Miltrim Farms leverages cover crops and no-till planting for better profitability

Dan Hansen
This aerial photo shows the Miltrim Farms’ conventional parlor flanked by two freestall barns. The farm currently milks about 2,800 cows - 1,100 in a robot facility and the other 1,700 in a conventional parlor.

ATHENS, Wis. – Miltrim Farms is a multi-generation dairy farm in north central Wisconsin with has a long history of land conservation. 

“We started with buffer strips and other conservation practices, and we’ve always worked to conserve the soil and do right by the land,” said David Trimmer who represents the farms' third generation.

Trimmer recently presented an online seminar detailing how the farm has grown and how it continues to employ additional conservation practices.

The farm began with around 40 milk cows but is currently milking about 2,800 cows, about 1,100 in a robot facility and the other 1,700 in a conventional parlor. Work is progressing on a new robot barn which will add 12 more robots, bringing the total to 30. “Plans are to start milking in the new facility sometime in July,” Trimmer noted.

They also farm about 5,000 crop acres, about 2,600 in corn, 2,100 in alfalfa and grasses, and some acres of oats from which the straw is used for bedding. 

No-till savings

The biggest savings achieved with no-till planting comes from eliminating extra passes across the field. “Chisel plowing is a really big cost,” Trimmer emphasized. “With our biggest tractor we burn close to 30 gallons per hour. Wear and tear on the plow cost $750 worth of shoes twice a year, plus labor to replace them.”

Not having to chisel plow 2,000 acres means big savings. “We figure it costs $60 an acre to make a pass with a chisel plow, which requires another pass after that, plus the labor cost to operate the equipment,” Trimmer said. “Not having to use our biggest tractor as much also means big savings.”

No-till planting makes the soil firmer with less rutting, which means tilling isn’t needed to level ruts.

“If your ground is firmer, and you can get on the field even a week earlier to plant, that could bring a lot of economic value,” he stressed.

Soil health is something they're continuing to learn more about, especially on the microbe level. “We’re seeing more earthworm activity,” Trimmer acknowledged. “In the past 15 to 20 years we’ve gone up 20% in our yields. Our goal is to continue to build that soil and create a healthier platform for our crops, while driving down our costs.”

He also noted that no-till planting means having to pick fewer rocks that are found in their heavy clay soil.

Cover crop value

“Seeding cover crops goes hand-in-hand with no-till planting,” Trimmer said. “Cover crops capture water, so we are better able to utilize the rain we get, as well as preventing soil from being washed away by rain.”

Putting manure down in fall on bare soil often results in a lot of nutrient loss during winter. “But if you can put that manure into a growing cover crop early enough so that crop has time to recover, and grab onto those nutrients it means needing to apply less nitrogen and other inputs come spring,” he said.

Cover crops also improve soil carrying capacity, according to Trimmer. “It’s interesting that when crops are thick they add another layer to help hold up equipment when planting and especially help to harvest more efficiently in a timely manner,” he stressed.

Trimmer sees building organic matter as more of a long-term cost saving. “Ten to 15 years down the road is where you really see that organic matter building up and keeping your costs down,” he said. “Cover crops also can improve weed suppression which should require applying fewer herbicides and pesticides, and they also can serve as sacrificial plants for bugs to feed on.”

Cover crops seeded into fields of corn silage are important because otherwise these fields don’t really have any crop residue left to protect the soil.

Miltrim Farms’s cover crops include: cereal rye, red clover, ladino clover, white clover, cow peas, hairy vetch and rape seed. “Our goal is to keep cover crop seeding economical; we shoot for a seeding cost of $14 to $16 an acre, with an application of 15 to 18 pounds of seed per acre,” Trimmer explained.

They’re now utilizing more plant mixes. “We used to plant straight alfalfa but after we lost all our alfalfa and had to replant, we switched to planting an alfalfa-grass mix that helped increase forage, and now we’re broadening that mix with some clovers,” he reported

Another advantage of the grass mix is that it allows some manure application in the summer. 

“Generally, being able to apply manure in the summer allows us to spread on a growing crop to more efficiently utilize that manure. Our custom hauler gives us a rate discount in the summer because that’s generally not a busy time. We use a dribble bar that distributes manure right at the ground instead of spraying it all over the plant, which is a much cheaper piece of equipment,” Trimmer said.

Water conservation

Using less water also is a primary goal of the farming operation. “Water always has been important to our family. We enjoy fishing and other water types of recreation,” Trimmer said.

“Surface water runoff is a big concern. We have many small watersheds that drain into the Mississippi River. Many of our fields have very heavy clays and are high risk for erosion. We want to do what we can to keep the soil in the field where it belongs,” he said.

“We also have a high number of corn silage acres, and those unprotected acres generally are at highest risk because you don’t really have any crop residue left to protect that soil.”

“Less water we use means there’s less manure to hauled out,” said Trimmer, “and we use shallow waterers in the barn to reduce the amount of water that gets dumped out. The milking robots utilize less water because you don’t need the big fire hoses to clean up the parlor. Some farms see  25% less water use because of the robots.”

Switching to more efficient sprinklers for cooling and using efficient fans for cooling saves water. “We also utilize manure separation to help keep flush water clean and use as little water as possible,” he said.

Miltrim Farms has a partnership with the Alliance for Water Stewardship. “We were one of the first in North America to be certified as a clear water farm. We are committed to continually improving our stewardship practices,” Trimmer stressed.

Not farming poor land 

Miltrim Farms uses yield mapping technology to pinpoint poor land or poorer sections of land that may need to be taken out of production. 

“That can be anything from planting a grass buffer to taking a small, swampy field completely out of production and returning it to wildlife habitat, including monarch or pollinator plots,” Trimmer explained. 

“There are various programs from FSA and others that help pay for the project and even compensate you for doing it. You’re taking land out of production that you’re consistently losing money on, and making it usable for area wildlife while also getting paid for doing it.” he said.

There are different rules depending on the species you plant. “With some of the species we can also harvest a couple times a year,” he said.

“Those buffer areas bring our whole yield average up for the field but we’re still allowed to take a bit of grass for heifer feed, and those buffers help make sure the soil and those nutrients stay on the field,” he said.