Farmers creating healthy soil

Gloria Hafemeister
 Farmers look at the various adjustments Marty Weiss made on his drill in order to establish cover crops on his Beaver Dam farm.  Dodge County offers help to farmers needing assistance in calibrating their drills or setting them up for this specialized work.

BEAVER DAM - Lake residents’ concerns about water quality and farmers concerns about improving soils while producing healthy crops in an era of small margins of profit have led to the formation of a Healthy Soils workgroup for the Rock River Watershed area.

Led by farmers Tony Peirick, Watertown and Marty Weiss and Jeff Gaska, Beaver Dam, about 20 farmers have met regularly to share ideas for improving soil and preventing run-off.  

With help from Dodge County’s UW-Extension Soils and Crops agent Loretta Ortiz-Ribbing, the three farmers have established test plots to demonstrate and monitor the various techniques for improving soil health. 

Peirick says they are pleased to be getting help from Ortiz-Ribbing who is eager to share the results from these on-farm test plots with others.  She also brings helpful information to the group from the crop specialists at the University of Wisconsin.  

Ortiz-Ribbing is also helping to organize a field day Oct. 18 at these farms to allow farmers and others to see their test results. 

The three farmers reported on initial findings at a meeting at the Dodge County Fairgrounds on Aug. 2, where the 200 farmers in attendance were also able to see the equipment that is available for establishing cover crops and conservation practices.

Seed suppliers were on hand to share lessons they have learned in recent years about the benefits of cover crops and several researchers shared information about what they have found to be the best cover crops for the particular goals of the grower.

Peirick shared his experiences of combining no-till with cover crops. He has no-tilled since the early ‘90s and now has 80 percent of his land protected with cover crops.

Weiss brought in the air seeder he purchased in Missouri for establishing cover crops and he showed participants how he modified the equipment to make it work with his strip tillage system.

Weiss got help from Bob Bird of the Dodge County Land Conservation Department in calibrating his seeder, and suggested other farmers who need help contact that agency.

The demonstration plots on his farm show how he interseeds into corn with three rows of a combination of ryegrass, wheat and clover between each corn row and one row dedicated to seeding tillage radishes.

“I did that for diversity in the soil and to get the biology going,” he says.  “My fields were in grazing for 10 years and I learned how that improves the life in the soil.  Now that I am back to raising row crops I want to keep that diversity going.”

Jeff Gaska frost-seeded red clover into winter wheat to raise nitrogen for next year’s crop.

He says it is better to frost seed so the clover does not get ahead of the winter wheat and crowd it out.  He uses an ATV to do the frost seeding so he doesn’t make ruts in the thawing ground and so he can shut off the seeder when he goes through a wet area.

“If you interseed clover in wet areas, the clover, that likes wet ground, will crowd out the wheat,” he notes.

He has had 90-bushel to the acre wheat production despite the clover growing in with the wheat.  As soon as the wheat is harvested the clover gets light and takes off.  He then uses it for late-season pasture for his cattle when other pastures are losing growth due to dry weather.

In spring he burns it off before planting the next crop.

Similar groups

The Dodge County Farmers for Healthy Soil-Healthy Water have a mission of improving the community’s soil and water through conservation practices and education. 

This group is one of several farmer-led groups in Wisconsin that get help from grant monies available from lake districts and the Department of Natural Resources.

Heidi Johnson of the Dane County UW-Extension has extensive experience working with cover crops and the Yahara Pride Farms group on similar projects.

She described what she has learned about choices for cover crops and says the choice of a cover crop depends on the goal. 

“There are cover crops to fit almost every type of cropping system,” she said.  “My advice would be to stick with the basics if you’ve never done cover crops before.  If you’ve been doing it a while try different things.”   

Cover crops can serve to provide nitrogen for the next crop, increase soil organic matter, improve nutrient availability, scavenge nutrients, prevent erosion and improve drainage while preventing compaction, improve soil structure and provide mulch to conserve moisture.   

Jim Leverich, UW-Extension and on-farm research coordinator from the LaCrosse area described how he incorporates cover crops on his farm and what he has learned working with other cover crop experts.         

He says, “Farmers need time to adapt. Change takes time and you need to experiment and learn.”          

Leverich concluded, “When it comes to the economics of cover crops, you need to think of it as investing in your farm’s future. There are costs and the returns aren’t always clear. How do you put a dollar value on building healthy soil gradually over the years?”