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Within the context of no-till crop planting practices, the United States Department of Agriculture research station farm near Marshfield is taking a farmer guided approach to some of its activities.

That's according to Jason Cavadini, a farm equipment specialist at the station who addressed a crowd of 110 attendees at a workshop on planter equipment maintenance and features, the growing of cover crops and soil tillage practices. It was held at the Wiese Brothers farm on a late winter day with temperatures that were likely well above those on many days when farmers will be planting crops in the spring.

With an eye on matching no-till with heavy soils and the growing of cover crops in the central and northern part of Wisconsin, Cavadini said the evolving philosophy at the research station is to 'talk with rather than to farmers.' The University of Wisconsin Extension Service is a working partner for crop trials, heifer raising and related activities at the research station.

Building resilience

Cavadini, who grew up on a farm near La Crosse where no-till has been a standard practice for 20 years, acknowledged that field and growing conditions differ widely within the state. But, in all settings, he suggested that the term 'building resilience' is appropriate. Others would call it 'sustainability,' he said.

There are production, environmental, financial and social dimensions to 'building resilience,' Cavadini stated. Whether they're always accurate or not, he indicated that farmers need to be aware of the social or public views on how they are operating.

'Is the current system resilient?' is a question that farmers ought to asking, Cavadini said. That's the premise of the Central Wisconsin no-till project that's been launched within the past two years.

Project specifics

Farmer input is being sought to guide research at the station on no-till practices in general and on matching the growing of cover crops with no-till, Cavadini noted. Part of that effort involves meetings on farms and walks in fields where farmers are already doing those things.

Those practices are not common in the area and farmer resistance and reluctance are widespread, Cavadini pointed out. But the meetings are designed to address those concerns so those who decide to carry out one or more of the new practices aren't surprised and disappointed.

Although it's only one incident, Cavadini referred to an eye-opening situation on Labor Day weekend in 2015 at the Marshfield station when 5 inches of rain fell in a short period — apparently the greatest amount rainfall ever recorded during a similar time period at the site.

Harvesting of Extension Service corn silage plots (separated by only a waterway) had been scheduled shortly afterward, Cavadini reported. The plot where no-till had been instituted only a year earlier easily supported human traffic after the rain while the conventionally tilled plot couldn't support human or equipment traffic for several days afterward.

Lineup of obstacles

Among the obstacles to no-till cropping combined with the growing of cover crops that Cavadini listed are improper equipment set-up, cold and wet weather in the spring, manure incorporation, tire ruts, a mindset opposed to the idea and fears about yield penalties.

Regarding yield penalties, Cavadini said multi-decade research by Wisconsin's Extension Service corn agronomists shows that continuous crops of corn respond favorably to frequent soil tillage but that the yield penalty disappears if crop rotation is practiced.

Not only is no-till not a yield penalty but research at Marshfield overseen by Cavadini in recent years shows that fuel use is cut in half and wear on equipment and labor needs are both reduced. With the upgrading of equipment and proper selection of varieties, the no-till seeding of alfalfa has also been a success.

Goals of no-till

Among the goals related to no-till are moisture management, better accommodating of field traffic and the saving of soil, Cavadini stated. He reported that the installation of field tile has become a phenomenon in Central Wisconsin to address moisture management and to provide drier soil earlier in the spring to accommodate manure applications.

To those concerned about a slow rate of soil warming in the spring in no-till settings, Cavadini agreed that this is true. But to counteract that concern, he cited recent research at Marshfield which found that the temperatures of the soil in the rows which were disturbed when corn was planted rose by 5 degrees within 12 hours, putting them within 1 or 2 degrees of the soil which had been tilled and then equaling those temperatures within 24 hours.

Planting practices

The proper choice of planter closing wheels is crucial with no-till, Cavadini emphasized. He said that what's appropriate will differ based on whether the soil is wet or dry. A lead coulter is probably not necessary with wet soil because it would throw clumps soil out of the reach of the closing wheel.

Whether it's a main season crop or a late season cover crop, consistency in the depth placement of seed is also very important, Cavadini stressed. Research at Marshfield is collecting data from seed sensors as it relates to the down force and ground contact by planters, evaluating the performance of floating row cleaners and checking whether coulters should straddle rows or not.

With the latest versions of planters allowing the down force to be set for each row, adjustments should be made as needed, Cavadini advised. He noted that no-till fits well with such tuning.

Early results, strategies

At Marshfield, where the no-till studies began in the spring of 2014, one of the very encouraging early findings is a doubling of biological activity in the no-till soil compared to that still being tilled conventionally, Cavadini reported.

Another promising effort was the growing of triticale as a cover crop, harvesting it at a multiple plot average of 1.9 tons per acre as a good quality dairy forage, and following it with an early June planting of a short season soybean variety, Cavadini indicated.

In comparative soybean plots during what was a good crop year in 2015, both the short season plots following the triticale and full season soybeans in no-till plots yielded about 48 bushels per acre while those in tilled plots yielded 45 bushels, Cavadini noted. Even with the value of the triticale crop, the best returns per acre were from the no-till soybeans because of the additional costs associated with the triticale but the project showed the possibility of double cropping in the region.

As to what's on tap at the research station, Cavadini mentioned the rolling of winter rye before the planting of the season's major crop and the no-till planting with an aggressive approach and equipment into standing alfalfa and pasture sod. The grazing of cover crops will be evaluated in conjunction with the on-farm projects in the area, he added.

Tillage methods

Where tillage continues as a common practice, Cavadini noted that there is controversy about what's described as 'vertical tillage' that involves minimal soil disturbance. When gang angles were added to increase the soil disturbance, the results in effect approached the equivalent of disking and the creation of a table top layer in the soil profile, which makes the loose soil above it very vulnerable to erosion.

True vertical tillage can smooth the soil for planting and conventional tillage can provide a clean seed bed, Cavadini agreed. To a question of about dealing with tire ruts, he said farmers need to deal with those spots as needed with chisel plowing or other tillage method in order to allow travel and set the stage for plant growth.

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