Farmers share ideas at Forage Council meeting

Gloria Hafemeister
Justin Madigan of Dodger Acres, Rosendale.

ROSENDALE – Josh Heimstra’s goal on his Brandon farm is to establish soil health.

During the recent Dodge-Fond du Lac County Forage Councils’ joint Twilight meeting at Rosendale, Hiemstra described his attitude about farming.

“I am very passionate about being a good steward of the land, and like to share what we’ve been working on for cover cropping and other sustainable farming practices with fellow farmers,” Heimstra says. “Along with a variety of crops we plant soil health.”

Heimstra describes, “We started simple with rye for spring forage. Now, we’ve progressed to a simple mix of species to help our soil hold the manure that our cattle provide for crop production. These covers also provide erosion control, improve infiltration, increase valuable biomass to help us improve organic matter, and reduce crop inputs.”

He says, “I’m committed to doing cover crops. I think establishing cover crops as a means of improving soil health and preventing erosion is for farmers what Nutrient Management Plans were years ago. We need to do more to hold the ground and cover the soil.”

Heimstra describes, “We plant Winter wheat, cover crops, and soybeans using the no-till method. Our corn and alfalfa are established using only reduced spring tillage. We are excited to integrate more species and cover mixes into our crop rotation to help improve our soil health.”

To make the system work Heimstra plants early-maturity corn for silage, that allows him to establish his cover earlier.

“If it’s rooted in it will hold the tractor a lot better in late fall when we do our manure application,” Heimstra notes.

He likes establishing a mix of spring barley and radishes because it provides a good place for hauling manure due to the mass on top of the field.

While there are different ways to establish cover crops, Heimstra says he has found that broadcast works in late fall because rain helps get it going. 

Hiemstra believes it is important to address ways of improving yields through improved soil health.

"In order to survive we will be required to document our practices and verify our numbers to comply with the ever increasing regulations that will be placed on us,” Heimstra says.

He also likes the idea of farmers sharing information through farm meetings like the Forage Council hosted and through on-line farmer groups who share information and post questions, working together for the good of all farms.

Heimstra also believes it is important to adapt computer tools to help with record keeping, mapping and documentation.

Justin Madigan of Dodger Acres, host of the Forage Twilight meeting, says his family does a combination of vertical tillage, strip tillage and no till, whatever it takes to hold the soil in place.

Because they have enough acreage compared to the number of livestock on their farm they can put a thin layer on all their acres.

Madigan said he has tried radishes, sunflowers and a variety of cover crops.  They tried vetch one year but felt it got too thick and in spring it can present an issue.

The family established rye after corn silage last fall and this spring killed it off and established their new seeding in it.

“It had little or no erosion and we had a very wet spring,” Madigan said. 

Loretta Oritz-Ribbing, crops and soils agent in Dodge and Fond du Lac Counties, has been working with the new Dodge County group that is establishing cover crop test plots to help farmers make comparisons. 

Later this summer the group will host a field day to look at how various cover crops performed and how they affect the health of the soil.

Heidi Johnson, Dane County UW Extension, has been working on cover crop monitoring with farmers in that area.  She reported on the on-going project and says, “First you need to think about your goal when establishing cover crops.”

If erosion control is the goal, there must be adequate biomass to cover the soil through May or June the following year.

If the goal is to grow nitrogen, it is important to have enough time for nodulation and a lot of growth is needed in order to take a nitrogen credit.

“There are differences in crops,” Johnson notes. “If is important to choose a crop that will release the nitrogen when it is needed and not hold it in the system.”

If compaction is an issue, choose a cover that has fine, deep roots.

When spring forage production is the goal, look at which choices have the best tonnage and quality.