Cold, wet weather hit Wisconsin early in the fall of 2018, laying waste to the cover cropping plans of many farmers, even those with many years of experience.
“It was so frustrating,” says Tony Peirick, who no-tills about 1,000 acres of corn and soybeans with his brother and their two sons on the family dairy farm. “It should be green by now. But we drilled cereal rye and winter wheat on September 19, got 3 inches of rain that night and then it got cold, so hardly anything has even come up,” he said while surveying his fields on a visit last March.
Indeed, the field at T&R Dairy near Watertown, Wis., wasn’t much to look at, with tufts of short grasses peeking out amidst the corn stubble.
As a last-ditch effort, they had broadcast cereal rye with a fertilizer spreader on about 500 acres in mid-December and much of it hadn’t yet germinated. His enthusiasm undiminished, he poked around in the soil, identifying rye seeds. “We’ll see, but I think it’ll still come up this spring,” he said.
- Be patient. It may take a few years to see the benefits of no-till and covers, but a likely reduction in inputs, improved water infiltration, weed suppression and more will be in the wait.
- Cereal rye is a basic but very hardy cover crop and has a good chance of germinating, even when planted very late in the season.
- When planting green, get seeds planted at the right depth. Corn should be planted about 2-2.5 inches deep.
Fast-forward to June, those same fields were lush with 3-5-foot-tall cereal rye and wheat swaying in the breeze, soaking up moisture and nutrients for the coming cash crop.
Seeing is Believing
Having grown up on the family farm, Peirick used traditional tillage techniques throughout the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. As a teenager, he would moldboard plow and disc the ground to turn it into a fine powder.
“I was good at plowing,” says Peirick. “But I always hated to turn stuff over and see seagulls come by and take away the earthworms. We never should have been doing that, but it’s what we were taught.”
As a dairy farmer, he grows alfalfa for the cows, taking 30-50 acres out every year and turning it over to corn. When terminating an alfalfa field in 1994, his crop consultant urged him to consider no-till. So he set up his planter for corn and no-tilled corn directly into the alfalfa. He hasn’t tilled an alfalfa field going to corn ever since.
“If they’re growing alfalfa, dairy farmers have a little advantage when it comes to getting started with no-till and cover crops,” he says. “It provides a natural opportunity to transition.”
NO ROLLER? NO PROBLEM. Demonstrating a good example of “using what you’ve got,” Tony Peirick used his Brillion cultimulcher to roll his cereal rye about 10 days after he planted corn in the spring of 2019. He’s hoping to purchase an actual roller-crimper for his Dodge County group for next season.
When seeding alfalfa he still does some light cultivation because he needs to get the seeds into the ground instead of on the surface, and the seedbed needs to be leveled so he won’t have to deal with uneven ground while haying over the 4-5 year lifespan of the stand. He uses a Brillion seeder to establish the crop.
“We need to spread the word so more farmers understand about soil health and the benefits of keeping a living root in the ground...”
Peirick was introduced to cover crops in 2004 while taking part in a local watershed project. He was required to have corn-silage ground covered to receive payment. Reluctantly, Peirick spread oats on the field.
In the following months — through observation, research and talking with other farmers who were growing cover crops — he started to understand the benefits of keeping the ground covered, such as retaining moisture and reducing erosion. The next year, he got a no-till drill to seed cereal rye and then started planting soybeans into the rye, trying to get as much acreage covered as possible each year.
Soil Health Blooms
On the rest of his acreage, Peirick has been planting green for 4 years now, no-tilling both corn and soybeans directly into rye with his 12-row, 30-foot John Deere NT1770 planter.
BIOMASS MACHINE. In March, 2019, Tony Peirick’s September-seeded cereal seemed to be nothing to write home about. Three short month later, the rye was 5 feet tall, promising fantastic biomass and weed suppression. Post-planting, young corn plants are coming up through the rye.
The machine features air-adjustable row cleaners that can be pulled up when they’re not needed, serrated Prescription Tillage Technology (PTT) blades by Sabre which ensure that moist soil is deposited on top of the seed for good seed-to-soil contact, and spiked Copperhead closing wheels to close the trench well and minimize sidewall compaction.
Peirick soil tests every 3 years and says switching to no-till and covers has provided better pH and higher levels of soil organic matter (SOM). The Peiricks haven’t limed their fields in about 10 years and SOM levels have risen about 1 percentage point across the board — though they still vary from field to field, most landing in the 2-6% range. Now that he’s focusing more heavily on cover crops he thinks SOM levels will keep going up.
Perhaps more significantly, says Peirick, they are seeing improved water infiltration, soil structure, and the ability to reduce nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) inputs.
“We’re really reducing inputs and still getting good crops. We’re only applying 0.6 pounds an acre of nitrogen per bushel of corn,” he says.
Finding More Efficiency
Besides working with a crop consultant, Peirick also worked with the University of Wisconsin to organize replicated plots to determine ideal N inputs for corn.
“Many conservation programs allow for a 3-5 ton loss per acre every year.
At that rate, in 50 years, we’re not going to have any soil left…”
“I was always pushing our crop consultant to apply more nitrogen. But in the replicated plot testing, we’d put on 60-240 units of N and 120 units was always the sweet spot,” he recalls. “Whether it was corn-on-corn or corn-on-beans, no matter the variety, after 7 years there was no way to justify the higher 1 unit of N per bushel,” he says.
Since discovering this 120-unit upper limit for N, Peirick has been applying 15 gallons of 32% UAN in a 2-by-2-inch configuration with the planter for corn-on-corn acres (80 units for corn-on-soybeans, taking the credit from the sequestered N) plus CBF 7-21-3, a molasses-based starter fertilizer from Midwestern BioAg. He then sidedresses corn when it’s about knee-high with 32% using his Hagie nitrogen toolbar.
“I started using the CBF 5 years ago because I felt it was a good idea to feed the soil,” Peirick says. He believes he’s seeing a good response from it and it also makes the 32% more available to the plant.
Peirick says yields have been respectable, though he does point out he’s “not trying to win any yield contests.” In 2018, despite it being one of the wettest seasons on record, Peirick’s corn yielded an average of 186 bushels per acre across the farm, and his soybeans yielded about 57 bushels per acre.
“With the amount of rain we had, we never should’ve gotten the yields we did, and we should’ve had a lot more drowned-out corn” he says. “There are so many factors to consider that’s it’s difficult to pinpoint why, but I think improved soil health is at the heart of why we’re getting good results despite lower inputs and less than ideal growing conditions.”
He acknowledges it usually takes a few years to see the benefits of no-till and covers and people who are impatient often won’t stick with the practices. “You don’t realize the benefits until your soil changes. But then it’s phenomenal.”
Benefits of Planting Green
During his early days of growing cover crops, Peirick used cereal rye for cow bedding. But now he’s planting covers to build a healthy soil ecosystem. Currently he uses a 30-foot Great Plains no-till drill on 8-inch rows to seed covers.
He hasn’t found planting green is much more challenging than straight no-tilling, but for others who want to start planting green he suggests having adjustable down pressure on the planter.
LIVING ROOTS. The tangle of roots beneath a cereal rye plant offers habitat and nutrients for soil microbes, mycorrhizal fungi and earthworms, all of which contributes to the rising soil organic matter levels at T&R Dairy.
“The one thing you’ve got to do is get the seed down into the ground,” he says. “It’s got to be 2 inches plus, no matter what you do when planting green.”
In addition, growers should consider adding extra N. Although the allelopathic response with cereal rye affecting the germination of corn is often discussed among no-tillers, Peirick thinks something else is happening. “It’s the nitrogen that the cereal rye has taken up. And it takes up more nitrogen the longer your let it grow.”
In the spring, corn planted green will appear to be struggling compared to the neighbors’ crops, but Peirick says the situation reverses later in the season.
“Last year, my brother — who doesn’t farm — asked me why my fields were so green late in the season when the neighbors’ corn was burning up. Well, the cover crops help preserve moisture,” Peirick recalls saying. “Also, no one knows for sure when it’s happening, but the cereal rye is releasing the nitrogen back to the corn and it’s making all the difference.”
Using his sprayer, Peirick terminates cereal rye within a week of planting with Roundup and either 2,4-D or a generic Lumax if termination is a little later. “Usually it’ll be just one pass and I’m done,” he says.
Peirick has seen other benefits from adding cereal rye to his no-till system. He hasn’t had to use fungicides for many years and he’s hoping to get away from using seed treatments on soybeans in the near future, and eventually on corn.
“Another great benefit I’ve noticed with cereal rye is weed suppression. I had no waterhemp last year,” he says.
This spring, Peirick used a roller to terminate rye for the first time. Due to the frequent rains, timing was a challenge, but he rolled the rye about 10 days after his corn went in and reported few issues, if any.
When possible, Peirick grows enough cereal rye for his own use, plus about 30 acres that he cleans and sells for seed. Going forward, he wants to start planting multi-species cover crops. To do so, he’ll need to harvest his corn earlier, or plant a mix after growing cereal rye for seed.
Unsustainable Soil Loss
Peirick gets particularly animated when talking about the importance of protecting the soil.
“A paper’s thickness of soil on an acre is a ton of soil. Some of our government conservation programs allow for a 3-5 ton soil loss every year. At that rate, in 50 years we’re not going to have any soil left,” he says.
“You don’t realize the benefits until your soil changes. But then it’s phenomenal.”
As a dairy farmer with about 200 cows, Peirick has lots of manure at his disposal, which he spreads over his cover crops in late fall using a tanker.
Most years he can cover about 500 acres with the 7,000-8,000 gallons of manure per acre, surface applying it during the season, so not all acres get manure every year. While some people think it’s better to inject manure into the soil to prevent it from being washed away in the rain, Peirick is adamant about surface application, stating that the manure will be taken up by the cover crops.
“I don’t believe we should inject anything into the ground. We shouldn’t be disturbing the soil,” he says. “Mother Nature doesn’t tear up the ground and shove stuff into it. With the covers and having a living plant growing on the surface, it’ll be absorbed right in. The soil biology’s got to come from the surface, and everything just works itself down — the soil microbes, the mycorrhizal fungi — they pull the nutrients down.”
While Peirick is passionate about his own practices, what really gets him revved up is spreading the word about no-till, soil health and cover crops. His enthusiasm is infectious and he’s receiving attention for his efforts.
Over the years, he has brought together many like-minded people to explore issues surrounding better farming practices. In 2015, he founded the Dodge County Farmers for Healthy Soil and Healthy Water.
When he was prepping for the initial meeting, he was hoping to get 50 people to attend — but nearly 300 showed up. About 25 more soil health groups have popped up in the region since Peirick launched his, a sure sign of growing interest in the regenerative farming practices.
He recently hosted a 3-day Soil Health Academy seminar featuring soil health expert Ray Archuleta, Bismarck, N.D., no-tiller Gabe Brown and Hickory, N.C., no-tiller Russell Hedrick. It was a fantastic opportunity for attendees to discuss the finer points of ecological nutrient management with their instructors and each other.
In late August of this year, he will be hosting the 2019 Conservation Observance Day for the Wisconsin Land & Water Conservation Department, which also awarded T&R Dairy the Conservation Farm Family of the Year award for 2019.
There, Peirick will be in his element, bringing together local farmers, government officials and industry representatives, all to further the understanding about his favorite subject.
While Peirick says he appreciates the attention and accolades he’s received, it’s clear that for him it’s all about improving the land.
“We need to spread the word and get more farmers to understand about soil health,” he says. “We’ve got the show them and teach them the benefits of keeping a living root in the ground and how the whole system works together.”