Abundance of Conservation Conversations this year
By Anne Moore for PPF
Our farmers’ voices are being heard across the Peninsula. PPF has been working toward having our communities understand how we are practicing conservation to not only improve soil health and water quality but also, to ensure we can continue to farm here.
Peninsula Pride Farms hosted seven Conservation Conversations (CC) this year starting on April 27 and ending on Oct. 26. Roughly 120 attendees learned from these field days. Thank you to all the farms that hosted these events including Mike Vandenhouten, Augustian Farms (twice), Ebert Enterprises, Pagel’s Ponderosa, Olson Family Farms and Kinnard Farms.
To start the season, farmers looked at the soil biomass deep in a soil pit with Jamie Patton, senior outreach specialist in the Nutrient and Pest Management Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“There were 100 pounds of oats planted last fall, and there is a tremendous amount of biomass in this field,” Patton said. “We don’t need to till this in. Many farmers get anxious about seeing this much residue out here, but as long as our equipment is set up for this, it is going to be no problem to no-till plant.”
As Patton dug into the soil, she showed the immense cover crop root structure and numerous earthworms. The soil was a dark, rich black color and crumbled as Patton broke it apart. She also showed a clear soil demarcation where at one time it was conventionally tilled compared to today’s practices.
Confidence in no-till pays dividends
Aaron Augustian graciously hosted twice – once in the spring and again in the fall – to show both seasons on the same ground. He discussed the advantages of no-till conservation practices and what he’s learned from failures.
Augustian, whose farm is less than 2 miles from Lake Michigan, decided to start no-tilling his land four years ago because of his proximity to the lake. He has noticed many improvements.
“The soil structure is improving slowly,” Augustian said. “We are noticing that when it rains, we have more infiltration of rainwater that stays on the soil. Along with manure application, it seems to stick to the soil better with the growing cover crop out here.”
Nick Guilette from Ebert Enterprises was among several experts who provided insights at these gatherings.
“No-till offers some flexibility when it comes to rotation planting,” Guilette said. “When we start talking about soil health benefits, we notice a lot of things: better infiltration, better soil structure, and fewer passes over the field leads to fuel savings. Several benefits come quickly when a farm decides to practice no-tilling.”
Augustian started with 25 percent of his acres under no-till practices before advancing to more acres. He is now at 95 percent doing no-till and planting corn into green. Shared at the second field day were the results of how the corn performed in a no-till field that was planted green. Augustian said that earlier in the year they had germination issues with uneven corn plants, but as the year went on it did not affect yields.
The cornfield on display was previously four-year-old alfalfa, which was terminated in fall 2020. Augustian then came in with a no-till drill and planted a multi-species cover crop of radishes, turnips, clover and winter rye. Throughout the fall and winter, the farm applied sand-laden manure and liquid manure, following their nutrient management plan. Manure is the main source of nutrients here.
Guilette focused on the benefits in the soil health aspects of planting green. He showed how the soil displays past roots which help hold the soil together. There are also a lot of earthworms going through the soil profile which in turn helps the corn roots explore and utilize more nutrients.
The group agreed that the evidence is out on the cover crops by the count of earthworms present in no-till fields. Guilette said five years ago in one spade shovel there were no worms, now it is more like 10 to 15.
Overall, Augustian has the confidence to talk with other farmers about why no-till is increasing profit margins and saving time. Increasing bushels per acre isn’t the ultimate goal when implementing a no-till strategy, Guilette said.
“Yield is one thing, but margin per acre is also important,” he said. “There is fuel savings, and Aaron’s field didn’t have to get tilled twice or even three times. There was a no-till pass and maybe a little bit more money was used on the herbicide program. Some scouting needs to occur to see if weeds are under control or potentially if there are army or cutworms. It will take a little bit more boots-on-the-ground scouting, but that is savings per acre.”
In July, PPF hosted another no-till related CC at Pagel’s Ponderosa in Kewaunee, this time about the long-term effect and related costs.
Dave LaCrosse, cropping manager at Pagel’s, said the practices not only make the crops and environment happy but farmers’ checkbooks, too. Pagel’s cornfield has been in no-till for 11 years.
“When you have good soil, it’s easy to get seed in the ground,” LaCrosse said. “No-till helps with that.”
LaCrosse said the benefits include less soil compaction when there are fewer passes with equipment. Along with using less manpower, a farmer doesn’t have to worry as much about the cost of fuel or wear and tear on equipment, and best of all, it saves time.
Long-term use of no-till allows the organic matter and microorganisms to give the soil what it needs. There is organic matter on the top feeding the soil. Fertilizer costs are low. And the planter is set up the same for no-till versus tillage and the goal is to get the seed 2.5 inches or more to get a nicer stand.
Our CC at Ebert Enterprises had a great new topic. Randy Ebert and Nick Guilette discussed the center point drop nozzle irrigation system’s ability to use water from feed pads. This water, formally called leachate, is created when water trickles through a pile of feed and nutrient particles from the feed is absorbed into the water.
Nick and Randy explained that using leachate on growing crops helps to recycle the valuable nutrients from the feed as well as the water. This is an efficient way of using the leftover nutrients that would have otherwise been wasted. The practice is also a productive use of machinery, as there are no trucks on the road hauling. Attendees saw how Ebert Enterprises has a pipeline that directly transports leachate to the center point drop nozzle system to irrigate area fields.
Experimenting with different cover crops techniques
Olson Family Farms hosted a CC in Oct. showcasing how their different cover crop techniques have been performing. Eric and Rich Olson had two techniques for the group to observe. First, was inter-seeding cover crops into V3 corn. Agronomist Nathen Nysse said this is some of the best inter-seeding he’s seen.
Olson inter-seeded a red clover rye annual grass into a V3 corn silage field. He is leaving it in the field to help grow nitrogen and leave it as a cover through the winter.
“The goal here is water quality, nitrogen retention plus also living cover to protect the soil from erosion throughout the winter and spring months,” Nysse said. “Our goal here is a success in my opinion.”
The other practice Olson had on display was the multispecies cover crop planted in a wheat field. Olson explained half the field was vertical-tilled and planted while the other was no-tilled and planted right into the wheat stubble. The cover crop mixture used was oats, tillage radishes and half a pound of turnips.
The vertical-tilled crop was green, lush large turnips and radishes while the cover planted into the wheat stubble was much smaller. It will be interesting to see the difference in snow color this winter as to which ground will warm up and create that brown snow first due to how much cover will be left.
He plans to plant corn right into the cover crop this coming spring. The hope is to retain some of the nutrients the cover provides, and to preserve the soil over the winter.
The last CC of the season was at Kinnard Farms. Kinnard showed his contour buffer strips to see firsthand how the farm is practicing regenerative agriculture. This field has been in no-till practice for the past six years. It is strategically split up into 90-foot strips. Once the corn was harvested, Kinnard made the decision to leave some residue behind and plant winter rye and oats as a cover crop for the winter.
“The closer you can keep it to nature, the better,” Kinnard said. The winter rye will not be harvested in hopes it will help increase the soil biomass. In another contour strip, they keep alfalfa in the rotation. The idea is to continue building soil to improve the shallow depth to bedrock and slowly rebuild organic matter.
By leaving the residue and allowing the soil to regenerate, Kinnard estimates he has three to four tons of dry matter per year as new soil. The goal is to increase organic matter up to 2.5 percent -2.9 percent. The alfalfa crop also provides 120-160 pounds of free nitrogen which helps the corn crop.
It is very evident that farmers in PPF are excited to continue to try new conservation practices and share with the rest of the group how we are improving soil health, creating new soil, and protecting water resources.