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Wisconsin Dells — Cover crops can provide many benefits to soil and the environment, but they can also be a challenge.

During the recent Discovery Farms conference in Wisconsin Dells, a panel of dairy producers shared their experiences with cover crops and talked about their seed choices, equipment used to establish the cover and the benefits of establishing these crops.

Joe Bragger is a dairy farmer from Independence and establishes cover crops after silage for forage. His covers include winter wheat, winter rye, barley, clover, radish and turnip.

“I see a benefit in soil quality and nutrient sequestration," he said, "and the cover crops help prevent soil erosion.

"There are lots of ways to do things. What works for me may not work for you. I try to do things as cheap as I can. We still have to make a living on the farm.”

Bragger's cover crops include a variety of mixes that he establishes by using a fertilizer buggy to spread the seed.

“I mounted a camera on the back of the buggy so I can keep an eye on the screen and make sure it is working," he said. "I learned the hard way that if the belt slips and the seed is not distributed, you will not know until you are finished with the field.”

He puts on the seed right behind the corn chopper. He spreads pen-pack manure on top, and the cover crop helps anchor the nutrients to the field.

One of Bragger's strategies is establishing alfalfa into the rye field in spring, with rye acting as the nurse crop. He has also experimented with different clovers and he uses tillage radishes on  fields that are subject to compaction.

When planting corn into a covered field, he said it is important to pick a hybrid that can handle the residue and one that has good emergence. He also reminded farmers to watch insect populations in the residue and be timely in the termination of the cover.

“Don’t take a chance of letting it get too big because if the weather changes and you can’t get in there to kill it, you will crowd out the corn,” he said.

A strategy for mixes

Nick Miller and his family raise cash grain with corn, soybeans and winter wheat. Cover crop mixes are used after winter wheat.

He has experimented with numerous covers, including solid stands of radish, three-way mixes of annual ryegrass and crimson clover with radish. Now he uses a five-way custom mix of peas, radish, rape, sorghum sudan and sunflowers. He is working to overwinter legumes like hairy vetch and clovers.

Miller has tried various methods of seeding, including broadcast with and without incorporation, drill and planting in 15-inch rows with a Kinze planter.

Since using cover crops, he has alleviated compaction, improved over-all soil health, improved water infiltration and increased the earthworm and biological microbes in the soil. As a result of six years of cover crops, yields have increased.

Miller burns off the crop in spring and  no-tills his crops into the cover using a row-cleaner that moves the root balls away from where the seed drops without actually tilling the soil. He also uses a nitrogen sensor that analyzes the color of the newly established corn that allows him to apply the second fertilizer with a variable rate.

Where he establishes red clover on a harvested wheat field, Miller said, “I frost seed it at 2 a.m. when the ground is frozen. If you want to take the straw off, though, having the green growing crop in the field could be an issue if wheat harvest is delayed and the clover gets too big.”

Covers and dairy manure

Dan Wiese establishes triticale, radishes, turnips, brassica, various clovers, annual rye, oats and artic peas as covers and uses mostly multi-specie mixes.

He tried various establishment methods, including no-till, light tillage and conventional drill and broadcasting with manure application over the top and vertical tillage with an air seeder.

Noting the cost of establishing cover crops in a separate operation, Wise said one pass with an air seeder saves on labor and fuel.

With 10,000 head of dairy cattle on the farm he runs with two uncles and two cousins at Greenleaf, Wiese said the cover crop provides an additional forage.

"If we have enough feed, we will terminate it before harvest," he said. "We get better response on corn by terminating it early and no-till into it.

“We started using rye but found that the triticale was a better feed for our animals.”

Wiese has tried various methods of getting liquid manure onto the cover-crop fields. They have applied both before establishment and after.

This year, they planted the cover crop first and then injected manure into it while the plants were very small. They have also tried top dressing on the plants, but Wiese pointed out that rain right after this can be a risk. Where they planned to inject manure into the cover crop, they increased the amount of seed at establishment.

As for the benefits, Wiese said the soil warms faster in the spring and water filters into it better.

“Our goal is to have our entire farm green and growing going into the fall,” he said.

All three growers recommend starting slow with cover crops and stated that even when something fails, it is still a learning experience. They suggest taking a field and splitting it to compare how it worked with or without cover crops.

They also suggested starting on the fields with the poorest soil or biggest erosion issues. Cover crops will improve soil health and drainage.

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