Cover crops help Brandon family to achieve goals

Colleen Kottke
Becky Wagner uses a map to illustrate different soil needs on the Hiemstra farmily farm during  the Summer Field Day at the Brandon area farm on Aug. 24.

Over the years, Josh Hiemstra has experimented with different combinations of cover crops with varying degrees of success.

The Brandon farmers says it was trial and error at times as he tried several cover crop species and different planting strategies, His patience and persistence has paid off in improved yields and more.

"We had excellent growth and coverage along with nutrient retention," said Hiemstra. "I just had to be patient."

Hiemstra was able to share his story during  the Summer Field Day held on his third generation operation Hiemstra Dairy LLC, on County Hwy, T just east of Brandon on Aug. 24. Fond du Lac and Dodge County conservation and UW Extension officials were on hand to talk to farmers about cover crop system management, field buffers, design and implementation of best management practices and more.

Forage peas and tillage radishes are among the cover crops used by Fond du Lac County dairy farmer Josh Hiemstra on his dairy farm near Brandon, WI.

All about the soil

Farmers recognize that soil is their farm's greatest resource. Fond du Lac County Land & Water Conservation Department Agronomist Becky Wagner says cover crops provide the all important organic matter in the soil.

"These fields have a living cover all year and underneath the soil is able to absorb the rainwater, so there's more oxygen and earthworm activity below," she said. "By managing soil with cover crops we're able to keep the soil and nutrients where they belong so they don't run off into the Rock River which is just beyond those trees."

Becky Wagner of the Fond du Lac County Land & Water Conservation Department shows the presence of oxygen in the soil during a demonstration at the Summer Field Day held at the Hiemstra Dairy Farm near Brandon on Aug. 24.

Hiemstra says his family has been moving away from traditional tillage methods for some time.

"Other than burying corn residue from combining we don't do a lot of tillage," Hiemstra said. "We don't want to waste the nutrients we're applying because it's expensive to buy fertilizer. Right now we're trying to use our manure to the fullest extent. However, we never spread manure on ground that's been worked."

Getting started

Hiemstra began his foray into cover crops using winter rye about 10 years ago. He slowly progressed to planting tillage radishes after his wheat crop and then decided to diversity using a double mix of cover crops.

"I made some mistakes along the way. I first tried broadcasting the seed and using manure to incorporate it into the soil but that didn't work," he said. "Next we tried  the grain drill with a two-way mix and that seemed to work well. However, we weren't able to get through the level of residue in the spring with the planter."

Last year Hiemstra decided to try planting a mixture of forage peas and tillage radishes using his corn planter.

Dairy farmer Josh Hiemstra fields questions from visitors during the Summer Field Day held at his family farm near Brandon on Aug. 24.

"We were able to cover a lot of acres in a short time and we had both excellent growth and coverage as well as good nutrient retention," he said. "I went a step further this year, planting some sorghum and clover which were broadcast at the time with some potash. The jury is still out on how that's going to work but we're trying to increase the diversity of the cover crops as much as we can."

Changing practices

Fond du Lac County Land & Water Conservation Department Conservationist Paul Tollard says not only have tillage practices changed over the years, but crop rotations have changed as well.

"We're seeing a lot more corn silage in the crop rotation than we every have in the past and that presents a challenge as far as leaving cover on the ground after harvest over the winter," Tollard said. "So cover crops have really come to the forefront as an option for trying to reduce the amount of erosion that is occurring over the winter and spring months before planting."

Tollard believes the incorporation of cover crops is finding its place on dairy farms more now than ever. However, cover crops are specific to the soil needs of each farm.

"It's just a matter of dipping that toe into the water and starting to figure out how implementing cover crops is going to impact their farm and what recipe of cover crops is going to be beneficial to their operation," he said.

Checking out a soil sample on the Josh Hiemstra Family dairy farm near Brandon during the Summer Field Day on Aug. 24.

Helping each other

Tollard says field days give farmers an opportunity to learn about the successes that other farmers have had establishing cover crops.

"The more conversations we can have from one farm to the next as far as what recipes of cover crops work and what doesn't helps to speed along that learning curve," Tollard said. "(Hiemstra) has been playing with this for a number of years to get to where they are today. Hopefully we can shorten that time for others."

Hiemstra says the trial and error period has finally paid off.

"The corn has looked good after each and every cover crop," he said. "So far we've found that it's been helping us to accomplish our goals: covering the ground, retaining nutrients, building the soil and the yield results have been excellent."