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Crawford County blazes a trail with cover crops
CROP Die Fuhrer in Mt Sterling
NATIONALLY-KNOWN USDA-NRCS Soil Scientist, Jay Fuhrer, speaks to al-most 50 local farmers and conservation experts on a rainy Saturday in the Mt. Sterling Town Hall. Fuhrer was the featured guest at the second of three cover crop events taking place in Crawford County in 2017.

Ben Wojahn, Vernon County Land Conservation Department (LCD) Conservationist, opened the May 20 cover crop education event held at the Mt. Sterling Village Hall, with some jokes for the 50 farmers and conservation experts present.

“We’ve solved our erosion problems up in Vernon County, so we have to come down here to Crawford to help you solve yours,” Wojahn joked.

All joking aside, Wojahn was quick to acknowledge Crawford County Conservationist David Troester and Grant County UW-Extension’s Ted Bay for the trailblazing cover crop program they are pioneering in Crawford County.

The Crawford and Vernon County LCDs, USDA NRCS, UW-Extension, Valley Stewardship Network, Youth Initiative High School, the Wallace Center, the Pasturing Project, Driftless Sustainable Farming Association, the National Wildlife Federation, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sponsored the event.

Aerial seeding program

Last year was the third year that Crawford County offered the aerial seeding program to county farmers.

There is still time for Crawford County growers to apply for EQIP funding for aerial cover crop seeding under a pollinator initiative. The application deadline is June 2.

“We offer two options for cover crops. The first is a ‘winter kill’ option, which is a mix of spring barley, oats and forage radishes,” Troester explained. “The second is a mix of oats, which will grow strongly in the fall and die, and winter cereal rye, which will come back in the spring.”

On farm research

Many of the activities planned for the day were forced away from the field and indoors by the rain.

The event was to feature a rain simulator provided by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. It turned out that the generous loan of the equipment wasn’t needed after all, with the copious amounts of water coming out of the sky that day.

Other planned highlights, such as demonstrations of cover crop termination methods, were also cancelled due to the weather, including use of the new roller crimper technology.

The roller crimper is a front-mounted cover-crop roller that knocks down a weed-suppressing mat that can be planted through all in one quick pass. Chaseburg Manufacturing in Coon Valley is currently manufacturing roller crimpers in the area.

According to Wojahn, “they will be available for sale at a cost not to exceed $5,300.” The implement is also available for a daily rental fee of $100.

Farmer experiences

Two Crawford County farmers, Jay Aspenson and Eric Hammel, shared their experiences with the group.

Jay Aspenson, rural Eastman, told the group he plants cover crops for erosion control, the nitrogen credits, to build soil organic matter, to increase inflitration and to reduce field compaction. He also explained that he plants cover crops on his fields using both aerial seeding and with his own planting equipment.

Eric Hammel, rural Seneca, told the group he plants cover crops to hold the soil, for grazing and so his fields look nice.

“The landowner of the fields I rent really appreciates the cover crops, and it works well for both of us,” Hammel told the group.

Hammel uses aerial seeding and some drilling to plant his cover crops.

He allows his beef cattle to graze after harvest, thus capturing even more value from the planting.

“I just fence it and turn them out,” Hammel said. “It’s nothing fancy.”

Bay’s research

Ted Bay has been working with the farmers enrolled in the program, and the Crawford LCD to foster the program, but also to conduct on farm research.

Bay’s findings from his research on Aspenson’s fields will be presented at the third and final 2017 cover crop field day this coming August.

Bay is working with Aspenson to assess the nitrogen credit available from planting red clover in his field. The results will show how nitrogen from red clover compares to Aspenson’s usual nitrogen program in end of season corn yields and nitrogen credits.

The field where the research is being conducted was planted in winter wheat in the fall of 2015. In March of 2016, it was frost seeded with red clover.

The red clover established, and did not compete with the wheat or become a problem weed. Once the wheat was combined, the red clover came back and flourished.

In spring of 2017, the clover was burned down with herbicides and planted into corn.  Prior to planting, the field had received nitrogen applications except for six test plots in the field, which were protected by tarps to allow comparison of corn yields with and without added nitrogen.

Bay will test the soil nitrogen levels in the test plots and larger field using a Pre-Sidedress Soil Nitrate Test to see what nitrogen credits are indicated.

The harvested yields from both the clover test plots and regularly treated field areas will be compared at the end of the season.

The goal of the research is to compare yield levels to determine if yields from the red clover without added nitrogen compare favorably (same or better) to yields with added nitrogen.

“Of course, the gold standard comparison and bottom line is always going to be yield,” Bay explained. “Our rule of thumb is you have to try anything three times before you can feel confident in your results – we’re working on this with our research.”

Resources for farmers

One of the common questions that staff leading these programs and events have fielded is “Where can I find practical, how-to, information about using cover crops?”

Participants in the Mt. Sterling event were exposed to a multiplicity of useful and practical resources.

Bay shared announced a promotional ten-percent discount on seed for farmers interested in cover crops through Green Cover Seed of Bladen, Nebraska. Interested farmers should contact Bay at the Grant County UW-Extension, 608-723-2125, to obtain the discount code.

It was emphasized that the more locally adapted your cover crop seed, the better results you would likely see. There seemed to be some interest at the event in developing a supply of locally grown seed.

Bay told the group that there are good resources and information available online from UW-Extension, the Michael Fields Institute, the Wisconsin Cover Crop Team, the Midwest Cover Crop Council and Practical Farmers of Iowa.

The Midwest Cover Crop Council website has lots of basic, detailed information about cover crop species, mixes of cover crop species, and planting and management information.

Covers and chemicals

Dan Smith, of the UW-Extension Nutrient and Pest Management Program, is involved in cover crop management research at the Arlington Research Station.

Smith shared results of his research with event participants, and pointed them towards existing online resources.

His most important advice to farmers is “Read the Label.” Regarding cover crop termination and crop insurance, he explained that there are clear rules from the USDA Risk Management Agency (RMA).

“RMA agents may not be totally familiar with the use of cover crops in cropping systems,” he counseled. “Don’t take advice from them to just go ahead, and they’ll look the other way. Read your labels!”

Smith counseled farmers to keep up on reading the labels, because they’re always changing. He said many labels have gotten a lot better about including information for use with cover crops.

Smith told event participants that the UW-Extension Integrated Pest Management (IPM) website can be a good resource for them. He said that some of the You Tube videos available there are particularly helpful.