While cover crops and no-till have been buzzwords in agriculture the last few years, these practices have been common on some farms for decades and these farmers are seeing the obvious benefits now.

During the recent Wisconsin Water and Soil Health conference in Wisconsin Dells, several farmers shared how these practices have had an impact on production and soil conservation, particularly in challenging years when there is too much or not enough rain.

Amber Radatz of the UW-Wisconsin Discovery Farms program says cover crops are very helpful for preventing soil loss but work still must be done on manure application with cover crops.

“We need to figure out ways to get covers in earlier," Radatz says. "September is the ideal time after corn silage harvest.”

Dr. Jose Franco, USDA soil scientist, says getting covers out earlier can be a challenge, particularly for those farms that do not raise corn silage.

Seeding via drone might offer a way to spread the seed over growing crops like soybeans. Once the crop is harvested to let more sunlight in, Franco says seeds take off and provide beneficial cover. He also points to the benefits of planting diverse mixtures of covers. 

“Diversity attracts a variety of pollinators and provides different benefits to the soil,” Franco says.

There are also advantages to some plants dying over winter while others survive, providing living cover for the life under the soil. Marty Weiss, a Beaver Dam farmer who has been a leader in cover crop utilization since the Dodge County Healthy Soil-Healthy Water organization began, has had success inter-seeding covers since 2017.

“This increased the plant diversity to sequester carbon and provided an opportunity to include flowering plants for the pollinators,” the Dodge County farmer says.

While inter-seeding the cover into a newly planted corn field, Weiss says by day 12 the plants were up and by 30 days the ground between the corn rows was covered.

This year's cover was particularly beneficial as it helped to warm the soil early in the year and then protected it from drying out and getting too warm later in the summer. While Weiss does not deal with manure application on his fields, for many farmers this is a challenge when utilizing cover crops.

Radatz says manure along with cover crops does work but she notes the benefits of getting the manure into the soil and not on the surface. Manure management has been the biggest challenge for farmers who want to utilize cover crops but still need to empty their manure storage facilities each spring and fall.

John Koepke and his family have successfully managed both on their Waukesha County farm where they are surrounded by housing, streams and lakes. The family milks 360 cows and raises another 350 replacement animals. The Waukesha County family farms 1200 acres in a county that at one time had 60,000 dairy cows but now has 400,000 residents.

For years, the Koepke family has worked closely with the Discovery Farms program monitoring runoff from their farm. The lessons learned from this monitoring helps them to make management decisions every year.

“My dad got corn yield awards back in 1970 but he wasn’t making any money," Koepke says. "That’s when he started to look at ways to improve. First, he went to no-till and by 2004 our farm was entirely no-till.”

After 30 years of employing no-till practices, Koepke says they now have an abundance of earthworms.

"The soil looks as if it has been worked even when it was not," he says. "The worms do the tillage.”

The flood year of 2008 sparked their interest in planting cover crops.

“Now we plant into a cover like wheat, clover or rye, Koepke says. "We spread manure in spring and the rain took it in and those are the fields that greened up first.”

This year was particularly challenging but because of their no-till and cover crop system, the Koepke's managed to survive.

“Even though this was an unusually dry summer we did have one day in June where we had two inches of rain and hail in 20 minutes time," Koepke says. "Because of our system, there was no run-off but the corn was shredded by the hail.”

By contrast, Koepke says his neighbor’s field had run-off flowing into the ditches.

"Their soil, starter fertilizer and even seed landed on the bottom of the hill, including in our hay field next to their field,” Koepke says.

Given the dry weather this year, Koepke says they are grateful things turned out as well as they did.

"It goes to show that conservation practices such as no-till, cover crops, judicious use of manure, and crop rotation help make a cropping system more resilient," Koepke says.

Radatz points out that much of the current research involves dealing with manure and cover crop systems.

Tracking Phosphate Levels

"Tests show the phosphate levels are the highest 3-4 inches below the surface and very low on the top," Radatz says.

He also says the first step in keeping phosphorus and nitrogen in the field is to prevent soil loss. 

Farmers should then try to determine how much phosphorus is on the surface by testing the top inch or two of soil.

"Then look at the timing of your application,” she says.

It's important to note that there are two pools of phosphorus, one that is there and one that is applied.

“Going to tillage to try to eliminate surface phosphorus is not the way to do it,” she says.

Koepke says when they worked with the Discovery Farms monitoring various fields on their farm they learned, through soil testing, that wooded areas where no phosphorus was ever added also had surface phosphorus.

“That showed us that leaves falling to the ground provide about as much phosphorus as manure,” he says.

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