Cover crops as conservation tools

Oct. 22, 2014


Yahara Pride Farms, an affiliate of the Clean Lakes Alliance, is looking for ways to help protect the Yahara watershed and the Madison lakes that it drains into.

At their second annual agricultural innovation field day event, Yahara Pride Farms showed farmers how to contain and clean up a manure spill (See related story) and showed how farmers are using cover crops to keep nutrients on their fields. making those nutrients available for the next year’s crops.

The first of two field days was held high on a hill north of Waunakee where Lonnie Hahn decided to use cover crops for the first time.

He wanted to give them a try to protect his sloping fields from erosion but also to maintain nutrients for the corn crop he will plant next spring.

The entire 110-acre property is planted with radishes and barley that was no-tilled into the fields after winter wheat was harvested. Some of the fields also have peas and clover added to the cover crop to help fix nitrogen.

Part of the property was covered with hog manure from his own livestock operation and the rest was covered with dairy manure from a neighboring farm just a day before the cover crops were planted in mid-August.

The barley and tillage radishes, he said, are intended to grow and soak up the nutrients and hold them in place while also improving soil tilth.

During soil pit demonstrations at the Oct. 21 field day, soil experts showed how some of the barley roots had penetrated 40 inches into the soil profile.

Looking out over the tall, lush cover crops, which are all annuals and will be killed off by winter temperatures, Hahn said he hoped he could no-till next year’s corn into the residue.

“But I might have to go through with one pass of vertical tillage. We’ll just have to wait and find out how it looks then.”

So far he’s pleased at how the process has worked. “Yahara Pride was looking for some wheat ground and asked me if I’d try it. It worked out perfectly and I’d definitely do it again.”

Dennis Frame, who was co-director of the state’s Discovery Farms program until his retirement in the summer of 2013, is working with Yahara Pride farmers.

Working with Dane County conservation staff, Frame helps evaluate and certify fields for farmers who are looking for advice on how to improve their operations.

“We evaluate their nutrient management practices and offer a certification. We point out all the stuff they need to consider changing. People want to know these things.”

The observation from Yahara Pride includes an assessment of the farmsteads including things that farmers may not think twice about — like fuel storage.

“Ninety percent of the things we point out they already know,” he said, “they are just looking for another set of eyes on their operations.

“The nice thing is that this is an independent group of people. We try to give them four or five things they could fix using county funding, federal funding or paying for it on their own.”

Frame said in the 20 or so farms they have already walked through they haven’t “found anybody with a disaster.”

They try to give farmers a different way to think about how they can improve their conservation practices on the farm.

He goes through the nutrient management plan and soil erosion numbers for the farm and looks at their soil tests as part of the assessment.

The process is intended to help find practices that will maximize farmers’ sustainability, he said.

“Farmers are trying to find things that will work for them. These guys have to be thinking five years into the future and ten years into the future. I don’t even know what it’s going to be like 20 years from now.

“Farmers here are trying to be very pro-active.”

This article originally appeared on the Wisconsin State Farmer website. To view the original article, click here.

Natalie EndresCover crops as conservation tools