Erosion embarrassment prompts cropping change

Ray Mueller

CHILTON – What happened on May 3, 2011, prompted a major change in practices at Brickstead Dairy southeast of Greenleaf in south central Brown County.

That was the day on which a heavy rainfall on bare soil or recently planted fields caused severe erosion, depositing soil in roadside ditches and even onto a neighboring property, farm owner Dan Brick told attendees at the Calumet County Forage Council's 2017 annual meeting.

At the time, Brick had been focusing most of his attention on managing the dairy herd which grew from 50 cows in 1996 to today's total of 900 head. Except for spray applications, much of the field work was being done by custom operators, but Brick does not blame them for what happened on that spring day.

Dan Brick

A new approach

In fact, Brick had begun to grow late season cover crops by 2009, working with Mike Haedt of Green Bay, who was one of the early promoters of the practice of keeping live roots in the soil for a greater part of the year, thereby improving soil health, providing more nutrients for subsequent crop and reducing erosion along with the opportunity to grow extra feed for livestock.

Brick recalled that his father had undertaken some special conservation practices in the 1960s but he realized that more effort was necessary. He pointed out that one of the very evident problems in the area was the runoff of soil and phosphorus into waterways that empty into the bay of Green Bay.

Vertical tillage and low disturbance soiling were the first steps that Brick tried in order to address the problem, but he did not find them to be ideal after a three-year effort. He also could not document any economic return from the first few years of growing cover crops.

Joining the network

In 2014, Brick became one of the first four farmer members (six members today) of the Northeast Wisconsin demonstration network which was led by the Brown County land and water conservation department as a way to document how farming practices affect the runoff of what become contaminants in bodies of water. A runoff monitoring station was set up on land cropped by Brick to document the timing, volume and contents of the runoff.

Either through strategies proposed by the network or by his own decisions, Brick has instituted no-till on 95 percent of the cropland that he owns or rents. He is also coordinating the growing of cover crops with the ability to make per acre liquid manure applications twice a year of about 9,000 gallons each rather than a single application of about double that volume.

A Bazooka manure applicator covering a width of 30 feet with 28 nozzles is available for borrowing from the Outagamie County land and water conservation department, Brick noted. Although one of its features is minimal soil disturbance, he found that it is not a great option for his situation.

Brick prefers to distribute the liquid dairy manure via irrigation hose lines rather than with trucks. He also noted that about four miles of grass waterways are in place within the land he crops.

Cover cropping practices

Brick tried aerial seeding of cover crops but was not happy with the results. Through the demonstration network, he obtained access to a in-row seeder from Pennsylvania for establishing red clover in standing corn — a practice that will be upgraded in 2017 with a six-row seeder.

As a standard practice, Brick plants cover crops quickly after the mid-summer harvest of winter wheat. Among his cover crop choices, he has grown only barley, a mix of triticale, winter peas and tillage radish, or combinations of as many as nine to 13 species, boosting the per-acre seeding cost to between $45 and $48.

Brick commented that he should reduce the per acre rates when working with the multi species package. Regarding costs, director Joe Smedberg of the Natural Resources Conservation Service office in Calumet County told meeting attendees that the agency has funding to pay cover crop growers up to $62 per acre for planting a single species and up to $72 for planting multiple species cover crops in 2017. He said the deadline for applications is March 3.

Except for having his dairy heifers raised elsewhere, Brick would grow more than the 70 to 80 acres of triticale that he has been. For 2016, he enjoyed per acre dry matter yields of 3.1 tons for the triticale and 9.9 tons for the crop of corn silage which followed.

Brick uses a special unit to plant into a living previous cover crop. As necessary, living vegetation is killed with a herbicide application, resulting in a mat which covers the soil and greatly reduces the likelihood of crusting as the followup crop emerges, he explained.

Five-year goals

During the next five years, Brick hopes to reduce his purchase of commercial fertilizers by 90 percent and to be growing cover crops on all of Brickstead Dairy's owned and rented cropland. He wants to use the Haney soil test (a biological and chemical analysis) as a way to determine nutrient reserves in the soil and to contribute data that would justify changes to the 590 Nutrient Management Plans that would in turn allow agronomists to focus on soil health practices rather than paperwork to comply with the 590 standard.

Another goal for Brick is to grow some of his own seed for cover crops, particularly with barley on the smaller and less productive fields. He also plans to intensify the interseeding into standing crops and to identify the acceptable manure application rates, including applications in a close timing proximity with the harvest of a crop and the planting of a followup cover crop.

To a question about how farmers who have not grown cover crops before can begin the practice, Brick suggested starting with barley at a seeding rate of 35 pounds per acre at a cost of only $8 to $10 per acre. He also mentioned winter rye and triticale as other initial choices.

As a starting point, Brick advises farmers to realize that they might be contributors to topsoil and crop nutrient loss and the resulting contamination of surface waters and then to act on that fact. He indicates that they need to allow three to five years to realize benefits from changing their practices.

Among the many photos that Brick has for documenting on-farm conditions and practices, one of his favorites shows large earthworms active just a few inches under the frozen soil surface in February. He suggests to fellow farmers that they ought to strive to have 25 to 30 earthworms per shovelful of soil that they overturn in their fields.

Quoting investment guru Warren Buffet, Brick noted that it takes “20 years to build a good reputation, 5 minutes to ruin it.”