David Brandt switched to no-till in 1971 and started experimenting with cover crops in 1979. Using a three-crop rotation with corn, soybeans and wheat, Brandt incorporates cover crops into the wheat stubble. The cover crops are used to retain the soil, increase the tilth of the soil and to provide nutrients, especially nitrogen for the next crop, usually corn.
He has been experimenting with radishes over the last couple of years. His first try, he planted forage radishes.
“They didn’t have much root and lots of tops,” Brandt says. “We learned we needed to be planting tillage radishes.”
The tillage radishes grow to about 4 inches in diameter and as long as 14 to 16 inches. Because of their length, they break up some of the subsoil as well as the topsoil. The hair roots also help break up the soil.
A companion planting of winter peas with radishes breaks up the hardpan with the radishes and sets nitrogen with the winter peas, a legume.
Brandt begins planting cover crops as soon as the wheat is harvested. This year, it was July 25. He wants enough time for the crop to mature before a killing frost.
He doesn’t guess as to what nutrients are in the soil, Instead, he does soil testing to learn what the crops he has planted in that field have contributed to the soil.
“Be willing to experiment,” Brandt says.
He suggests that growers start with a small plot and see how it works out before investing in new equipment or expensive seed.
He talks about the importance of having the seed contacting the soil properly. To see if the planter is calibrated correctly, run it a few feet and get off the tractor and go back and look.
“Don’t be afraid of finding seeds on the top of the ground. You don’t want to plant too deep,” he says. “Seed depth is very important, 1.25 inches deep for peas anda half inch for the radish seeds.
"When the radishes are rotting, they smell like a natural gas leak. It is especially strong on sunny days and lasts for about a month.”
The decomposed cover crops provide organic matter to the soil that improves the texture of the soil.
The Brandt family farm was on the market for a new drill. Brandt wanted something that he could use regardless of the crop he wanted to plant.
By working with his machinery dealer, he was able to get plates to accommodate a broad range of seeds. Someone recommended he use the plate for planting sugarbeets for his radish seeds and it worked well.
“Try something new. Experiment. Do something differently,” Brandt advises.
Paul Craig, extension educator from Dauphin County, reminds growers that no-till reduces erosion, controls moisture, saves time, labor and energy use.
“With small seeds, pay attention to the smallest details,” Craig says. “Be prepared and plan ahead.”
Consider what you are planting in the existing vegetation, he says. Plan to control weeds in old sod that may have persistent weeds.
Calibration of the drill is critical. Be sure to set the equipment for the correct seed placement and seeding rates. Carefully calibrate the drill for seed flow and seed to soil contact with uniformity across the units, Craig says.
“With small seeds, if you don’t see any seed on top of the ground, you are planting too deep,” Craig says.
Part of the challenge with no-till is vegetation management. Craig says that perennial weeds are controlled when corn and soybeans are in the rotation.
“It takes a year for the establishment of forage,” he says.
For producers wanting to establish no-till pasture, he recommends drilling in two directions — in a grid.
“Be willing to wait until it is the right time to plant,” he says.