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Saving Soils with a Diverse Rotation, Covers & Manure

Palmyra, Wis., no-tiller Tom Burlingham specializes in hay and alfalfa but his diverse rotation is maintaining his soils and reducing inputs.


Pictured Above: INTERSEEDING EXPERIMENTS. For corn no-tilled after soybeans, Tom Burlingham likes to interseed a cover crop at about V3-V4. He uses a Lilliston grain drill, with the disks rearranged to seed five sets of three rows of a mix of ryegrass, cowpeas, rapeseed, flax and medium red clover

No-tilling near Palmyra in southern Wisconsin on land just across the road from his childhood home, Tom Burlingham and his wife, Margaret, got a wake-up call about wind erosion during the 1981 planting season. It was the first year after they bought the farm from Tom’s parents. 

While preparing to put in a hay stand, Burlingham applied manure over the winter, worked the ground in the spring and seeded 15-16 pounds of alfalfa and 2 bushels of oats per acre.

“Then the wind started to blow,” Burlingham says. “We had 30-40 mile-per-hour winds, and they blew the seeding out. Gone.”

With his light, sandy soil drifted up along the fencerow and a quarter-inch of soot lining the windowsills, Burlingham knew he needed to do something different if his farm was to succeed. 

“I started wondering if it was possible to grow a crop with residue sitting on the field. Most people at the time said it couldn’t be done.”

Tom Burlingham’s Top 10 Cover Crop Paybacks

1) Erosion control — soil stays in the field

2) Better infiltration — you can’t grow a crop with water that runs off the field

3) Weed control — less marestail and waterhemp

4) Less…

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Julia gerlach web

Julia Gerlach

Julia Gerlach is managing editor of No-Till Farmer. She has a lengthy background in publishing and a longtime interest in gardening and mycology. She graduated with a B.A. in music and philosophy from Alverno College in Milwaukee, Wis.

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