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A cafe chat on soil health

Farmers hear presentations on cover crops

Photo by Jody Isaackson Farmers attending Monday morning’s soil health cafe chat at the Vesta Cafe Monday watch a PowerPoint presentation.

VESTA — Farmers filled the Vesta Cafe meeting room Monday morning to hear presentations on cover crops increasing soil health.

Grant and Dawn Breitkreutz of Redwood County, Allen Deutz of Lyon County and Brian Ryberg of Renville County each shared their experiences.

Grant Breitkreutz took the floor first to share and discuss photos of his fields that had been planted over terminated cover crop.

“Only 20-40 percent of the cover crop is harvested,” Breitkreutz said. “We leave a lot to protect (ground) and to fertilize naturally. It gives back healthy soil.”

He said they had started out with planting triticali as a winter crop and then turnips after a wheat crop was harvested.

“The turnips were great for the cattle, but single crop wasn’t good in the long term,” he said. “It’s hard to get emergence after cattle forage on it.”

There were much fewer emergence issues with a mixed cover crop. Additionally a three to four crop rotation helps fix the soil, he said.

“We set up in strips so that cows get a rotation,” Breitkreutz said. “We leave 30-50 percent on the ground with cattle stomping it into the field.”

He also said that cover crops were a multiple-year operation, not just from one January to the next.

During their second year, the Breitkreutzes got by with 40 percent less herbicide, he said, due to coverage.

“Planting green” was his way to go: Planting the main crop on a green cover crop and let them come up together, such as corn on a mature cover crop. It prevents erosion.

He said he sprays five days after planting the main crop to terminate the cover crop. The dead cover crop works to mulch the rows and create a water barrier so thick it prevents ruts after heavy rains.

“There are no ‘rain days’ anymore,” Breitkreutz said. “We spread fertilizer after receiving 0.4 inches and left no tracks in the field.”

One slide showed healthy corn still standing after 8.2 inches of rain.

Clover between the rows used to be an enemy to farm crops, but Breitkreutz discovered it produced nitrogen in its second year. Nitrogen is one of the nutrients farmers have to apply to depleted soil.

Cover crops can also help protect the ground from extreme heat, he said. And, there’s no need to spray for aphids as for every one insect you kill, you also kill 1,700 beneficials.

Since the Breitkreutzes went low-till/no-till with cover crops, they have been certified for water quality as well as being exempt from the Buffer Zone program.

Ryberg said he also rotates his crops and keeps a cover crop going. He talked about barley providing a nitrogen-bind issue with corn, but if planted five days before the corn and terminated 19 days after the corn is planted, it prevents the problem.

“Our level of earthworms should be pumping 500-700 pounds of calcium per year,” he said. That lowers the level of calcium that needs to be added to the field.

Also, rye produces 5 inches of root in a short period of time, providing good cover right away.

“We’re the crazy neighbors who just jumped into this,” he said. “We plan corn, soybeans and sugar beets. We front-load our nitrogen even on sugar beets. We have planted corn on corn.”

With cover crops, they have never left a track on anything. The corn looked stunted at first after planting it on a terminated cover crop of rye, but it turned out fine, he said.

Additionally, there had been a lot of white mold in his area, but the Rybergs had none.

While they had an upfront outlay on equipment changes, they saved a lot of money on labor and fuel because they didn’t have to till the ground multiple times or put on so much herbicide or fertilizer.

Deutz said it took him three years to get his crop rotation going.

“I put barley back into it,” he said. “I raise 500 head of hogs from farrow to finish per year for a niche market.”

He wasn’t sure barley was the right cover crop, but Deutz has found it beneficial for hog protein, and that “It’s a favor to have small grain go through the elevator.”

When he first started with barley, he didn’t know what to do with the land after he harvested it in mid-summer. He decided to put soybeans on it and with a little luck in a late frost, he was able to harvest 64 bushels of soybeans.

“There’s also really good re-growth after small grain,” he said. “It grew to 3-1/2 feet and worked well to paddock graze cattle on it.”

Deutz had recently decided to switch gears from dairy cattle to feeder beef, so he put 30 head of yearling heifers on the paddock, moving them slowly along as the paddock moved across the field.

“The value of livestock integration cover crops is great,” Deutz said. “It looked like we had put in a pre-emergent (herbicide), but we didn’t, just interrupted it before it went to seed.”

Deutz talked about the 8 tons of barley silage and other successes.

“We came out of the deal better than we could’ve and with fewer herbicide applications,” he said.

His three year rotations goes from corn (for feed) to barley (for feed) to pasture (cows provide fertilizer). That way they can cut out some commercial “inputs,” as he called farm expenses.

“I’m not an expert on soil health, just a farmer with interest in the topic,” Deutz said after the presentation. “I’m working on a graduate (degree) in economics from South Dakota State University. I have an undergraduate degree in ag business and finance at Southwest Minnesota State University, but not a graduate degree.”

Deutz has also written an article that was picked up by NRCS was an SDSU iGrow article on the economics of cover crops and livestock integration.

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