Despite current low prices for milk and other farm commodities, several farmers in Brown County near the Fox River have made sizable financial investments in equipment and conservation practices to control erosion and nonpoint pollution.
On June 15, four Green Bay area farms hosted a demonstration of methods used to reduce phosphorus and other nutrients from entering the Fox River, where it can contribute to the growth of harmful blooms of algae and dead zones in Green Bay and Lake Michigan.
The field day was sponsored by the Lower Fox Demonstration Farms Network, which includes the local farms and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, Great Lakes Commission and Brown and Outagamie County Land Conservation departments.
The groups work with participating farms in the watershed to test the effectiveness of existing and new conservation systems and educate stakeholders about conservation technology.
'We're in the early stages of a multi-year project, and we really appreciate the farmers who have made this commitment to protecting the environment.' said Barry Bubolz, NRCS district conservationist.
'This field day is a great opportunity for farmers and partners to learn conservation principles and practices like cover crops, no-till planting, prescribed grazing and more, to improve their operations, building soil health and reducing phosphorus runoff that impacts the Lower Fox Watershed and Lake Michigan as well,' said Jimmy Bramblett, Wisconsin State conservationist.
Scott Theunis, of Tinedale Cropping near Wrightstown, has been farming with his brothers all of his life and is in charge of the farm's 5,000-acre cropping operation.
Their family farm, like most in the area, had humble beginnings. Starting with 80 acres 150 years ago, the business has grown from 100 dairy cows to 2,000 during the last 20 years. Contributing the farm's success has been Scott's willingness to try new cropping practices.
Most recently, he has started planting cover crops. In 2012, Theunis began experimenting with tillage radish as a cover crop.
His motivation was to reduce the amount of work in the spring. He had tried no-till with some success, and Theunis thought tillage radishes would be a good way to help break up the soil and thus eliminate his previous regimen of spring tillage.
Before trying cover crops, his management system was much more labor intensive. It started with the harvest of winter wheat in August, then he would land spread manure at 12,000 gallons per acre. Incorporating the manure involves two passes with a disc and one pass with a chisel plow.
Because his soil is heavy, fighting wetness and compaction were commonplace. Some springs the heavy soils would be so wet and clumpy that he would need to make three passes with a field cultivator before planting.
Utilizing tillage radishes has significantly reduced Tinedale Farms planting time and labor costs. After harvesting what last summer, Theunis land spread 6,000 gallons of manure per acre and then lightly tilled in the manure with a field cultivator.
Using his no-till drill, he planted radishes at 11 pounds per acre. 'They came up beautifully and dried out on their own in the winter. I also noticed drier field conditions and softer ground,' Theunis said.
He was then able to no-till his corn crop the following spring. Before planting corn, he did apply a herbicide to control weeds.
Theunis said his best yield was definitely the no-till corn that was planted after the radishes. He plans to use that system on 500-800 acres next year.
'Cover crops are going to be a new staple of the Tinedale operation,' he stressed. 'The benefits of planting cover crops include reduced soil erosion, fertilizer costs and improved yields.'
Air seeder demo
Van Wychen Farms, operated by George Van Wychen, is also participating in the demonstration network. The family has transitioned out of dairying and is now focused exclusively on cropping.
Matt Van Wychen explained how the family is utilizing a new Valmar Air Seeder to incorporate cover crops into their cornfields.
'Once the corn is a couple of inches tall, you run across the ground at 5 to 6 miles an hour, and the clover seed is broadcast between the rows and between the individual plants,' he said.
'The tines are set to just flick the top of the soil to create a slight disturbance and spread the soil to cover the seed and also provide moisture contact so the seed can start germination,' Van Wychen added.
This spring the equipment has been used on about 600 acres, including former alfalfa fields that were no-tilled into corn, but Van Wychen acknowledged that they're still learning how to get the best results from it.
Noting that all the tines are angled to the right, Van Wychen said that this makes the machine pull to the right side of the row, 'But when we angled half to the left, those weren't giving us any soil disturbance at all,' he added.
They've also added a three-point hitch to the seeder, which facilitates its use on cultivators and other equipment.
Field-day attendees also were able to see a brief demonstration of the air seeder and a Kinze 24-row corn planter.