Pictured Above: PREPPING THE SOIL. Strip-tilling creates a favorable environment for corn planting in the heavy clay soils on Jeff Gaska’s Columbus, Wis., operation. Gaska designed and built this strip-till rig using a John Deere cultivator as the base and added row cleaners, a combined depth gauge and single coulter, a mole knife and two trailing coulters.
Turning a profit on a small family farm these days requires flexibility and the willingness to think outside the box. For Jeff Gaska, who grows corn, soybeans and wheat on 450 acres in Columbus, Wis., diversification is key.
A small area dedicated to pasture rounds out the land usage and Gaska currently raises about 30 cow-calf pairs, with the intention of gradually increasing that to 50 pairs over the next 4-5 years.
“These days, trying to make a living farming 450 acres of grain is just tough. There are good years and there are bad years,” says Gaska, who gets help on the farm from his wife, Sara, and his brothers John and Jerry — all of whom have primary employment elsewhere. “But cattle seem pretty stable, and since we’re able to sell a lot of it locally, the price doesn’t fluctuate very much.”
So the Gaskas are implementing a system of rotational grazing to maximize land use and improve the soil.
“The goal is to use the cattle to feed the crops,” Gaska says. “Their manure nourishes the plants and raises soil organic matter, leading to better crops and better cattle. It’s all intermeshed.”
At planting time, the Gaskas’ clay soils tend to be cool and wet. Gaska says for soybeans and wheat, these conditions don’t prevent them from no-tilling, which they began implementing in the 1990s.
However, to deal with the heavy soils on acres going to corn, the Gaskas in 2006 put a Rawson unit with three coulters on the front of their corn planter to work the soil a bit. “Basically, it was strip-tilling without a shank,” says Gaska.
- Integrating cattle is a good way to cost-effectively improve soil and diversify a grain operation.
- Frost seeding clover into winter wheat gives the clover a headstart, providing a grazing opportunity 2-3 months sooner than seeding after harvest.
- Interseeding cover crops into corn at V3-V4 provides the opportunity to graze livestock until the end of the year at least.
The Gaskas used the Rawson unit for about 10 years. Although it worked well, they were planting into wet soil and wanted a gap between building a strip and planting, even if for a few days.
So when they learned about strip-tilling, they figured it was worth a try. In 2016, they built a strip-till machine based on a 12-row John Deere cultivator frame. They added another toolbar in front to beef it up as well as hitches for hookup. For each row unit, they attached row cleaners, a depth gauge and single coulter to cut through residue, a mole knife that goes down 2-6 inches and two trailing coulters to mound up the strips.
Strip-tilling his corn has provided Gaska a yield bump of 15-20 bushels an acre, something the family measures by leaving some check strips. “That told us that warming up the soils and drying it out somewhat was a beneficial practice.”
They’ve been doing spring strip-till, but in 2020 decided to make their strips in fall to shift some of the normal spring workload to autumn. Gaska doesn’t add any fertilizer while strip-tilling because his 145-horsepower Deere 7800 tractor doesn’t have the brawn to take on the extra weight.
Gaska designed the strip-till bar so it could be used as a sidedress rig. He did this by building the hitch so it could shift over by 15 inches and modifying the rig so two 300-gallon tanks could be mounted on the front between the strip-till unit and the tractor. In order to use it this way, however, he would need to invest in a beefier tractor, something he says isn’t currently in the budget.
Instead, the Gaskas recently acquired from a neighbor a used dual-purpose 12-row Dalton sidedress rig that is set up with an air seeder in the back so they can also interseed cover crops between corn rows.
“The goal is to use the cattle to feed the crops…”
There are two disc openers in every row, so the rig can seed two rows of covers between the corn rows. The Dalton also has Y-Drop nozzles for sidedressing nitrogen (N).
While the Gaskas have had wheat in the rotation for 30-40 years, they’ve expanded their wheat acres recently to get their corn, soybean and wheat acreage evened out.
In early spring, Gaska uses a spinner spreader on a 4-wheeler to frost-seed red clover into some of his winter wheat acreage. After wheat harvest in late July, Gaska lets the cattle graze the clover for a couple of months. Gaska then lets the clover overwinter, strip-tills corn into it in the spring and terminates the clover after planting.
“We played around with killing the clover in the fall or in the spring and they both work really well. I just figured there’s no reason to kill it in the fall if I can let the roots continue to grow to boost soil health.”
The remaining wheat fields are harvested and then planted to a 7-way cover crop mix. These covers are the second stop on the grazing rotation.
Gaska uses the family’s 12-row Deere 1770 planter to plant corn into the strip-till berms on 30-inch spacings. Because the soil was worked a bit, Gaska has removed the coulters and row cleaners from the planter and relies on the disc openers, Keeton seed firmers and closing wheels — one spiked Martin row cleaner and one OEM rubber wheel — to get the seed in the ground. Populations are generally about 35,000 and he plants at a depth of 2 inches.
He then uses the Dalton rig to interseed a mix of annual ryegrass, clover and radish or some other brassica when the corn is at V3-V4 so the cover crop establishes before the corn canopies and just live underneath until harvest. After harvest, the covers take off again.
The cattle are grazed on those covers and cornstalks right after corn harvest and stay there until about the end of the year.
In these videos, Jeff Gaska walks through his sidedress rig/interseeder and explains how he built his own strip-till rig from an old cultivator.
Gaska’s fertilizer program for corn includes applying about 20 gallons of 28% UAN plus sulfur with the planter in a 2-by-2-inch configuration, along with an in-furrow pop-up mix of 3 gallons of 10-34-0, a quart of zinc and 2 gallons of water.
The overall N rate is about 200 pounds per acre, but is split between the 60 pounds that are applied at planting, a variable amount that is sidedressed at V5-V6 and a 40-80 pound credit for the clover.
“A lot of nitrogen from the clover is tied up in the above-ground growth and the roots. I like to think that nitrogen will be available when the corn is tasseling, because it’s not quickly mineralized,” Gaska says.
Soybeans are seeded in 15-inch rows using a 15-foot Deere 750 no-till drill. After soybean harvest, Gaska uses the same drill to seed winter wheat in 7½-inch rows, so no other cover crop is used on those acres that year. As he’s still attempting to even out his rotation, some of the 2020 soybean ground was seeded with 50-60 pounds per acre of cereal rye instead of wheat to make sure the ground was covered.
Some potassium (K) and occasionally phosphorus (P) are variable-rate applied in the fall or spring for soybeans and wheat, based on soil samples and yield targets.
Gaska’s cattle begin grazing pasture around May 1 and move to cropland from August through the end of the year, which provides many months of low-cost feeding.
“In January, we start feeding them hay and corn screenings at a bunk,” Gaska says. “Ideally, I want to move that to maybe February or March so they can be out in the field for as long as possible.”
Having cattle on the land is also boosting soil fertility and yields. “When I look at my soil tests, the P, K and organic matter on the fields where we’ve been grazing cattle have been going up,” Gaska says. “They’ve always got the best yields, too, so it really made us think maybe we can do this on all of our fields.”
Yields on the Gaska farm are usually about 80 bushels per acre for wheat, 60 bushels for soybeans and 180-190 bushels for corn. “We’re always trying to improve and increase, of course, but hopefully not just by adding inputs, but by getting the soil healthy and maximizing the rotation.”