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No-till, cover crops help build soils for Sauk Co. farmer

Jan Shepel
Correspondent
Because much of his land is steeply sloped and because a stream -- part of the Honey Creek Watershed -- runs through the farm, Roger Bindl takes care to farm with no-till practices, contour strips and cover crops.

PLAIN – For Roger Bindl, farming is both an art and a science. He thrives on experimenting with his fields and figuring out what’s going to work best to achieve his goal of maximum soil protection. He is a firm believer in no-till production methods and over the past few years has begun increasing his soil’s organic matter with the use of cover crops.

When he started with cover crops, like many Wisconsin farmers, he tried the tillage radishes. He didn’t get the results he wanted but was sold on the idea of cover crops. Bindl attended his first no-till conference – a place he always gains nuggets of information and ideas to bring home to his fields.

He began experimenting with cover crops for the first time eight years ago making this the third time some of his fields have been blanketed with cover crops, based on his crop rotation – corn, soybeans, winter wheat, cover crops and alfalfa.

He added winter wheat to his crop rotation as an opportunity to break some of the weed cycles on his Sauk County farm. It also gives him a place to spread manure from the dairy heifers he raises and plant cover crops.

Custom mixed cover crops

This year he has planted a concoction of his own making as a cover crop following what would have been the winter wheat harvest. Last year the weather closed in too quickly for him to plant wheat – remember snow on Halloween? So he planted oats in those fields to keep the rotation going.

The wind flattened his oats so it was difficult to combine, but he says he’s not too upset about it. “I will not complain. It adds to the cover crop and the mix.”

His custom mix of cover crop varieties still includes the tillage radish but adds rapeseed, medium red clover, Balansa clover, pearl millet, winter peas, hairy vetch, buckwheat, oats and cereal rye. All were chosen and added to the mix for their unique characteristics.

The fields where the custom blend is now green and growing will all be planted to corn next year so he wanted the mix to fix as much nitrogen as possible. He also planted the fields at three different planting rates to experiment with how much biomass each would create.

Part of the field was planted at 500,000 seeds per acre. Two other sections were planted at 1 million and 1.5 million.

The mix reflects what he’s trying to accomplish. The various plants have different root structures – some have tap roots and others have the ability to fix nitrogen. The medium red clover is in there to help to control lambsquarter; he chose buckwheat to make phosphorus more available; cereal rye is in the mix to help the vetch overwinter better; the oats fosters beneficial fungi; the rapeseed has a taproot to loosen the soil; peas and hairy vetch are there to fix nitrogen.

Next spring he will “plant right into the green,” he says and then burn off the cover crop with a custom blended herbicide.

He gets the custom cover crop seed blend from Levi Troyer at Narrows Valley Supply in Loganville, a dealer for Byron Seeds. It is mixed at the company headquarters in Indiana and comes to him in bags that he can dump into his no-till grain drill and plant.

Field Day planned

Bindl has planned a field day to showcase his cover crops. He will hold two sessions, at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Saturday, October 24 at one of his fields at S10 466 Paulus Road, Spring Green. That’s land that he or his dad had run over the last 20 years. “I know the improvement I have made to it so it was a no-brainer to buy it,” he said.

“I hope people will come to see it. I can tell them what I did and why I did it,” he says.

No-till believer

Bindl says he knew he wanted to farm no-till to counteract fields with compaction and hard pan and to protect the soils on his steeper fields. His dad, Wayne “Buzz” Bindl bought their first no-till corn planter in 1979 or 1980, he recalls. “We always no-tilled corn into alfalfa fields and on the hills, but we worked the bottom ground with conventional tillage at that time.”

Sauk County farmer Roger Bindl takes a closer look at a field of cover crop that he planted behind a small grain on his farm near Plain. He plans to put corn in this field next year so he chose certain cover crop plants to fix nitrogen, with the goal of cutting down on fertilizer purchases. Other plants in the 10-way mix were chosen to make phosphorus more plant-available, to break up hard pan in the soil profile or to help cut down on certain weeds.

After growing up just down the road, he left Plain and spent four years in the U.S. Marine Corps, before coming back to the farm. “It seemed like the thing to do.”

When he started to rent his own ground in 2010 he knew he wanted to do all no-till. “It’s easier and more economical to do it that way – it saves a lot of labor,” he said.

Saving labor is important to him, as is his nearly a one-man operation. He gets help from his dad; a couple of his brothers are there to help at harvest time.

Most of his fields are on land his father purchased in the early 1980s and that the family had rented before that. His farm today includes 225 acres, some of which is pasture to graze his 70-80 dairy replacement heifers and 10 beef cows. Some of the land, which includes some fairly steep slopes, is kept in permanent grass.

Bindl got started custom raising heifers six or seven years ago and had a few of his own mixed in. “I wanted to make use of the silos,” he says.

When the farmer he had raised heifers for got out of the dairy business, he continued to raise heifer calves and bring them along, breeding them AI and then freshening them, keeping the calves and selling the just-fresh replacements.

He sells the heifers through private sales or takes them to regular dairy sales at Ithaca. “It’s been tough the last two or three years. I can definitely tell when milk prices improve.”

But he decided to stick with the animals because the manure helps to build his soil and raising them makes use of the facilities he has at his farm. He can use the straw from his wheat fields (or oat fields) as bedding for the animals, which then gets put back on the land.

He has noticed that since he began building his soils with cover crops and with the manure from the heifers, his soil organic matter has increased. He has also observed that it has allowed his fields to be more resilient. In drought conditions his corn doesn’t burn up the way it did before, because the soil is holding more moisture, he said.

Four years ago his field with the lowest soil organic matter stood at 1.5%. And after four years of his intensive no-till/cover crop regime, that same field has increased to 2.2% organic matter. Other fields are even higher – up to 3.2 and 3.3% organic matter.

His practices have also eliminated the hard pan and soil compaction in his fields – measured and documented with a soil penetrometer.

He also keeps an eye on nitrogen use efficiency or NUE after picking up some information on that from Discovery Farms. He has grown 170-bushel-per-acre corn on fields with just the residual nitrogen from a cover crop, plus a starter fertilizer.

Not having to buy fertilizer is one of the big draws for him, with this method of crop production. He also likes the idea of covering the soils to protect them from erosion on his steep fields and around a stream – part of the Honey Creek Watershed – that runs through his farm.

“I have a nutrient management plan made every year. It’s a whole system. Improving soil health, not having to buy fertilizer and the earthworms have come back big time. They are like little recycling rototillers, taking in all kinds of plant material and turning it into improved soil.”

Farmer-based group

Bindl is also part of a newly formed group to foster ideas on soil and water conservation. The Sauk Soil and Water Improvement Group (SSWIG) got started in January 2019 and by July 2019 had become a formal farmer-sponsored network thanks to a grant from the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

With everything being cancelled this spring due to the coronavirus “it’s been a tough first year,” he says. He hopes people will find and follow the group on Facebook.

Despite that, he’s excited about the possibilities for education and networking going forward. His first experiences were with a similar Dodge County group. “I met some great individuals there that helped with many ideas on cover crops and no-till.”

Bindl has also picked up valuable information at the national no-till conference each year. He’s not sure if the one scheduled for next January will go on, but he has traveled to Indianapolis, St. Louis, Springfield, Illinois and Louisville for the annual gathering of no-till farmers.

One of his goals is to have all of his soils covered with vegetation each fall – except for a field where he “winter grazes” his heifers. He sets up big square bales and fencing to allow the animals to move through them in stages and is very happy with that method of feeding and manure spreading.

 He is considering the idea of rotational grazing for his heifers and maybe even adding goats to the farm to control some of the weeds and unwanted undergrowth in his wooded land. There’s always a new idea on the horizon.