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“Our manure dragline keeps our rye in check and keeps it from getting too much growth, especially in the spring. This makes it easier to chemically terminate it afterwards.”

— Scott Healy, Cover Cropper, Hartford, S.D

In this episode of the Cover Crop Strategies podcast, brought to you by Montag Manufacturing, listen to a compilation of audio clips from the 3 most popular episodes of the podcast released in 2023 featuring best practices for aerial seeding cover crops, tips for grazing cover crops, how to use a manure dragline to terminate cover crops and more.

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Full Transcript

Mackane Vogel:

Welcome to the Cover Crop Strategies Podcast, brought to you by Montag Manufacturing. I'm Mackane Vogel, associate editor at Cover Crop Strategies. In this episode, listen to a compilation of audio clips from the three most popular episodes of the podcast released in 2023. Starting us off at number three, we have Iowa Farmer Dean Sponheim, sharing best practices for aerial seeding cover crops.

Dean Sponheim:

There's a huge amount of advantage for aerial application. We're going to go back and basically try to think of some of the things that we had challenges, and most of them fall into this inconsistent stand category. And we'll talk about the problem with the inconsistent stand and some of the reasons why. One is the crop stage or the canopy, sometimes it's the applicator error, other times it's the weather and Mother Nature. The other thing is the crop is we're going to fly into, and then it comes back to applicator error, maybe with the borders and field edge skips and overspreads, and sometimes the seed sizes. And the other thing would be the applicator schedule.

In our particular area, we really don't get any planes available for our cover crop application, and this has been up to now and it might change in the future. They will have planes flying fungicide and insecticide on corn, I guess mainly corn that late, and they won't switch the planes over until they're done with that. And that usually runs from maybe the 1st of August to the middle to late August, and that's about when we want to start. We're looking at going and started applying cover crops the last week of August, trying to hit that September 9th frame, as I showed you before in our area that we have to have those specific species on by. So it's very tight. If that application of fungicide and insecticide goes later, we sometimes have less availability of the planes.

But I think as cover crop continues to grow, I think the applicators know that that's part of their business and it's going to be a large part of their business. And we're starting to see more planes available and sooner. We're even starting to see some planes available in the summertime for applying nitrogen for side dressing. And so I think what we're going to see is as this demand continues to increase, the supply of aircraft and equipment will also increase, so we maybe have a better time or more timely applications.

So we'll start with a consistent stands, and a lot of you out there, probably why you're watching is because you're getting the inconsistent stands. And some of the things that I'm going to talk about is some of the reasons why we see them, at least that's what we've seen in the past. The picture on the left happens to be a spring picture of cereal rye that was aerial applied the fall before in the standing soybeans. And as you can see in that picture, it is not a consistent stand and I apologize, I took it from a tractor we were strip tilling into that field. And you can see spots and gaps where the rye isn't very thick or not at all.

Now that's still good enough to give us some soil health benefits, but it's not consistent enough to maybe pattern a fertilizer application to consistently, or to try to eliminate weeds or have weed suppression because in those areas where there are very little rye, there's not a lot of weed suppression. But it still does. We have a saying that a little bit of cover is better than none at all, so it's still a step in the right direction. The center one is showing, this is one of our farms, one of our fields. We do strip crop, so that means that we plant eight rows of corn and eight rows of beans, alternate them all the way across the field, and here we're planting actually the soybeans.

This one actually got stripped, the way it looks. And if you look at the cover stand in the eight rows that we're planting right now in the beans, that stand is very, very poor. If you look at the strips that were soybeans and we planted corn into them, look at how thick and lush that is. And that's basically due to the canopy of the crop stage. Those beans were farther along to more of the ideal time to be applying cover crops and have them survive. But on the corn side, the corn was not far enough along and mature enough. And we see this a lot. If the corn is not to the black layer stage, and we'll touch on that again, the corn stays green too long and there's no light interception at all down in there for the cereal rye.

We can have cereal rye get started just like it did on the bean side, which we know it did because the conditions weren't that much different, but they did not survive, because they did not have the sun to start the photosynthesis. So that's a big issue and I'm hoping to touch on that again later in the presentation. The picture on the right-hand side is actual field. If you notice, there's very little rye or cover crop down the center of the row, and what happened is we had applied that one day, during the night we had a five-inch rain in a very short period of time. I don't know, two, three hours, whatever it was. And what we think had happened, I wasn't out there, it was the middle of the night, but if you would happen to see where all that rye has been pushed to the cornrows, I think what happened is the water actually got high enough in that soil. It didn't percolate fast enough. It stood the water and it floated the seed to the edges where it was caught in the corn row.

And we see that sometimes. When we're laying this seed on top and we get a large rain, it will move. It is the same way with spreading on top of standing water, and we'll get to that. This is where the weather... And I'm going to jump down a little bit to that rain and standing water. We've had times... Well, the slides before when I talked about that one field had five inches of rain. We were not done spreading cover crops at that time, but we woke up, we were on the way to the airport, and we had water running out of some of these fields. And they were so anxious to get going because it was beautiful. It was calm and it was no fog and they wanted to get started, and I said, "No, we can't do it because we got running water."

We fly on these fields with that running water, we're going to wash a lot of this seed away and we just won't have the benefit from it. So that's one of the disadvantages when we talk about weather on flying, but the water part is the only one, is if we have standing water or running water, we do not seed. We try to keep them out even though it is better conditions otherwise. The other big thing would be the wind speed, and as you can see, the heavier seed, we can go longer. The maximum would be 15 miles an hour. Once we start getting to that sustained wind, it's pretty nasty for the pilots but also for trying to get the seed in the right place.

I remember one time it was 15 miles an hour and actually was out watching the plane and the pilot was flying over the road so the seed would hit the field. I don't know if all of you would know what situation we have up in northern Iowa, but most roads are about 40 feet wide and then there's usually a 10 to 15 foot-wide ditch. So these planes are flying 15 to 20 feet off-target to try to hit the field, and that's not the best way to get a consistent stand.

When you get to the lighter material or lighter cover crops like annual ryegrass and oats, a lot of times the pilots will fly closer. When they're flying with cereal rye, they're about 70 feet above the ground, so a lot of times the highline wires, the only thing that really bothers them are evergreen trees that are up in that 90 to 100 feet high. But when you get into the oats and the annual ryegrass, which is very light, a lot of times We've got one customer that flies annual ryegrass on every fall and we can't go over five mile an hour wind, otherwise we're in trouble because you just cannot get that.

The other thing is if there's gusty winds and it's not consistent, that's when you really get into problems with inconsistent stands. And then fog, of course. Some mornings we wake up with a lot of ground fog and we can't start applying until later in the morning, and severe storms. They do a pretty good job at keeping tabs on radar and what's going on. I know we have flown right up until sometimes the last plane that comes in. It's raining hard and it's lightning and he said, "Man, I shouldn't have been out there that last load." It does happen, but they try to keep ahead of that as well.

This is interesting. This isn't a big deal, but it's curious and it's fun to look at. We do have some of the product and that's one of the reasons why some people don't like the airplane is they say, "Well, the canopy is going to catch too much of the seed." Yes, I don't think it's too much. It's very little. I've never gone and taken numbers to see what the percentage is, but it does happen. It really does, and it's interesting to watch it grow actually on a corn plant.

And the last thing I think on this inconsistent stand is the borders. This is actually one of our strip crop fields and the picture on the right is right along the road. There is power lines there. I don't know why he did hit it. We have discussions with our pilots every year. We want him to go all the way to the fence or all the way to the ditch, but not over seed into the neighbors. You know how that is. We're only picky. We want the best job that we can get, but it's hard to do when you're flying 140 miles an hour and trying to get things in the right place, especially turning on and off on the headlands when they are turning it on and off.

We have come to a conclusion that we are doing two passes on every headland field where they're turning the spreaders on and off, but as you can see, the second bean strip from the road on the left here has a perfect stand, and that's what about having a lawn right behind when you combine. This is probably about a week after we harvested the soybeans and this is what it would normally look like on the right-hand side, but look at how nice and lush and green that is on the left. That's what we want.

When I talk about seed size, there's a couple things that go on, and this can happen with the drill as well. I'll talk about the separating. When you're trying to blend or make a mix and you're going from like a oat, which is a 15,000 seeds per pound, it's large, lighter, a long kernel, and you mix something like camelina, which you can barely see because we get up to half a million seeds per pound. It's very, very small. When we get that in a bag, a lot of times it's leaking out of the stitching. Because of stitching, you can't get close enough to keep that product inside. But when you have that, sometimes there's some settling in the plane and also when you're moving it with trucks or with their tenders. But the biggest thing is spreading it.

With a grain drill, you don't have to worry about that because you're still spreading it into certain areas. You're still putting it in those rows or whatever, but with airplanes it does have a different spread pattern. And sometimes you will start seeing the streaking. Not a lot, but you will see some, especially with an oat. If you're putting an oat in with that and you're going with one of these other, like a rapeseed or a radish or a turnip even, the seed size is heavier so it flies farther or the oats will not fan out quite as far. When you start using these particular brassicas or broadleafs or whatever, or even sometimes legumes, the rye your best choice because the rise is a little bit heavier. It's got a little bit different shape, but it still seems to apply and spread out very similar to these. But that's what we're talking about with inconsistent sands and seed sizes.

We're going to jump now to seeding rates, and the first thing that you have to know is what's your goal with the cover crops? Are you going to use it just for a cover crop? Are you going to use it for grazing? You're going to use it for forage? Are you going to use it for weed suppression? And what rate of weed suppression? Do you just want to eliminate one pass or you want to eliminate all application of herbicides altogether?

I spoke at a meeting in Minnesota and they were talking about... they were applying cereal rye and they had to have it, and this was not recommendation, but that was what they had to do, was 96 pounds of cereal rye applied by the plane PLS, which would be pure live seed. And in that case they were putting on between 105 to 110 pounds of cereal rye, depending on what the germ is, and what the purity was. In Iowa, as long as it meets 85% germ, these are the recommended rates. Now I think maybe in Iowa we want a little too far on making it so easy, which I love, but I think the rates may be a little bit low in certain instances.

And if you look on the left-hand side, our recommendations for cover crops for the winter hardy grasses, which would be the triticale weed or rye, then we're looking at 55 to 60 pounds of the plane. Now sometimes we still say 45 pounds is okay with a drill depending on what you want out of it. And on the oats, we stay with a recommendation. They did bring that down as well. I think when we first started doing... we were used to be PLS as well when we first started applying in the 2012s through, I don't even remember when this switched, '16 or '17, but that 60 pounds of oats seemed to be pretty good. That's a lot of oats. That's two bushels. 64 pounds would be two bushels.

And then when we figure our mixes, I want to point that out a little bit, is let's say we want a pound of rapeseed. A pound of full rape would be three pounds, or in an airplane it would be four pounds. If we put a pound of rape on, we can reduce our cereal rye or oats by a fourth, by 25%. And as long as we stay with a total of 100% between the two products, then we're good. So it has made it very, very easy. When you start working and maybe some of you're from Minnesota or our other states are using PLS, just make sure you talk to your local supplier and make sure you're applying the right amount of seed to reach that PLS that's required.

On the weed control side, we do have a partial. We have many customers who are putting on like 70 pounds of cereal rye with the plane, and then what they do is they plant into it green and then they don't germinate for a couple, three weeks after it comes up, and they just apply a post and that's all they do. So they go from two passes with a pre and a post, they go just to a post. Now our goal in our farming operation is we're going to go strictly no herbicides, so we're going to use crimper roller, so we're going to be putting 140 to 150 to 200 pounds of cereal rye on per acre to help control our weeds. So it all depends on what you want to accomplish. Know your goal, know what you want to accomplish in the end, and then go with the different rates and the different products.

These are some of our mixes that we've been using. The first one, the 50 pounds of cereal rye and the pound of rapeseed, is probably our standard for a government two-species mix. We've seen rape actually over winter a little bit and we still continue to be able to control it with glyphosate, even though in the literature it says we should probably use something else like a growth inhibitor or a regulator like a 240 or something on it, we haven't seen that problem. We also do 50 to 60 pounds of rye with a couple pounds of radish. There was always fads where everybody thinks they should have radishes, but I think that's slowed down and we've gone back to more of the rapeseed.

Our newest one that getting a lot of traction is winter camelina because that's one that will overwinter and will give us those advantages of the broadleaf in there as well as just the cereal rye in the spring. It's really new to us. We applied it once in 2020, and I think we have probably five customers or five producers that we put camelina in this fall just to see what we can get out of it and see what kind of growth. I know my son applied it late with a drill and the rye just came up and just started turning green and the camelina, it was right behind it. So it looks like it's going to be able to establish in colder soils and get going just as fast as cereal rye.

Now, I have to apologize, I don't know why we got this one end where it says non-winter-hardy mixes and we have cereal rye and oats, but this is one that we really have found, and even if you're not going to graze, this has become a very popular mix for us because we get much more growth in the fall from the oats and then we have this great growth of the rye in the spring. So it's accomplishing a lot more in the fall than we normally would get just from the rye. And of course whenever we add one more species, the oats really has a great host of organisms that it attracts in the soil, even more so than the rye. But the rye has low [inaudible 00:18:31] effect of small seeded grass or broadleaves to control our weeds in the spring.

So they really compliment each other in what we're trying to accomplish. You have people that will do, especially the first timers of cover crops, and we'll talk about that I think in the next slide or two, but oats, it's not overwintering, so the farmers don't have to worry about terminating in the spring, especially ahead of corn, and the radish is the same way. That's really popular for our first time users. And in our grazing mixes, this depends on what you want out of it. We've got some really crazy things that we do. The cereal rye and oats is awesome, just up the rates. If you want to add something in like the kale and turnips, cows just love that.

It gets to be a lot of leafy material, but I would really caution you, do not fly that into standing beans. We've got good luck with flying oats into standing beans and we get into a year where the beans have matured and it's too wet the harvest and then that rye continues to grow and grow. It's going to go to try to make seed, so it gets to be massive. 12, 18 inches tall and you're out there with beans. We have had a couple instances where it starts plugging sieves with all that moisture, but if you were to add kale and turnips into that mix to that type of situation, I would not want to have the phone call.

But that works good in the corn, if you put it on and get a rain and make sure the corn is far enough along. Okay, to get started, we have this easy what we call five-step process. For those that don't want to spend a lot of money on equipment, don't want to change too many things, especially to get the seeding equipment for cover crops, it's real simple to start and maybe you might be a little scared of rye ahead of corn. In our first year, so let's say in 2022 here now, you have a soybean field and you're going to go to corn in '23. This fall, apply the 55 pounds... Excuse me, I'm backwards. In the the corn section, excuse me, okay? I don't know what I was thinking about.

But into the standing corn with 55 pounds on with the airplane in that standing corn and then next spring, 2023, you no-till beans into that rye. Now I'm not saying you have to plant green. If you're first time, go ahead and terminate as soon as you can in the spring so you don't have to worry about so much competition or whatever you might think is the problem with cereal rye, which I don't have any problem because everything we plant on our farms or no-till into green rye, corn and beans. So then the third step would be after those beans are growing and in the fall of that bean crop, then aerial seed about 60 pounds of oats in that bean field at the time of leaf drop just before that.

And the following spring, if you're a little concerned about that, you won't have the oats there. You can actually even work the ground, which I don't recommend. I would recommend no tilling the corn in the next spring and then start the process over and then repeat it until you're so comfortable that you're also planning the rye in the beans going ahead of corn and then you can just progress from there. But that's our five-step easy plan getting started with cover crops and working towards no-till. So, we're getting close to ending this, so we're going to end on some keys to success. And the first one is always you must have a goal or a plan in mind and how you want to do this.

What do do you want out of this? What's your goal of the cover crop? And don't get me wrong, when I first started, my goal for the cover crop was to sequester nutrients, especially nitrogen. That's the only reason, because I'm on ground that's got less than 2% slope. I don't need it for erosion purposes, but there are many of you out there that the erosion piece is big. It might be the first reason why you want to go to cover crops, and it can change. From the time when I said it was for my nutrient sequestering, now it's to develop soil health. It's actually to not only sequester my nitrogen, which I thought I was only going to do, it's sequestering my phosphorus and potassium, my sulfur, all those great ingredients that we need to grow crops, and my goal has changed from the first time I've started it.

So, when you get your goal set and then you can talk about seeding rates, the species you want, and the application method. The next thing is very, very important. When you've got your plan of application and it's going to be aerial application, you have to know when you should be putting it on. And in corn, we recommend that the corn is at black layer. That means that the lower leaves are starting to senese, maybe a lot of those leaves are senescing, I should say. So it's opening up the canopy so we get that sunlight in there to get that rubber crop to survive.

And as I mentioned a little bit earlier, it's very important to have sun hit that rye or whatever else you might have to get it started. We normally will get it started if we have some rain with it, but the sunlight is key. And soybeans is another thing we recommend just before leaf drop, but to make this all work with the timing of the applicator when you can get them there and when this is all going to happen, and then the government regulations and their time schedule, sometimes we have gotten to the point where September 9th, our corn is not black-layered yet, where our beans are not ready to start dropping leaves yet. And we have tried to talk to the NRCS office to give us a little bit of leeway to be able to adjust those application times. Sometimes they will extend them and sometimes they won't, so just keep that in mind.

And the other thing is to find an experienced applicator. We've been very fortunate to work with the same operation or applicator since the very beginning of 2012. It has changed names, it has been sold to a larger company, but by and by, most of the workers are still there and a lot of the pilots are the same, so we know how things go and their expectations of us and our expectations of them are already known that we've worked through that. The other thing is when you find the applicators, make sure you are calibrated from the very beginning and keep tabs on it. They can change.

Your seed size can change, your bulk density will change, all that stuff can change within loads. And to tell you the truth, in the last couple of years, we probably have been less than a half a percent off of what our goal was for applications. So when you talk about that many acres, it's really great that we can get that close. I also plan around weather forecast. And this is a great thing... we have customers that call us and say, "Hey, it's supposed to rain tomorrow. Can we get that plant flown on today?" And of course that doesn't always happen, but we do look at the weather forecasts and if it's extremely dry, we try to hold off until we see a front that's going to be coming and say it takes us five days to apply, we'll try to get as much as we can done before that rain.

Mackane Vogel:

Coming in at number two is an episode featuring Beaver Dam Wisconsin grower Jeff Gaska as he talks about the importance of grazing to complete the holy grail of soil health principles.

Jeff Gaska:

So I grew up on a farm in southwest Dodge County, Wisconsin. Basically we started from nothing. The farm was purchased by my parents after we moved up from Chicago, and my two older brothers kind of convinced my dad to get trying some farming, and so they started when I was pretty young. But I remember sitting in the tractor as we were moldboard plowing all of our fields and planting corn on corn back in the mid-70s, that would've been, early '80s, and then slowly making that transition from moldboard plowing to chisel plowing, and then adding soybeans into the rotation, and then adding some winter wheat into the rotation, and then going from conventional tillage to more conservation tillage with the chisel plow, and then to really starting to look at no-till as an option probably in the early '90s, I would say, is when we started to look at that.

And then through the '90s we kind of practiced with some different options. We had a Rawson unit on the front of our corn planter that basically was strip-tilling and planting at the same time. That was the early adoption of strip-till, I think. Three coulters on a toolbar, like I said, right in front of our corn planter, and kind of learned from that that we could do something along those lines, that tillage wasn't that necessary. That was for corn. We switched to a no-till drill then for our soybeans and our winter wheat, and as we played around with the Rawson unit, found some issues with it where it was doing a great job working up that soil in front of the corn planter, but it was wet soil because when you went from a field that had nothing done to it to tilling about four or five inches deep in an eight-inch strip.

But it was bringing up a lot of moisture, and so that was kind of causing some issues with the corn planter following right behind. So we decided to take off the Rawson unit and try to go straight no-till, and that worked quite well. Then we started to go back and look at strip-tilling as an option. Just knowing what that Rawson unit did for our corn planter and how it worked, it was a great idea; just you needed some time for that soil to dry out in between the planting. So my brother and I built our own strip-till machine from a cultivator toolbar, kind of looking at all the designs that were out there, and none of them did everything we wanted.

Each one had its good points and points that we weren't really happy with, and so we kind of decided just to look at all those and build our own unit. We built a 12-row strip-till unit and started playing around with that a little bit and found that it worked, but we were a little short on horsepower with our tractor. So then we started weighing the option, do you buy another tractor to make that work? We went back then to just straight no-tilling and giving that a try.

And we're still not sure what is the best option. We might try and rebuild the strip-till unit. I think we want to get away from the shank that we have on there to going back to something like what the Rawson unit was, with just coulters and working up three or four inches of soil deep instead of a six or seven-inch deep, because then you're kind of going back to tillage. Even though you're not doing it field-wide, you're still doing some tillage. So we're playing around with that yet, but we've had good luck with just going on the straight no-till with the corn planter, still doing beans and wheat with a no-till drill and having good success with that.

Through that conversion and the changes in the farm, we've added beef cattle to our operation, so we've got a herd of about 35 beef cow calf pairs. We raise Simmental cattle and do some cross-breeding with Red Angus on them and really trying to integrate the cattle into the whole farming operation. One of the ideas I have and I'm trying to work with and get the cattle out on that ground... Everyone's always raising grain to feed the cattle to make the cattle operation work. I kind of want to switch that around and raise cattle so that we can feed the grain as well and kind of get that holy grail of soil health where we can get the livestock in on the farm and make that work. We're making progress with that. The big issue, of course, fencing and water and things like that for the cattle if they're out on the crop fields, and trying to get all that figured out, but really want to try and integrate the cattle in.

So one of the first steps to doing that was to go to a corn/beans/winter wheat rotation on all of our acres. We run about 450 acres total. Little more than half of that is owned, and then some is rented. And basically we've gone to a third, a third, a third with our crop rotation, and that's setting us up to be able to utilize that land better for the cattle.

We can get cattle out there two out of three years then. So after we take off the winter wheat, we plant cover crops, we can graze cattle. Then once the cattle are pulled off of that, that field will go into corn. When we harvest the corn, we've got corn stubble for the cattle, or the fodder for the cattle to graze on in the fall. And then the only year we can't put cattle on is when we go from soybeans to winter wheat. But again, trying to get the cattle out there out of three years, utilizing that.

We've also gone to some rotational grazing for our cattle. During the summer months we used to just have a couple of real small pastures and we would graze it. It looked like a golf course, constant grazing out there, just a bluegrass pasture, and realized that that wasn't sustainable and it wasn't real beneficial to the pasture and to the cattle. So we've taken some crop land out of production, fields that would go from steep, rocky knolls down to wetlands and water and really inconsistent yielding for our crop production, and we've put those into a permanent pasture now. We're putting up fencing for that and doing rotational grazing and a daily move with the livestock and hoping that that can get us... The cattle can be out on that from the middle of May till September or the 1st of October.

And then from there we can put them out on the winter wheat stubble, which would be planted to cover crops and then onto the corn stubble and trying to extend that grazing period from what would've been May to September or early October to hopefully May through the end of the year and get to January. Then we only have to feed our cattle January through May. And the goal ultimately would be to really cut that even shorter and really try and get the cattle to utilize the crop ground and our rotational grazing areas through maybe stockpiling or something like that.

So that's kind of the story, I guess, where we came from and where we're trying to head it to and really be able to utilize all of our acres all of the time and try and improve our soil health and save money by not tilling and get a better crop of grain off of it, as well as a better crop of cattle.

Mackane Vogel:

So I want to kind of back up in your timeline just a little bit. You guys sort of made a conscious decision then to add livestock to the production to complement the no-till farming you were doing. Is that right?

Jeff Gaska:

Yes. So we had raised cattle for quite a few years before we integrated them into the cropping part. Like I said, we had a few pastures that we couldn't... They were too steep to farm, too wet to farm, and they made great permanent pasture, but it was only maybe 15 acres and it wasn't enough to sustain the cattle. Like I said, it was mostly bluegrass pasture and it just wasn't working for the cattle operation. So we took a look at that. It was either get rid of the cattle and just forget about it, or make some changes with the farm to include the cattle more. So, yeah, it was a conscious decision to try and integrate them more into the farming operation.

And what we noticed as we started to do that, we were getting better yields on our corn, on our soybeans, especially the soybeans, noticing after we grazed cattle on corn stalks in the fall, those fields that we planted the soybeans always were our best yielding soybeans. So it made you start to think a little bit that maybe there was some benefit to that, and from there it just made sense to really try and get them out on as many acres as we could.

Mackane Vogel:

Yeah, that's really interesting. I know I recently read an article that was discussing four or five main things that really increase soil health and, like you were saying, that holy grail. It was sort of arguing the point that a lot of farmers will come around a no-till, they'll come around to the cover crops, but it's oftentimes the livestock or the grazing that is either just harder to implement if you're not already doing it or just something that a lot of farmers aren't necessarily sold on is going to help. But it's interesting to hear your opinion on that and that you do think it's been making a big difference on the yield and on the soil health.

Jeff Gaska:

Yep. Yeah, and we've had three crop fields that have easy access to our pasture, so we've been able to get the cattle out there probably for the last probably 15 or 20 years has had some grazing on it. Usually it was after corn stalks, but after we had done that for 20 years and we're kind of looking at those fields, I said, "Well, let's look at the soil sampling on those fields." We went back and looked at fertility levels, and every one of those fields, the soil fertility is going up, the P, the K. We're adding less as far as pH. It seems to be pretty nicely balanced. And it was interesting to actually see that happening. Where all my other fields were stable, we weren't mining the fields or the soil, but those fields in particular kept going up for us.

You don't put two and two together right away until you really start looking at that, and seeing that made me really realize that, again, not only seeing the yield in the soybeans going up, but also seeing the fertility levels of those fields going up with putting on... We were doing the same fertilization with P and K on those fields as we were all our other fields, and most of our other ones were just maintaining, whereas these were going up. And really the only difference was the cattle on them.

Mackane Vogel:

So, what, a couple weeks ago now I think was when I met you at the Dodge County Soil Health event, and we'll talk a little bit more about that in a couple minutes. But I want to go back to some of the things that you discussed there. I know you mentioned, I believe there was the 60-inch row corn that you guys were starting with. Is there an update on that at all or how that worked out for you guys? I was just curious.

Jeff Gaska:

Yep. So one of the things that we were really looking at, again, being able to get the cattle out on the crop ground and get more benefit for the cattle, one of our ideas was to try the 60-inch row corn and then interceding that with cover crops so that we could have more biomass for the cattle once we harvested the corn and give them more opportunity to graze and increase our grazing period in the fall. Instead of just going out there and having them forage through the corn fodder, we're hoping to get some good cover crops with some better nutrient value and biomass out there.

It's been a two-step process so far. We're going into the third step of that this coming year, but I started by just doing a test plot with 60-inch row corn. We'd always done 30-inch rows. We shut off every other row on the corn planter, and I did some replicated trials with that. And we found... This would've been in 2021... We found that the yield difference between the 60-inch row corn and the 30-inch row corn was negligible, two to three bushels I think we came out with. I think, if I remember right, the 30-inch row corn did about 220 bushels, 222 bushels per acre, and the 60-inch row corn was about 219 bushels, so three bushel difference. That was without any cover crops, so it was just testing that.

And what we did with the 60-inch row corn is we basically doubled the population in the row. We were still planting on a per acre basis 35,000 seeds per acre like we did in the 30-inch rows, but because you're skipping every other row, we had to put those seeds in the rows that we were planting. So we were at about 70,000 seeds in the 60-inch row corn. In 2022 then we tried replicating that, but then we put in cover crops, interceding cover crops in between. What we noticed is we did take a bigger hit on the yield on the corn in the 60-inch row corn.

We did two things not necessarily by mistake, but as we were doing the 60-inch row corn, as we were at 70,000, I was talking to some people; they thought to really get a better yield out of that 60-inch row corn, we had to push the population higher. So I went up to 80,000 seeds in row, and we put cover crops in. So as far as a real tried-and-true study, we changed two things. Not the best idea, but we figured we were going to just try this. This isn't meant to be in some publication or anything. It's just what we wanted to see. So we did lose some yield on the corn in 2022.

I really feel a lot of it was because of the population increase. When we started looking at that corn as it was coming up and as it was maturing, it was a solid stand of corn. It was inches between each plant. And what we had noticed is that there were corn plants in the row that were not producing a cob. So we really feel that we probably stressed that corn too much. The population was too high. We ended up interfering with the corn plant growing, and so all those corn plants that didn't produce the cob were basically weeds in the row and took away from our yield. The interceding, we did a mix of... It was about a 16 or 17 species mix with brassicas and some grasses, oats and rye, barley, and I think a little bit of clover in there too, a couple species of clover.

What we noticed is that the grasses and the clover did very little as far as growth, and we ended up with a stand that was almost all brassica in the end. And the brassicas, they're great for grazing, there's a lot of biomass, but they also take up a lot of nitrogen as they're growing. Any of the radishes or the kales or things like that probably took up some of the nitrogen from the corn, and so I have a feeling that's what kind of dinged our yield a little bit as well. So in 2022, the difference between the two yields was we were at about 209 bushels per acre in the 30-inch row, and we were down to about 178 bushels in the 60-inch row with covers. So we had, I would say, a significant decrease in yield by going to the 60-inch row with that planning population and with the covers in between. And so, again, learning as we go, trying to figure out what's working and what's not working.

What we did is we looked with the UW extension person, Will Fulwider, from Dodge County, we looked at the economics of doing that and trying to see... We knew we took a yield hit, but could that yield hit in corn be made up with additional grazing in the cattle and maybe weight gain in the cattle? And when we pencil out all the numbers looking at the biomass and the loss and yield, we came up with, it did not. The loss and yield was greater than what we could make up by having the cattle out there for... We figured we could probably get another 15 to 20 days of grazing out there by putting the cover crops in, and it didn't work out that well.

So it told us a couple of things. One, we need to work on that 60-inch row corn and trying to get that yield back up so that the yield hit isn't as great, because if we can get that close to what I would be getting if I planted 30-inch row corn, then the opportunity to gain from grazing those cattle increases significantly. We have the potential, I think, to not only keep the cattle off of hay for a longer period of time in the winter, but also maybe gain weight on those cattle and put them into winter in a better condition.

So what we're doing now in 2023 is we're going to do two different trials. One is going to look specifically at planting population of corn in 60-inch rows, and we're go up 10,000 seeds per acre from about... I think we're going to start at about 50,000, do a 50, 60, and 70,000 seeds per acre and replicated trial with that, and then on a separate field we're going to do three different mixes in our cover crop mix. One is going to be more of a grass mix, grass with clover mix, one is going to be a mix of grasses and brassica, and one is going to be almost a straight brassica mix.

And then in the end what we're going to look at, one, does it affect the yield of the corn, does one of those affect the yield of the corn more or less, and two, what do we get for biomass? Because that's ultimately what we want is biomass for the cattle to be feeding in those corn stalks after we harvest. So we're going to do some replicated trials on that this year and see if we can't learn a little bit more about how to tweak the system and get a better gain from the cattle and a better yield from the corn on those. So we're looking forward to that and pretty excited about kind of trying again to figure out, what are we missing there?

Mackane Vogel:

Yeah. That's really interesting. I think, as you said, as long as you're continuing to learn things, it's okay to obviously make some mistakes as long as you're taking that info and learning, and especially also sharing it with others so they can kind of learn from it too.

We'll be back to reveal the number one most listened to episode of the podcast in just a moment. But first, I'd like to thank our sponsor, Montag Manufacturing for supporting today's podcast. Montag Precision Metering Equipment is helping producers achieve their yield goals while saving on seed and input costs. For establishing cover crops, Montag's family of seed platform equipment adapts to a variety of major brand delivery systems that will conserve seed and nutrients along with soil and water. Explore new options for your production and conservation goals with your Montag dealer. Visit, or call Montag at (712) 517-2775. And now it's time to reveal the number one most listened to episode of the Cover Crop Strategies podcast for the year 2023. The most popular episode features Scott Healy of Hartford, South Dakota as he discusses his experience using a manure drag line to terminate cover crops.

Scott Healy:

So my name is Scott Healy. I'm from Southeastern South Dakota, around Sioux Falls. The operation that I work on is a multi-farm dairy operation. Farms that we grow crops for are somewhere in the neighborhood of 1200 to 3200 cows per site. We've been doing cover crops behind basically corn silage here for going on... Lynn's been doing it for probably 10 to 12 years, and I've been helping him for the last three or four. And in the last three, four years, our main crop has been rye with some sort of a brassica mixed in. This last fall, we switched it up with a price of glyphosate and termination concerns. We switched to a oats/barley mix with the brassica this last fall. So that's what we're doing.

Speaker 4:

So how many total acres do you think you're cover cropping per year?

Scott Healy:

It depends on year to year, but in the last three, four years, we've probably averaged somewhere in that 2500, 3000 acres of cover crop in the fall.

Speaker 4:

And then how are you planting the cover crop in the fall?

Scott Healy:

With either a no-till drill or an air seeder?

Speaker 4:

What types of tillage are you using for the corn silage?

Scott Healy:

Basically it gets draglined with a manure applicator in the fall or in the spring. And then we're either following that with a field cultivator or a vertical tail. And then we do have a few acres that we've been no-tilling, but our manure applicator just leaves too much disturbance in the field to really get a good smooth planter pass. So we got to knock them ridges down somehow.

Speaker 4:

And then, so you said this year new was the oats, adding the oats instead of the cereal rye for the cover crop?

Scott Healy:


Speaker 4:

What do you think about the results of doing that compared to the cereal rye?

Scott Healy:

We had a pretty decent fall temperature-wise, but we were dry again, and so the oats and the barley struggled to get out of the ground. The first probably 500 acres that we planted got half to three quarters of an inch of rain on it, and that looks pretty good. The stuff that was planted a week later just never really got much for growth on it, because it was just the moisture wasn't there.

Speaker 4:

Okay. And what is your growing season, the dates of it in your area of South Dakota?

Scott Healy:

Oh, usually corn's going in about the 25th of April to the 15th of May, and then we're taking that corn back off about September 1st to the 20th.

Speaker 4:

To give everyone a little background, Cover Crops Strategies wrote an article last year about two dairy farmers from Ohio who used a manure dragline to terminate cover crops. The dragline acted like a roller crimper and somewhat flattened the rye. So I posted to a couple of Facebook groups asking if anyone else had done this, and that's how I found you, Scott. So can you tell us about your experience with using the dragline to terminate your cover crops?

Scott Healy:

So our drag line we're using has eight inch Dietrich sweeps on it. So it's not doing any sort of crimping. And from my experience, our dragline keeps our rye in check. It keeps it from really getting too much growth, especially in the spring. It just resists, or it slows down that growth so that rye doesn't get quite as big. It's easier to kill chemically afterwards. But with what our setup is, we would not be able to kill the rye with our setup. And with our growing season, typically we're going in... if we're in the fall, it's anywhere from maybe a week behind planting the rye. At most, we're going to... in the years that we've been doing it the last three, four years with the rye, the way we've been doing it, at most we're going to have four to six inches of growth there.

If we come back in the spring, you're looking at maybe, depending on the field, depending on the conditions, we're out pretty early in the spring, really basically as soon as the ground thaws we're out trying to knife in manure. And so you're looking at rye that's probably four to eight inches. And so, like I said, what I've noticed is in the fields where we don't pump manure, we struggle or we get concerned, because that rye starts to really get pretty big, that 10 to 12 inches in spots depending on the field, the moisture, the temperature, all that stuff plays into the growth of the rye. But we do get concerned that we're getting into that higher vegetative growth, to where it's hard to kill. But we're not anywhere as close to that rye starting to head out.

In our operation, it just seems like the fields where we're pumping manure on, I don't know if it's the massive influx of nutrients, or if it's the salt content of the manure, or what exactly it is, but it just definitely seems to inhibit that rye's growth and slow it down, which our main goal for putting in the rye in the first place is to get something established in that soil to protect that soil after we've taken the corn silage off.

The additional benefits, or... that is like 100% the main goal, but I would say that secondary goals would be to obviously tie up some free nitrogen if it's there, tie up any sort of nutrients that we are at risk of leaching out, and then obviously helping with build some soil structure. And so getting that four to six inch rye seems to accomplish those goals. It's just a matter of, because we're a corn on corn system, trying to keep it from getting too big and too far away to where we have trouble killing it is the issue.

Speaker 4:

And so is it those Dietrich sweeps, that's what's not terminating but injuring the rye as they go through... or is it the fact that you're applying the manure that's slowing it down?

Scott Healy:

I think it's the fact that it's applying the manure. Where the sweeps are running, it'll take out maybe a two or three inch wide swath there. We're eight-inch sweeps on 20-inch centers. So there's not enough sweep there to actually truly kill the whole swath of the rye. And right, wrong or otherwise, that would defeat the purpose, if we turned the field block with our sweeps. So they're just lifting that soil, creating a small pocket down there, four to six inches below the surface and spiting that manure in there.

But like you say, just could be as simple as maybe the hose dragging across, but it seems to be pretty even across the field where it just slows the growth down. And to some extent, in these dry falls, it's surprising to me that it slows the growth down, because you would think that if you're dry and you add all that moisture from that liquid manure, that rye would take off with that bump of fertility and that bump of moisture there. But it really doesn't seem to, it kind of holds it, like I said, it puts it into almost like it goes dormant for a little bit, has to process all that salt, process all that fertilizer, or that fertility that's just been introduced to it and then it starts to grow again.

Speaker 4:

That's really interesting.

Scott Healy:

And like I say, it doesn't seem to matter. Obviously, if we inject in the fall, call it the damage in the fall, if we inject in the spring, we see the damage in the spring. But really when you look at those fields side by side come 10 days in the spring after it's been injected, those fields will be pretty comparable. So it doesn't seem to really hurt it more one way or the other. What we've seen is if you're in there before that rye is probably, I'm going to call it two inches, then it really seems to affect it. That rye might not ever... we're on seven and a half inch rows.

And if you go in before it's two inches tall, it might not ever canopy those rows. It'll still grow, but it might not ever canopy those rows. So it really messes it up if you're in there too early. But in our situation, 120 million gallons of manure to pump, so once they're ready to start knifing, they go where they can. So we try to plan and we try to lay things out as best as can to get that rye in there and get it seeded early so it gets some growth before the manure guys are coming after it, but sometimes it doesn't happen.

Speaker 4:

I was going to ask you that, how you go about planning, so you're getting the timing as close to perfect as possible.

Scott Healy:

Well, like you said, this year we ran a 30-foot great plains no-till drill, and we ran a case 40-foot air seeder, and that was an investment we made this summer is that air seeder just to have more capacity instead of on our no-till drill, we're filling probably every 50, 60 acres. On the air seeder, we can go for sure a day when we're just putting in cover crop and just not have to fill, just get out there and run.

Our goal is, and what we've been really focused on here the last two years is that when the silage cutters are going to the field that we've got the drill and now with the air seeder that we've got both of those units hooked up ready to go, that we've got seed on hand, and then if there's a guy available while we're chopping, we're getting somebody out in those units as soon as we get fields cut to get that seed in the ground as early as possible.

Because like I said, this year we caught two little rains while we were cutting silage, and the fields that were planted ahead of those rains had probably double the growth of the stuff that was planted a week later and didn't get the rain. So in our area, especially with the way that the last two, three years is dry as we've been, that is just... if you don't have the seed out there, it can't absorb the moisture if it's sitting in the bag, even if you get the moisture, by the time you get it in the ground, the moisture may be gone.

So for us, that's the big thing as far as timing is just doing a better job of planning, do a better job of making sure that everything's ready to go before we start chopping silage. Because once we're into silage, trying to get equipment ready, trying to get equipment hooked up just becomes almost nearly impossible. So there's always something else broke down, or if field's too far away and need extra truck drivers or whatever, it's a lot easier that if it's all hooked up, ready to go, you might be able to sneak somebody out of a truck to go plant for two, three hours. But if you've got to get everything ready to go, it ain't going to happen.

Mackane Vogel:

That's it for this episode of the Cover Crop Strategies podcast. Thanks to Dean Sponheim, Jeff Gaska, Scott Healy, and all of our great podcast guests who were featured last year. The full transcript of this episode, as well as the full length episodes of the podcast are Many thanks to our sponsor, Montag Manufacturing, for helping to make this cover crop podcast series possible. And from all of us here at Cover Crop Strategies, I'm Mackane Vogel. Thanks for listening, and have a great day.