Kevin Miller, part owner of K&S Farms, hosted members of the Lake Sinissippi Association and Dodge County Farmers for Healthy Soil-Healthy Water at a recent cover crop showcase on his farm in Iron Ridge, Wis. This unique learning opportunity brought farmers and lake property owners together to educate how cover crops are achieving goals both groups have.
The goals both groups are trying to achieve are similar. For farmers, it’s to grow fertility, increase organic matter and prevent erosion. The lake people want reduced runoff and cleaner lake water. So, cover crops are mutually beneficial.
Brendon Blank, board secretary and Bryon Seed representative, showed different varieties of cover crops and explained why farmers plant the different varieties and what goals and challenges farmers face with these crops.
The cover crop plot was planted after winter wheat was taken off, leaving straw residue in the field. This marks the third year of growing this field with a mix of cover crops. However, there were more challenges this year, the weather being one. After many rain delays, the cover was finally planted in late August. There were several establishment issues with too much moisture and residue. Blank explained the difficulty.
“Things were just wet and never dried out enough for the crops to really take off and perform to their potential because conditions were difficult,” Blank said.
However, it’s never a total loss. Miller shared that he plants cover crops for a safe place to spread manure.
“By putting manure over the top of the straw, it does not disturb the soil. That’s a good thing,” Miller said. “We have less chance of runoff, and we’re putting a crop in the ground that will soak up any of those nutrients.”
Blank also shared the farm should have a net benefit with the poorly established cover crops. Even though there wasn’t much to see above ground, the plants had great root systems and nodules underneath. This cover is growing some nitrogen for next year’s crop and helping prevent erosion. The farm should find success when planting into it next spring.
There are wide varieties to choose from when planting a cover crop. Blank pulled a few samples to show the attendees and shared some of their benefits. Buckwheat helps break phosphorus loose in the soil and grows quickly. Hairy vetch is a legume that grows well in late August. It had little white lumps on the roots, which is nitrogen the plant is pulling out of the atmosphere and putting into structures in the soil to feed crops later. Clovers have a similar ability. They are a bit smaller, but that’s why a diversity of plants is vital in a cover crop. Peas are another legume that grows fast but will winter kill, whereas vetch will typically survive winter. Radishes are most recognizable to everyone; however, not everyone knows they are good compaction breakers and absorb nutrients that will again become available in the spring when they decompose.
The question of why a farmer wouldn’t just plant the whole cover crop with legumes was addressed. Even though legumes do an excellent job of making nitrogen, soils are still living organisms. So, farmers need to feed soils a balanced diet, just like their herd. Cover mixes provide that balance by combining grasses, forages, and legumes.
By compiling many different crops with various skills and benefits, a farmer can accomplish more in their soil’s health. When choosing a cover crop mix, it’s essential to know what goals the farmer is trying to accomplish. Blank left the group with important advice when first getting into cover crops.
“Plan ahead. Know what field you’re going to put the cover crops on. What is your goal with that cover crop? What are you trying to accomplish? Is it something you will plant after corn, soybeans or winter wheat? And lastly, know what you’re going to plant in that field next year,” Blank said. “Know your goals and have a plan to set yourself up for success versus trying to make adjustments later on.”