DRIFTLESS - Cover crops are increasingly a focus for farmers, and agriculture and conservation professionals, working in Southwest Wisconsin. Need to build soil health, reduce the cost of inputs, prevent soil erosion in the region’s highly erodible lands, and protect the quality of surface and groundwater in the region’s vulnerable karst geology make cover crops an obvious go-to land use strategy that can have a positive impact for achieving farm profitability and conservation goals.
Ted Bay, retired Grant and Lafayette County UW-Extension Agriculture Agent and Ben Wojahn, Vernon County Conservationist, are continuing their cover crop education and research from 2017 in the new year, with a grant from The Wallace Center at Winrock, International, whose mission is to develop partnerships, pilot new ideas, and advance solutions to strengthen communities through resilient farming and food systems.
The coalition of organizations and agencies supporting the initative is rounded out by the Crawford County Land Conservation Department, USDA-NRCS, The Pasture Project, UW-Extension, and the National Wildlife Federation.
In 2018, the group has already held a ‘Growing Cover Crop Seed’ workshop, as well as two meetings for basic cover crop information in Westby and Hillsboro. Farmers feature prominently in the education line up, because farmers using cover crops in this local region are some of the best teachers for other farmers.
Locally, many farmers are banding together to experiment with use of cover crops, and share learnings among themselves, building on the work going on at the university and among county, state and federal agencies.
Back in the field
Now that Spring has sprung, the group has an exciting lineup of education events and field days lined up to take the education back to the field.
A series of cover crop field days will be hosted on April 4, 7 and 11, each lasting from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. A lunch will be served at noon – please RSVP.
The registration deadline is March 28. Call 608-637-5480 to reserve handouts and lunch.
All three planned events will feature Stand Evaluation by Mark Weihing, WI-CCA, Agronomy/Farm Management Consultant; Cover Crop Termination: Daniel Smith, Southwest Region Speciailst, UW-Madison NPM Program; and Conservation Update: Ben Wojahn, County Conservationist, Vernon County
April 4: German Valley Dairy, Hillsboro
The field site - 52850 Garner Hill Road, Hillsboro WI Cover Crop Establishment: Ted Bay, Wallace Center Farm Coordinator, Scenic Bluffs Equipment, United Cooperative
April 7: Coulee Crest LLC, Cashton
The field site - 6736 State Highway 33, Cashton
Cover Crop Establishment: Ted Bay, Wallace Center Farm Coordinator, Portland Implement, Premier Co-op, and St. Joseph Equipment
April 11: Wall-Stone Holsteins, DeSoto
The field site - 57414 Fortner Rd, DeSoto
Cover Crop Practices: William Walleser, Wall-Stone Holsteins: Cover crops after com silage, manure application on cover crops, air fly-over cover crop seeding
Farmer to farmer
In 2017, cover crop field days were held at the farms of Crawford County grain farmers Swede Knutson and Jay Aspenson. Knutson and Aspenson are both moving forward into 2018 with experimentation in use of cover crops in their farm operations, and have continued to work with Ted Bay, Land Conservation, and other state and federal agencies, to expand use and learnings about working with cover crops.
However, once all the experts and specialists go home, it is up to the farmers themselves to do the work on the ground. These farmers have found it beneficial to have their own informal network of neighbors and fellow-travellers for day-to-day advice, tips, and trouble shooting.
William Walleser of Wall-Stone Holsteins, rural De Soto, is a young farmer that has joined the growing circle of this informal farmer cover crop network, and is also working with Ted Bay and his group. His family uses cover crops on their 1,700-acre dairy, beef and row crop operation.
“Sometimes farmers rely too much on the government and the university to make improvements in their farming systems,” Walleser observed. “Farmers also just need to get together and help each other.”
Wall Stone Holsteins is owned and operated by Kevin Walleser, his wife, veterinarian Dr. Anne Marie Elwing and their two sons, Emil and William. William became the farm operations manager after graduating from UW-Madison, and Emil is currently studying veterinary medicine. The Walleser family will host the 2018 Vernon County Dairy Breakfast on June 9, 2018.
When asked why he is interested in using cover crops in the family’s farm operation, Walleser said, “I see cover crops as an important part of future solutions to the issues farmers face in agriculture, especially in the difficult terrain we have here in Southwest Wisconsin.”
Walleser says he sees farmers first and foremost as stewards of the land and water. “The entirety of what farmers do depends on the land and water,” Walleser observed. “We have to leave those natural assets in better shape than we found them in order to ensure that our children and grandchildren can live and farm, and know that we took care of things to hand on to them.”
On the subject of cover crops, Walleser says that “cover crops add value back to the land in the form of improvement of soil health.”
Walleser points to the strong ethic of conservation in the farming community in Southwest Wisconsin as one of its greatest strengths. He and his family work very closely with USDA-NRCS, and the FSA.
“The way I see it, farmers have to take a leadership role in conservation in order to leave things better for the next generation of farmers,” Walleser said.
Manure and water
At Wall-Stone Holsteins, the Walleser’s employ strip cropping, with lots of terraces and grassed waterways. Walleser thinks that having animals in their rotation is of great benefit, along with use of cover crops in building soil health.
“Because of our use of cover crops, we are able to apply manure on our sloped fields at an increased rate,” Walleser said. “Adding the manure does a lot for our soil health, and because of the conservation land use that we employ, we are able to keep the nutrients from running off and getting in the water.”
Walleser told the group of almost 35 farmers present at the February 7 cover crop event held at Borgen’s Café in Westby that he monitors the edge of field run off during spring melt or during rain events.
“I take great pride in seeing the water coming off our fields running clear and clean,”Walleser told the group. “I know that the reason is because of the conservations practices we employ on our land.”
Walleser reports that his family enrolls as many of their acres in nitrogen management as possible. This strategy helps to ensure that excess nutrients are not running off into the water, and also maximizes farm profitability with managing input costs.
“Most farms don’t do this, and they are really doing themselves a disservice,”Walleser points out. “We use a Full 590 Nutrient plan.”
A ‘Full 590 Nutrient Plan’ helps the farmer to manage the amount (rate), source, placement (method of application), and timing of plant nutrients and soil amendments. The purpose of the plan is to budget, supply, and conserve nutrients for plant production; minimize agricultural nonpoint source pollution of surface and groundwater resources; properly utilize manure, municipal and industrial biosolids, and other organic byproducts as plant nutrient sources; protect air quality by reducing odors, nitrogen emissions (ammonia, oxides of nitrogen), and the formation of atmospheric particulates; and maintain or improve the physical, chemical, and biological condition of soil.
Walleser reports that family has recently also installed a new, all-concrete, manure pit, built to code. In the process, the family paid $30,000 to get engineers to survey the underlying bedrock 20 feet down with soil boring tests to determine the stability of the landscape underneath for siting purposes. This process was to ensure that the pit was not sited on top of any unstable, fractured karst geological features.
“The whole industry is moving away from clay-lined earthen lagoons, or pits constructed of concrete blocks,” the educated young dairyman observed. “Solid concrete pits, properly sited, are the way of the future.’
Walleser acknowledged that the process of siting and cost of construction can be very pricey, and may seem to be out of range for many farmers. He did point out, though, that there is funding for this kind construction from USDA-NRCS.
Walleser said that he has heard about the formation of a producer-led watershed council in the Tainter Creek Watershed in Vernon and Crawford Counties, and would like to see an organization like that formed for the watersheds that his family’s farm drains into. The water from Wall-Stone Holsteins flows into both the Rush Creek and the Bad Axe River watersheds.
At the Westby event, Vernon County Conservationist Ben Wojahn talked to the farmers about the concept of biomimicry. Biomimicry is ’ an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies
Cover crops introduce a multi-species environment into a farm rotation that mimicks the native prairie of the region, widely believed to be one of the greatest soil building systems on the planet. This belief was advanced by USDA-NRCS Soil Scientist Jay Fuhrer, who was the featured speaker at one of the group’s 2017 cover crop events.
“Carbon is the currency of exchange in the soil, just like the dollar is in our economy,” Fuhrer said. “Building healthy soils with good (water) infiltration, a strong structure, and ample nutrients requires finding ways to capture and retain carbon to feed the soil microbiology.”
In his talk, Wojahn emphasized the importance of keeping the soil covered all the time.
“Living cover, such as cover crops, is better than dead,” Wojahn observed. “But even leaving the post harvest residue on the fields will do more for your soil health, and preventing erosion, than having just bare soil.”
Wojahn encourages producers interested in using cover crops to pursue EQIP funding. Applications are due to local USDA Service Centers by May 18, 2018.
The EQIP Soil Health Initiative provides a systems approach for conservation that is essential for a healthy soil environment. Producers can build their soil’s health through signing up for the initiative to implement the following practices: (1) crop rotations, (2) cover crops, (3) residue management no-till/strip till, (4) nutrient management, and/or (5) integrated pest manage-ment.
To apply for EQIP funding, reach out to your county USDA-NRCS office: the Viroqua Service Center can be reached at (608) 637-2183; the Prairie du Chien Service Center can be reached at 608-326-7179; the Richland Center Service Center at 608-647-8874 the Lancaster Service Center at 608-723-6377; and the Darlington Service Center at 608-776-4028.
The Crawford County Land Conservation Department offers an aerial cover crop seeding program. The cost of participation in Crawford County’s aerial cover crop planting program is about $30 per acre plus the cost of seed. Several different cover crop seed mixes are offered through the program.
The seeding program flies out of the Boscobel and Viroqua airports. Wojahn told meeting participants that if a Vernon County farmer wants to participate in Crawford County’s program, they will simply need to stipulate an assignment of payment to go to Crawford County. This would also be true for producers in northern Grant County.
For information about Crawford County’s aerial cover crop seeding program, contact Crawford County Conservationist David Troester at 608) 326-0272 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.