‘Planting green’ conservation practices restore, improve soils

Jan Shepel
For Watertown farmer Tony Peirick, the practices of no-till and cover cropping have made a huge difference in improving soils on his fields and he is zealous in talking to other farmers about the value in these practices.

DE FOREST – For Watertown farmer Tony Peirick, the practices of no-till and cover cropping have made a huge difference in improving soils on his fields and he is zealous in talking to other farmers about the value in these practices. He recently spoke to the Iowa Corn Growers Association and “gave them hell” over their fields that remain bare over the winter and into the spring.

Speaking to a large group of Wisconsin farmers and allied industry people at a recent watershed conference organized by Yahara Pride Farms in DeForest, Peirick talked about his journey with conservation practices that have served to rebuild his soils and make them more resilient.

He serves as chair of the Dodge County for Healthy Soils and Water conservation group. He operates T and R Dairy Farm LLC with his brother Ralph and their two sons and one niece, farming 1,100 acres and milking 200 cows as well as operating a custom cropping enterprise – planting, spraying and harvesting for neighbors.

“Wisconsin is lucky to have these watershed groups, like Dodge County’s and Yahara Pride. There are now almost 40 of these farmer-led conservation and watershed groups,” he said. “Farmers like to hear from other farmers.”

The practices used by farmers like him are getting attention. Peirick said he was recently interviewed by a London-based reporter with “The Economist” about his conservation practices.

He has been no-tilling for 26 years and planting cover crops for 12 years. “I started no-tilling in the 90s with alfalfa and today we are 100 percent no-till,” he said. The farm has upped the ante on no-tilling by incorporating extensive use of cover crops into their practices.

Watertown farmer Tony Peirick serves as chair of the Dodge County for Healthy Soils and Water conservation group.

“Planting green” is what he calls planting a commodity crop like corn or soybeans into a living cover crop. Before, their general practice was to terminate the cover crop before planting, but they have since learned that leaving the living cover on the field has additional benefits in terms of adding more nitrogen, phosphorus and organic matter.

He showed data (from Indiana) confirming how leaving the cover crop growing and then killing it after the main crop is planted can provide great nutrient and organic matter benefits to the soil. “You can use planting green to solve problems,” he said.

According to that Indiana data, leaving rye growing to 12 inches tall provides an extra 82 pounds of nitrogen per acre and 15 pounds of phosphorus available to the next crop. An 18-inch ryegrass stand leave 120 pounds of N per acre and 20 pounds of phosphorus and a 28-inch stand of ryegrass leaves 134 pounds of N and 30 pounds of phosphorus. The residual biomass from each level of growing cover crop adds organic matter to the soil in increasing increments.

The advantages are many. “Increasing the cover and residue reduces erosion, allows more root growth and increases biological activity,” he said. “It also suppresses weeds and cuts down on the passes you need to make with chemicals.”

He has found that this practice of “planting green” reduces soil compaction, improves soil structure and results in fewer passes over the field. These days, because of rising input and fuel costs, reducing the number of passes over the field has become even more important. Planting green can result in lower costs for fuel, pesticides and herbicides, he added.

On his farm, the regular practice is to make one pass to plant corn into the annual ryegrass cover crop and make a second pass to terminate the cover crop at some point after planting.

“With our old conventional practices, we would make two tillage passes as well as pre-plant spraying and post-plant spraying. We saved at least $100 per acre and have less machinery maintenance once we stopped doing all that tillage,” he said. “Tillage destroys any benefits that planting green can provide.”

In addition to its value in building soil structure, preventing erosion and adding nutrients to the soil, planting a ryegrass cover has the capacity to help control a lot of broadleaf weeds, based on its natural biology, he added.

“Planting soybeans into a cover crop is one of the easiest things to do, especially when you have already worked with fall-seeded cover crops that you have terminated, like we used to do,” he said. For farmers who are looking to get into no-till and cover crops as he did, no-till planting those beans into a fall-seeded cereal rye is the easiest way to start.

Why rye?

One of the reasons for that is that cereal rye is probably the easiest crop to terminate after planting the commodity crop and it grows in colder temperatures than most other plants and provides great nutrient benefits. He commented that he was already seeing some cover crop fields greening up in the March sunshine.

He suggested that farmers who want to get into planting green should move up some units of nitrogen in their starter fertilizer. “The rye will use it and supply it to the soil as it decomposes.”

As farmers delve into planting green, he also suggested that they not worry as much about yield. “Even if yields drop, the reduction in tillage can make farming more profitable anyway.” He has been using these practices for years and has gotten corn yields of 220 bushels per acre. “Corn and soybean yields have been good.”

These practices make cropland more resilient to weather events – either too much rain or not enough. Peirick said farmers should learn to farm for profitability rather than productivity (in bushels) per acre.

His advice to farmers who want to try “planting green” is to find another farmer who is making these practices work and get their advice. Newcomers to these practices can use the experience of those who have mastered them to make a success of it on their own acreage. He advised “starting small” and adding to those planting green acres each year.

One farmer who is now a member of his watershed group was farming by using a moldboard plow only a few years ago and now he’s adopted the planting green practices. “You don’t need all this really expensive equipment. He has a four-row wide corn planter and puts weight on it with lime bags. The no-till system works with the cover crops.”

Peirick himself uses a tractor with GPS to plant his corn, so the photos of his corn planter show the guide markers turned up. But he said that sort of equipment isn’t essential to implementing these practices.

Bare soils

It is a point of aggravation to this farmer when he sees fields that remain bare after the fall harvest.

Peirick illustrated the importance of preventing soil erosion with this description -- a layer of soil the depth of a sheet of paper is a ton per acre. “If you get a windstorm across unprotected soil you could lose a ton of soil per acre.

He believes that having a living root in place in the ground 24/7 at all times during the year is essential to farming, after seeing the benefits on his land. He has used no insecticide or fungicide on his farm for seven or eight years and now buys soybean seed that is untreated. “We have more soil health, fewer problems and we have gotten the biology back into our dead soils.” (He’s now looking for seed corn that is untreated. “We’ve proved that it works with our soybeans.”)

In the spring he has found that his fields, which are all protected by cover crops, are 2 degrees warmer than neighboring fields that are bare, once winter lets go.

He has seen dramatic improvements in the soils on his farm. The blue clay soils around the farmstead formerly could only support corn harvests of 60 bushels to the acre. Today, with cover cropping and no-tilling, they are producing 200-bushel harvests.

His practice generally involves planting 50 pounds of cereal rye behind the combine. Liquid manure from the dairy as well as pen-pack manure is spread right on top of the cover crop. “The living plant will absorb the nutrients and with the improved soil biology the earthworms have become very aggressive. They digest the stalks and residue very well.”

Organic matter gains

Since he began the no-till and cover crop practices, his fields have picked up 5 to 6 percent more organic matter. “Cover crops are deep-rooted and they bring soil nutrients up from the soil profile and when it decomposes, it releases it to the next crop.” Looking at his now “living soils” under a microscope has been truly eye-opening as well, he said.

He told the Yahara Pride group that he has planted cover crops as late as Christmas Day and assured his farmer audience that “it’ll grow. We need to change our mentality about this.”

Early on, when he and his family adopted these practices, his brother came home from a meeting with other farmers and said they had to stop doing it because the neighbors were talking.

“Everybody says this can’t be done, but we know this works.” And they didn’t stop, but pushed forward with even more of these planting green practices as the years went by. Pierick is the farm’s combine operator so he sees the payoff of all the practices in terms of yield.

Because cover crops are so essential to their cropping practices, they are considering switching to 100-day corn to move up the harvest and allow more time for planting cover crops.

Generally the Peiricks have not harvested any of the cover crops for forage for their cattle, because they have access to 30 acres of marsh grass. Three cuttings off that acreage generally fill their need for a crop to feed their heifers. However this year they plan to try harvesting a triticale and rye crop that will be followed by corn.

When it comes to planting corn into a living cover crop, he said the number-one mistake farmers make is not planting it deep enough. “It must be 2 ½ to 3 inches deep. You need to make sure your planter can get it down there.”

In addition to their other enterprises, the Peiricks have also begun to raise Wagyu beef cattle.