Dairy technology: Cover crops, manure management featured

Gloria Hafemeister

Greenleaf – Sustainability is a driving force in all business sectors, and agriculture is no exception.

Successful farms today operate in a sustainable way, simply because good farm managers know it’s the only way to survive.

As farms grow and modernize, along with it comes a need to manage nutrients on the farm and protect the environment.

The farmer-led Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin strives to help farmers learn about innovative ways to manage in a way that they will get the most from their nutrients and protect the environment.

Keeping up with all the new technology, though, can be a challenge.

With that in mind, PDPW hosted a two-day nutrient innovation and dairy technology tour, providing the opportunity for PDPW members to learn from other dairy producers who are leaders in the use of cutting edge technology. The tours featured water purification, manure and sand separation, nutrient capture systems, methane digesters, rotary parlors, soil mapping, recycled bedding methods and other state-of-the-art technologies.

Shelly Mayer, PDPW executive director, said tours like this and opportunities to network have been very popular since the organization began 25 years ago. PDPW has earned a reputation throughout the country for providing information about cutting edge technology and management techniques and has members in 39 states.

“Not only do our farmer members learn, but also those who serve the dairy industry,”  she said.

The November tours included farmers, builders, veterinarians, dairy service technicians and consultants.

Participants came from several areas outside Wisconsin, including Ohio, Indiana, Minnesota and the Netherlands.

Role of cover crops

Dan Brick of Brickstead Dairy, Greenleaf, described how he manages manure in a way he believes will allow him to cut his commercial fertilizers by 90 percent within the next five years.

As the owner of a 900-cow dairy, he is doing that with the use of cover crops that not only provide a blanket on the fields over winter to hold nutrients in the ground and prevent erosion that occurs with bare soil, but also to provide a secondary crop for harvesting.

The goal behind his no-till planting philosophy and use of cover crops is to preserve the structure of the soil on the 900 acres he manages.

“We need to admit we have some problems with manure management," Brick said. "We need to do things in a different way than our dads and granddads did.”

Brickstead Dairy is a demonstration farm for the Great Lakes Initiative, and the Bricks are pioneering and testing new ways to approach nutrient application. As a demonstration farm, Brick is working with both federal and state governments on a project patterned after the UW-Discovery Farms program.

Their study includes cover crop species, rates and seeding methods and allows the dairy to transition to incorporating no-till into their operation.

As the fifth-generation Brick to manage the dairy, he is focused on innovative manure application practices, including low-disturbance manure incorporation and surface applications.

Dan Brick of Brickstead Dairy has found success with cover crops as a means of scavenging nutrients that are applied when he empties his manure pit on his 900-cow dairy.

Brickstead strategy

Brick’s preference for cover crops is a 12-way crop that provides a variety of benefits.

His mixes include such things as tillage radishes, sunflowers, winter peas and grasses.

“Different crops provide different root structures," Brick said. "Some are deep, and some are shallow; some plants soak up nutrients, and some break up hard pan.”

The goal is to provide overall soil health and build organic matter that increases each year.

Brick determines what he will plant as a cover by several factors, including when he is able to get the seeds in the ground.

The multi-species crop is established after winter wheat when it still has several months to develop. Cover crops established after September are limited by the shorter growing season left.

“When we started in 2009, we had all tillage radishes, but they left too much bare ground," Brick said. "Spring barley is in almost all of our mixes because it will grow a long time before it freezes.”

Brickstead Dairy has 14 months of manure storage that allows a little leeway for getting manure on the ground at just the right time.

Brick firmly believes surface applying manure on a cover crop is a better method for preserving nutrients than injecting it.

“The rules and regulations are counter-productive to what we’re trying to do," he said. "Incorporating makes things worse. It looks good, but we don’t want to disturb the soil.”

He pointed out that when manure is applied on a living cover crop, the plants will absorb the nutrients, taking away the chance of leaching or running off. This is especially beneficial in solving issues with manure getting into field tiles.

When Brick surface applies manure, he does a water infiltration test first.

“We mimic a 1-inch rainfall, and the water must be gone in a minute or we do not apply,” he said. “Cover crops utilize phosphorus, build organic matter and promote water infiltration and water-holding capacity in our fields.”

He also uses a special applicator from Outagamie County — a low-disturbance system that applies manure every 20 inches in a band and closes up the furrow after it.

Through the farm’s work with the Save the Bay Initiative and Discovery Farms monitoring, Brick is also working on a phosphorus trading agreement with the city of Green Bay. Phosphorus trading allows industries that produce a lot of phosphorus to buy credits from farmers, such as Brick, who are reducing their phosphorus contribution to the watershed.

Brick is also providing nutrient data to help conservation experts develop a realistic market and pricing system for phosphorus.

This is the first in a series of stories about how dairy producers are adapting state-of-the art technology to manage nutrients and protect the environment. The series will feature six innovative dairies in northeastern Wisconsin that opened their farms to members of the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin on a Nutrient Innovation and Dairy Technology Tour in early November.