Pictured Above: GETTING STRONGER. Abandoning tillage and pursuing crop and soil biological diversity had paid big dividends for Jamestown, N.D. no-tiller Tony Wagner in terms of keeping his soils in place and improving productivity.
A kaleidoscope of soils blankets the several thousand acres Tony Wagner and his father, Mark, are no-tilling just north of Jamestown, N.D.
Even within the same field Wagner can transition from a heavy, highly alkali gumbo to soils the consistency of beach sand. It seems logical, then, that the crops they grow would be just as diverse. But it took some time to come to this realization.
Currently, Mark and Tony raise corn, soybeans, spring wheat, barley, oats, and green field peas in an area where most producers stick firmly to just corn and soybeans. They also make use of cover crops, bumping the diversity of plants their fields see even higher.
Soils had long been a limiting factor for the Wagners. There were acres they couldn’t plant to corn because the sandy soils wouldn’t hold enough moisture throughout the growing season.
“They were the first soils you could plant into in spring and the first to dry out in summer,” he said. On these limiting soils, they chose to seed crops like winter wheat and yellow field peas, which they could harvest early while soil moisture was still in good shape. But an early harvest left bare soils vulnerable to wind erosion, which Tony didn’t like. One year, he decided to attempt double cropping peas after peas.
“We finished combining July 15 and I thought I had time to get another crop in there,” Tony says. “I bounced it off my crop consultant, Lee Briese, and gave it a try.”
The endeavor didn’t appear to be an overly successful one initially. The rain turned off right after he planted. The peas did sprout, making it to shin height before flowering. Only those coming up in low spots in the field put on any pods, though, and even those ran out of gas.
Wagner diagnosed the experiment as a failure and left the crop in the field. When he returned the next spring, he noted the crop had held his soils in place through winter despite winds and heavy rain that caused erosion in other areas. This was a pleasant surprise, but the real surprise came when soil sampling revealed the crop left him a credit of about 80 pounds of nitrogen (N) per acre.
“I no-tilled spring wheat right into the stubble with just a little bit of added fertilizer and then pulled off the most fantastic wheat crop I’d ever produced,” Wagner says. Riding the high of a record crop, he started to investigate cover crops in earnest. Though excited, he didn’t jump in with both feet.
Briese says he and Tony spend a lot of time bouncing ideas off of each other, and Tony is quick to try new things but slow to judge them.
“A lot of growers try something once and if it doesn’t work quite right, they’re done. Tony will take 30 acres and just play with a practice for a while,” Briese says. “He’s also very objective, looking at how the year’s conditions might have impacted his result.”
With a little success under his belt, Tony inched into cover crops with just 80 acres and gradually progressed until he now cover crops thousands of acres each year.
SANDBOX TO FLOWER POT. No-tiller Tony Wagner found success on a very sandy field by switching from corn to crops like wheat and peas that took advantage of when the soil retained moisture. A diverse rotation and no-till practices have helped Wagner build soil organic matter in the field, boosting its production no matter the crop.
“This is something we took years to build up to,” he says. “We spent a lot of time experimenting, trying something, and watching what happens year after year.”
After years of experimenting, Tony has settled into what he considers a simple cover crop system.
“I don’t have these fancy mixtures. I raise all of my own cover crop seed with the exception of radishes,” he says.
Because of his diverse crop rotation, this still allows for some mixes and variety in covers. Cover crops are used on all acres that are planted to early harvested crops, such as spring wheat, oats, barley and field peas.
“We’ve been increasing our pea acres. There’s a small market for field peas in Jamestown and I really like what having a legume in the rotation does for our soils,” he says.
One cover crop mix he uses is oats, radishes and peas, which he will seed spring wheat into the next year.
“I like to use this mix because it dies off in the winter. But, if any oats do come up in the next crop I will still be able to control it in the wheat with herbicides designed to take out wild oats,” he says.
Tony and Briese put a lot of emphasis on not using a cover crop when they aren’t confident in their ability to control it in the following crop. Tony uses barley or cereal rye mixed with radishes and peas.
Tony’s experiments with cereal rye have produced some excellent results. He’s planted cereal rye, peas and radishes following a green field pea crop.
The peas and radishes winterkilled, while the rye survived and grew in the spring. He burned down the cereal rye in the spring and no-tilled soybeans into the mat.
One thing Wagner and Briese noticed with cereal rye was the weed control benefit.
“We saw about 70% weed control, including control of herbicide-resistant kochia. That really sparked our interest,” Briese says. He notes the seeding rate for a cereal rye cover crop is about a third of a production rate — around 30-35 pounds per acre — and controlling resistant weeds makes it well worth the investment.
Tony prefers to drill in his cover crops and has experimented until he finds seeding rates that work for him.
“Rates have been a big dart throw,” he says, although he’s settled on 32 pounds of cereal rye, oats or barley mixed with 30 pounds of peas and ¾-pound radishes. He has tried turnips in his mixes, but prefers the radishes.
“They’re not as winter hardy. I had some turnips grow in the spring and get past my weed control program. Then, when I was harvesting soybeans or peas I’d get them stuck on my guards and coming in the combine. They would be wet and stain up my food grade crop. I prefer radishes because I know they won’t be a problem the next year.”
The cover crop experiment has survived testing and has moved to large-scale practice for Tony. “It gives our soil microbes something to feed on when there otherwise wouldn’t be something there. That keeps their lifecycle going,” he says.
The covers and his diverse rotations are paying off. Briese, the 2017 International Crop Adviser (CCA) of the year, says some of Wagner’s success stems from making sure his soils are getting fed from the five essential food groups.
“Long-term studies have shown that diverse ecosystems are more stable and resilient,” Briese says.
For a healthy soil that mimics a natural system, he says producers should have cool- and warm-season grasses and cool- and warm-season broadleaves, plus a legume.
“In a corn-soybean rotation you’re hitting three groups, but completely leaving out the cool season and early season,” Briese says. In leaving out early, cool-season crops that growers are missing out on the growth potential from those months and accentuating pests that like late-season crops.
“Planting a cool-season crop breaks up pest cycles,” he says. “Field peas are the earliest thing planted and the earliest thing harvested. They wake up the soils.
“If you’re doing a pre-harvest burndown you’re taking out weeds. Or, even just cutting them off at harvest in July or August means those weeds won’t make viable seeds, which helps break the cycle.”
The same goes for a number of insects, diseases and other pests. He says in Wagner’s fields he’s seeing the soil activity pick up and respond to the diversity, but it takes time.
“If you’ve been starving the soil microorganisms for 20 years you can’t just start feeding them and expect them to be there, it takes time for their populations to grow,” he says.
In Wagner’s fields, soil biology is well fed by cover crops and a diverse crop rotation. They’re active and working and he’s harvesting the benefits, including higher yields.
They’ve watched fields with sandy soils build organic matter from 1.2% up to 4.5% in the span of 10 years.
“Everything we put a cover crop on is consistently out-yielding acres that don’t have a cover crop,” Tony says, adding that the effect lingers as well. “I might notice a bump the first year, but the second year there’s a significant increase.”
HEALING SALT. Large alkali spots have scarred some of Tony Wagner’s fields, and were made worse by a flood in 1993. Constant farming exacerbated the issue, so Wagner now treats them as separate fields areas, slowly healing them by allowing them to grow up in alfalfa and native grasses that pull water and help redistribute the salts.
In a rotation of winter wheat-cover crop-soybeans-soybeans, he reports the yield from the second soybean crop is 10-15% higher than normal.
“I do 100% of our spraying and go over every square foot of our fields every year. In the last 17 years, I’ve noticed a huge change in our property, especially where there have been cover crops,” he says. “I can pull into a field without looking at its history and tell you if I used a cover crop or not. There’s a better stand, the plants look healthier and there are more pods,” he says.
Sandy soils aren’t the only problem for the Wagners. Some fields are dotted with alkali spots. High water tables contribute to the problem, but a lot of these spots were the result of the major flood they experienced in 1993.
Much of the farm was under water. The low spots that held that water and continued to refill with heavy winters have become alkali, taken over by cattails and kochia as salts concentrate — making an inhospitable space for most crops and other plants.
“When nothing grows in those spots they stay wet longer and get worse and worse. None of the crops we were raising would grow in those areas so the patches kept expanding,” Tony says.
They kept spraying the weeds that grew there and even running light tillage across them trying to get them to dry up. “We were only drying out the top inch of soil and making the problem worse,” he says.
Tony says he finally realized he needed plants growing to heal the trouble spots. He started seeding alfalfa in those areas.
“Alfalfa won’t grow in the alkali spots either, but it would grow around the perimeter and continue removing moisture throughout the year, which helped to stop the spots from growing,” he says.
Wagner continued to crop around the alfalfa rings, allowing native grasses with alkali tolerance to grow up and simply haying those areas from time to time.
“We had one property with an 8-acre alkali spot. I kept just haying it for years and now it’s down to the size of a car,” he says.
He likens the process to healing any other wound. “It’s like a scab. If you keep picking at it, you have to start the healing process all over. You have to just leave it alone and it eventually heals up and goes away.”
Dealing with all the extra residue of high-yielding crops and cover crops has caused issues for Wagner in the past.
“No matter how good the spreader was it always seemed like I was getting such a matting of trash behind the combine when I harvested wheat, oats or barley,” Tony relates. “Then, when I went to plant cover crops or another crop the next spring I had a hard time digging through the 4 inches of straw to get good seed-to-soil contact.”
RESIDUE BLOCK. A cover crop of cereal rye, peas and radishes provided 70% weed control in the following crop of soybeans, including resistant kochia, says Tony Wagner. He also notes a 10-15% yield bump in soybeans 2 years out from a cover crop and now plants cover crops on all acres planted to early-harvested crops.
In 2016, he bought a stripper header. He used it to harvest then planted cover crops into the standing, stripped stubble.
“It was absolutely amazing how different it was seeding into stripped stubble compared to conventional stubble,” he says. “The entire stem is left standing with only a very tiny amount of chaff being spread. It turns out the best way to spread residue evenly across a field is to leave it standing where it is.”
The standing stubble also caught snow and he was able to get a planter or air seeder through and achieve excellent seed-to-soil contact. It seemed to help his cover crop system, too. On acres he used the stripper header, cover crops got thigh high due in part to good growing conditions.
“I went out the end of January when it was -10 F, dug through the snow and the ground wasn’t frozen,” he says.
The field also remained covered in snow all winter where neighboring fields with less residue blew off and had bare spots. Come spring, the fact that the soil wasn’t frozen meant all the snowmelt went directly into the soil, instead of collecting and sitting in low spots or running off.
“Our neighbor noticed this year that we have the cleanest snow on our fields because there isn’t soil exposed to blowing winds,” he says.
That is providing more than clean snow, it’s keeping his soils in place. Tony noted when he took out a fence row between him and a neighbor he moved a 6-foot-tall berm of topsoil that had blown from the neighbor’s field.
“As I was taking it out I found another whole fence underneath,” he recalls. “So much dirt blew off and built up that they built another fence on top of it! That was a big eye opener to me that I need to absolutely make sure I cover and protect my soils. That’s the good stuff that’s blowing away, not the rocks.”