Farmers share ideas on keeping nutrients in place

Gloria Hafemeister
A panel of growers shared ideas on getting started with cover crops during a healthy-soils workshop in Juneau recently.  Panelists include, from left, Tony Peirick,Watertown dairy farmer; Steve Smits, Markesan dairy farmer, Damon Reabe, aerial sprayer, Waupun,  and Dale Macheel, grain farmer from Randolph.

Editor's note: This is the third story in a series on Healthy Soils.

JUNEAU - Nothing was perfect when the early explorers came to investigate this region, said John Koepke who farms with his family in both Dodge and Waukesha Counties.

He refers to diary entries made by early explorers who described seeing dirty rivers at a time when there was no land farmed near the rivers.

“The mold board plow had not yet been invented, still there was mud washing down the rivers,” he told an audience of about 260 people interested in keeping soil from washing into waterways and building healthier soils.

“Regardless of how we try to solve a problem, we as farmers need to be part of the solution,” Koepke said as he introduced speakers who would enlighten farmers on ways to protect their valuable soil and, in the process, cut costs and improve their bottom line.

Koepke also pointed to the observations of well-known conservationist Aldo Leopold who noted that regulations didn’t work; incentives are better but not as effective. The only thing that will work is for a farmer to adopt a plan he believes in.

Koepke, whose farm received the Leopold conservation award several years ago, challenged farmers in the audience to adopt a plan they believe in.

Examples of success

Mark Riedel of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources talked about successes farmers have already had in protecting water resources.

Showing maps of streams feeding into the Horicon Marsh, he said the waterways are already cleaner than the standards, despite adjacent farmlands

“Facts like that do not make the news but manure spills do," Koepke said.

Sharing their stories

As the day progressed, farmer after farmer shared how they are protecting their soil while raising crops.

Tony Peirick, a Dodge County dairy farmer and the leader of the new Farmer Nonpoint Workgroup, has had success with no till and more recently cover crops on his 1000 acre farm. He farms with his brother Ralph and each has a son working with them as well.

“We started no-tilling into alfalfa. Now we also go right behind the combine and use a chopping head to cut up the residue,” he said.

When planting corn into rye stubble Peirck says it is important to use some starter fertilizer because rye is able to hold nitrogen that is not immediately available to the young plants.

Planting corn into a green mat of rye provided good weed suppression and yields of over 200 bushel per acre. The rye was nearly completely decomposed by the time of the corn harvest, he said..

Dale Macheel of Randolph described the spring of 2013 when he started using cover crops.

“It was a very wet spring and by June I did not have all my corn planted,” he said. “I declared prevent plant and then had to decide how to control the weeds so I planted it in cover crops. I got a good cover of radishes and rye.”

He went on to say that the cover helped to dry out the field so that in August he was able to tile the field. The next year he had an excellent yield on that field.

Liking the idea of cover crops, Macheel said he began putting cover crops on harvested wheat ground. He used Birseen clover and radishes so he didn’t need to kill anything off. The crop he planted into it yielded better than ever.

In 2016 he switched to crimson clover for more nitrogen.

“I thought I’d have to kill off the volunteer wheat but I found it doesn’t hurt anything," Macheel said. "Now I’m a believer in cover crops but I learned it’s a process. You can’t do it all at one time.”

Steve Smit, a Markesan dairy farmer, has Damon Reabe aerial seed spring barley on his corn silage fields 12 days before harvest. Smit says it is important to harvest in less than two weeks after seeding or the sprouted plants will not get enough light. Once the corn is off the plants take off.

He then applies manure on the cover when it is knee high and the crop takes up the nutrients to hold them in place.

Some of the growers found slugs to be a problem with cereal rye as a cover. Reabe says timing is important.

“Get the seed out there before a rain fall so the plants get started quickly ahead of the slugs,” he says.