I've served in township government for a quarter century. One never-ending task and expense is cleaning silt from road ditches and culverts — the product of field erosion — and putting it back where it belongs. Seeing this year after year got me thinking about why the soil was there, what the impact was on us, as farmers, and our community, and what I could do on my farm to lessen the problem.
I observed that the erosion issues were significantly less in areas where there was pasture or forage crops. The bulk of silt entering our drainages seemed to come from row crop fields. Upon closer observation, moldboard plowing seemed to be the worst culprit, leading to considerable erosion with rain events. Deep ripping seemed a little better, but not disturbing the soil seemed the best option of all. I had a Kinze planter already capable of no-till planting, so in 2003 I started no-tilling corn into soybean and small grain ground because it was mellow and easy.
We’ve since gone 100% no-till and beyond — integrating cover crops and grazing — much to our benefit and the benefit of our community. My only regret is I didn’t have the knowledge I have today back when I left the service and started farming in 1975. I unknowingly lost thousands of dollars in profits over the years doing heavy tillage. If I could go back and start with no-till, cover crops, and grazing livestock I would be so much further ahead. You live and you learn.
Value In Covers
One of the most profitable moves we’ve made on the farm is the use of cover crops paired with grazing. The value of cover crops as a soil stabilizer and for soil improvement is immeasurable, but even more significant is the cost savings we realize by using them for grazing, all while putting in fewer hours in the tractor compared to when we were tilling.
- No-till and cover crops keep soils in the field and out of county ditches, culverts and waterways.
- Cover crops sequester N and release it at the perfect time for maximizing yield while reducing nitrate in runoff water.
- Healthier cattle and healthier soils make cover crops a financial no-brainer.
Our introduction to cover crops wasn’t entirely voluntary. In 2013 we had a lot of prevent planting of corn and soybean fields due to wet field conditions not allowing us to plant prior to the crop insurance deadline. To keep the ground covered, we planted a mix of crimson clover, oats, annual ryegrass, radish and sorghum-sudangrass. The covers were planted in early August and had significant growth. Some of it we mowed down and some of it we left to plant into the next spring. It was a baptism by fire trying to plant into that mess, but we saw the potential value.
Initially the plan was to just use cover crops to prevent soil erosion, growing them in the fall and spring when there wasn’t a crop growing. Soon we saw benefits beyond ground cover, such as drying up wet spots in our field in the spring and, over time, sequestering nutrients.
Currently we use our old Kinze 3650 planter to plant cover crops and soybeans in 15-inch rows. Cover crops are seeded on all our soybean, corn silage and corn ground. For our earliest plantings we’ll seed cereal rye, radishes, turnips, buckwheat and maybe a clover just using a brush-type seed meter with a 60-cell soybean seed disc. As we get later in the fall, we plant straight cereal rye as there isn’t enough time for the mix to grow enough to benefit us.
CHECK THE SPECS…
NAME: Tom Pyfferoen
FARM: Pyfferoen Farms
LOCATION: Pine Island, Minn.
YEARS NO-TILLING: 15
CROPS: Corn, soybeans, cereal rye, oats, alfalfa and cover crops
Our cereal rye rates are adjusted based on goals and timing. The base rate is 40-50 pounds per acre as we’re growing for ground cover not to harvest a crop. After November 1, we up the rate to 60-70 pounds per acre to offset losses. Seeds planted late often will put out that one little white root and then freeze before the plant can establish. By using the planter for excellent seed-to-soil contact and upping the seeding rate for late-season plantings, we’re able to get a decent stand most years.
In 2017 we seeded cereal rye up to December 5. At planting in mid-May it was 8-10 inches tall. That’s the thing about cereal rye, it will germinate or break dormancy at just 34 degrees F. When we get those 40-50 F days in March it really takes off. I’ve even seen it break dormancy and grow under the snow.
We’ve seen on-farm evidence that our cover crops help sequester nitrogen (N) and phosphorus not used by the crop or from manure applications. Our University of Minnesota extension N management specialist samples our tile lines every 2 weeks during the growing season, through the end of July. He’s found there are about half the nitrates in the water coming from our fields with cover crops as fields without cover crops.
We credit this not only to the cover crops, but to how we time our N applications. I apply about 20 gallons of 28% UAN with my planter and sidedress the balance in season, spreading out N applications so the crop can use it as needed. A nearby farm uses only spring-applied anhydrous. Both farms are pattern tiled. Readings from my tile lines never exceed 9 ppm nitrates while tile lines on the other farm, without cover crops or divided N applications, gives readings around 20 ppm nitrates.
CONTROLLED PLANT. A Precision Planting 20/20 SeedSense system with delta downforce and vSet electronic seed meters keep seed placement uniform no matter the residue or field conditions.
This is encouraging to me as it means we’re maximizing the use of our valuable nutrients while also reducing nitrate loading into vulnerable water systems.
Our use of cover crops does impact when and how we apply N. We don’t apply N preplant as the still-living cereal rye tends to tie it up. Instead, we burn down the cover crop just prior to planting or 1-3 days after planting. The first N of the year is applied with the planter (not including manure, which is applied in fall or early spring).
- Don’t use cold water. Cold water shocks the plants, reducing uptake. Use air-temperature water (not water fresh from a well) to improve plant uptake.
- Use AMS to condition water.
- Water should be slightly acidic for best efficacy.
- Don’t spray in early morning or late evenings. Wait until the air temperature is at least 50 degrees F and will stay there for several hours.
Our 16-row, 30-inch Kinze planter is equipped with a Totally Tubular fertilizer system so we can put down the N necessary to get our corn off to a good start. One stainless-steel tube leads the seed shank, dribbling starter fertilizer between the seed discs. I use a low-salt starter fertilizer and add some zinc.
Two additional stainless-steel tubes dribble UAN on either side of the row behind the closing wheels. With the double-band application at planting — when the cereal rye is already dying and can’t take up the applied N — we don’t see any early yellowing of our corn. When we do check rows without the early N, they are obvious as can be.
We sidedress the balance of our N in-season with a self-propelled Rogator. We use drop nozzles to stream on more UAN with ammonium thiosulfate to serve as an N stabilizer and sulfur source.
It takes about 4-6 weeks for the cover crop roots and residue to break down and start releasing N and other nutrients to the growing crop. That works out to around July 4, when our corn is typically moving into its reproductive stage and has the highest N need. It’s the perfect timing, making cover crops an even more obvious choice for us.
With cover crops, we’ve seen our N-to-yield ratio decrease over the years. We used to apply 180 pounds of N on our corn-on-corn acres, now we’re down to 140 pounds and keep bumping it down while yields continue to increase. The old rule was 1.1 pounds of N per bushel. We’re probably doing closer to 0.7-0.8 pounds of N per bushel with corn yields well over 200 bushels per acre, often averaging 220 bushels.
BANKING PROFITS. Cover crops provide highly nutritious feed resulting in cattle that pack on the pounds and maintain better health all while helping improve soil for subsequent cash crops.
I think this goes back to having more soil organic matter to tie up the N we apply and increased soil biology activity to make more nutrients available. We grid soil sample every 3 years and the results have shown we can back down our fertility. Our P and K rates are at about 80% of what they used to be. It shows that as your soil biology improves with the use of cover crops and no-till, so does your nutrient availability.
We have a feedlot and have found cover crops and cattle fit together quite nicely. In addition to grazing value, we see a significant reduction in veterinary costs when grazing covers.
We buy some high-risk cattle. These groups of calves are intermingled from small farms with varying — or completely absent — herd health programs. As a result, we used to have a horrible problem with pneumonia, BVD and other health issues in their first months with us. When we turn those calves straight out to graze cover crops, though, we have little to no illness. It’s reduced our veterinary bill from $18-$20 per animal to effectively zero. This is likely due to the quality and diversity of forage provided by the cover crop mixes.
“I unknowingly lost thousands of dollars in profits over the years doing heavy tillage. If I could go back and start with no-till, cover crops, and grazing livestock I would be so much further ahead…”
We do some grazing where available with cover crops in our cash crop rotation, but we’ve even started planting two cover crops in a season just for grazing. For spring incoming calves, I will turn them out on a cereal rye cover crop to start and then move them out to native pastures while I seed the ground to brown midrib sorghum-sudangrass, clover and kale. I then graze a new batch of cattle through before moving them to drylot.
I am careful about what I plant for grazing. You want species that will be at various maturities. Sometimes I’ll still have to provide a bale of grass hay for roughage if the forage is too lush.
Cover crops also help us better use the manure from our feedlot. We have pen pack and liquid manure that we spread at a rate of 5 to 6 tons per acre or 3,000-4,000 gallons of liquid manure on as many acres as possible each year. Manure is typically applied in the fall or early spring and usually on a cover crop.
Not only does the manure stimulate cover crop growth while it pulls up and hold those nutrients for the coming crop, it also stimulates soil life. Corn stalk residue all but disappears where we apply manure and use cover crops. These active soils have improved soil organic matter and soil structure, but that doesn’t mean they’re immune to compaction.
N BANK. Cereal rye holds N from previous crops and manure applications. It’s burned down at planting and releases the N when the crop has high demand as it enters its reproductive stage.
Even with careful timing, the weight of our harvest equipment can compact soils. Cover crops help, but we’ve also updated our corn planter to overcome these issues. We use a Precision Planting 20/20 SeedSense system with DeltaForce hydraulic downforce and vDrive meters.
This system has helped us get uniform seed placement throughout the field, including in headlands and other places where there has been grain cart or manure spreader traffic. Before, seed wouldn’t be planted as deep in those slightly compacted areas and would emerge behind the rest of the crop. Now, the whole field is planted to the correct depth — around 2 inches for no-till — and emerges uniformly. Plus, the system provides us with data to guide simple changes, such as adjusting our driving patterns, to make sure we don’t make the problem worse.
We’ve gone back and forth on how to best manage our corn stalks at harvest. About 10 years ago I switched to a chopping corn head but opted to go back to a regular corn head with Calmer stalk rolls about 4 years ago.
With the traditional chopping corn head, we were left with a lot of long, still standing stalks that took a long time to break down. The residue that was chopped was also more vulnerable to wind, which would blow it out of our fields where it did us no good.
The knives on the Calmer stalk rollers make confetti out of the corn stalks, dropping them right down to the ground. They are less vulnerable to wind and are easier for the soil biology to work on. Stalks are reduced to pieces as small as ¾ inch. If I set the head just right, I can allow husks to move through the machine, leaving enough sizeable residue to make a nice windrow when I want to bale some stalks. To achieve this, I use a wheel rake and run at a slight angle across the rows. Then, the standing stubble helps push the raked material into the baler. It makes beautiful bedding.
I think farmers learning from farmers is one of the best ways to improve our farming practices. When information comes from other sources, it can be hard to trust that it will play out as expected in the field. But if you pair government and academic resources with a farmer’s experience, it can help people be more confident to try things like no-till.
I’m always up for sharing my experiences. A few years ago, a group of us Byron area farmers met up for some winter roundtable meetings then put together a no-till and cover crop tour. We got about 65 people to show up on May 14. We dug 5 different root pits, and everyone got to get a good look at what’s happening in the soil. They could see the root layers, the compaction zones and how crumbly the soils were where we’ve had years of no-till and cover crops. It’s encouraging that there’s such strong interest.
Our son, Aaron, is taking over more of the operation as I move to retirement and I think he’s caught onto the benefits that can be had from reducing tillage. What we’re all seeing is as the soil wakes up, it becomes more forgiving and we can reduce a lot of inputs. It makes farming a more profitable venture and a lot more fun.