Pictured Above: CHANGING PRACTICES. When he was farming conventionally, Tim Little realized his operation couldn’t survive a future with more extreme rain events, which led to him using no-till and cover crops to reduce erosion.
Tim Little, Faribault, Minn., has seen cover crops come full circle on his 300 acre operation. Growing up on a dairy outside Dundas, Minn., Little says his dad, Harold, was committed to using cover crops — they just weren’t called that in those days.
“Dad had diversity back then,” he says. “My dad grew oats, corn, alfalfa, red clover, timothy and grass.”
Harold’s commitment to conservation extended beyond crops and he was particular to leave clear waterways, even when using a moldboard plow. Little says his father taught him early on that it was important to fight soil erosion.
Long Road to No-Till
Little got started farming by renting 160 acres with his brother, Phillip, in 1974. He follows a traditional corn and soybean rotation, but maintained traditional tillage practices for many years. He struggled with soil loss on his hilly ground and was reminded of those early lessons in conservation.
“I tried to do what I could to prevent erosion,” he says. “We would get big rain events and the topsoil would end up at the bottom of the hill. I wasn’t sure if I could keep farming the same way if we continued having extreme rains.”
- Despite having less biomass, short cover crops can offer big benefits as they’re great for feeding soil biology and pumping out carbon.
- Bare soils can be as much as 30-35 degrees hotter than covered soils on sunny summer days.
- Renting equipment from a local conservation district is a great way to test new techniques without a large up-front investment.
But it wasn’t until comments from a weather expert in the mid-2000s got Little’s attention and motivated him to change from conventional farming.
“He said he couldn’t tell us what the weather would be next week but could tell us with great certainty that we’re in a 30-50 year cycle of extremes,” Little says. “I decided to start trying to prevent erosion in earnest to hold the ground in place. Doing that, I got into soil health. The more I learned, the more I wanted to also clean up the water so there would be clear water running off, not brown.”
Another eye-opening moment came when a Rice County NRCS conservationist showed Little swirls on the soil surface and told him that a previous rain event had moved soil the thickness of a dime, which is 5 tons of soil per acre — an acceptable annual loss per NRCS guidelines.
“I have been farming for 45 years,” Little says. “So, I stacked up 45 dimes. That’s 2½ inches of topsoil lost, just since I’ve been farming. That’s not sustainable. Eventually, we’re going to run out of topsoil.”
So, in 2005, Little began his transition to no-till, starting with no-tilling soybeans into corn stalks.
“I quit doing fall tillage on the corn stalks, but I would still use the Case IH 200 digger on the soybean ground in the spring to work in phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) and plant corn into that,” Little says.
He continued using tillage before corn, using a four wheel drive Case IH 9230 tractor pulling a Case IH 200 two-bar harrow with a rolling basket, up until 2017, when he switched to no-tilling corn, too.
The first acres where he began no-tilling have increased in soil organic matter from 3.6% to 4.01%.
“It’s not a lot, but it’s a slow needle to move,” Little says. “We’re definitely going in the right direction.”
In 2013, Little dipped his toe into using cover crops when a wet spring prevented him from planting his cash crops in a 40-acre field.
“In working with the Rice County Soil & Water Conservation District, I did a tiling project and installed two terraces,” Little says. “At the completion of the project, they suggested trying cover crops. We hired a neighbor to come in and seed annual rye, radish, and clover in August, and it got really dry. Not everything came up, but the radish took well.”
REVERSING SOIL LOSS. NRCS guidelines say that a 5 ton soil loss per year per acre is acceptable. Tim Little of Faribault, Minn., started no-tilling and using cover crops to reduce these losses.
Little saw that the radish had broken up the soil, and when he planted corn into that field the following spring, the soil seemed different, improved. Later that summer, cereal rye was aerially seeded into the corn, because he thought that would help the cover crop establish faster and bring more benefits.
“We lucked out and caught a rain right after aerial seeding,” he says. “It came up beautifully in the spring.”
Once again, the state of the soil convinced Little that the cover crops were indeed working.
“In the spring of 2015, the ground was so mellow as I was no-tilling beans into corn stalks,” he says. “I was planting soybeans into 18-inch cereal rye. I couldn’t see the corn stalks anymore and was relying completely on the Trimble auto-guidance in my Case IH 7120.”
Little says that he was sweating as he planted those beans with his Case IH 1200 pivot planter that was equipped with pinned Yetter trash wheels.
“I was thinking to myself that it would never work and my neighbors would think I’m crazy,” he says. “I planted 60 acres of cereal rye into corn in 2015, adding radish to the cereal rye.”
But work it did, and today, he plants green around May 1, terminating the cereal rye either before or after planting, depending on the weather conditions.
“I can play with the termination date,” Little says.
In 2020, he planted soybeans 2 inches deep in early May. Terminating the cereal rye didn’t happen until 3 weeks later.
“It was getting dry, so I was waiting for rain,” Little says. “We were supposed to get ¾ of an inch of rain in a couple of days, which would make the cereal rye easier to terminate because it would be actively growing.”
That ¾ of an inch of rain turned out to be 5½ inches. The weather turned cool for the next 2½ weeks, so Little says he just waited to terminate the cereal rye.
His soybeans still weren’t up, not to due crusting, rather due to the wet, cool conditions coupled with planting depths. After talking with a neighboring farmer, he decided to give it a couple more days. Sure enough, the soybeans finally emerged.
“I didn’t know beans could take that long and still make it,” Little says. “Out of the 125,000 population per acre we planted, only 80,000 per acre came up for a final stand. We still raised good beans, even after receiving two heavy rains of 5-6 inches each in May and June. We couldn’t have achieved that particular yield if the fields had been conventionally planted.”
When it was time to spray the cereal rye on May 31 with Roundup and dicamba, it had to be sprayed at an angle because the applicator couldn’t see the rows, as the cereal rye was 2 feet tall.
Little’s planter can accommodate 400 gallons of liquid fertilizer, which he applies either in-furrow or in a 2-by-2-inch configuration while planting out the back.
“For corn, I dribble on 17 gallons of 28% nitrogen (N) and 3 gallons of ammonium thiosulfate (AMT),” he says. “Later, at the V6 stage, I hire an applicator with Y-drops to apply another 30 gallons of 28% N and 3 gallons of AMT, for a total of 146 pounds of fertilizer per acre.”
In soybeans, Little does an in-furrow application of 8 oz. per acre of Nano Brown Sugar and 12.8 oz. per acre of AgZyme root enhancer.
“The soil biology likes it,” he says. “It’s like giving them a treat.”
Since utilizing cover crops, we have seen as much as a 5-9 bushel per acre advantage in beans, Little says. He credits the boost to the N release in August as the terminated cereal rye is breaking down.
Earthworms on Steroids
Little has witnessed the soil health benefits of his new practices firsthand.
“Since I started no-tilling, I’ve noticed more earthworm activity,” he says. “Adding cereal rye was like putting the earthworms on steroids. They were everywhere.”
Little says water-holding capacity is another area where Little has seen remarkable differences, especially when it’s hot and dry. In fact, he carries a heat gun with him when planting to take soil temperatures and compares his field’s temperatures with temperatures in conventional fields.
“Adding cereal rye was like putting the earthworms on steroids…” – Tim Little
“A lot of guys don’t realize how hot their soil gets,” Little says. “Having the soil covered during the hot late spring and summer days before the corn comes up — it’s nothing to see a 30-35 degree difference in the covered soil versus bare soil.”
He adds that keeping the soil cool enables the soil biology to live, whereas hotter soil temperatures shut the soil biology down.
“The soil gets so hot that the plants aren’t taking up moisture, it’s just evaporating,” Little says. “If we get into a drier cycle, that armored ground and soil profile full of water are going to take a drought better. We’ve had 7 years in a row of above-normal rain, but someday, it’s going to dry out.”
He conducts soil testing every 4 years on 2½-acre grids. The soil test results determine how much P and K Little applies in the fall.
“I spread just enough P and K for what that coming year’s crop needs,” Little says. “It’s helped me save money on fertilizer.”
Another lesson has been learned on white mold. The soilborne disease isn’t as prevalent now that Little has been no-tilling with cover crops.
“If there’s a 5-inch rain, the plants are full of mud,” he says. “That’s when white mold enters the plant. The cereal rye decays into a mulch that prevents the soil splash , so we see less incidence of white mold. I can walk in my fields after a rain and not get any mud on my boots.”
In 2015, Little connected with a couple of other local cover croppers at the nearby airport, where they were all working with the same pilot to aerially seed their acres.
“We were all using different cover crop mixes, so it was chaotic trying to get the covers loaded on the plane,” he says. “A few of us thought there had to be a better way. We set up a meeting and invited T.J. Kartes with Saddle Butte Ag to help us navigate our combined seed mixes. He encouraged us to buy seed together; that’s when we decided to start a cover crop group.”
The group started with 5 growers in 2016, adding 2 more shortly after. Kartes counseled the group not to have more than 6-7 growers, because more than that would make decision making more challenging.
MELLOW SOIL. Tim Little plants ‘green’ into cereal rye, terminating either side of the planting date depending upon the weather. The changes he’s seen in his soil have convinced him that cover crops are working.
“That’s been good advice,” Little says. “We’ve had other growers call us, and we encourage them to start their own local cover crop group. We’re not trying to be exclusive. We’re open to sharing ideas and information, but a smaller group is more manageable for testing and sharing our experiences. We’re pretty honest with each other. If we see something we want to share, we send group texts.”
For example, in July 2020, Little says that some of the group members weren’t seeing the benefits of aerial seeding certain smaller cover crop species into corn.
“I see it as continually feeding the soil biology and pumping out carbon,” he says. To illustrate, Little turned to a shovel full of dirt that he had brought in from his 40-acre field. Simply by raking his hands through the soil, it crumbled apart and showed an impressive display of earthworms. That visual demonstration swayed the group that even small cover crop species are important in a cover crop mix.
“Those smaller plants are like a salad bar for the soil biology,” Little says. “There’s a lot more going on out there than we realize.”
The group meets 1-3 times during the summer, and they decide what cover crop mix they’re going to seed. Little says the group members watch cover crop seed prices and buy early to capture discounts. They buy the seed in bulk through Saddle Butte Ag, utilizing each other’s equipment to transport the seed. One of the group members owns his own seed business, so the cover crop mix is put together at his facility.
“We have seeded 1,200 acres in 1½ days using 2 planes, usually around September 1,” he says. “We think it’s better to seed early than late.”
The group aerial seeded into corn 59 pounds of cereal rye, 10 pounds of oats, 1 pound of rape, and 1 pound of kale per acre as a mix.
Little determines when it’s time to aerial seed by watching how the corn is drying down and the amount of daylight hitting the ground by early afternoon.
“When the soybeans are just about to start dropping their leaves, that’s when we plant the cover crop,” he adds. “When we aerial seed into soybeans, we use a mix of 20 pounds of oats, 40 pounds of winter triticale, 2 pounds of red clover, 1 pound of vetch and 1 pound of radish per acre.”
Little says he likes seeding oats into soybeans because it greens up nicely in the fall. The triticale is easy to plant into in the spring.
In 2020, Little tried interseeding cover crops for the first time, hiring an interseeder from the Rice County SWCD, which he serves on. It was a cost-effective way to try interseeding without having to invest in equipment. He had planted corn on April 26 and terminated the previous year’s triticale mix on May 2 using Roundup and Verdict. The cover crop mix was interseeded on May 30, when the corn was at V3-V4 growth stage, including 17 pounds of annual rye, ½ pound of kale, ½ pound of turnip and 3 pounds of red clover per acre.
“It’s a good way to start interseeding,” he says. “It looked like it had a better catch than aerial.”
Little says he’s not afraid to experiment with finding a more efficient way to seed covers.
Between Little’s efforts with the cover crop group and the local Rice County SWCD, he says they’ve been able to convince more growers in the area to try cover crops.
“Cover crop acreage has increased quite a bit in the past few years,” he adds. “Folks are seeing that it works. The one thing nobody talks about is the price tag on the soil-or carbon loss.”
Little says growers think about the carbon dioxide being released from the tractor, but CO2 is also lost when tillage breaks the soil and disturbs the soil structure.
“If we can go from being the guy who does that to totally reversing it through no-till and cover crops, we can build carbon,” he says. “It’s proven. Organic matter is going up and building carbon. We can go from being part of the problem to being the solution.”