Farmers share soil and cropping strategies

Gloria Hafemeister
During the recent Dodge County Healthy Soil – Healthy Water workshop in Juneau panel of farmers shared how they build healthy soil on their farms.  Participants included from left, Dale Macheel, Brendon Blank, Adam Lasch, Chris Conley, and Russell Hedrick.

JUNEAU – Chris Conley farms on hilly land near Neosho and has always done conventional tillage with narrow conservation strips to prevent erosion. Two years ago a friend convinced him to come to a Healthy Soil – Healthy Water workshop in Dodge County where he learned about the benefits of cover crops and no-till.  Now he’s sold on the idea and says he’ll never turn back.

Speaking at a recent meeting hosted by the Dodge County healthy soils group, he said since establishing rye as a cover crop and then no-tilling corn into it he has been able to widen his contour strips to make it easier to turn around with equipment without fear of soil erosion.

“Tillage created tough growing conditions on our farm,” he says.  “I need to spread manure (from the dairy herd) daily and even in this wet year I noticed it didn’t leave tracks.”

He started by establishing rye as a cover crop in 2018 and then no-tilling corn into it in 2019.  This year he plans to expand on the system by broadcasting clover into the corn.

He expects that as the system progresses he will be able to remove the disks and the fields will open up and be more level.

“My goal is to be able to graze on some of the strips to give our current pastures a rest,” he says.   “Leaving cattle on the land helps feed the microbes and build soil health.”

Conley admits he was a bit nervous about planting into the thick blanket of rye this spring but he says it worked. He plans to continue trying new things including putting the rye seed into the gutters so the seed mixes with manure that he will then spread on the fields to establish a cover.

Dale Macheel farms 2400 acres in the Randolph area. His fields vary greatly from one area to another so each year he must look at individual fields and determine the method that will work best.

He says, “I’ve been establishing more cover crops every year. This year I did covers on 1500 acres and I also tried planting into green.”

He terminates the rye cover a week after planting corn and two weeks after planting soybeans.

He says, “I learned about the benefits of a cover when I planted corn into an area that had been pasture. I had my best yields in that field that year. Then I began tilling it again for the next five years and saw the yields decrease each year.”

Besides preventing erosion he sees numerous other benefits to no-tilling and covers including fuel savings and lower maintenance costs.

He continues to monitor his progress and says tests show he is gradually building more carbon in the soil and that means he is able to plant earlier.

He is currently working with the Discovery Farms program to monitor nitrogen efficiency.  He has noticed that planting crimson clover and radishes after small grain really reduces the nitrogen needs.

Brendon Blank who farms near Ixonia and also works for Byron Seeds is known as “the forage guy.”

He suggested, “There is a tremendous opportunity out there for hay fields.  There are a lot of grasses out there now that are so much better than they were in the past.”

He says a multi-species crop with grasses and alfalfa helps feed the soil biology.

“There is no faster way to build soil than planting grasses,” he says. “As the soil life improves residue disappears and the soil life starts working for you.”

Tony Peirick, Watertown, is an enthusiastic promoter of no-till and cover crops.  As co-chair with Marty Weiss of the Healthy Soil – Healthy Water group he advises starting by no-tilling into alfalfa fields.  Then start a cover program by establishing cereal rye and no-till into it.  From there each grower will be able to evaluate fields and decide on which plants to add to the cover crop mix to achieve particular goals.

Adam Lasch, a Lake Geneva dairy farmer, challenged the 160 workshop participants to try something new. 

He says, “The ‘it-won’t work’ mentality is false.  The best way to learn new ideas is by networking among other farmers who are willing to try new things.”

Lasch combines a variety of strategies on his farm including multi-species cover crops and grazing. 

As for the feed quality of harvested covers he says, “We immediately noticed feed quality of diverse mixes improved and we picked up protein in our milk production.”

Russell Hedrick was a featured speaker at the day-long event and also joined the farmer panelists to answer questions about the strategies he employs to build healthy soil.

Hedrick is a first-generation corn, soybean and specialty grains producer from North Carolina. Hedrick started in 2012 with 30 acres of row crops. Since then, he’s expanded to roughly 1,000 acres.

Hedrick told 160 farmers and crop consultants how he kept the dollar investment in his farm low by no-tilling and cover crops in a time when few farmers were using these strategies.

“We started out broke and we couldn’t afford the tillage equipment,” he said. “I was lucky to have a fantastic district conservationist who set us in the right direction from the beginning.”

He started farming on what he describes as poor land that other cash crop farmers in the area did not want to rent. His first year, Hedrick practiced 100 percent no-till and planted cover crops across part of his land.

“We tried out a six or seven species cover crop blend,” says Hedrick. “Back then, a lot of people thought we were crazy.”

That initial blend consisted of cereal rye, oats, triticale, legumes, crimson clover and radish. Hedrick compared yields for soybeans grown with cover crops versus those grown without and noticed a significant difference: higher yields for cover cropped beans, and noticeably improved weed suppression.

His cover crop methods allowed him to cut way down on purchased fertilizer without sacrificing yield.  He also saved money on herbicides because the thick mat of cover that he planted into suppressed the development of weed seeds buried beneath the surface.

He also saved by not investing in tillage equipment and fuel.