Examining benefits and challenges of establishing cover crops

Gloria Hafemesiter
Marty Weiss, left, co-chair of the Dodge County Healthy Soils Healthy Waters group and crop consultant Bill Stangel demonstrate how to monitor soil for water infiltration.

CLYMAN – Cover crops can provide many benefits to soil and the environment, but they can also be a challenge. That’s why farmers are so interested in on-farm visits where they can walk the fields and examine the benefits and challenges of establishing cover crops.

The Dodge Farmers for Healthy Soil and Water recently held a field day to provide the opportunity to learn about the challenges the Kreutziger family at Clyman faced as they worked to improve soil health with cover crops.

The producer-led organization has received several grants to assist them in their efforts to improve soil health and prevent run-off including some funding from the Lake Sinissippi, Beaver Dam Lake and Fox Lake organizations.

These lake associations are helping farmers in their efforts to reduce sediment runoff to the drainage ditches and shorelines of the lakes and have hosted tours of their lakes for farmers to see their reason for concern. The lake residents have also taken part in field days on farms to learn more about the challenges farmers face when trying to manage runoff and improve soil health.

The group has offered cover crop incentives to farmers with 29 producers establishing covers on over 700 acres in the first year alone.

Lake Associations within the Dodge County Alliance Group have given away over $14,000 of free cover crop seed to producers within their respective watersheds.

During the recent tour of his farm Jerry Kreutziger explained that his dad had started no tilling in 1991 and in 1998 they started to strip till.

He notes, “If you do a fall strip it’s important that the ground be firmed up.  Spring strip works better for us. The ground won’t dry out when it’s cold.”

They have used a variety of strategies for cover crops including frost seeding cereal rye in March.

Kreutziger said, “We spread 70 pounds of cereal rye out here. We planted our soybeans two inches deep April 19. In fall we spread 175 pounds of potash and 75 pounds of elemental sulphur along with 400 pounds of lime.”

He said it did not take much to kill off the rye, noting that the hot weather helped the process.

Some of the participants in the field day described having problems no-tilling into heavy residue this year.

Tony Peirick, a co-chair of the Healthy Soils-Healthy Water group suggested, “Go at an angle with cutting up residue at the end of the season to break it up.”

Farmers from southeast Wisconsin gathered at the Kreutziger farm at Clyman in Dodge County to look at the results of planting soybeans into cover crops and learn more about ways to protect soil from runoff.

A part of the event included a water infiltration demonstration where crop consultant Bill Stangel demonstrated a simple way that growers can test the filtration ability of their own fields.

He said checking the soil’s ability to absorb water is a good way to evaluate various management systems.

Brendon Blank experiments with various management systems on his own farm and also helps other farmers with cover crop management. He suggested, “If you can get your moisture distributed more uniformly by improving the infiltration of your soil it really helps a lot.”

A pit on the Kreutziger field served to show how roots move down in various types of soil.

Some of the rye roots established in the field had gone down as far as 3-4 feet.     Kreutziger explained that roots don’t need to go down that deep but they did.  It was very dry when he planted the soybeans in April.”

Examining the soil in the pit the decayed roots of the rye were visible. This is important for helping drainage and feeding the life in the soil.

Stangel said, “The goal is to get a crumb structure in your ground. The question is ‘how?’”

He suggests getting more crops into the rotation and also using multi-specie cover crops.  With this strategy there will be better aggregation at the surface.

Blank suggested that another benefit of establishing the right mix of cover crops is breaking up the compaction layer.

“In Kentucky, they really have an issue (with compaction) but they are breaking up the compaction with cover crops more than could ever be done with deep tillage,” he states.  “Roots reach through the compacted layer and the cover crops feed earth worms that also dig through the layer.  That water drains through and is stored for later use by the crop.”

Stangel adds that growers have messed up the top eight to twelve inches of soil by mold board plowing over the years and it takes time to break that.

Both Stangel and Blank agree that it takes time to improve soil structure and get it crumbly.  Stangel says, “Structure begins improving at the surface but now we need to keep it going and advance it.  I think multi-species will work together to do that because each serves a different benefit.”

Kreutziger added that compaction can be avoided by spacing of the combine wheels to drive on the rows and now where a crop will be planted next year.

The Healthy Soils-Healthy Waters group holds monthly farmer and alliance meetings as well as the annual February workshop and numerous field tours.

For more information check them out at www.dodgecountyfarmers.com