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Ozaukee County farmer outlines practices that make a difference

Ray Mueller
Correspondent
Producers should explore the benefits of planting a cover crop that has the potential to capture applied nutrients, fix nitrogen, build organic matter, control weeds, control erosion, and improve soil quality during the remainder of the season.

WALDO – Want to protect the natural resources and be profitable as a dairy farmer at the same time? Then Matt Winker has a message for anyone who is interested.

Winker, who has a herd of 125 dairy cows near Fredonia in northern Ozaukee County, was a guest speaker at the annual crop insurance update meeting sponsored by Premier Insurance Solutions LLC. He acknowledged that neighbors and other observers are sometimes puzzled at the farming practices that he finds to be successful.

Minimal tillage and growing cover crops are two practices that have helped Winker to be profitable every year since 2014 on the 450 acres on which he grows corn, soybeans, alfalfa, and a variety of cover crops to feed the cattle at Red Line Dairy. In cooperation with the county's land and water management department, he's part of a demonstration network that also includes fellow farmers Brian and Roger Karrels and Jim Melichar.

Tillage practice options

Based on his experiences with no-till and a limited amount of vertical tillage, Winker is convinced that excessive tillage harms soil structure and health, that it promotes weed growth, that it reduces the percentage of organic matter in the soil, that it enables soil and nutrient erosion, and that it reduces water infiltration and holding capacity. Looking at the bottom line, he finds that limiting tillage saves about $10,000 per year in fuel costs in addition to reducing the need for and wear on equipment.

When Winker needs certain equipment, he can obtain a six-row interseeder and a cover crop crimper from the Ozaukee County land and water management department, which is headed by Andy Holschbach. As departments in a few other counties have also done, specialized equipment was purchased to encourage farmers to carry out practices to protect the soil and water.

With the excessive rainfall in recent growing seasons, Winker notices a major difference in mainly Luxembourg clay soil on his farm. “The mud is different. It doesn't smear,” he said. “I know it doesn't seem to make sense but the soil is firmer yet softer.”

Crop production results

Winker believes this is why he's able to get onto his fields a few days before many of his neighbors can and why he doesn't have major problems with mud on tires when the soil is wet. In recent years, he's been able to harvest per acre yields of up to 220 bushels of grain corn from a crop no-till seeded into terminated alfalfa, 24 tons of corn silage, and 69 bushels of soybeans.

Those achievements can be credited mainly to the minimum tillage and cover crops, Winker indicates. He explains that traditional tillage exposes the beneficial earthworms to an eating feast by flocks of seagulls, thereby depriving the soil of one of the essentials for keeping it healthy and improving it.

With the sunlight that they capture, cover crops not only support the beneficial soil microbes but also guard against the depletion of nutrients such as copper, magnesium, calcium, iron, and potassium, Winker states. Nitrogen is the only fertilizer that he buys.

Nutrients are also supplied with the application of liquid dairy manure. To deter runoff and nutrient loss, Winker limits those applications to 6,000 gallons per acre – twice a year when possible.

Value of cover crops

Winker finds that one of the cover crops — winter cereal rye — helps to deter weed growth. The winter rye and winter wheat provide options for growing the next crop, he notes. In 2019, for the first time, he interseeded a mix of clovers, grasses, triticale, and hairy vetch into standing corn with the county's unit.

Cover crops can be used to reduce soil erosion, improve nutrient cycling, build soil organic matter, and improve the soil’s ability to take in water.

Depending on the situation, those crops can be harvested for forage, terminated with a herbicide, or crimped with the county's unit as a soil cover before planting corn or soybeans, Winker explains. He chuckles that worshipers at a church that borders one of his fields probably are astonished to see what cropping practices he carries out. He's not a member of that church.

Contrary to popular belief, Winker finds that the cover crops help to warm the soil in early spring because of the live roots which also help to store water. Even more importantly is how the cover crop foliage left to cover the surface protects soil moisture and keeps the soil temperature from rising above the 70 degrees Fahrenheit that is ideal for the growing of major crops, he says.

Winker doesn't claim that everything he does turns out right. He admits that he probably shouldn't have planted about 30 of the 150 acres of cover crops that he put in during 2019.

Pursuing what's unique

Winker started pressing his farm grown soybeans with an easy to operate Canada made Energrow soybean press to make his own soymeal and to sell the oil for extra income. In order to replace his purchased protein feeds completely and maximize his production, Winker obtained a RedJacket Roaster 6 months later that was modified to roast the soybean pellets which are a byproduct of the Energrow press in order to make a high bypass protein as well. Being one of the first to try an already pelleted soymeal through the roaster instead of whole raw beans was a trying process Winker acknowledges.

Six months later he obtained a RedJacket Roaster that was modified to roast the soybean pellets which are a byproduct of the Energrow press.

Winker says both the Energrow press and the red jacket roaster are the only ones in the state of Wisconsin. With them, he is able to make all of the soluble protein and bypass protein needed for the dairy herd. Beyond the farm-grown feeds, “minerals, vitamins, and calf grains are my only out of pocket feed costs” for the milking herd that averages 89 pounds of milk per day per cow on twice a day milking, he points out.

Spreading the message

For what he's doing and trying, Winker calls North Carolina farmer Russel Hedrick his hero. He notes that Hedrick had a 318 bushel per acre grain corn crop on dry land and was excited to meet with him at an area appearance on Feb. 6.

“It's no easy switch,” Winker says of the changes he's made. While he agrees that other farmers have questions, he urges them, as a start, to acquaint themselves with the rainfall simulation demonstrations (or videos of them) that are conducted at land and water conservation and Extension Service meetings – demonstrations which show major differences between water infiltration and runoff depending on soil tillage and health.

To those who have doubts about his experiences and claims, Winker asks them to attend meetings, workshops, and demonstrations on the topic. He encourages attendance at a workshop on soil health to be held near Port Washington on April 7 and 8.