Covers help feed supply, farmers share experiences

Gloria Hafemeister
Jeff Gaska uses an ATV equipped with RTK guidance technology to guide his establishment of clover in a wheat field in spring.

BEAVER DAM - “If you do what you did, you get what you got,” says Jeff Gaska, a Beaver Dam beef producer who also raises crops on 450 acres of land.

Gaska was one of three farmers to host a tour of his farm to see some of his innovative practices and hear what he learned in the last 15 years of establishing cover crops to nourish and protect his soil. Soil tests have shown that after all these years, organic matter in the soil has increased.

Jeff Gaska frost seeds clover into wheat on his Beaver Dam farm, using an ATV equipped with RTK guidance technology.

“If you interseed clover in wet areas the wheat, the clover, that likes wet ground, will crowd out the wheat,” he notes. “I use the ATV because I can turn it off when I go through those areas. It is lightweight so doesn’t make ruts.”

He does it in spring because if it is established in November it might germinate in warm weather early in spring and then freeze if it gets cold again. If it doesn’t freeze off it could crowd out the wheat.

The Healthy Soils workgroup, under the guidance of Loretta Ortiz-Ribbing, Dodge County UW-Extension crops and soils agent, worked with Gaska this year to establish a test plot and monitor the results using 7 pound and 11 pound per acre seeding rates of the red clover and comparing those areas to a portion of the wheat field with no inter-seeding of clover.

He suggests, “Make sure the coverage is even. When you spread clover there must be some frost in the ground – even if it’s just morning frost.”

He adds, “I tried it once in April and thought it would work because there was a couple of inches of rain right after but it didn’t work. It needs those fine frost cracks in the ground.”

He has played around with different seeding rates because if the clover is too heavy it will interfere with the wheat growth. This year he saw 93 bushels per acre yield despite the interseeding of the clover. As soon as the wheat was harvested and the light hit the field the clover took off, providing feed for his cattle and nitrogen for next year’s corn crop.

Feed for cattle

“The clover is ideal for late-season pastures when other pastures lose growth late in the summer,” he says. “The clover allows us to have more beef cattle without using more land for pasture.”

As for concerns about bloat in the lush clover, Gaska says because of the presence of volunteer wheat, bloat has not been an issue but they do need to watch the cattle.

Gaska says, “We are now working on ways to utilize more of our clover acres as pasture. We need to build more fences around some of these fields. We feel the grazing also contributes more fertilizer for next year’s crop.”

The Gaskas have a herd of 35-cow/calf pairs of Simmental and Simmental/Red Angus cross. They market the heifers as replacements and feed out the steers for local beef sales.

While their 15 years of experimenting with cover crops has added some expense and labor, they feel it has also resulted in healthier soil for the long term and an increase in overall production with less fertilizer cost. During the last 10 years they have increased their average production for corn by 30 bushel per acre and soybeans have risen 10 bushel per acre. Wheat has increased 11 bushel per acre.

Gaska says they initially started cover crops as a way to reduce fertilizer costs but they have found the cover crops do much more. Besides benefiting as a feed for the cattle, they believe the cover crops support soil biological activity, and treat compaction.

“Right now we’re taking a 40 pound credit for nitrogen for next year’s corn but we’re hoping we can go even higher,” he says. “We also plan to start doing variable rates.”

They soil sample every three years on 2.5 acre grids and do variable rate application of lime, phosphorus, potassium and nitrogen.

Gaskas have also tried other cover crops including sun hemp, tillage radish, cereal rye and multi-species mixes. They plant cereal rye on all harvested soybean acres going to corn except the fields planted in wheat. They are also trying planting cereal rye in harvested cornfields going to soybeans.

Next year they plan to try interseeding clover/cereal rye in V4-5 corn while side-dressing 28%.

Farmer led group

The newly organized Farmers for Healthy Soil-Healthy Water group hosted the field day Oct. 18 to demonstrate some of the practices that have been established on some Dodge County farms. So far 20 farms have joined in the new group.

Taking part in the tour were members of the Dodge County Lakes Association who have also been striving to find ways to protect local lakes and streams. They were impressed to see the various systems farmers have put in place to prevent erosion and runoff of soil and nutrients. 

The farms featured on the tour are among several that have established on-farm trials to evaluate the best way to plant cover crops into current crop rotations.

Ortiz-Ribbing and the county Land Conservation Department have worked with the group, helping to establish the research plots and keeping track of findings in order to report the results to others.

Ortiz-Ribbing also brings helpful information from specialists at the University of Wisconsin and assists in dealing with issues that the producers encounter along the way.

There is grant money available to help farmers interested in establishing test plots on their farm. The UW-Extension also has the equipment needed to calibrate drills for establishing cover crops and will provide assistance in setting up the equipment for establishing a crop with a variety of seeds.