Cover crops influence soil health

Gloria Hafemeister
Cover crops feed the soil and hold nutrients, especially when there is a mix of species.

JUNEAU – Rick Kratz is a sixth generation farmer in Washington County who has been using strip tillage since 2011. His family runs 3800 acres of land in the Slinger area and also operates a 400-cow dairy farm at Hartford.

Kratz told those gathered at a recent “Healthy-soils” workshop in Juneau that he has seen many benefits to using a cover crop mix of greens and tillage radishes.

“We began double cropping with forage cover crops to maximize every acre, to provide quality feed for our herd and to help build a healthier soil by not having the land sit idle,” he said.

They began doing fall double cropping after the wheat had been harvested in early August. Right after harvest, they top spread or inject liquid manure to provide fertilizer. After waiting two to three days, they no-till the Green Mix right into the stubble and harvest it in October or November, depending on the weather.

Kratz said this helps restore the soil balance and increases organic matter. The root system also helps to minimize soil erosion. He sees it as a way to utilize the sun and rain from August to November when land would otherwise sit idol after wheat harvest.

Jonathan Gibbs raises cash crops on the farm that his dad and uncle previously operated as a diary farm. He calls them his “senior advisors,” now.

Gibbs uses strip and no-till systems and puts in cover crops after wheat and canning company crops. His mix this year included 50-60 pounds of barley with turnips after wheat.

When planting corn into it in spring he says, “By the time the corn tassels the cover crop has completely deteriorated.”

As he learns more about utilizing cover crops he says he now plans to add more species to his cover crop mix in the future.

Ryan Nell, a Beaver Dam dairy and crop farmer, Ricky Kratz, a Slinger crop farmer, and Jonathan Gibbs, a Fox Lake crop farmer shared ideas on how they use no-till and strip tillage on their farms and how cover crops can work with these systems.

"Whatever we do we should have a purpose for it,” he said.

Ryan Nell raises corn on 24-inch rows and soybeans in12-inch rows on his family’s Beaver Dam farm that also includes 250 milk cows.

He says a stalk stomper helps break down the residue making it easier to plant into the stubble. While he likes the strip tillage method compared with conventional tillage, he says it is important to control traffic after harvest.

No Till methods

The experienced no-tillers taking part in the soils workshop advised dealing with compaction from field traffic by doing any necessary tillage during the coldest time possible.

While most farmers who adapt a no-till system say they do it to save fuel and labor and eliminate the need to pick stones, Ray Archuleta, Regional Soil Health Specialist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the keynote speaker at the conference said, “A greater benefit is to feed the microbes in the soil and to do the right thing.”

Gibbs commented, “I am concerned about keeping my soil and nutrients in place. I want to be a good neighbor. My kids drink the same water as their classmates drink.”

Fellow panelists said that there are numerous reasons for building healthy soil and all agreed a common goal is to be a good neighbor and do what is right for the environment.

Archuleta suggested moving from a tillage system to no-till in combination with cover crops in a gradual way.

Begin with special soil tests that look at more than just the basic nutrients.  He recommends the Rick Haney test and says investing in this test will, in the long run, save a great deal of money on inputs.

He also recommends putting in check strips in order to monitor what is happening and understand the real benefits.