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“We've cut our fertilizer back 50-60%, and we're not seeing yields come down. I think it's because we're seeing better biological activity.” 

— Tom Pyfferoen, Cover Cropper, Pine Island, Minn.

In this episode of the Cover Crop Strategies podcast, brought to you by SOURCE® from Sound Agriculture, listen to a presentation from the Soil Management Summit in Alexandria, Minn., that features Anna Cates, state soil health specialist at the University of Minnesota Extension, and Minnesota no-tiller Tom Pyfferoen as they discuss how cover crops can help combat drought and what Tom has learned from his on-farm cover crop trials. 

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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, Associate Editor at Cover Crop Strategies. In this episode, listen to a presentation from the Soil Management Summit in Alexandria, Minnesota, that features Anna Cates, State Soil Health Specialist at the University of Minnesota Extension, and Minnesota no-tiller, Tom Pyfferoen, as they discuss how cover crops can help combat drought and what Tom has learned from his on-farm cover crop trials.

Anna Cates:

Our [inaudible 00:00:37] soil health systems hold water in drought years and I'm going to show you a little bit of data from some moisture sensors that we have on my co-presenter Tom Pyfferoen's farm and some others that actually shows some more moisture in the profile in our drought years. I'm going to show some data directly getting that. But, I'm also going to get more of this first word up there, that 'how' word, and talk more about how soil works and why it's holding more water in those drought years and what we know about how a soil health system is going to change your soil properties. So, look for a little bit of data and a little bit of how, and then Tom is going to come up and talk about his operation which is a corn-soybean operation in Dodge County, Southern Minnesota. He'll talk about how he's implemented some of these practices on his farms and what he's noticed in terms of water. He's going to be really disappointed if you don't interrupt him with lots of questions. So, start formulating them, ask him all the hard questions.

[inaudible 00:01:36] I'm going to talk about two projects actually that have a lot of collaborators. A lot of these people on the screen either work at the University of Minnesota or work at the Sand County Foundation, which is the lead organization that got some funding from the EPA to do this big project across Minnesota with a lot of soil moisture sensors in both Minnesota and Wisconsin. The other project I'm going to talk about is my student Bailey Tangen's work. This is Bailey. You might see her around. She was here the last couple of days and you can certainly pick her brain more about her sites, which were just three paired sites in southern Minnesota in Rice and Steele counties.

This is the data from the Sand County project where we have paired sites, meaning long-term soil health and conventional systems. And, we have these soil moisture sensors in the ground for over a couple of years. I'm mostly going to show data from 2022. But, we have some moisture data from '21 and we'll have it from '23 as it gets processed. What do I mean by soil health versus a conventional site? I hope someone has showed you the soil health principles by day two of the Soil Management Summit. But, just in case, here they are up in front of you.

We looked for sites that were incorporating these in realistic row crop system. So, we weren't comparing a pasture to a continuous cornfield. That was too big of a contrast. We were looking for a cooperation of these principles in similar row crop systems. There were a few sites that did have grazing and livestock and that kind of thing. But, think about incorporating these principles in a row crop context. And then, the conventional sites, we're probably doing full width tillage and a minimal rotation of corn and soybeans with no cover crops and no perennial forages or anything like that rotation.

I guess the other thing I'll just say is that we have at least five years of these kinds of management practice history. Here's some examples of the kind of practices we'd see on our different pairs of sites. These are working farms. Things are not completely consistent. We didn't control crop rotation. We didn't control a lot of things. We're instead trying to understand what the long-term impact of a whole soil health system might be. The measure that I'm going to show here is soil moisture as measured by these sensors put out by the company called Farmer's Edge. The sensors have data at many different depths. This figure I'm going to show you have a bunch of different depths of water. The sensors are four inches, eight inches, 16, 24, and 32, and 40.

The way you read this busy figure is that each one of these lines represents a different depth of the sensor going from four inches down to 40 inches. The sites are in different colors. I've got soil health sites on this side and conventional sites on this side. The Y-axis is a little funny. It's the percent of field capacity. The field capacity of the soil varies by texture and structure. It represents the water that can be held in the soil without draining out. Essentially, it would be the moisture of your soil a day or two after a decent rain. Where it's moist, it's not actively losing water to gravity. It's holding water in its pores. This metric for site or field capacity, I don't want to go into how problematic it is. Farmer's Edge uses it because it is an irrigation scheduling tool and, if you're thinking about trying to irrigate to get up to field capacity, then you want to understand your soil in terms of how close you are to that field capacity.

Each of these sites is going to have different field capacity and the numbers here are going to represent how close they are to that field capacity. I've put a little hard line at 100% field capacity in every one of these depths and a little dotted line at 75% field capacity just to give you some context as you go along here. What do we see as we look at comparisons across these sites? Let's follow site eight for a little while because it shows probably the nicest example of where we saw a soil health site actually increasing in water. It's generally, if you compare this side to this side, the pink site eight is a little bit higher mirroring on that 100% capacity in these top decks of the soil, whereas the conventional site is a little bit lower.

So, there's an example where we really saw a soil health system that was able to hold more water at many depths throughout the profile. Goes all the way down here to 32 inches. You see it's still a little bit deeper. Some sites you don't see that as clearly. So, let's see. Here is site four. And, in this case, the soil health site is a lot more moist early in the season. This is June and July of 2022, or compared to the conventional site. But, later in the year, they're pretty similar. Maybe that's showing that, coming out of the winter, that soil health site has a more full moisture profile. But, over the course of the year, you've got crop water use and that effect is dominating more than the previous management.

That's mostly what I want to show, is that we have some sites where we see really nice effects of introducing soil water in these systems and some where we didn't see that as much. I'm going to show Tom's site specifically, which is a little mixed up because we missed some data collection, especially in 2023. In some ways, this plot is the same. You've got each depth going down all the way down to 40 inches. You've got that percent field capacity with the lines. In this case, the two colors represent the two treatments. The conventional is in red and the soil health is in blue.

In 2021, the conventional had a higher field capacity for a lot of the year. In 2022, the soil health site looks like it's quite a bit more moist, especially here in this eight inch depth than 16 and 24. In 2022, we saw an advantage for soil health versus in 2021. Either the conventional had the advantage or they were kind of even. We see it really depends on the depth that you're looking at. That, again, could be due to the crop influences there if you've got a more deeply rooted crop that could be taking up more water from deeper in the profile, as well as the soil's capacity to infiltrate water.

One other piece of information which is off-topic but I thought would be interesting to people is that we also had temperature data collected from these sensors. And, it's a story that's often told that we have cooler temperatures of the soil surface in a soil health system. I just wanted to show you some temperature data. I just wanted to bring this up to show that, in this setting where we were measuring temperature continuously, we saw real similar soil temperatures in conventional and soil health systems. So, even if you probably do have reduced evaporation with a system with more residue, we're not seeing a real decrease.

The big difference you see here is by site. Site by site, you see differences. Over here, this is the only time where we see a little bit of a difference between the conventional and the soil health sites. This is in June of 2023 where you see some of our triangles here are hovering a little bit lower than our conventional sites. 2022, things were real similar. 2023, we saw a little bit of a temperature drag in our soil health sites. But, all the temperatures are about 60 at that point. So, we should be at pretty good temperatures for planting at that [inaudible 00:08:51].

One more set of data. This is from Bailey's project in southern Minnesota. In this case, we just have three sites. I'm showing the data a little differently. I apologize. But, we see a lot more of a clear story for soil health sites, putting a little bit more water in Bailey's sites. Here, the depth is on this axis. The sites are in different lines here, so Blooming Prairie, Canon City and Dundas. The soil health sites are the green lines and the conventional sites are the red lines. In this case, the water content is here and anything further to the right is wetter, so we see more water holding in these green soil health sites [inaudible 00:09:30] here. That effect is really strong in Blooming Prairie in 2021. And then, a little bit less strong down here in our Dundas site. But, you see a little bit of it in Canon City, especially in the middle of the profile, and a little bit in both years. So, we're seeing some evidence that there is water held in the profile.

But, now, I want to switch and I want to talk a little bit about why that is, what's going on in the soil that allows that. Here are just some images of the soil structure to illustrate what different structure might look like in the soil. Again, I want to thank Bailey for a bunch of these images. The ones on the top show what we think of as negative issues with soil structure. Here, we've got a washout where we're going to have some soil crusting. In the middle, we have some cracking where the soil dries out so badly that you have a big crack in the middle of your field. And, again, on the right, some crusting. The bottom two pictures are kind of close-ups of the structure that I'm talking about.

This is a study where we did an X-ray. I didn't do this. Someone did an X-ray of the actual pores in the soil and it shows how tillage changes the size of pores and the connectivity of pores. So that, I mean that pores at the surface are connected to pores deeper down. Here, what they looked at is... This is in North Dakota. There's a conventional field, a long-term no-till field and a short term no-till field. The colors represent the size of the pores. Green is smaller pores and red is bigger pores. It's just really striking and cool how the no-till system that's been in there a long time has these real vertical, really red, really big pores.

The conventional side has a lot of pores. There's a lot of pores in this zero to 10 centimeter level. But, there are a lot of green ones. They're smaller ones. So, they're able to hold water. Sometimes in that data of Bailey's, we will see that the topsoil is really similar or even more water in the conventional site. But, they're not able to conduct water down. When you think about what you want your soil to do with water, you want it to hold water, you want it to conduct water. This conventional system is good at holding water there on the surface, but it gets less so as you get deeper and there's not a good way to conduct the water down.

More data in the same direction. This is more of Bailey's data from Blooming Prairie. Again, southern Minnesota. Here, what you're showing is that there's just more big pores in a soil health system. This shows the pore diameter. As you go to the right, you've got bigger pores. The fact that the blue lump ranges further to the right than the red lump, which is a conventional site, shows that we have just more big pores and fewer small pores in that system.

How does that happen? You really need these roots in the ground. I talked about roots this morning in my little demonstration, and this is another image of how different root systems look in the soil. Those roots are interacting with the soil particles. They're pushing them around. They're sucking up water. They're changing the hydraulics around these particles. And then, they're also promoting microbial communities on those roots. Talked about that a lot this morning, so I'm not going to go into it that much now. But, the roots are feeding the microbes right next to them and those microbes in turn are producing sticky substances that bind the particles together.

This is some images of an aggregate in your hand and an image of an aggregate built as a cartoon by a scientist. But, I think this one is a really cool one where you get to see the aggregate live. In this case, this is again an x-ray vision of a soil aggregate where the gray is the solids, the blue is the space, and then the brownish is the organic matter inside. You can see that there's heterogeneous organic matter throughout this small aggregate. This is on a pretty tiny scale. That little scale bar on the bottom is a hundred micrometers, so a 10th of a millimeter, a hundredth of a centimeter. You can see that it's not consistent. It's not like when you mix up a cake and then you bake it and you get this kind of even consistent texture. Instead, you have chunks of organic matter in some places. You have big pores in some places and small pores in other places. That's good.

You think sometimes that more even is better. I'm sure if you look across your planting surface you want that to be relatively even. But, on this microscale, this heterogeneity is really good because it means, in the dry times, you have some small pores to hold water and, in the wet times, you have some big pores to [inaudible 00:14:00] water. You want some of both. You want that heterogeneity. This is an image of some soil that went through a slow infiltrometer run. This little device can rain on the surface of the soil. And then, when you take it off, you get either kind of this jello pat in a really well tilled system or you get that really nice structured soil on the other side.

When we get a little water on the soil, we can really learn a lot about how strong it is and how resilient it is to a rain event. This is just a moderate amount of water just drizzling down. It's not a really intense rain event. But, when you get it in a system that doesn't have the capacity to conduct the water further into the ground, then you can end up with something like this, which is really the texture of jello and how it jiggles. Versus, in this case, the soil structure is still intact. It was able to infiltrate some water and hold onto it like a sponge. But, it was also able to conduct some water deeper down. Okay, I think I'm going to stop there. Enough soil nerdery for the moment. I invite Tom up to talk about his farm.

Tom Pyfferoen:

Thank you, Anna. She's been great to work with. That whole team has been great to work with. This project came to us probably early spring of 2021. Jennifer Hong had called me one day and I remember distinctly what I was doing. I was hauling our organic fertilizer. She wanted to know if I'll be involved in this project. After thinking about it and thinking about a couple sites that would be on the same soil type, perfect scenario would've been the same crop each year. And, we have a big enough site there kind of behind the [inaudible 00:15:37] that we could put this in. So, I agreed to it.

The first year we got off to kind of a sluggish start with the equipment and getting it installed. But, it worked through it and the thing that I was most interested in is, we've been no-tilling now... I bought my first Kinze planter in 1985. Started no-tilling in the bean ground, corn into bean ground at that time. Pretty well did it as a primary practice. 2013, we had a prevent plant year down on our way, so we had to be a little creative that year. I got my first experience in raising [inaudible 00:16:18] rye and annual ryegrass and turnips and radishes and all that kind of stuff. And, we've kind of evolved since then.

This particular field that this is on has been no-till since probably 2012, is what it's been done. Nothing fancy. It's kind of a sandy loam, a lot of feedlot manure and that sort of thing over the years on it's soil. It was probably a very good field to do this demonstration. Plus, it's pretty close to the buildings. I had one of the sites at my side of the fence right across the field, right across the fence line there. The neighbor there, his was the very same soil type and that's what we were looking for to put the soil monitors in. But, we were backwards on rotation. I was corn and he was beating me on his corn. But, it worked out really great.

Anyway. What led us up to this thing was I served in township government for 30 years and every spring about mid-April, you'd go on out for a road tour. As you were looking at cleaning ditches and that and the cause of that and the cost that it was costing us, I could tell the other supervisors and even the county engineer [inaudible 00:17:34] says, "What the heck is going on here?" You said, "Well, you guys all put dirt in our ditches, so we got to clean them out. This is what we're getting frost boils early." This is really what brought me to the point to figuring out what am I doing. We had real erosion, we had gully erosion and that kind of stuff, and I never really thought about the cause of it. Of course, we had the four wheel drives, we had the deep rivers, we had the field cultivators and we have all that stuff. And, we used it to the max.

My son says to me the other day, he said, "Dad," he says, "how many dollars do you think that you wasted over the years by full width tillage?" I said, "I don't know." I've been at this 49 years. I don't even want to know that number. Because, we've been no-till. One of the things that, since we went no-till, is we track all of the equipment hours every year. January one, we go through the year, read the odometers and that on the tractors. You can't believe the few hours that we put on the equipment every year, is what we've done. And, this is still feeding cattle and this sort of thing. But, it's been an interesting journey. We started 20 years in the dairy business, and then we've always had cattle until now, and I have this thing done. I said, "Well, it's time for me to set aside."

And, I had shoulder replacement in case you're wondering. So, that's where we were at. That's why this project kind of intrigued me, is to figure out how much water infiltration I was getting into the soil by reducing tillage, deleting structure there, planting cover crops and that sort of stuff. This is the crew. This is our crew. Denise, my wife sitting back there in the corner somewhere and we have four children, eight grandchildren, six grandsons, two granddaughters. The youngest ones there. There'll be the fifth generation [inaudible 00:19:28] farming. My great granddad actually came out of southwestern Wisconsin. He was a Dutchman, Belgian Dutchman, if you want to call it that. That's where we came from and that was where the family started. My dad was a guy that, he had six sons and five daughters and he was labeled Big Glen. He was a big guy. He never thought twice about how many things that he could find us to do.

I mean, that guy did trucking, he was a dairy farmer, he had a custom operation business. We were always busy. It was all hands on. That's just part of it. This is where we started here when we started no-till. This is the challenges that we were having is... This was bean ground that had been tilled in the spring, planted crops come off and this is what we were seeing in the spring if you were out there for any reason whatsoever. We were getting a lot of this rill erosion. And, how do you stop this? That was our challenge. I relate this back to what I'm seeing still, tasting in the road from some of my township work. It's a long process to bring this to a halt. And, one of the worst things that we've seen is being creative like we're putting on fall [inaudible 00:20:57] a long gradual grade. We would see if it gets a January rain or February rain or something like this. It would just gully those things out.

So, we just continued that practice 15 years ago. And, this is some more of what we've seen. But, this was after we started doing some cover cropping and putting annual rye in the fall. These particular photos here, this rye was planted with a Kinze 3650 corn planter with [inaudible 00:21:24] no disc in it, with rubber backing on it. So, we were planting in 15 inch rows. It was quick and easy and what I had at the time, and it wasn't very good. We used it up until two years ago and had very good luck. This is where we started to see the healing process from what was going on there. We started accumulating residue. We were able to plant through residue. We were using trash whippers, we were using closing wheels, and having very good results. But, if you'll notice when you got that much residue in the ground, you don't have a lot of biologic activity.

This is what we were seeing is we were short the biologic activity because it's corn, soybeans, corn, soybeans. Now, we're introducing rye. Of course, corn is a high carbon. Rye would be high carbon if you let it grow to knee high or more. It was one of the things that we were making progress, but we were still seeing even when you see the crops from that top of the ground wasn't taking water and it was fragile. This is another reason why this whole project kind of intrigued me. How do I improve that water infiltration?

This was some cereal rye that was planted. Still green. I mean, one of the first years that we planted cereal rye, we planted early October on bean ground. It got probably two to three inches of growth on it. A good friend of mine, Kirk White, come to me in early April. He's the one that actually seeded for me. And then, he says, "Let's go dig up the ruts." Well, he's 80 years old. So, we went and dug in this field after the snow melted because the ground never froze that year. We had about three inches, four inches of wide growth underneath the snow and we dug down 30 inches with a shovel. I said, "Kirk, you can finish. I'm not going to." And, the ruts were still going. This told me that this is a way to improve soil health and movement. Go ahead. That's just some more shots of cereal rye as we're progressing. Planting into... these are soybeans into cereal rye there. That's cereal rye. Like I said, it's planted with a corn planter.

Go ahead. More stages of it as it's growing. I'm getting brave enough at this point in time, I'm going to plant green. I tell you, that first year that I planted green was 2016. I had just bought a 1630 Kinze planter, rebuilt it, put precision plant down for us on it, put a different closing wheel on it, put nitrogen and stuff on it. The first field that I planted, I took my shoes off. My socks were rolled up in the tip of my shoes. I was not comfortable with that because he just never had done it. It was tough on the guts, I can tell you. I can assure you that. That was some more of that rye that we were getting ready to plant green into.

Anna Cates:

Is all this bigger rye? Is this still planted in rows [inaudible 00:24:29]

Tom Pyfferoen:

This stuff is still rows. We didn't switch to narrow row rye until three years ago. Go ahead. That's a shadow of it to get some growth up. Go ahead.

Speaker 4:

When you say row, do you mean like 30 inches apart or-

Tom Pyfferoen:

15s. 15 [inaudible 00:24:44] plants on the plant. That was our height. [inaudible 00:24:47] Height of our four wheeler's knee high. So, we're talking 4 inches. We're going to plant green into this. Go ahead. Those were some of our [inaudible 00:24:57] stuff, probably an early May shot as that rye came up and took off. This was one of the first fields that we planted cereal rye on, and we were going to plant corn into it. Everybody says the [inaudible 00:25:12] path, Tom, is going to kill you. I said, "Okay. Well, we'll deal with it." I said, "Is it a linear path?" I mean, I've talked to a lot of people.

I went to a no-till conference that year. Talked to a lot of people and you hear a lot of horror stories. I thought, "Well, if I don't let it get away from me, I put nitrogen down at planting time, we put some starter fertilizer on, put some zinc on the starter and watch for slugs, we're going to get by." This is what happened. We bought it out. It was a new Syngenta number that year. It did drop some ears. It looked awful good. First year into this thing, we planted it. We planted it green. We killed it. Didn't have a slug issue. And, came out of that, 216 bushel corn on that evening. I had a positive start. This is a shot of that 1630 planter set up. It's got nitrogen out the back, it's got rotators in the front, it's got closing wheels on the rear, it's got delta force on it. And, got to pay attention later on. My son has learned that.

This is out in the shed there. This thing also has... We've got Keeton Seed Firmers on it. And, on those Keeton Seed Firmers, we use that Mojo spring on it to get those things some extra strength. Because, we want that seed better than the bottom of the trench. We will normally plant two and half. We planted it up to three inches deep when they're very good stems. We kind of plant in the moisture, but we don't want to plant so deep that we're getting in the mud. This is where the infiltration thing and that is all part of the water management thing that I talked about. Because, when you go to plant corn, at least in our area, you can have one end of the field in the perfect situation. You can have the middle of the field where she's gummy, maybe tracks a little bit. And then, the other end, it may be a little bit dry. So, you got to pick a happy medium.

This is why I use these types of attachments on it. When we first set this planter up on the closing wheels of it, we used a cast iron on one side and we used a finger till on the other side. It worked fairly well except when you get into a real [inaudible 00:27:30] rye or you get into seeding into alfalfa or clover. And, the cast iron closing wheel will not crumble the trench. It'll close the trench. As the trenches dries, it'll open back up and that's one of the things that we definitely wanted to avoid.

Mackane Vogel:

We'll come back to the episode in a moment. But, first, I'd like to thank our sponsor, SOURCE from Sound Agriculture, for supporting today's podcast. If you want to make your fertilizer plan more efficient, source it. SOURCE from Sound Agriculture optimizes the amount of crop nutrition supplied by the microbes in your soil providing 25 pounds of nitrogen phosphorus per acre. It's cost effective and easy to use. Just throw it in the tank and spray it and see. If you want to unlock your crop's potential and increase ROI, there's only one answer, source it. Learn more at And, now, let's get back to the episode.

Tom Pyfferoen:

Last year, we took the cast iron closing wheels off and we bought Martin closing wheels to put on the other side. They got the favorite till on one side and we put the Martin closing wheel on the other. We've got nitrogen coming out the back. We split it, drill it on both sides of the row. We generally use 32% or 28, whatever we have. We always fix ATS with it. On the other side, we run the fingertap. Last year, we ran those things about two and a half inches apart. This year, before we go over to the field with it, we're going to take those closing wheels down to about an inch. What we've seen when we got into clover and alfalfa and maybe some hard ground is the fact that we weren't crumbling the trench like we [inaudible 00:29:19]. We were closing the trench but we weren't crumbling it.

If you're not crumbling the trench when it dries out, it'll open up in a lump. And, if it opens up in a lump, my concern there is if you're in the cereal rye or something like that, that's the point that slugs like the seed and you'll have slug issues. Now, when I go to a no-till conference, they oftentimes talk about slugs in Ohio, eastern Illinois, Indiana, a little higher rainfall areas when they get into killing cereal rye after they plant it when it gets into that slime stage. You'll kill rye one day, you go back up the next day and it looks like snot on the stalks and it's drying. That is apparently a good time when slugs like it. We're very conscious to make sure that we have that seed embedded and we have that seed sidewalk crumbled and actually get just a little bit of a mound on top of it.

The only bad thing about when you run closing wheels this tight is, if you've got some little hard heads in the fields, you'll get one caught in there every now and then. And then, you've got to jump off and kick it backwards to kick it out of there. We're fairly fortunate, with no-tillings nets or anything, we have very little problems with that. The other one was, of course, Keeton Seed Firmer. These are the very first closing wheels that I started off with on a 3650 Kinze planter. These are Exaptas. These row wheels probably got 10 to 12,000 acres on them. They actually, if you look at Exapta book, they'll actually have a square tip on them. These are worn that much. But, last year, we were just a tad bit dry when we planted soybeans and these things were perfect, because they would lay up a little bit of a mound over the top of the seed trench as you planted with them. So, how many more years I'm going to be able to run them, I don't know. But, they work great at this point in the stage of the game. They will pick a rut if you have some loose corn ruts on top of the ground from a marker that's flipping them out or something like that. But, they generally do not bring out of it without any problem. But, to keep the seed firmer in my opinion is a must if you want consistent seed depth and seed placement.

Anna Cates:

Are you saying that you switched out to these wheels because it was dry? Are you using them every year? You just like them, especially when [inaudible 00:31:34]

Tom Pyfferoen:

I like them especially when they're dry. They work extremely well when it's moist out because, these particular wheels, you can put a wedge in there and you can tip the bottoms of them in and that so you can bring them closer together so you can get that rooster tail effect, I'm going to call it, behind it. So, I like them. I mean, if I were going to go out and buy a new set today, I would go buy Martin's. I'll show you a little later on when we get through this thing. I'll show you what we did with a drill. We were [inaudible 00:32:07] the Martin ones, but they just came out a year ago. These were put on 10, 12 years ago and this is just a planter maintenance thing we do in the spring.

We have a couple of blacked out pads here around when we hit the percentage. We'll set the planter up and we'll go out and drive it on that blacked out pad and find out if we have our row wheels centered over top of the row, seed firmers and stuff are in place, and that sort of thing. But, planter maintenance is a big deal, whether you've got linkage arms or whether you've got plenty of new units or whether you've got parallel linkage bushings, that type of stuff, it's very important to make sure the best stuff is up to snuff because this is your tillage tool and your planning tool and the whole bit. So, we spend a fair amount of time going through that thing to make sure that it's the best that we know. Last year we put the STP blades on. If you're familiar with those, those are the knots ones. And, we took the scrapers off and had very good luck with it.

We ran a set of STP blades for four years on four rows prior to that, and then we switched the whole unit over to them. Last year, was a little bit drier. We have seen in the years on a Kinze planter when you're using a three and a half millimeter blade with the scrapers that they have, if you get into some loose spots or some lighter soils where you'll see some blades slide, there's too much pressure on them. That's why I took the scrapers off. Just had a gut feeling that this would be the way to go and it worked out well last year. Ask me next spring how it worked and we'll give you another assessment. But, I think we're on the right path.

This is a study that we started. We have a group of people in our area, [inaudible 00:33:51] area farmers that we gathered probably almost 10 years ago now. There was probably 20 of us that got together. We still meet at least once a year, twice a year, and put on little different seminars, have farm tours and this sort of stuff. But, we cooked up a great cleaner who just came into extension at that time. But, we had him start doing water or tile water testing for a lot of nitrates coming out of the tile lines. I think he's got 20 sites or something. I had to end up with five of them. But, I was lucky enough to get a conventional tilled field beside us where we have two outlets and then this conventional one.

This is on our site where the tile water greens out of that one is running. We're pretty consistently way under that 10 millimeter... What do they call it? Parts per millimeter of nitrates in the water. But, this is data that we've collected. Now, we're going to have about a gap in it because Greg took a different job and we just have another person that started on. So, we're going to continue this thing. This all flies in the face, if you see when EPA came to southeastern Minnesota here two, three weeks ago and started talking about water quality issues. This is kind of our documentation as to how cover crops are helping our situation and how maybe greater adoption would be the first thing that we should try before we try the regulatory process.

Like I said, we were also in the cattle feeding business. That's spring rye cattle turned on. But, probably a little too late. But, they sure do well on it. We bring stockers in. The last 10 years, we've brought all of our cattle on a Lexington. They come in and when you run those things out there in an open trap like that, your herd health problems just disappear. I mean, we just don't have... very little treatment. But, cattle are a bit extreme with all that stuff. So, I'm out of the cattle business at the moment.

This is one of our field days that we had probably three years ago, four years ago now. It was a spring one right ahead of planning. NRCS has been involved. They did the rainfall simulator out there. We did water infiltration rings. They also did the slate test where you put that on top of the jug. And, we have 50 to 60 people show up at these sites, serve pizza for dinner and that sort of thing. Very well attended. Last fall, we had a field day at the farm. Did some rut pits, talked about equipment. We had 81 or 82 people show up at that field in September 12th. A year before that at the farm, we set up a Ukrainian built grade screener and we screened notes and showed the people how you can play with the poor quality oat to make good marketable quality oat. That was well received also. We had a fabulous turnout for that one also. So, we continue to do things and even the doubters in the neighborhood are so damn curious that they'll come, which is encouraging.

Anna Cates:

Good pizza, I bet.

Tom Pyfferoen:

Yeah. This year, we dug two rut pits out there in this field where we had the soil monitors. That would be Steve Laurel from Mower County, SWCD in there explaining it. As he dug through the profile on that thing, he says, "Thomas said I can't find a compaction layer in this thing." It was right inside of the driveway. We're going in our semis, haul manure, look at manure in there, green parts. And, right where that arrow is, about the only place that he could find compaction in that four foot trench that we dug in there. The aggregation was fabulous in it.

For the field that's been no-till that long, he was really surprised that we didn't find a comparison of it as you moved with the driveway. This is some of the rut structure. Anna talked about rut structures out there this morning. Some of these ruts, he followed them all the way to the bottom of that trench. Those big corner ruts, they're all in there where the soil probes are. So, yeah, if you give the plant the opportunity and you don't have sidewall spearing and that kind of thing, those brooks, they will go for a walk. There's another shot of that block where Steve is in the trench. That picture is probably down about 24 inches. You'll notice how you're getting that across the bottom of the field. You'll see the horizontal lines in there where that stuff is kind of plating. That stuff will come apart.

Just very, very good structure in the soil. But, it all takes time. I'm sure if we'd have done this five years ago, it'd be much different than what it is today. But, that's the one thing about this field is we had beans on there with corn issue. Beans. Four years ago, we had beans on it and we were consistently harvesting the cereal rye off it mid-May for feedlot roughage, is what we were doing. I was walking across the road there that one morning and the guy in the co-op stopped. He stopped. He said, "What are you going to plant back in there?" I said, "I haven't decided." I don't particularly get along with the guy. [inaudible 00:39:19] He says, "Well, pick your poison. You're going to lose 40 bushel or four tub, whichever one you want." And, drove off. We haven't spoke to this day.

I ended up planting beans in there. I planted the beans in there the day after we took the cereal rye off and we paled it. We planted beans so they went into moist ground. We were getting that good capillary reaction from the roots yet, and we harvested those beans on the 16th of May. Planted an '08 bean. There were several bushel. You can't argue with those kind of results on it. This is why I've been a very firm, strong believer in going this route, not only from the equipment standpoint but from just the standpoint of it is just the right thing to do as far as if you want to pass a decent farm on to the next generation, it is the way to do it.

The other thing, and I haven't done it this fall, I've been playing with this [inaudible 00:40:15] a little bit too much. Last thing, when we put our numbers together as to what cropping costs were going to do for us, we had oats. We needed 83 bushel of oats at five bucks to break even. And, soybeans, we were at 890 was our cost of production per bushel, and corn were at 411. I'm figuring $250 acre land route and that was what our input cost instead. I haven't crushed the numbers here yet this fall when we finished harvesting, but we had some pretty amazing results for [inaudible 00:40:54]. This is also a shot of a plan when we had our field day there in September. I pulled those things on so people could ask questions, take a look and that. Tremendous amount of interest. Questions about iron and how to operate it and what you do and what attachments are right. I don't know what attachments are right. I have no idea. It's just I find things that you can repair and you've got access to and you go with it.

We also do some interseeding. Dodge County here a few years ago built an interseeder that's a 40 footer. They do it or they offer the service in mid-June. It's been kind of a hit-and-miss type deal. The only mix that we use is 17 pounds of annual ryegrass, three pounds of medium [inaudible 00:41:45], half pound to turnip, a half pound of kale and 21 pounds. Put, that onto the acre and it's just blown under the canopy in it at about V4, V6, V7, whatever many operator can get through it. This is kind of some of the results that we had on 80 this year.

Now, this 80 up here, six years ago we bought this farm. Seven years ago, we bought this farm with seven fields. We took the fence lines out, cleaned up some stuff and kind of put it together. Even with this amount of annual ryegrass, you see some pullover in there. Any place where the side grass rig ran over a row, you can see all kinds of kale. Good deer up there, though. That field yielded to 24 this year as dry as it was, even with this long under [inaudible 00:42:36]. And, across that 80, that growth was fairly consistent across there. I was rather pleased with that because normally we struggled to get a good interseeder. And, I'm not sure whether it's timing, whether it's sunlight. I believe that is a large part of it. But, being a larger part of it is chemistry. This would've had verdict and roundup on it as it burned down. We probably came back in three and a half to four ounces of status ahead of putting that down and that was the herbicide program on it.

See the waterhead here and there? But, that was pretty well yet. Field wasn't planted until... oh golly, let me see. It was after Mother's Day when we had the two weeks of solid rain down there. We planted it after that and that sort of stuff. But, it was kind of a humbling experience. The best part of this whole thing is there's less than 75 pounds of nitrogen on it. It was soybeans last year. It was all we had out. We put eight gallons of 28 on it or 32% on it, two gallons of ammonium tile as a side dress and 10 gallons of water. I had Joe going in and side dress it. He just used a Haiti with drop nozzles on it and that's where we came out of that field. I mean, this is the field that we have never tilled it since we've owned it except for the fence lines and the tile lines that we put into.

That's another shot of that. That is probably a little dense. Go ahead.

Speaker 4:

You said the [inaudible 00:44:10].

Tom Pyfferoen:

[inaudible 00:44:10] Right. Yep. We put on our normal program is like 11 gallons of 32% at planting along with three gallons of ammonium tile. Then we come back at sidedress time, we're starting to do more nitrogen testing about that first, second week in June, third week in June. We're seeing higher levels of nitrates this year than what we've ever seen. We see those PTS things come back from over 90 to 95 pounds of nitrates. They have a nitrogen of 12 to 24 inches. We just went and... Maybe it's a little insurance. We look for that 135 level at that time of the year as a total available units of nitrogen. That's kind of where we're at.

Anna Cates:

Do you have cattle on here? Is that a source?

Tom Pyfferoen:

Nope. There was some pen-pack manure spread on it. I probably hauled 60, 70 loads up there, spreading very uniformly. Covered just about all of that 80 with a little bit of [inaudible 00:45:19] of that spread manure. Pretty well did it myself. We get a little bit of manure over a lot of acres. We use a slinger spreader and I like to kind of compost something newer down the pits. It's not something that lasts for a year in a compost pile. But, I like to stack it up and let it stand for about a month and then turn it over and spread it so we get a fairly decent job, a uniform spread of it.

This is done. Some of the results... This was the ryegrass. I would never expect annual ryegrass to have this much growth on it. But, in my opinion where he ran over the row there, that's strictly a function of sunlight, strictly a function of sunlight to let that thing go. Plus, the chemistry didn't hold it back. You see, when I harvested that field, we had clover in there that was probably three leaves on. It was about this tall and it was just coming. It's probably not going to mount to a whole bunch as far as contributing to a nitrogen factor if you're going back to a cereal rye or a corn crop or something like that in it. But, the fact that it was there told me that the chemistry is pretty close.

Anna Cates:

Yeah, I'll just say if you want to... You got to earn the right to drop your nitrogen rates like that, so I would say drop them cautiously if you're early in this process. And, Marisol will talk more about the actual capacity to cover crop to give you that nitrogen.

Tom Pyfferoen:

This was before... We got snowed out when we were picking that field. I was back up there and I just turned a shovel, took a shovel with me. This was a shot of the last field there. That's a shot of what I turned over. This is what our aggregation looked like. Pretty decent stuff. This is another venture, we're going to move away from corn and soybeans, that Byron area farmers are doing. We're into the oat business now. 2022, we had about 900 acres of oats between eight or 10 growers. Had it marketed for $7 and 38 cents a bushel. Actually got a check for that too. Last year, we had 2,100 and some odd acres and it's being delivered now. All going to grain millers. At this point in the stage of the game, we're at five and a half a bushel on it. But, they want test weight, they want quality and they don't want to desiccate it.

Our program down that way has been growing. I think this year it looks to me like it could push into that three to 4,000 acre mark in our particular area. It's all food grade oats going to... This stuff just happened to go on to grade millers. There's going to be more and more interest down there as far as our oat program goes and we've got Quaker Oats taking a look at it, having some discussion with General Mills. Of course, Grain Millers is always interested in it. But, they're tough people to deal with. But, we've got one guy, we just got to let him do the marketing thing on it so he can talk with everybody.

But, it's been a good program for us. Ray Leffingwell was telling us he's a hay distributor and straw distributor from down [inaudible 00:48:32] area. He said, "If you want to square [inaudible 00:48:34] straw out of a conventional solder combine," he said, "I can get you $300 a ton for it delivered to the horse tracks in Chicago." Our average straw yield is slightly under about a ton of your comparable product an acre. That's kind of a pretty good enhancement, but most of us run under [inaudible 00:48:53]. So, there is opportunities. Five minutes.

Anna Cates:

Can I just say about the oats and then we should probably open it up for questions. A third crop of rotation increases yields throughout the rotation. If you're thinking about oats or weed, don't just look at the price of your weed or the price of oats. Think about how it's going to increase your yields across the rotation and make a more profitable overall system. These third crops are really important and you can get cost here for these just as well as you can get cost share for cover crops.

Tom Pyfferoen:

20 bushel. We've consistently shown corn behind oats has been a 20 bushel ball.

Anna Cates:

Yeah. My colleague, Yoko, a small grain specialist, would say, "Why you terminate the rye? Just grow rye. Just grow that third crop." That's always his line and it's a good one. It's a good consideration.

Speaker 4:

What varieties of oats are you finding working for them?

Tom Pyfferoen:

We find Rains and Rushmore. Rushmore was a variety that came out of South Dakota probably four years ago. It's a mid-oat, probably 36, 38 inches. Heavy test weight. Nothing to see 40 pounds of test weight out of it. Rains is an early oat, fairly short, 32 inches maybe is the max on it, planted at about 120 pounds to the acre. Last year, we were able to seed oats with about the 10th or the 14th of April. Some of those were seeded on frozen ground. Everybody uses a 30/30/30 program as far as nitrogen goes. Make sure we get in there with a shot of 24D, especially along the waterways, headliners and this kind of stuff.

If you don't have an underseed, 24D is fine. If you've got it underseeded, you got to use some CPA to clean out any kind of broad leaves, water hemp. Generally water hemp is not an issue at that time. And then, a fungicide. One or two fungicide applications. It's just a real light rate. I mean, half rates seem to be totally adequate to control leaf rust. It's been a good program for us. I mean, the guy that got this whole thing started, his average yields right now are pushing 140 bushel. He's doing very, very well on it. Oats is all about testing. That's the whole game of oats.

Speaker 5:

Surely the ground [inaudible 00:51:24] What have you seen before the increase? How's that [inaudible 00:51:29]

Tom Pyfferoen:

We have not seen a huge increase in a typical Midwest lab soil test. Maybe a half percent, two thirds of a percent. What we see is infiltration and aggregation and that's where the... Now, we've cut our fertilizer up. And, a thousand acres, it was nothing uncommon for us to spread 50 to 60 ton of potash, 70 ton of potash every year, and 30 ton of MAP or DAP, whatever we had, MEZ, whatever was available. We've cut that back 50%, 60%. We're not seeing yields come down. I think it's because we're seeing better biologic activity. Last year was kind of our first year into using some of the biologics. That jury, that door is still open. But, we have a compost pile going right now and we're going to try to make our own compost tea this spring. Probably going to be a flop. But, I guess, start somewhere.

They got a couple of guys, they got really a lot of interest in it. We're going to master that. It's just going to take us a while. We've got to find somebody that really understands a microscope. You look through a microscope, they can identify bacteria, protozoa, fungi, that sort of thing. I'm not good enough at it. I got one sitting in the office there and I play with it every now and then, but I'm not there yet. Anna's going to help me with it she said. She understands that totally.

Anna Cates:

I'll do my best. Yeah, I would say look for organic matter function as much as organic matter level. You need to talk to me about your organic matter providing functions even if it's not growth. Other questions?

Speaker 5:

[inaudible 00:53:10] oats. [inaudible 00:53:12] your oats. What do you do with your [inaudible 00:53:12] oats crop?

Tom Pyfferoen:

What am I doing with my new oats crop? I have put [inaudible 00:53:21] clover at planting time, like three to four pounds. There's some data out there that says that maybe that can be a deterrent for yield a little bit. I don't know about that yet. I mean, I've heard some rumblings about it. The first year we did it, I came back in a cocktail mix of annual ryegrass, clover, kale, turnips, sunflowers, soybeans, I don't know, [inaudible 00:53:53] in there. I'll tell you, I really liked that. I did that on a very, very poor farm. Just a piece of junk that some guy begged me to farm.

We didn't put much into that. We put starter on. We didn't put anything else out. We took 165 bushel dry corn off the following year. This is just garbage is what this farm was. I personally like that cocktail mix afterwards especially in our situation where you could hay that if you wanted to. You could graze it if you wanted to. You're going to let it go down or use it for just ground cover. I mean, it's a beautiful mix. But, you got another trip. You got to go back out there and do another... Yes, sir?

Speaker 4:

Are you putting that cocktail mixture you were just talking about on at 15 inch rows too?

Tom Pyfferoen:

Well, we went to a 750 drill. We didn't get that far yet. We went to a 750 drill, John Deere drill. I probably used one, rebuilt it to the exact... There you go. I used some of the Exapta parts and used the [inaudible 00:54:59] parts. It's a big job to rebuild those things. They're 500 bucks in a row and it's about three hours a row. 15 quarters, 24 rows. It's a lot of work to do it. But, it works like a slit slip. This thing has got... That is a... Martin just came out with that closing wheel on it. But, it's a cat's meow. A John Deere no-till drill, most of you are probably familiar with it. They run those single displays at a seven degree angle, so you actually get a little bit of a hump in the dirt. Your boot runs in there. It'll drop the seat in the bottom.

You have got a ninja flap on the bottle [inaudible 00:55:39] so you just don't get seed bottoms. You've got a narrow firming wheel running about an inch behind that seed food. Won't shove that seed in the ground. That wheel will actually come and it'll actually put about yay much dirt in a little bit of a mound. Rooster tail over top of that seed, you got just a perfect situation to do it. The neighbor came to us, he's 65 this year. He says, "Can I run the drill this fall?" I said to Aaron, "You deal with that." He did about 700 acres with that thing. 15 footer. The tractor's got guidance and that sort of stuff on it. It did a beautiful job.

The only thing that we did learn was, the first field we went in, I started kicking stocks behind it and he wasn't running it quite deep enough because you got to compensate for the amount of trash on top of the ground in order to get your boot to the right seed depth. So, we ended up going down about another half inch to get us a lot of inch planting depth because you're running over. We run at an angle and we plant. We don't run down the row. We run about 10 degrees off the row so you never have one row of cereal rye that runs right out and down the road. Seems to work very good.

We run Palmer stocking stock rolls. Familiar with them at all? They'll confetti that stuff up about like this. Probably the smartest thing I ever did as far as... I had two or three case [inaudible 00:56:59] chopping heads. Never liked them and don't like them to this day because they wind roll the outside row. If you go down the field westbound, turn around and come back, those heads turn and you'll get a windrow between your eighth and ninth row that is about this deep of junk that you can't handle. I went away from that thing and I absolutely loved those [inaudible 00:57:24]. Easy maintenance, easy [inaudible 00:57:27]. Fabulous.

Mackane Vogel:

Big thanks to Anna Cates and Tom Pyfferoen for today's discussion. The full transcript of the episode will be available at slash podcasts. 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.