pictures on the bottom of the screen show an important management step, and I learned this over the course of managing this system, and so this is clipping, and this happens in our neighborhood in early September. And what happens is we get powdery mildew on the clover and some of the plants start to blossom. When that happens, vegetative growth slows down, so it reduces overall biomass production. If you clip it, clipping as high as you possibly can just enough to remove the diseased tissue on the blossoms, what it does is refreshes the stand and you get much higher yields compared to just letting it the way it is. The other thing this does is take care of the breakthrough weeds that we get. And what I've experienced is late in the season, we will get a few foxtails where the seed or where the stand is thin, but also common ragweed. So you can't see any in the clipping picture that's on the bottom right-hand corner but you can tell that we've been clipping the common rag because of the pollen.
It's right in pollination at this time, and my stock chopper, which I purchased just for this purpose, is a red machine, you can see it's yellow from all the pollen that's accumulated on there. So we've learned from hard experience you've got to terminate in the fall because it's much easier to terminate in fall versus spring, because in the fall of year, this is a perennial legume, it's taken everything down to its root system, so it helps the herbicide to translocate. If you try to terminate in the spring, everything's growing up and the herbicide has to fight that stream to get to the growing point so it just doesn't work.
But anyway, so this is what the the residue looks like in the spring of the year. Now this is the one potential pitfall with this system. If you produce a lot of residue and you're north like we are in Wisconsin, you get snow pack, it'll tend to pack it down and it'll prevent the ground from drying out in the spring of the year. So what I've learned over time is to cut the wheat as tall as possible and then that clipping operation, also do that as high as possible so you have stubble to hold that residue up to get airflow for the residue to dry out. All right, the other picture that's on the top of the screen on the right-hand side, that shows what the regrowth looks like in the spring of the year. So we're not going to get complete kill, and what I've learned with my pre-emergence herbicide, so what I used was generic Lumax, so it's got Atrazine and Mesotrione in it. If I heat that up with oil and a little bit of EMS, I will take care of whatever regrowth we got, so that's not something that we really have to worry about into the season competing with corn.
The last picture on this slide just shows you the root architecture, and the reason I really like red clover other than its productivity and fixing nitrogen is the root architecture. So you can get plants that have prominent tap root, you can get some that's got a prominent tap root but with a strong secondary, and then the one you can't see is one that's got a strong tap root but a very strong secondary root. And if you mix up these architectures, what you get is a lot of bio tillage and freeing of the soil aggregate. So soil structure and infiltration is just wonderful with the roots from the red clover.
So what this is going to show is in season it shows the mat, and the mat is persistent. It'll go if I manage it right with wheel traffic, that map will persist into corn harvest. And so in effect, what we're getting with the system is complete soil coverage with either living material or residue from the time that the wheat canopies in Wisconsin, that's typically in early May, on through harvest of corn the next year. The only exception to that is a couple of weeks following corn harvest where we've swept the residue aside with row cleaners on the canopies developing. Once that rural canopy develops, its complete canopy covered. So let's talk about nitrogen management. The picture you can't see really well is response trials that I've run on my farm to look at the actual nitrogen response. So I follow University of Wisconsin Extension crediting recommendation. Their credits say 40 to 80 pounds of nitrogen. I split the difference, I credited 60 pounds of nitrogen, so my net application rate applied to [inaudible 00:13:57] was in the neighborhood of 80 pounds of actual nitrogen applied mid-season.
And so I use the calibration, and the data I'm showing you there is a calibration graph that confirms that 80 is where I should be to optimize corn production. So that was the system. If I was growing wheat today, I would be using it but I'd also be using it in the next system that I'm going to talk about, which is cereal rye after corn and beans. So again, I started doing this once I quit growing wheat following corn, and I was solely interested in capturing any residual nitrogen. Right now, nitrogen's $1 a pound, so economically it makes a lot of sense to capture it, keep it on a farm, but also to keep it out of surface or groundwater.
Now given the way our growing seasons are shaken out, I need it after both crops to manage soil water. So on wet years, I want it to dry out the profile so it facilitates planting, which is exactly what happened last year, and I'll show you this pictures of that, and then in dry years terminated early but then use the residue mat to reduce evaporation until we get crop canopy. In addition, in corn, so planting into corn stalks going into beans, I want to conserve that additional residual nitrogen but also suppress weeds. And in particular on my farm, I've got glyphosate resistant giant ragweed that's been confirmed by University of Wisconsin Madison Weed science, and I'm not going to cover that a lot, but one of the presentations here at the Cover Crop Summit is my discussion of this problem and how we're managing it here in Southeast Wisconsin, and that's the presentation from the No-till Conference earlier this year.
Termination is huge to me. In corn, I terminate it right away after planting with the application of the pre-emergent service side in soybean, I practice adaptive management based on moisture, what's in the forecast and my gut feeling if it's turn and dry I terminate early. If not, I want to let it grow as long as I dare to. And the idea is to increase the biomass to suppress the glyphosate resistant weeds. But also I want that biomass on the surface to help armor the soil because we know that soybean residue is nowhere near as effective as corn residue for armoring the soil surface. So I drill everything right now in corn. That's fine. We do disturb the soil in soybean. I'm looking for another way. I don't like the disturbance and the potential to leave the soil open for erosion.
So this is going into corn stalks. The drill I use has an adjustable culture on the front. I raise the coulter as high as possible. This particular model, you can drop it way down and it acts like a vertical tillage machine and I don't like that. It's just too much soil disturbance. So I try to disturb the soil as little as possible. The bottom picture, the picture on the bottom left shows the soil this past fall. That's more soil disturbance than I'd like in cornstalks. I want a meter seed and I want to distribute it. That's about all the cornstalk. The cover is enough to get a good stand. What happened was we were late this year, the ground froze, and so I ended up shattering the soil and so that's how we have the degree of soil disturbance that we have. The picture on the right shows the planning of soybean from last year.
We had five inches of rain in well in April and then an inch or two in early May. So it delayed planting the ground was really wet. The rye, you can tell by the rye growth I was delayed in planting. So I ended up finishing planting on the 15th of May 15 days later than we would've liked in southeast Wisconsin. But what you can see is the ride did a really good job of using up the moisture. I was able to close the slots. I was really happy with it. This photo is a couple of days after planting, so you can see that the slots are closed that they have dried out, but this picture are taken early in the morning shows all the moisture that's in the profile wicking up to where the ground is dried out. Anyway, it worked really well for me and I'm really happy and I will continue with the system.
So this is the termination decision. So it was really wet and then it turned dry. I decided to terminate, and one thing that I've noticed with our growing conditions is that in addition to extremely variable precipitation, we're also having a lot more wind than we used to. And so keep this in mind when you're thinking about the termination. So the field that I had all my trials in, I went to terminate it when I got nervous and I started terminating in an evening thinking I could come back the next day. Wrong decision, I couldn't because I was locked out because of wind for eight days. My rye grew an additional foot, this is the amount of residue that I got. I got a great mat, but I consumed what I think was more moisture than I would've liked. My field average in this field, 58 bushels per acre, you can't see it in the data, but I also had a zero-funded trial looking at termination timing and the yield impact. And between a traditional burn down and really late termination, I gave up 12 bushels per acre. So I gave up about four bushels an acre because of the termination timing here. So that's something that we really need to think about in our management.
So that's it, my system. In a perfect world, I would be growing wheat and I would be growing with the red clover for the nitrogen credit, and then I would follow the corn residue with the rye for the agroecosystem benefits in the soybeans the next year, wheat suppression and sucking up residual nitrogen. And because I've taken way too long here, I'm going to turn it back and we'll answer questions later, thank you.Tim Recker:
Appreciate you inviting me and having me here today. I named this soil health on my farm, I could have just well named it two confessions from a tillage guy because I feel like that's who I am and that's who I represented in the last five to eight years I've had this epiphany. So part of how I started on my journey was through the Buffet Foundation High Yield Conservation. We talked about telling our story and what confused me is can we have high yield and conservation at the same time? I didn't think it was possible. In my mind, tillage in my area was king and it had success. You looked at the building lots and the guys that had lots of tillage and lots of machinery had some of the nicest places, and so it was ingrained in us from my grandfather, to my father, to myself that that's how we had to do it.
And with the help of the Buffet Foundation and several other people that helped me all along the way answer my questions, hold my hand, take those late night calls and say, "Is this how it's supposed to look? Is this real?" So seeing green fields in the fall instead of black was an epiphany to me. So my background a little bit, I'm a corn and soybean farmer, I also raise seed corn for Arlington. Past president of Iowa Corn Growers, past Chairman of Land Improvement Contractors. I started implementing cover crops in 2011, and basically I started with oats and radishes because I knew that the next year I could till those up if I had to, that's how strong of a tillage background I had. So I had a person come to me and say, "Well, you know about soil health, you're a farmer." And so I pulled up the soil health pie chart and I looked and I said, "I've spent all my life thinking about the physical and chemical parts." I knew everything about the soil. I knew everything I had to do to feed that crop, I had totally forgot about the biological part, and now that's the part that I'm concentrating on in my operation.
We know how to grow corn, everybody can tell you, from your seed dealer to your chemical supplier, everything you need, but the biologic part is something that you have to figure out. So raising seed corn in northeast Iowa, part of our problems, whether there was a 15 to 20 foot no-plant zone. So as soon as seed corn comes off in the beginning of September, mid-September, late September, the first thing we did is pull this big five shank ripper out. And you can see in the picture on the right, that's me looking at this compacted area that every school bus, every kid detasseling, every machine ran on and compacted, and it basically killed our soil. We didn't know it, but it was killing our soil. The picture on the left is me holding that big chunk up and I was thinking, "There's got to be a better way." I thought I had soil health, well, this isn't soil health. So what I did then is we use another tool to break the big chunks into smaller chunks and so on. That was our mainstream for over 30 years.
So then as I was working with the Buffet people, we went to the fence row. We always had a shovel in our hand, went to the fence row, took the shovel, put it in that fence row, and if you can see, you have just the most granular looking soil that just looks like cottage cheese, and just 10 foot away in the field that I have been farming my entire life I could not put that shovel in over a half an inch. And that's when I really knew something has to change, something's got to change in my operation because why is this soil so perfect and what I've been farming is so terrible? I put this up there just because it's one of those things you're not thinking about as you're doing major tillage, but there's more living organisms in a teaspoon of soil than on the earth, I just think that's amazing. I was in the livestock business for over 30 years, raised hogs. I no longer have hogs, right now my livestock is what's underneath my feet.
The chores are a little easier, but they're just as important to feed and take care of them. So I would come to meetings in my area and I was chastised as a tillage guy so I started putting together a list of things that I had on my farm, and I kept a sheet and I always kept in my billfold of what I do, conservation practices because I have a background in excavating business that we build a lot of structures. I also like to experiment with new technology. So I just started listing them and I thought it's important for me to always make sure that I know what's on my farm. So saturated buffers, grass, waterways, terraces I used to have two, I only have one now. I have a couple of wetlands but the first one I built was a CP2728, grass buffer strips, a lot of conservation tillage and cover crops, precision nutrient placement, I think that's really important, quail buffers on one farm and pollinator plantings in several locations, water control structures, and of course drainage tile. I think the success of any no-till cover crop situation is a bulletproof subsurface drainage system. It could be just the tiler in my blood that says you need to, but I do think good drainage, which means good air water, in your soil is probably a key.
So this is my latest project, it was in 2021. It was equipped or a WQ wetland, it's not a CREP but it's much like a CREP wetland. The interesting thing about this 20 acre wetland is it's a farm I bought, it was much what I call a farm that time forgot. Tile was a mess, there was trees growing up in the whole area. And when I cleaned it up, the problem I had is if you see in the lower right-hand corner, there's a road there, a culvert and a road. Once I cleaned it up, all that water came from that 750 acre watershed and would take the road out. So I knew I had disrupted something, I needed some way to hold water back and slowly control it, so the answer was this wetland. So just real quickly, I got the construction costs, and the acres, and the wetland size, the amount of water that I'm draining but what I think it's interesting is the total cost per acre, and it seems like a lot because they're very expensive projects, but when you take the hundred-year life, it's costing you somewhere around $4.80 an acre to protect that soil that's working every day.
It's a permanent conservation structure. I don't have to make decision if that thing's going to work today, it's working every day of my life and it's got a hundred-year life, so it's been a great addition to my farm and had much enjoyment, there's a lot of wildlife that brings just some added satisfaction. So I'll just talk a little bit about my rye planting. So I use a DB60 interplant, it's actually my neighbor's, I rent from him. We plant anywhere from September after seed corn, all the way till we get corn off, which can be as late as November 20th. I found out that as long as the ground isn't froze, I can plant rye, and I've gotten a real comfort level with doing it. The only difference is in the spring, the late planter rye is not as tall, but it still has the benefit. The importance of using this planter is because I can really dial in the pounds that I want, so I'm using somewhere between 27 to 33 pounds of rye. I can place it at a quarter to a half inch deep and I know that I get growth on every kernel of rye that I'm planting.
So this is typical what it looks like in the spring, what I'm dealing with. So I quickly did this, and this is maybe a year or two old, but it's 26 pounds of cereal rye, which I'm 26 to 33. The planter rentals went up to $15 an acre. Termination. So I'm using 44 ounces of roundup, and I've been cutting that back, but the most important part that I learned as a flatland row cropper is that I have to have a couple ounces of a pyrethroid in it. I learned the hard way the first year without that small amount of insecticide. When I came in to spray the first post emerge bean spray, the ground was alive with army worms. And in soybeans, they don't do a lot of damage, but once they go through the fence line into my corn, they can do extreme damage and your neighbors aren't going to like you very well. So total cost for cereal rye program's $37 an acre, a five bushel increase, and this is using I think 11 bushel or whatever. It was $12 beans, which it's higher now, so had a $60 return because every time we put rye ahead of beans, we saw five to seven bushel increase, and we couldn't figure it out as tillage guys.
So it's got a positive return on investment of $23 plus, and better than $23. So this just shows the planting when I'm planting beans through it, you can see, so with having seed corn and you can get planted early, this is what some of the early rye looks like. I'm usually planting and setting the bar of the planter. I will terminate either the day before I plant or the day after I plant. I try to do it that close, and along with that, I'll put my pres in, my roundup, and my pipe [inaudible 00:30:35]. This just kind of shows an update. Because I am using technology and because I plant my rye on my AB lines, when I come back in to plant my 30-inch beans in between, the slide on your right will show that the slice right down in between those two 15-inch rye rows.
I never move a rye plant. The only rye plant that I'm moving is what my tires run over, but I don't need anything special on my planter as far as trash whippers, I just need good down pressure and good closing wheels. The one other thing, as a tillage guy, we always thought, oh, you had to wait and plant your rye stuff later because it wasn't dry enough. There's no way that could be as dry as our fields that we've covered with the field cultivator. And what we found out is with all the biomass and the wicking action of all the roots, that it's much drier quicker than any of my tillage. Those are the kind of surprises that we've seen using the cover crops. The other thing is we get somewhere around 33, 36 inches of rainfall, kind of like Jim, but if I can keep every drop on there, and that's what I'm seeing is, the one advantage that I wasn't expecting by going no-till and cover crops is my water infiltration.
I was trying to solve compaction, I was trying to solve all kinds of other things, the biggest thing that I appreciate today is the water infiltration in the soil. And then there's the bad sides. I said it's true confessions of a tillage guy, but if I'd have tilled this field, I would've seen frosted corn in May but when you have no-till, but that corn came back and it was fine. But you do have some of those things that make you question, that's why it's always good to have a mentor, sort of a neighbor you can call that's already doing it and say, "Hey, is this right? Help me through this mentally." Then I also put a saturated buffer in, and that's some more new technology. I'm taking an eight-inch tile, I'm putting it in about a 600-foot-long trench, and then before it gets into the stream and we're dropping nitrogen 85% and better. That's the first wetland that I built on the home farm. It was 10 acres of palms, muck, my dad tiled it every 20 feet, and we did everything we could to make that groundwork.
Once yield monitors came out in the late nineties and we put the same inputs on that ground as we did the rest, and I had bought the farm, I tore it all up, tore all the tile up, had this wetland, and I thought my dad was going to kill me and ended up being we took out of production a piece of ground that would never perform for us and it had the same inputs year in and year out. And so that's what I learned, that was kind of my first step in the nineties thinking, "Oh, we don't have to farm every acre, let's take out those low ROI pieces and let's do something else with them."
So my last one, this is kind of what I go by, water quality starts on my farm. The left is a cool frog that a guy took up in my wetland and I just put the picture in because I think it's cool. And the Mississippi River, which is only 60 miles away is where my water goes. So my goal is to get a hundred percent of the stakeholders in my area to try something new. And that can be anything from planting some oats and not telling, or instead of tilling with a moldboard plow, going with something different. I think everyone has to get to this game on their own, in their own fashion, with their own management skills. There's no silver bullet in conservation, what works for me on my farm doesn't work everywhere, I just like sharing, and that's maybe the agricultural farming, is we'd like to share our accomplishments and our defeats, and hopefully that the next person who's thinking about doing cover crops no-till can avoid some of the pitfalls.Mackane Vogel:
We'll come back to the show in a moment, but first I'd like to take a moment to thank our sponsor, Go Seed. Plant Go Seed's FIXatioN Balansa Clover and save up to $37 per acre in fertilizer input costs. At a trial conducted at the Ewing Demonstration Center in Illinois, FIXatioN Balansa Clover fixed nearly double the nitrogen per acre over Dixie Crimson clover. FIXatioN Balansa Clover is the cover crop to improve your soil health, increase cash crop yields, and make a positive impact on the planet. Visit www.fixationclover.com to learn why Go Seed is the industry leader in cover crop breeding and research. And now let's get back to the episode.Jacob Bolson:
All right, good morning everybody, and thank you for the opportunity to be here this morning. My name's Jacob Bolson, coming to you live from Hubbard, Iowa and Central Iowa, I'm going to share a few of my perspectives of planting into cover crops. So I'll just share a little bit where I'm located, I want to talk a little context of some of the scenarios I've been working through, and then before we get to questions at the end, I want to share a few of the things that I've learned for those that may be looking at cover crops for the first time. Just a little background, I'm not a Hubbard Iowa native, I'm actually a Decora native up in the far northeast corner of the state of Iowa. I'm a proud Norwegian from Decora. Then back in 2009, married into a farm family here in the central part of the state, my wife and I and our four children on the left, and then her parents there in the middle welcomed me into their family farm from 2009 up until 2020.
Had the opportunity to support my wife's family on their farm including many conservation endeavors, it's fun to see some of the others sharing experiences with wetlands or saturated buffers, have had similar opportunities here in Central Iowa, so glad to see some of those activities going on elsewhere. So fast-forward, just again context to where we're location, a little snapshot of Central Iowa. We're about half an hour northeast of Ames or about an hour northeast of Des Moines, or if you're coming from the north, we're about an hour south of Mason City, so kind of right in the I-35 US20 corridors where we're located here in Hardin County.
And then I like to look at things from the aspect of what watershed do we operate in? Key thing for me is knowing, as Tim said, where does your water go? And we are farming in the South Fork Watershed of the Iowa River, so this is what I like to think about as it relates to who am I impacting downstream or who are we as a family impacting downstream in our crop production choices? So again, back in the fall of 2020, my wife and I were afforded the opportunity to rent our first farm and officially join the family business per se, or as I like to jokingly say, "I got a promotion from being my father-in-law's executive assistant to having my name on the lease line and being able to rent a farm." This is my landlord and I down at the bottom, Kathleen. Absentee landowner, very conservation focused, and this was actually at a field day this summer that we hosted where we were installing, in partnership with the local Watershed Alliance as well as the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, two wood chip bioreactors on the farm.
And then in addition to operating this crop production business, my family operates a custom cover crop business, so I'm pretty active in that, and then my wife and I also do CRP management services in addition to both working full time, so we stay plenty busy. So a few scenarios of my journey since renting this farm fall of 2020 in terms of learning my own personal cover crop journey where my own economics were on the line. So I want to talk a little bit about timeline, so fall of 2020 when we had a chance to rent the farm. Previously, this land had been 10 plus years of corn on corn every year in a full conventional tillage environment. Right away put a cereal rye cover crop out there ahead of spring 2021, non-GMO soybeans, and then fall of 2021 went back to a cereal rye cover crop ahead of 2022, non-GMO soybeans, I raised beans two years in a row to try to break up some root worm cycles instead of needing to rely on insecticide, since Iowa State University has demonstrated that a standard corn soy rotation is not necessarily adequate anymore to break up root worm cycles.
And then fall of 2022, tried a new mixture of winter camelina and TNT vetch ahead of 2023 corn, that we'll be sowing here whenever the snow melts off the ground and the ground warms up. Okay, so I'm going to share a little bit about what I've learned. So this is November of 2020, again, sowing a cereal rye cover crop into that field of existing corn stalks. Ground was extremely hard as we had gone a long time without significant moisture here in the central part of the state. So here we are beginning my journey of cover crops, seven and a half inch spacing, John Deere 750 box drill that's now been upgraded to a John Deere CCS air seeder due to growth in the family's custom cover crop business.
But this is the start of my journey. Spring of 2021, getting ready for game time, getting the planter ready. Up until this point, the planter had standard rubber closing wheels on it, and I knew just from talking to peers, reading online, and through attending conferences that rubber closing wheels into standing cover crop residue is not going to provide sufficient closing. So it was recommended to me to look at John Deere cast closing wheels in lieu of the rubber ones. I was browsing the market and discovered that Dawn Equipment had just introduced the gauge ring cast closing wheel, which reuses the inner plastic shell from your closing wheel, you just take the rubber off, put this gauge ring on. So I went this route primarily because of when I looked at what cast closing wheels were selling for in the used market, it was not that much of an incremental investment to buy these gauge rings from Dawn Equipment.
So run gauge ring spiked closing wheels on a John Deere 1720 stack fold planter. So here we go, May 2021, putting my first soybean crop into the ground, you can see the cereal rye cover crop out there planting green. And right away I learned something, I learned that coming out of a drought, going into a no-till environment, where again previously corn on corn, heavy conventional tillage, that ground was hard. That ground was really, really hard. And how I can tell by that, if you can see the map on the screen, this is the applied down pressure map from the field view in the cab. And blue is not a good thing, blue is where my down pressure was so low that the precision planting 2020 monitor that my family has was recording essentially next to zero down pressure on those gauge wheels. So I knew I had to do something different to be prepared for potentially if there was a future year of very abnormally dry conditions, as well as come back a month later when I'm out walking my soybeans as they emerge.
Often when it comes to corn plants, we hear the phrase, "We don't want our corn plants to have a bad day." You'll want every plant to have a great day to maximize emergence and maximize yield. Well, if we listen to the high yield soybean growers out there, they'll tell you the same thing. And as I went and walked my field, the planter at the time had manual adjuster fixed position row cleaners on it. I learned that, if you can see here in the picture on the left, there was a noticeable difference in the vigor of my soybean stand where the row cleaners had moved that residue just enough to open up that soybean plant to having no interference as it emerged versus on the right where because my row cleaners were not following the lay of the land, my soybean plants were trying to emerge through residue. So I decided at that point in time that I needed to do something different for the 2022 growing season in terms of having row cleaners that could follow the lay of the land.
As well as I wanted to be prepared when the day came that I would be raising my first corn crop, as well as if I did need to put soybeans into moisture stressed soils again so I went shopping, and had the opportunity, some of today's attendees might recognize the smiling face on the left in this picture wearing the Dawn Equipment hat, that's Jim Bassett, the founder and now retired owner of Dawn Equipment. When he scaled out of or retired from his own personal row crop production, I had the opportunity to buy his strip tillage bar, so I went up into Wisconsin and bought Jim's personal strip tillage bar to help me be prepared for the future.
And then as well in 2021, even though I'm trying to get away from tillage as much as possible, there were some areas on the farm that were so compacted, whether it was green cart traffic, gravity wagon traffic, or even just random historical field traffic, I did do go do some spots of localized sub soiling on the farm. So then because of that row cleaner learning, spring of 2022, getting ready for game time again, and I went shopping again. I was determined to find a set of floating row cleaners that could be installed on the planter to again follow the lay of the land to make sure I'm giving all the plants the best chance every day to make sure they're having a good day. And went up into South Dakota and found a used set of Dawn GFX frame mounted floating row cleaners that I installed on the planter.
Come spring 2022, wanted to start learning how to use my strip tail bar so I went and laid a few acres of strips with that Dawn Pluribus into the standing cereal rye. Did not do the whole farm, but as part of just trying to learn, went out and did a few acres of strips into the cereal rye and really, really liked the planting environment that this gave me in terms of that maximized seed, the soil contact, while only disturbing a small portion of the farm. So planter learning, here we go. This is out in the field and I stopped and took a video where I was running the planter through an area of a high concentration of soybean residue, presumably where probably in fall of 2021 when we were harvesting maybe the combine had stopped and so had heavy mat of residue there.
And so [inaudible 00:46:44] took a video to share with my landlord as well as just from my own memory of what did I learn here, and just loved what I was seeing here, both from the row cleaning action that those Dawn row cleaners were delivering to the furrow closing that those Dawn gauge ring closing wheels were doing, as well as also run narrow gauge wheels on the planter. Run spoked gauge wheels from WHAM Farms down in Texas, Alan Meisner. Run his narrow gauge wheels on the planter and really do like the narrow gauge wheels in general. I know there's a variety of different solutions out there on the market, whether it's aftermarket companies, John Deere, my family runs the Wham Farms version from down in Texas.
So my summary before we get to the question and answer session, just a few perspectives of my personal cover crop journey that I wanted to share with everybody today is number one, used parts are awesome. As agriculturalists, we love new paint, we love new iron. The reality is, especially for me, I'm on the beginning part of my journey here, buying new in general is not feasible so I scour the used market often when I'm shopping just like those Dawn GFX row cleaners that came used from somebody up in South Dakota. If you have no prior experience with cover crops, I encourage you to start slow because if you're wrong, what happens? I was not completely green when I started my journey because of my experiences on my wife's family farm dating back to 2009, but on the flip side, when it's your name on the checkbook and you're not relying on somebody else's management, it's still completely different, and so very much starts slow.
Document your learnings so that you don't forget. We're humans, we forget, I take a lot of pictures, take notes, and really try to document, document, document to help me plan for the future. Things will always happen that you don't understand and you just have to be prepared for it and learn from it. Remember the fundamentals with the planter, clean the path, create the furrow and close the furrow. Went to a crop clinic this winter, and that was one thing that the speaker emphasized into all of the attendees about being so important. Sometimes we get a little overwhelmed with everything that's going on with the planter, but really it boils down to the three fundamentals. Again, clean the path, create the furrow, and close the furrow. Depth control, depth control, depth control, I think we are all well aware of the importance of depth control, something that I'm continuing to learn in the scenarios that I'm farming in about how to improve depth control and we know it's so important.
And then finally, before I turn it back to Michaela, the importance of getting out of the tractor, look, study, dig, measure. We only get one chance, and so important to get out and dig, whether it's have some sort of a tool with you in the cab to make sure that you can get out and dig. So that's a little bit of perspective about my journey from a beginning perspective the last couple of years. Thank you for the opportunity Michaela, and I'll turn it back over to you for question and answer.Michaela Paukner:
All right, thank you Jacob. And thank you to all of our panelists for joining us today. So I'm going to start with one of the questions that came in through the Q&A chat and I'm going to call on Dan Towery who raised his hand. So first question, when you plant corn into cereal rye, do you add extra nitrogen when planting? Doesn't the cover crop take nitrogen out?Tim Recker:
Since Dan was one of my mentors, so he is dying to hear my response. So we do, so we're actually using a wide dropper ahead of corn planting to lay nitrogen ahead of corn. There's probably better ways, but I do have two by twos but I'm using them for other things on the planter. So it's very important when you're planting corn, you've got to have nitrogen right next to the seed two by two or at least somewhere close. That's the magic sauce to make corn in rye work.Michaela Paukner:
Jim and Jacob, any thoughts on cover crops and nitrogen and then corn?Jim Stute:
Yeah, so nitrogen is one of the reasons that I talk about terminating right after planting. It is a nitrogen issue. I too use the two by two placement and put on probably 25 pounds of nitrogen, and I'm concerned about rye taking up some of that. You got to have that early season nitrogen, especially in no-till, so I don't apply additional, but I terminate right away so I don't have to worry about removing some of the nitrogen from the system.Jacob Bolson:
And Michaela, I view it as I've never tried corn after rye, primarily from the risk management perspective. I saw a question in the chat about for a beginner, what's recommended, and that my recommendation is be as low risk as possible. And the reality is corn after rye does have some risks, and so that's why ahead of 2023, I'm trying winter camelina after learning about that from some folks. Maybe someday I'll try it and learn from Tim and Jims of the world, but for me at this point, I have not tried corn after a cereal rye cover crop due to the risk that comes with it.Michaela Paukner:
Okay, one of the questions we have here, Jacob, I think this one looks like it's for you. Does the density of the cover crop matter compared to the strip?Jacob Bolson:
Thank you for the question. In my experience, not yet. Granted, I'm looking at it through the lens of just one year of where I laid some strips into rye, but based upon what I learned last year, and we'll hopefully learn more this spring putting strips into camelina, I had no struggles laying those strips at all into the cereal rye a year ago.Michaela Paukner:
All right, and then we have a question, curious if you have any crop broadleaf herbicide options for your wheat underseeded with the red clover that don't hurt the cover, or are you not spraying any broadleaf herbicide? Jim, that looks like it's for you.Jim Stute:
Yeah, so that's another drawback. So I haven't checked into this since I quit growing wheat, but at the time there was only one herbicide, and that's MCPA or MPCA, so that's a relative of 2,4-D. That was the only product that was labeled, so it would be an off-label application if you made it and I guess it's just a warning, it would be off-label so you may see some injury, but I really can't comment on it, but that is one of the drawbacks. So when I worked for UW Extension and promoted this system, that was one of the drawbacks that potential users quickly raised, that this is an issue it needs to be at least considered.Michaela Paukner:
All right, Tim, this question is for you. What are you using for pre-herbicide to feel you are getting soil contact through that mulch cover on your corn planting?Tim Recker:
So when I first started using the pres with the roundup, I thought it was a big deal because we had quite a bit of biomass there and I found out that it doesn't look like it will work, but spraying the pres on the same time I'm using roundup, they work just fine, the pres worked. I've had several different pres that I put in and they all seem to work great so I don't have a particular choice, they just work. I was told early on, "Oh, be careful about putting roundup and pres together because of some things that may not work." And that they work just beautifully. Most of the time when I'm planting corn, the rye is much shorter than what I showed in the pictures, the beans were following seed corn, I haven't done corn in the three-foot rye yet.Michaela Paukner:
Okay, this question's for all three of you. Mark is asking if you've had any slug issues, and if you have, how do you manage or mitigate them?Tim Recker:
I've had no slug issues in northeast Iowa. Our biggest problem that we found out early is the army worm, that's been the issue. Easy problem to take care of but not slugs as of yet.Jim Stute:
So my experience is the exact opposite, and people talk about army worms, we have not seen the problem in Wisconsin, slugs are a more prevalent problem. I've got high ground, I've only experienced it once, and it was this last year, 2022. We had excessive moisture and so conditions were conducive to slug development and feeding, but the other issue is if you use row cleaners and you have air soil in the row, that's supposed to reduce the prevalence of slug feeding, and I've pretty much assumed that that was the case. Since I used row cleaners, I don't have the slug damage. And what I would say is that the damage I had was pretty minimal, I've never experienced stand loss that other people report.Jacob Bolson:
Yeah, Michaela I'd say in my corridor there has been armyworm issues in fields that were sowed into a cover crop. So right here in the kind of the highway 175 corridor, let's see, summer of 2021 was significant armyworm issues, devastated hay fields in the area, and then full speed ahead to spring of 2022, there were fields that were soybeans being sowed into a cereal rye cover crop that had significant armyworm pressure in them that needed to be sprayed. For whatever reason, I had, from what we could tell, zero armyworm pressure. The best guess I've been able to come up with thanks to again just visiting with others is because I was beans on beans, and armyworms are not as attracted to beans as they are corn, that may be why I did not have armyworm pressure a year ago compared to folks within just a few mile radius had heavy enough armyworm pressure that they had to spray an insecticide. But me personally, I have not yet experienced that, but I know it is a risk.Michaela Paukner:
Okay. And then our next question, this one's for you Jim, would you change the clover nitrogen credit if you chose to spring terminate versus terminate in the fall?Jim Stute:
That's such a good question. Yeah, I don't even know where to start that. In an ideal world, planting green. So I am hooked on planting green just in no-till situation just for the ease of planting, it's so much better, everything stays cleaner when you're planting green. So that being said, I have been forced into planting green into clover and I would not advise it, that was with the herbicides that we had at the time. I don't know if some of the newer chemistries would make it easier, but the problem I had with the two 2,4-Ds and what have you was that the clover collapsed, but then it kind of grew back with time, and so there was a lot of competition with the corn. Would I change the nitrogen? Probably not, and the reason for that is the assumption that we wouldn't gain any nitrogen. So nitrogenase, that's the enzyme that actually does the fixation, that's not active below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and we're typically right at soil temperature of 50 degrees when we're planting corn so we're not picking up any additional nitrogen. So the answer is no, but we don't know, I don't know, that's an open question.Michaela Paukner:
Okay. And then this next one is for all three of you. Tim, if you want to get us started, it's have you tried roller crimping and how has that gone, and what differences have you noticed at cash crop planting?Tim Recker:
The simple answer in my operation is no, I have not tried roller crimping. I choose to make sure it's terminated with roundup. Now, I may think different in the future, but right now I have not tried it.Jim Stute:
I have tried it, it was in an organic context for a former employer of mine, so it's later planting than what we would do in conventional agriculture. My experience was you have to get the conditions just right. In organic systems we're relying on a dosage effect of the rye biomass to get weed suppression, and this is in particular in soybeans, and so it's much later you're dealing with a lot more residue than we would use in conventional, and it was difficult. If you don't have the right conditions, it's hard to get it to lay down and stay down, it would always tend to stand back up. The other comment, so I was using the Chevron Model, and if you don't have your rocks picked, a rock will shut that thing down right now, so you got to have a clean seedbed, and it's difficult to get the timing to make it work.Jacob Bolson:
Michaela, I have not either, similar to Tim. I have some family members that have similar to Jim in an organic context, but I have not personally done anything with roller crimping.Michaela Paukner:
Okay. And then this next question again for all three of you, I think it's a really great one. Are there times, or years, or scenarios when your conventional neighbors crops look better than yours, and if so, how do you keep going with reduced tillage and cover crops?Tim Recker:
There's probably times of the year that you may look and see that maybe for whatever reason. I guess in soybeans, I would say no because until my rye melts down and I start seeing the little soybean seedlings come up, I guess it looks different than the neighbors. In the corn, it can have some yellowing early and you don't want that, it can look different, but I would say I guess I'm not looking at the neighbors, I'm concentrating on my own ground and making it work. They're probably looking harder at mine than I'm looking at theirs.Jacob Bolson:
Michaela, I'd say a cover crop field looks better than the non-covered crop field because this time of the year, the field with covers on them are starting to green up. The land that my wife and I rent, it's right on the edge of town and it happens to be where my kids a lot of times have athletic practices, so we're going in and out of town a lot. There is nothing better driving in or out of town on the highway and seeing the land that we farm greening up while it's all brown around it. So I may be biased, but I think fields with covers look nicer.Jim Stute:
So I would agree with all of the above, especially the pre-plant, the late winter window when it's really ugly out there, the green just makes the countryside look so bucolic. So you get in season, the no-till and cover corn or soybeans don't look as good as the conventional, I'll give you that, but in my neighborhood, perched on the gravel, as soon as we start seeing moisture stress, all of a sudden it's like you flipped a switch and the no-till cover crop fields look much better. But then again, I would argue, what is it, is it what the crop looks like in the field or what does your bank account look like at the end of the year? So it's not a beauty contest.Mackane Vogel:
Big thanks to Jim Stute, Tim Recker, and Jacob Bolson for today's discussion. The full transcript and video of the episode will be available at covercropstrategies.com/podcasts. Many thanks to our sponsor, Go Seed for helping to make this Cover Crop podcast series possible. And if you'd like to hear more great discussions like this one, be sure to register for the 2024 National Cover Crop summit at covercropstrategies.com. From all of us here at Cover Crop Strategies, I'm McCain Vogel, thanks for listening and have a great day.