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JUNEAU – Skeptics say that no-till does not work on dairy farms where manure application is an issue.

John Koepke, who with his family runs an 1100 acre dairy farm on the Dodge-Waukesha County line and considers manure on top of no-tilled soil as a cover crop.

The farm is a confinement dairy operation with approximately 340 cows, 285 dairy heifers and 25 bulls or steers. The cows and heifers are housed in a freestall environment, while the bulls and steers are on a bedded-pack. The farm operates approximately 1000 acres, both owned and rented.

The Koepke farm has an extensive tile-line system in combination with long-term, no-till on a conventional dairy farm. Manure is spread throughout the year, which allows them to look at nutrient losses under a wide variety of environmental conditions.

Their farmland varies greatly in soil types and terrain, from flat black fields to clay loam ground with 12%, highly erodible slopes. But for nearly three decades they have found no-till works equally well on all fields.

When applied to the top of corn or soybean stubble, Koepke says the earthworms do the work of breaking the manure down into the soil and decaying the residue.

“Stop thinking of manure as a waste product,” he said. “Think of the manure on top of the no-tilled ground as a cover crop or mulch.”

The Koepke farm is a part of the Discovery Farms program and the monitor fields and tile lines for runoff.

During the recent healthy-soils workshop Koepke showed photos of their fields in 2004 and 2008, both record rain-fall years. Alongside of those photos were photos of the neighbors’ fields from those same years.

The Koepke fields were saturated with water but did not have runoff like the neighbor’s fields. The excess water in the soil resulted in a poor corn crop but he says, “In the end, the neighbors had better corn but we still had our soil.”

He said farmers must realize that sometimes there is nothing that can be done to prevent problems in extreme weather conditions but in the end, farmers must do the best they can to keep their soil in place.

Composting manure

Kevin Roche who farms with his brothers Dennis and David near Columbus uses another approach to applying manure on 3800 acres of cropland. They compost the manure from their 1300 head of cattle.

“Composting results in a 40 percent reduction in the pounds hauled,” Roche said. “We must also manage the microbes.”

The manure in the compost is in the form of liquid from 600 head of steers and the bedding pack from another 650 head of cattle.

Roche turns the compost once a week in the windrow and in nine weeks the product is complete.

“When it is done it is like coffee grounds,” he says.

He adds gypsum or dry wall pieces into the manure pack, something he says helps to control flies and odor. It also turns the pile into a different form of nitrogen. In addition, he adds sulphur to increase humus.

He has tried a variety of biologicals in the beef manure to control odors. He explains that beef manure is different than dairy manure and he uses the product to be a good neighbor.

He also described how he applies liquid manure to a harvested field and then 2.3 pounds of radishes and 60 pounds of oats as a cover crop. He then uses vertical tillage, planting corn into it.

Digested manure

Jordan Crave described how his family handles manure on their Waterloo area farms. The family farm includes 1850 cows on two sites. They crop 2500 acres and have another 3000 acres included in their nutrient management plan with options to spread manure on the land.

Manure falls through slotted floors and flows by gravity to a collection pit where about 2,500 gallons of whey and other waste products are added to the manure from their on-site cheese operation.

They have worked with the Green Tier program on manure handling methods, odor control and water consumption. Their goal is to be sustainable and operate in an environmentally friendly way. With changes occurring constantly in manure management, they are always open to new ideas, including the use of cover crops to help manage nutrients and keep them in a place where they will be more readily available to the growing crops.

The Crave family uses both surface application and injection methods. The farm includes two digesters and, with the removal of solids, the remaining liquid that is applied to the land provides nutrients that are more readily available to the plants.

This fall the Craves planted some cover crops but have plans to integrate more into the operation in the future.

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