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“Communication is key because that's the future of Iowa, the future of the Midwest, the future of America — that next generation, and if we can't get the last generation to get along with the next generation, I don't know what we will do.”

— Wade Dooley, No-Tiller & Cover Cropper, Marshall County, Iowa

In this episode of the Cover Crop Strategies podcast, brought to you by SOURCE® from Sound Agriculture, Marshall County, Iowa no-tiller Wade Dooley shares what he learned from his informal trial of seeding a rye cover crop every month of the year. 

As a 6th generation farmer, Dooley also shares why he believes communication is the most important thing when transitioning a family farm from one generation to the next.  

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Full Transcript

Mackane Vogel:

Welcome to the Cover Crop Strategies podcast, brought to you by Source from Sound Agriculture. I'm Mackane Vogel, Assistant Editor at Cover Crop Strategies. In this episode, Marshall County, Iowa no-tiller Wade Dooley shares what he learned from his informal trial of seeding a rye cover crop every month of the year. As a sixth generation farmer, Dooley also shares why he believes communication is the most important thing when transitioning a family farm from one generation to the next.

All right, so I'm here with Wade Dooley, Wade, if you just want to introduce yourself to our audience real quick, give a little bit about your background. And I always like to start with the question of, how did you first get involved in the world of agriculture?

Wade Dooley:

Wade Dooley. I farm in central Iowa. I'm the sixth generation on my family's farm, and historically we've always been a crop and livestock operation. I grew up on the farm, so been in it from the beginning. Had bottle calves as a kid in 4-H and was able to keep heifers back from that. Started my herd with family herd and slowly bought in. By the time I was 14 I was running row crops on my own acres. And I got started... I'm old enough now. I remember the good old days of LDP and DCP payments from the government when corn was $1.52 a bushel. Those were good days to be a farmer. Not really. Those were good days to dream about farming and work for somebody else. But as a teenager it wasn't such a big deal.

Went to college at Iowa State. Graduated with an agronomy degree. And because the farm economy in the early 2000s was absolute trash, there wasn't a whole lot of extra money for me to come back to farm, unlike times later. A lot of new guys are back in farming, which is awesome, now. But back when I was looking at coming back, there was no room. So I took a job down in Florida and worked for a vegetable seed company breeding watermelons, which was a completely different way of farming, but it was definitely large scale agriculture still. So that was pretty cool. Then I came back when the housing bubble burst. The Great Recession that was so terrible for the majority of America was pretty awesome for agriculture because crop markets all went up. We were able to get me back on the farm, and there was enough cash flow for me to start my own operation up again. Been at it ever since.

Mackane Vogel:

All right, and so fast forwarding to now, you're operating Glenwood Century Farm as well as Dooley Ag Stewardship. So you want to talk a little bit about each of those and what your role is, and how they differ for each one?

Wade Dooley:

Glenwood Century Farm is the name we came up with for the main farm operations. When I came back to the farm in '08 we were primarily row crops and beef cattle. We'd gotten out of hogs. And I needed to find a niche that I would be able to generate some extra income on the side because, yes, row crops were making more money than they did in the early 2000s, but not that much more. So I started raising watermelons, because that was the knowledge I came back with. I did that for a few years, raising about three, four acres of watermelons along with a couple hundred acres of corn and beans, and then had 50% share of the livestock.

And then as time went on, the watermelons took so much extra time. In the peak season we shifted and I started raising winter squash instead because there's a bigger picking window and it stores as opposed to watermelons, you've got to get that thing out the door. As soon as you pick, it needs to get moving. The winter squash could sit for a month or two while I'm picking corn and then go back and start marketing.

So that's what Glendwood Century Farm was, was more of the direct marketing arm of the main farm operation. And then recently I started Dooley Ag Stewardship as a custom seeding and cover crop business. I did that with the help of Practical Farmers of Iowa and their new Cover Crop Business Accelerator Program.

Mackane Vogel:

All right, so let's talk a little bit more about the ladder that you mentioned there. What does that look like? I guess you've been busy with lots of different clients seeding cover crops. Is that right?

Wade Dooley:

That's correct, yes. Yeah.

Mackane Vogel:

So talk us through a little bit about how that works. How people can get involved in that, and then what you end up doing for them.

Wade Dooley:

I'm kind of a one-stop shop. I wouldn't recommend... anyone who wants to get into cover crop businesses, don't do what I do because I'm kind of crazy and I like to do things my own way and by myself. So I raise rye and oats, clean it, get it certified, and sell it as bulk grain for cover crop seed. And I also do custom seeding. So then I'm selling the grain through the drill as well as getting paid to do the drilling. And my radius is probably larger than it should be right now. I'm willing to drive 30, 35 miles which, with these roads today, it's hell on the equipment. So I'm thinking I'm going to have to shrink up my radius a little bit because I just bought tires and, yeah, that's exciting.

So the cover crop business operation, my original hope was that I'd be able to get folks to book ahead, like when they're getting in and planting corn and beans in the spring, they'd be thinking about the cover crops in the fall and be scheduling bushels and acres and that sort of thing. And what it's turned into instead is everyone calls me the day that they pull out of the field with a combine and they say, "Hey, I've got 150 acres ready. Why don't you come drill it tomorrow?" Like, "I didn't know you wanted any cover crop on this year. So that's wonderful."

So it's difficult to plan, doing things that way. I've not done a great job of communicating with my customers in the winter months, when I probably should be in order to get them to pre-book. So that's one of those things that the Business Accelerator Program with PFI, that's what they're trying to help me with, is getting better at communicating.

Mackane Vogel:

That's cool. Yeah, we've had a lot of different PFI people on the podcast before and they do a lot of good work. So that's a cool partnership that you're involved with them. You always drill the cover crops, or do you use any other methods or anything?

Wade Dooley:

It all depends on the weather. For my customers, I try to make sure they're going to get stuff covered and not worry too much about me making all of the money. This year and last year we were so dry in the fall, a lot of guys didn't want to do aerial seeding because the seed was just going to lay there. If they managed to catch the rains perfect, they worked really well, but there's a lot of guys, the last two years, they just didn't feel comfortable with that. But I always encourage them to watch the weather and, depending on how things are looking, then if it looks like we're going to be wet at the right times, I tell them, "Go ahead and fly it on." I don't mind missing out on those acres drilling because at least their stuff gets covered and, to me, that's more important. I like running the drill, I like making money doing that, but I'd rather that everything gets covered more so than running acres.

Mackane Vogel:

All right, well let's shift gears a little bit. I know you had an experiment I think seeding rye every month. And I'm very curious. I think a lot of our listeners are going to be curious to hear about this one too. What can you tell us? What'd you learn?

Wade Dooley:

Sure. Seeding rye every month was not an official experiment. I do like to experiment a lot on my farm. Sometimes I get tied in with BFI or Iowa Soybean Association to do proper scientific trials. This was not. This was all me just going out and playing. And so what we did was a field of soybeans took off in late October, I believe it was. This has been several years ago so my memory's a little fuzzy on the timing. But we took the soybeans off and immediately went in and drilled part of it. Got rained out. And then it stayed wet for a while so I stayed out of the field for almost a month. And then I went back in and drilled some more, got rained out again. At that point I thought, well, we're here. If I'm coming back to this field once in a while, I might as well just keep the drill hitched up and see what happens.

And so what I tried to do for the rest of the fall and winter and into early spring was come out in the mornings, do a couple passes, put on... I think I was putting on maybe a bushel an acre. Something like that. It wasn't a heavy rate. And run for a couple swipes and call it good. This field is a large rectangular field, so a prime area for doing strip trials and that sort of thing. The field itself I think is 85 acres, so it's nice and big.

So I went out in the mornings because once the ground froze, I could catch it at that sweet spot when the ground's just starting to thaw but it hasn't turned to like chocolate pudding yet. And so I was able to get a couple swipes, and I'd have to stop because the coulters would start picking up mud, and I don't like using a putty knife to scrape mud off my drill every time I use it. So it was interesting because, doing those swipes at a certain point in the spring, you could start seeing the differences between the November planting versus the January planting, and definitely versus the March planting.

Putting them in wasn't a big deal, but that was also because I had the time. So that helped. It was nice that I had a tractor that would actually start when it was super cold. But the results from that: mostly what I figured out was rye will grow if you give it half a chance. Because of this trial I've started drilling... I continue drilling cover crops clear in the December for customers, and I don't worry about the rye coming in the spring. We do run a higher rate now because it comes in really thin.

Instead of sending out five or six tillers, it's sending up one or two shoots. So we increased our rate. But for this experiment, I kept the rate the same the whole time to see what it'd look like. The stuff that I put in in like February was pretty thin. It was not an impressive cover by any stretch, but it was a cover crop. It was out there, it was growing, and that's better than nothing. The stuff I put in in March it, it didn't vernalize. And so everything else tried to shoot up seed stock in late April, early May. But the stuff in March, it didn't do anything. It stayed a low-growing grass the entire time which, for planting, made it really easy, but for weed control it was terrible. It did nothing to slow down the spring weeds. No competition at all. I was really surprised at that.

Mackane Vogel:

That's interesting. Yeah, it seems like you learned a lot from it, at least, and some stuff that you can take with you in what you're doing now. So that's definitely valuable.

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Let's talk a little bit about grazing of cattle on cover crops, because I think that's something else that you have some experience with.

Wade Dooley:

Sure. Yeah. Grazing cattle with cover crops is how we started with covers on our farm. In 1997, dad put in the first rye cover crop on our farm. And a little background: most of our farm is river bottom. We're right on the Iowa River, and for a good 20 years we had really, really wet cycles. And so we flooded almost every summer. And so in '97 we had a big flood and it wiped out half the corn crop in one of the fields. And so we chopped that part off that we could, and then dad wanted to have something out there growing. Friends of his from back in his college days, they farmed in Maryland on the Chesapeake, and they were using rye for cover crops because of the Chesapeake Bay initiative out there. And so he talked to them about it and he read some publications.

I don't remember if it was Successful Farming or just what, but he read in some publications where they were whispering about rye as a cover crop. So he put it on. Knew nothing about that. We didn't know how it grew. We just worked the ground, broadcast it. We didn't own a green drill. So we broadcast it, rolled it in, and hoped for the best. And of course, as rye does, it took off growing. Beautiful green forage in the fall. Turned the cows out and they were ecstatic. And we never chopped corn after that without putting rye in to follow on that bare dirt. Back then we were not no-till. We are 100% no-till now, but in the late '90s we didn't have the equipment. The planters that we had were not up to snuff. Dad had switched over to no-till planter in the early 2000s, I think it was. Up to that point we were full with tillage. And the grazing was just fantastic because it saved us so much hay and it utilized those acres that otherwise would've just been bare dirt all winter and would've been solid weeds in the spring.

And the downside with putting rye in not knowing anything about it was we didn't realize how fast it grows in the spring. And we kept the cows out of that field because we didn't want them to muck it up with the spring rains. Well, that meant the rye got three foot tall before we were able to get in to work it down. And the equipment we had at the time was not up to the challenge, shall we say. It was a God-awful mess. I was the one that got to be in that field working it. I distinctly remember the piles that I made. Yeah, that was an experience.

But even with that experience, dad took away knowledge from it and said, "Okay, we don't let it get three feet tall before we try and till it under." And from then on we never had that problem again. And like I said, then after that we went no-till within a few years and so we really didn't have any problems with it. We started planting green in 2009, I think, something like that. We started going into a standing rye crop. But before then it was always terminated early. And grazing it, man, grazing cover crops is the way to go.

If you've got livestock to eat grass and you're just feeding hay all winter long and you're not putting them on the acres that you've already got, man, you're wasting a huge opportunity. We started covering every acre that we could put cows on in 2009, 2010. I found out about aerial seeding in 2008 and tried some with a broadcaster into soybeans. And then in 2009 I made my own [inaudible 00:16:23] broadcaster to put winter wheat and rye in, and we grazed that the next year and it was incredible, being able to graze stuff.

We were a cow-calf operation and we always fought mud. In March it was mud season. And you'd lose calves in the mud. The cows would stand around the feed bunks and just make a mess of everything. And once we started grazing covers on a broader scale, all of that pretty much just went away. And man, was that a godsend because you could go out and check cattle. And the cows were happy, the calves were healthy. We didn't have the ruts, we didn't have the piles, we didn't have the mess, and we didn't ruin the soil structure driving tractors around trying to move bunks and keep ahead of the mud. It was so much better.

Mackane Vogel:

I'm curious, from a soil health perspective, have you noticed a lot of differences now that you've incorporated covers and grazing and no-till versus back at the beginning when you weren't doing any of that? Have you done any soil tests and stuff like that where you can really see how much that's helped?

Wade Dooley:

Right. We actually took part in a trial several years ago. I think it was in 2017, maybe. I'm not sure. With Practical Farmers of Iowa and several other larger organizations that were national. We took part in a large trial using no-till cover crops and cattle. And then the control was just no-till alone. No cover crops, no cattle. And what we saw, we had to put it on a field that was far away from our home farm because we've been doing it too long to be able to get baseline. And so we put it on a field that hadn't had livestock on it for probably 30, 40 years. And this trial went for a few years. They couldn't get funding to get it to go long enough that I thought it would be really good, but it went for a few years and we saw, in those few years, a big difference.

The soil structure improved. Our water infiltration more than doubled. Our compaction issues were nonexistent, even with the cattle. The only spot we had compaction was where I had my water tank, which I would expect, because the cattle are going to cluster around that. I didn't have the ability to move it around much due to water access. But that one is the only one where I actually have numbers. And it's available. I think it was the Wallace Center that was part of that. But on our own farm, on the home farm where we've done covers and cattle for 20 years now, the soil structure is fantastic everywhere that we don't drive the semi. And the water infiltration is excellent.

I haven't had soil samples taken in several years because we started seeing very little changes after a while in the numbers. And I'm not a big believer in soil tests as far as fertility ratings go because you can take two soil tests a foot away from each other and get two different recommendations. So that's not the most reliable system out there at this point, at least for judging for soil improvement and soil health over long term.

But we do see a huge difference in soil structure from what we started, because we were full with tillage and we were running cattle on stubble with no covers. And it's just night and day. You can go out there and I could take a spade and just jab it in the ground with one hand anywhere in a field, and I can get a full shovel full of dirt and it's just crawling with dirt worms. There's all kinds of life in that soil. And I remember what it was like when I was a kid. We didn't have anything like that. You cou;d dig all day and only find maybe one earthworm. I know earthworms aren't 100% of the measurement of soil health, but it's a fun thing to notice.

Mackane Vogel:

No, absolutely. Yeah, that's cool that you have kind of that memory, too, of being able to go back out there and see the difference now versus then. So that's definitely cool. All right, I got a couple more questions for you and then I'll let you go. One, I want to go from a more specific back to a general question. Being that you're sixth generation on the farm, what does it look like when a farm has to transition from one generation to the next? Is that a smooth transition? What was your experience with it, I guess?

Wade Dooley:

Yeah. Transitioning a farm from one generation to the next is so fraught. There are so many issues that crop up just because of history and emotion. And it's really tough. Farmers aren't always very good at communicating so there's a lot of things that just are left unsaid and are assumed, and that's really dangerous. People can get really, really hurt and really upset if you don't communicate well.

In our family, we have the history of a farm transition that ended very badly. My... what was it? Three times great-grandfather was the one who originally started the whole farm, built the house I'm in, and accumulated a pretty large amount of acres in the 1800s. And when he died, the family fought over the will and they fought over every acre, and they lost over almost 90% of the farm to the bankers and the lawyers because they didn't communicate before the old man passed, and nobody was happy.

And so my grandparents, in the '40s and '50s, well, they spent basically their entire lifetimes building the farm back. Buying acres back from the banks and the insurance companies and everybody. And so that's generational trauma as far as farm transitions go, which really helped for us to transition one generation to the next, because we knew what happens if you don't try to communicate. And so when I was in college, we started going to the farm transition workshops that were being held back then. They're way better now than they were then. They've learned a lot in 20 years. But it was totally worth it, doing these workshops.

It got dad and I to communicate on a completely different level. And so when I want to try something new, he was okay with it because we were on the same page. If I had just come back to the farm and started doing all this weird stuff without really having those conversations, it would not have gone well because, he and I, we butt heads once in a while. We get along most of the time but without being able to communicate on the important issues, all the nitpicky stuff can really pile up.

So it's tough, transitioning any business from one generation to the next. And farming, because it's our lifestyle, it's so much more challenging. We've got to get better at talking about this stuff. The old guys need to be able to transition to the next generation, whether it's their family members or not. And that's the other part I think a lot of farmers are having problems dealing with, because there's not that many young folks that want to come back to the farm within the family. There's a lot, a lot of young folks that have no family members farming but really want to farm.

And there's a lot of old folks that really, really, really want the farm to keep going. I wish we could get them all to communicate more because, man, that's the future of Iowa. That's the future of the Midwest, the future of America is the next generation. And if we can't get the last generation to get along with the next generation, I don't know what we will.

Mackane Vogel:

Yeah, a lot of good points there. Thanks for sharing that history. That's really cool. All right, I've got one more for you. I want to ask you right now, in late November, early December when people are going to be mostly listening to this, what is one piece of cover crop advice that you want to leave farmers with for this time of year? Whether it be a species that's good to plant or just something that they should already be thinking about for next season. Whatever you want. Whatever you think.

Wade Dooley:

Okay. So I'm going to go with the planning for the future because, right now, most of the guys that are going to put cover crops on, they already have or they're about to for everybody else, and for the ones who have already got covers on, next year is really important. Most of us order our crop seed more than two weeks before we want to put it in. Usually the seed salesmen are out there in October selling corn for April planting. And we need to be thinking of our cover crops in the same manner. We need to plan ahead, we need to book ahead, but we also need to do the paperwork ahead.

So there's an awful lot of incentives, depending on where you're at in the country, to get assistance, to get cost share. There's a ton of money out there, and people are not signing up for it because they wait till the last second and then they miss the deadline. And this isn't difficult. It's just a time thing. And you can get the paperwork done months, months in advance. And you can get your seed ordered months in advance. You can get your acres booked months in advance.

We need to be doing that because the cover crop industry is new, and it makes it a lot easier for those who are trying to get into this industry to have some stuff planned out in advance. I talk to a lot of professionals that are trying to get things ordered in and planned ahead and booked ahead, and they all struggle with this because the customers, the farmers, I'm a farmer too, we aren't the best at thinking as far out as we probably ought. We are very stuck in this six month turnaround or less. And we need to plan a little farther than that because there's a lot more stuff we can do. We can really change our ground if we plan enough in advance.

Mackane Vogel:

Big thanks to Wade Dooley for joining us for today's discussion. The full transcript of the episode will be available at Many thanks to our sponsor, Source from Sound Agriculture, 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 and have a great day.