It was a very wet fall for some regions of the country, including the Midwest. That made corn silage harvest a challenge to say the least. One Wisconsin dairy discovered that their no-till and cover crop practices were particularly beneficial in this muddy situation.
During a panel discussion at the UW Discovery Farms Annual Conference held in Wisconsin Dells, Wis., Derek Van De Hey of New Horizons Dairy in DePere, Wis., talked about their 2018 harvesting experience. He shared a photo of them chopping corn in late September in a field that had been no-tilled and cover cropped for six years. Despite the very wet conditions, the chopper and dump carts left just tire marks in the field.
Meanwhile, a field across the road was being chopped the same day. Even with twice the horsepower on their dump carts, the carts and the chopper got stuck several times, leaving ruts that were knee deep in some places. Van De Hey credited the no-till and cover crops for making it a lot easier to get the crops off and preventing potential damage to expensive equipment.
With cover crops, Van De Hey said they are also spreading much more manure in spring. In the past, when they had been using tillage, they were predominantly hauling in fall. Now, they are able to spread half of their manure in the spring. “This creates a lot less burden, especially in a year like this year when it was very wet,” he said.
Another benefit they see on their 950-head dairy farm is that when they were using conventional tillage, they had no worm activity in their fields. Now, the ground is covered in solid worm castings.
Tony Peirick of T&R Dairy in Watertown, Wis., agreed with that. On their 200-cow dairy, they have been using no-till for 24 years, cover crops for 10 years, and green planting for three years. They have also noticed increased earthworm activity.
In addition, they find that the soil has better water infiltration, retaining moisture better in dry conditions and allowing them to harvest corn sooner in the fall. They have also been able to maintain yields while reducing input costs.
Adam Lasch of Lake Geneva, Wis., had a similar experience with his crops. He and his wife started their dairy, beef, sheep, and poultry farm in 2011. The first year he did no-till and planted corn into a cover crop on some rented land, the owner pulled him aside and told him that it wasn’t going to work.
Pretty soon, the corn was getting taller, and by August, everyone else’s corn was burning up in the heat. Meanwhile, Lasch’s corn was still green, growing tall, and doing well.
It took another year or two, but the other farmer eventually came around to Lasch’s practices, and now he uses no-till and plants green on his farmland, too.
“You’ve got to convince them; it’s a slow process,” Lasch said.
Van De Hey felt similarly. He said they started using cereal rye as a cover crop on 100 acres as an inexpensive feed source for heifers; then they realized how easy it was to get into that field to haul manure in the spring. “We just had to do it once and it was a real eye opener. For us, it was a no brainer,” he said. Now they use no-till and cover crops on as many of their 2,500 acres as possible.
Peirick believes it takes education to get people to change their way of thinking. He currently serves as chairman of the Dodge County Farmers for Healthy Soil-Healthy Water, a group that puts on programs to teach people about these kinds of practices.
For people who go down the no-till and cover crops road, there are both soil health and financial benefits to be found. To learn more about the cost savings these farmers discovered, read the article, “Cover crops are low cost, high reward.”