Challenges and benefits of cover crops vary from year to year

Gloria Hafemeister
Brendon Blank, an enthusiastic cover crop and no-till promoter, shows some of the cover crops in the fields at the Miller farm near Hustisford.

HUSTISFORD – 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.

Last year when Kevin Miller hosted the cover crop field day on his Dodge County farm that he runs with his brother, Scot, the attendees saw a diverse beautiful growth of plants that included flowering plants, grasses and deep rooted plants.  Weather conditions in 2021 were ideal for establishing the cover following the harvest of winter wheat.

This year was a different story. The field wasn’t as “pretty” but when visitors looked at the variety of covers in his field, they still saw a huge benefit.

Last year Miller established his cover on August 4 with no issues in planting or growth.  This year weather was a challenge. The cover went in on August 13 under very wet conditions. The straw wasn’t harvested and it created a hurdle in making seed to soil contact so some parts needed to be re-seeded.

Because last year’s cover got in earlier it had the benefit of 9 more heat unit days.

Brendon Blank, a speaker at the field day said, “While we are generally not fans of tilling, this year a little tillage may have helped fluff up the residue and the seed would have been better established early."

Blank is a long-time promoter of cover crops and no-till as a means of building healthy soils.

“As a dairy farmer you have to feed a balanced diet to your cows. It is the same in the field. You need to have a healthy balance and each plant in a cover crop mix provides a nutrient and maintains a balance in the soil. Every plant has a different skill set for doing something in the soil.”

Miller has been no-tilling since the early 1990’s and was one of the first in the area to experiment gradually with cover crops. His goal has been to get his winter wheat off, apply the liquid manure immediately and then seed the cover. 

“I want to get the manure tied up in the crop as soon as possible,” he says.

Blank says there are a lot of environmental benefits to cover crops but the benefit also extends to the farmer.

"The plants take the energy from the sun we have today and store it for our crop next year. They also tie up nutrients from the manure so they will be available for next year’s crop,” he said.

Blank also likes a mixture of cover crops with some dying off and some remaining alive through winter to feed the life in the soil.

Reaching down in Miller's field, Blank pulled up a variety of plants for the visitors to examine. 

Roots like this hairy vetch root show the little white nodules that store nitrogen in the root of the plant, storing it until it is needed in spring.  Also visible is one of numerous earth worms that are attracted to the cover crops.

Each plant in the bundle had a specific role to play in the health of the soil: Buckwheat, a fast-growing plant, breaks phosphate loose in the soil and mobilizes it; Hairy vetch has a little lump in the roots that pulls nitrogen and stores it for later use: Peas grow fast and also make nodules. However, they will winter kill; Grass helps keep the balance in the soil life functioning and growing. Flax is a good crop for absorbing energy from the sun and storing it for next year’s crop.

Tillage radishes serve as a compaction breaker. As the radish was passed around the group it was obvious that soil does not cling to the long white tap root as it does to roots of other plants.

“Straight radishes aerate and break up compaction but they do not feed the life in the soil,” Blank explained.

Taking part in the event were members of the Lake Sinissippi Association and the Lake Improvement District, both financial supporters of the Dodge County Healthy Soil-Healthy Water Alliance.

Members were impressed with how the land served as a sponge to absorb water and showed no signs of run off or erosion.

Connecting the farm/lake community

The Alliance is a self-funded non-profit organization that connects the farming community with the lake community.

The Alliance, with assistance of Lake Sinissippi’s Doug Condon and his technology/media company, Tech Herd, put out a video focusing on the benefits of regenerative farming and how no-till farming benefits waterways and lakes. Another video focuses on the importance of good shoreline stewardship.

“Our Dodge County lakes are surrounded by agriculture. During the last five years, the Alliance has bridged the two communities, the farmers and the lake people," said Alliance co-chair Bill Boettge. "Pointing fingers at one another has not been useful.  Working together for healthy soil and healthy water has created new partnerships and relationships.”

The Alliance is one of 45 farmer-led healthy soils groups in the state. A resource for both farmers and shoreline owners, the Alliance is assisted by representatives of the DNR, UW-Extension, Dodge County land Water Conservation office, and other state offices. 

Throughout Wisconsin hundreds of farmers have gravitated to producer-led watershed groups like this one over the past six years.

Some have joined groups to learn about innovative farming practices similar to those demonstrated on the Miller farm. Others look for ways to protect stream banks on their property or keep nitrates out of the groundwater. Still others simply want to demonstrate to their non-farming neighbors that farmers care about clean water.

Watershed groups such as the Dodge County Alliance got their start using grants from the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) to provide financial incentives to farmers for implementing conservation practices for education and outreach, on-farm demonstrations, ad water-quality testing and monitoring efforts.

The Dodge County group has achieved world-wide attention since it formed. Organizers Tony Piereck, a Watertown farmer and Mary Weiss who farms near Beaver Dam have been featured speakers at numerous events around the state and country.

The group is currently making plans to host the annual farmer workshop in Juneau in February. That event has been attended by well over 200 farmers each year since the Alliance began.