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CONCORD – The whirling sound of a helicopter circling the Koepke farm near the Dodge-Waukesha County line at Mapleton caused quite a stir in the neighborhood.

Usually low flying helicopters mean someone has been injured and the rescuers are arriving or farmers are applying something to their fields.

Neighbors who stopped to check it out found the helicopter was seeding cover crops in their fields following harvest of this season’s crops.  The practice of seeding these crops not only contributes to the health of the soil on their farm but it is also helps to protect the water quality in the Oconomowoc River Watershed.

John Koepke told those attending the recent cover crop technology field day at the Riders farm near Concord last week that his family hired the helicopter seeding service to seed their cover crop because it freed up their employees to do other things during this busy harvest season.

“Had I known my neighbors would be worried about what the helicopter was doing I would have had some fliers printed up to distribute to tell them about the benefit of cover crops in protecting the water quality in the area,” Koepke said.

The potential uses of cover crops are many, and new momentum for this practice has increased dramatically. 

The Koepkes are just one of many farmers who are a part of the Oconomowoc Watershed Protection Program. This year farmers in that area established 821 acres of cover crops using the aerial seeding method. Many more acres of cover crops were established with more traditional methods of drilling or broadcasting following corn silage, sweet corn or winter wheat harvest.

A farm technology field day on Oct. 17 at the Reinders farm provided an opportunity for the community to learn about the benefit of cover crops.  About 50 farmers were on hand as well as agriculture students from Oconomowoc and Watertown High Schools.

Cover crops add diversity

Heidi Johnson, Dane County’s UW-Extension crops and soils agent, has worked extensively with cover crops and pointed to the root structure of the cover crops in the Reinders field where a mixture of tillage radishes and clover had been established Aug. 10 following sweet corn harvest.

A pit in the test plot exposed the roots of the plants, demonstrating how they help to loosen the soil while providing additional benefits.

Johnson explained, “Cover crops provide microbial activity by having something living at all times in the soil. If nothing is growing the fungi will die out.”

Johnson reports that farmers who have included cover crops in their plan have reported that soil condition in spring is better with soil that is more mellow and has better structure. It drains better in wet weather and holds moisture in better in drought conditions.

Cover crops can be grasses or small grains, brassicas or legumes or a combination of these.

Johnson points out that soil improvements come from introducing diversity.  There are benefits of many different types of covers and diversity is good.

As for tillage radishes, she says, “They aren’t the savior we once thought they were but any time you can introduce something new – get diversity into your field – it is good.”

Matt Ruark, UW soil scientist, described further benefits of covers including erosion control and weed control.

Ruark points out that it may take time to notice the economic benefits of cover crops because there are initial costs but it takes time to build soil health.

Another challenge is the labor requirements for establishing cover crops. Some farmers, like the Koepkes, are looking to free up time during the busy fall by contracting with aerial applicators to seed the cover crop into standing corn or soybeans.

Aerial seeding is done by an airplane or helicopter that flies 10 to 50 feet above the field. An airplane used for spraying pesticides can be switched over to plant cover crops in about 45 minutes. Lighter seed like lawn mixes are not as successfully planted using aerial seeding as heavier seeds like small grains (rye, wheat, triticale, barley) or legumes (clovers, vetches, alfalfa).

Related: Casting seeds in the air: aerial seeding takes flight

Aerial seeding of winter cover crops in the Oconomowoc River Watershed was done in a partnership with the Farmers for Lake Country, Tall Pines Conservancy, and the Clean Water Association.

The same group established the cover crop test plot on the Reinders farm where other farmers, students and concerned residents in the community could come and learn about the latest farming techniques and to see what those helicopters hovering over area farms are really doing. 

Following the demonstration by two pilots with Back Nine Aerial of Elkhorn, pilot Anders Vetch told the audience his helicopter can do 300 acres of seeding a day.  The company has four helicopters available for seeding.

Vetch also is a pilot for Flight for Life so his aviations skills help with making the maneuvers through the fields, between trees and power lines and close to line fences.

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