By Lauren Brey & Whitney Prestby for PPF
About 20 people spent several hours in fields of PPF member Brey Cycle Farm to learn about different varieties of cover crops and how they fit into a farming system. Low-disturbance manure injection was also demonstrated using a Bazooka Farmstar toolbar courtesy of Outagamie County Land Conservation Department.
Two fields with three different cover crop mixes were highlighted at the meeting on Sept. 17.
The Breys took over management of the fields in 2017.
“The first step was taking soil samples to check fertility and verifying soil depths,” said Nathen Nysse, agronomist for Brey Cycle Farm and an adviser to the Door-Kewaunee Demo Farms Program (DK Demo Farms). (Nysse also serves as PPF board secretary.) This revealed low fertility and the need for nutrients.
“Although the fields are side–by-side, they have uniquely different soils and soil depths. One is too shallow for manure, and the other is deep enough for manure application but also holds water and has more slope,” Nysse said.
In 2017, the fields were planted with corn for silage using conventional tillage and were followed in 2018 with corn silage again. Following last year’s corn harvest, winter wheat was no-tilled into the field. After harvesting the winter wheat this summer, three different cover crop mixes were no-tilled in to compare.
“The goal is to continue with no–till and build the soil profile,” Jacob Brey, partner in Brey Cycle Farm, said.
“Now we see earthworms and biological activity, signs of improving soil health,” Nysse said. “What you see above ground, you see twice as much below ground, which is the most important part.”
The first cover crop mix, planted into the shallower field, consisted of 10 pounds of crimson clover, 5 pounds of sorghum sudan grass, and 1 pound each of purple top turnip, daikon radish and sunflower. While not all the seeds were planted at optimal depth, they were still growing and got cover on the ground.
In this same field, a separate section had red clover spread with urea and ammonium sulfate while the winter wheat was growing, called “planting into green.” One lesson learned was that spreading seed with fertilizer may need an additive like oil in the spreader as the contents were different weights and spread more in some areas than other.
Not only is it helpful to have something growing in the fall and protecting the ground in winter, but cover crops are beneficial in spring, too. Having something green pulling moisture out of the ground may allow farmers to get in the fields earlier. The root system from the cover crops acts like a water pump, pulling moisture from snow melt and heavy spring rains. By building a healthy soil system, the fields not only dry out quicker, but they have the capacity to store water, which is beneficial during late July and August when the weather tends to be hot and dry.
The third cover crop mix, consisting of barley, peas and winter triticale, was planted in the other field with deeper soil and more slope.
“Because this field is much wetter and has a significant slope, it is likely a gully would form, so it is good to keep cover on it to help with erosion management,” Nysse said. “Whether we get a cutting of forage or not, you are helping soil health.”
“We are seeing a lot of standing water in fields due to all of the rain we’ve had, and the fact that there isn’t any in this field speaks to the value of cover crops,” Brey said.
The barley and peas could be harvested or will die off. The triticale will be ready next spring and will be harvested for forage to feed the cattle raised on the Brey farm. “This type of mix also allows various options depending on the weather,” Nysse said.
The goal of the DK Demo Farms program is to showcase better ways of doing things and to try new practices.
“This is a step toward the right direction for water quality,” Nysse said.
The field day included a demonstration of a Bazooka Farmstar low-disturbance manure injection toolbar. The toolbar was purchased by Outagamie County in partnership with Fox-Wolf Watershed Alliance using funds provided through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. For farmers who are looking to move toward a no-till system with cover crops, using manure injection may be a viable option.
The manure injector utilizes a 22–inch wavy coulter mounted on a slight angle to open a small trench were manure is injected. Another angled, wavy coulter pushes the trench closed, covering the manure. The injectors are spaced 18 inches apart. This unit is capable of injecting up to 14,000 gallons/acre in ideal soil conditions. It can also be used with living cover crops to inject manure while preserving the crop stand. The cover crop can then absorb and hold the manure nutrients and soil in place until the following year’s crop is planted. The unit is available for farmers to use on fields where they’ve planted cover crops.
If interested in trying the equipment, contact Andy Kiefer, agronomist with the Outagamie County Land Conservation Department, at (920) 832-5044.
Thanks to GLC Minerals for providing lunch!