Achieving cropping success during wet year

Dan Hansen
Farmer panelists Aaron Augustian, left, and Pat Kane share details of their cropping success despite an especially wet planting and harvest season.

KIMBERLY – While 2019 provided its share of challenges for planting and harvesting crops in much of Wisconsin due to very wet field conditions, it also provided unique insights into  agronomic practices that produced increased soil resilience during times of weather stress.

As part of the recent Fox Watershed Farmer Roundtable, two farmers who grow crops nearly in the shadow of Lake Michigan, which presents additional moisture challenges, talked about some of their 2019 cropping successes, and how they plan to translate that success into their future management plans.

Augustian Farms

Aaron Augustian operates Augustian Farms LLC, in Kewaunee County, a dairy and crop farm with1,300 animals onsite including dry cows and heifers. 

“We produce about 1 million gallons of manure annually, and about 2.5 million gallons of leachate water that we have to deal with,” Augustian noted. “But we’ve been able to utilize effective conservation practices on our farm over the last five years.”

Some of the successes they’ve had over the past couple of years are having multi-season cover crops growing with the corn, interseeding alfalfa into the corn.

“We’re planting for the fields that are going into alfalfa the following year,” he said. “We’re planting five pounds of rye grass and five pounds of red clover and 10 pounds of oats. Since those fields are going into alfalfa the following year, it doesn’t really disturb me if we do have some rye grass or red clover carryover.”

The local co-op mixes the seed with around 100 pounds or so of urea based on tests to see to how much nitrogen the corn needs. The co-op then spreads the mix on the fields.

“Then we just lightly cultivate that into the soil. In the past we just spread it on but we didn’t get a very good stand, but once we started cultivating that into the soil we got a much better seed-to-soil contact,” Augustian explained.

He’s also trying to plant a lot of winter rye after the corn is chopped, and after fourth-crop alfalfa. “We applied 10,000 pounds of dairy manure and planted the rye at 40 pounds per acre, but we found out that in high fertility soils 40 pounds is way too much.”

Augustian wasn’t able to get the rye planted last fall with a grain drill due to the unusually wet fields, but did go out with the spreader and covered 450 acres. “We’ll see how that comes through this spring,” he said.

Kane Farms

Pat Kane is the seventh generation, along with his two sisters, to operate the family’s farm in rural Denmark.

“My sisters manage our 800-cow dairy operation, and I manage the cropping operation and oversee equipment maintenance,” he said.

“We crop about 2,700 acres consisting of corn, alfalfa, wheat, sorghum and grass that’s used for heifer feed, and we have about 40 different soil types,” he related.

Prior to 2017, when he started no-till planting and planting cover crops, he chisel plowed in the fall and did secondary tillage in the spring, making two to three passes before planting.

They used several plows, two field cultivators, and a disc along with other tillage equipment. “That was a lot of equipment to maintain, and it was expensive. The cost of operating that equipment and labor was really adding up.” Kane acknowledged.

In 2017, he did a little bit of no-till planting, and started with cover crops the following year. Current cover crops include clover, cereal grains and radishes.

“We No-till the main crop into the grain cover. If you’re thinking about getting into this, you don’t have to buy an expensive planter made just for no-till planting. I bought an inexpensive planter and made adjustments to make it work for us,” Augustian explained.

“We try to get our rye planted in the fall to provide forage for our heifers, and coming into spring we put on liquid nitrogen or any type of fertilizer on it. After that we no-till alfalfa into the standing rye,” he said.

Despite wet field conditions last fall, Augustian was able to establish cover crops, and prep those fields for spring planting of his main crop. “The ability to seed in those wet conditions was key,” he stressed. “Even if the cover crop doesn’t establish well in those wet fields in the fall, at least they’ll be prepped for spring.”

When harvesting corn, especially on the first couple of hundred acres, he tries to establish a cover crop right at that time. And once that cover crop is established manure is applied.

“What helps is I typically planted 105-day silage previously, and now I’m down to 90-95 day silage. My grain corn went from 96 down to 90 or even earlier. I’m trying to get the main crop matured, get it off, and get my cover crop in sooner.” he said. 

He’s also looking at lowering the corn population to try to get a little more sunlight to the cover crop.

Summing up, Augustian says cover crops give him the ability to plant in less than ideal soil conditions. 

“If the field can carry the tractor and planter I will plant. Last spring there was so much material on the soil and so much root mass, It felt like the tractor and planter were floating over the field,” he said.