Expert shares how to boost profit, reduce inputs through cover crops

Dodge County Farmers for Healthy Soil Healthy Water (DCF), a farmer-led conservation group, hosted its annual Soil Health Expo on Feb. 8. Nearly 175 farmers and community members gathered to network, hear from soil health experts and learn about the group’s continued effort to make a positive impact in their watershed.

The event kicked off with an opportunity for farmers and community members to network and learn from group sponsors. DCF president Tony Pierick shared the group’s accomplishments from 2022 and introduced keynote speaker Dave Brandt.

Brandt is an Ohio farmer and nationally recognized cover crop expert. He spoke to the farmers about conservation tillage, no-till and cover crops. He also tried to teach them how to reduce their crop inputs to improve their bottom line. His farm has not used fungicide or insecticide for 13 years because blooming plants bring beneficial insects. The farm has also found benefits with cover crops providing a dry thatch that releases nutrients every time it rains. With this practice, the farm hasn’t applied phosphorus and potassium fertilizers in the last 30 years. He shared many tips in hopes that local farmers could take one or two back to their farms.

“We’re learning how to do better things with our food today. I hope I can bring across that farmers don’t have to change very much, but they can learn to reduce, improve the quality of their grains that we produce, which will improve the quality of food,” Brandt said. “I firmly believe you can change soils – but you have to be serious about it.”

Dodge County Farmers actively pursue ways to improve soil health and water quality. At the meeting, various speakers shared how they measure their effects through a member conservation survey, the group’s two cost-share programs and a nitrogen use efficiency (NUE) program.

Shawn Wesener, data collection specialist for Farmers for Sustainable Food, helped track conservation practice outcomes. DCF membership has a majority of crop farmers, with corn and soybean rotation being the most common rotation, followed by corn, soybean and winter wheat as the second most adopted.

He shared that the group is heavily involved in cover crop usage in this area. They’re also doing a great job planting a green cover crop in the spring, which is highly adapted. This year was the first year of survey results for the group, establishing a baseline to make comparisons as the group advances into the future.

Bill Stangel is an advisory board member of DCF and a private crop consultant. He presented on the Nitrogen Use Efficiency program. The overall goal of this program is to help farmers dial in their nitrogen management. The program also identified resource concerns of contaminated groundwater and elevated nitrate levels across the county.

“So we thought, here’s an opportunity for us to get in front of it and help address that resource concern that we have and dial in the economic opportunity presented to us this season,” Stangel said.

The participants put together 16 replicated nitrogen trials across the county, including one in Rock County and two in Jefferson County. These are scattered across 12 different farms. The next step is compiling this data by management system based on previous crop cover, crop use and termination timing. Being the first year, there aren’t many conclusions yet, but this will be an excellent project to watch over time with the breadth and density of the data set.  

The group hosted several events this past summer highlighting different practices throughout the county. A farmer panel moderated by Will Fulwider, UW-Extension, gave more depth to innovation behind those farmers’ practices. Matt Wondra, Jeff Gaska, David Roche and Chris Conley all shared on topics including planting green, interseeding cover crops into standing corn and rotational grazing on cover crops. The farmers shared their thought processes behind why they started these practices and how they’ve worked on their farms and larger farming system.

“To get started, pick a small spot,” Gaska said. “I picked a field no one could see and didn’t worry what others would think because they wouldn’t see it. Now I do it right in front because I know it works, and I’m proud of it.”

Fuldwider shared the group and area farmers have a great opportunity to do more rotational grazing on cover crops.

“I think as people become more comfortable with cover crops, especially cover crops planted after wheat, or if you’re interseeding, I think that opens up a huge opportunity to graze as cover crops,” Fuldwider said.

One of the most significant benefits of being a member of DCF is learning from other members about what has been successful and what they have learned not to do again. The group plans to host more field days to continue these conversations this summer.

At the members’ meetings, DCF held an election for the board of directors bringing on one new member, Randy Braker. Returning board members are Tony Peirick, president; Marty Weiss, vice president; Brendon Blank, secretary; David Roche, Treasurer; Chris Conley and Jeff Gaska. The group also works closely with advisory board members Bill Stangel, Will Fulwider, Philip Laatsch, Bill Nass, Robert Bird, Andrew Condon, Dale Macheel, Jared Winter and John Bohnonek.

Cover crops and reducing inputs to increase profit – David Brandt to share at Soil Health Expo

Soil health has been a growing interest to many farmers in Dodge County for several years. Cover crops are nothing new to Dodge County Farmers for Healthy Soil Healthy Water (DCF). The group hosts a Soil Health Expo in Dodge County to encourage more participation in conservation in their county. This year, the expo will be from 8:30 a.m. – 6 p.m. on Feb. 8.

Registration is required for this event; $50 includes lunch and the social event after the expo. The morning will begin with networking time with coffee, donuts and vendor booths. The meeting will start at 10 a.m with updates from DCF President Tony Peirick and lead right into formal presentations. Local farmers, Matt Wondra, Jeff Gaska, Dave Roche and Chris Conley will participate on an innovation panel moderated by Will Fuldwider from UW Extension. Attendees will explore topics about soil health through presentations by:

David Brandt, an Ohio farmer, is a nationally recognized cover crop expert. He farms 950 acres — all no-till — in Fairfield County, Ohio. He began no-till farming in 1971 and has been using cover crops since 1978. David has participated in yield plots for corn, soybeans and wheat into various covers. This information has been used by seed growers, county agents and universities to encourage other farmers to adopt no-till practices in their farming operations.

He has also been planting various blends of cover crops to find out what benefits they provide to improve soil health. David co-owns Walnut Creek Seeds, LLC with his son and daughter-in-law, Jay and Ann Brandt. David has had articles published in Farm Journal, Ohio Farmer, Country Journal and numerous no-till journals. He has worked in cooperation with The Ohio State University, University of Illinois, Penn State University, Purdue University and Milan Research Farm in Tennessee.

Brandt will be speaking about the work he is presently doing with OSU Randall Reeder and Dr. Islam on reducing input costs of fertilizers and herbicides using various cover crops which improve soil health. He is also working with the regional NRCS soils lab in Greensboro, N.C. on the benefits of cover crops to improve soil health. David Brandt has received many awards for conservation practices.

Shawn Wesener, data collection specialist for Farmers for Sustainable Food, works directly with farmers to help track conservation practice outcomes. Wesener has a professional background in agriculture and public planning. As a certified crop adviser, he most recently served as a precision agriculture specialist for Country Visions Cooperative, based in Brillion, Wis. He is now supporting farmer-led groups in their conservation efforts by working directly with farmers and crop advisers to capture the data needed to drive sustainability projects and support continuous improvement. He will be presenting the findings from DCF’s 2022 member conservation practices survey results.


Who: Dodge County Farmers for Healthy Soil Healthy Water  

What: 2023 Soil Health Expo

When: 8:30 a.m. – 6 p.m. Feb. 8

Where: Juneau Community Center, 500 Lincoln Dr., Juneau

Meeting agenda

  • DCF year in review: Tony Peirick, DCF president
  • DCF conservation outcomes: Shawn Wesener, Farmers for Sustainable Food
  • Cover crops for soil health and reducing inputs to increase profitability: Dave Brandt, Ohio No-till Farmer
  • Farmer innovation panel: Matt Wondra, Jeff Gaska, Dave Roche and Chris Conley moderated by Will Fulwider, UW Extension

Fall wrap-up member social

Fall wrap-up
Everyone is welcome to come to discuss what worked on their farms and what didn’t. It’s a time to share and learn with other local farmers. Will Fulwider will be moderating the conversation.
The event is sponsored by Schmidtt Crop Services.
There will be beer and pizza available.
Thank you to our hosts Nancy and Charlie

Grazing interseeded covers for profitability: Do the numbers pencil out?

_DCF - Nov. 18 (1)
Join us for coffee and doughnuts on Friday, Nov. 18.
Jeff Gaska will talk about his experience interseeding covers and grazing setup.
Will Fulwider, Dodge and Dane County Extension Crops Educator will talk on if this practice will pencil out.
Address: N4301 County Rd. TT, Columbus (Park by the barn to the right and we will walk to the field)

Cover crop showcase brings farmers and lake property owners together for a unique event

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.”

Fall cover crop showcase

cover crop - Oct. 6 event

Join us for our annual Fall cover crop showcase.

W3389 Oak Lawn Rd, Iron Ridge. The field location is .25 mile east of the farm on the north side of the road. 

We will walk the fields to view cover crop strips and have great farmer-to-farmer networking.

No RSVP needed.

Following the field event we will have snacks and refreshments at Sinnissippi Lake Pub.

Co-hosted by Dodge County Farmers Healthy Soil & Healthy Water & Dodge County lake associations

DCF Field pin.10.6.22

Biljean Farms share benefits of long term no-till 


by Jamie Fisher

Dodge County Farmers for Healthy Soil & Healthy Water (HSHW) hosted a field day on Aug. 11 at Bill Nass’s farm, Biljean Farms, in Watertown, Wis. Over 80 attendees learned about nutrient management, residual herbicides, species selection and soil health.


Kevin Shelley, University of Wisconsin Madison nutrient and pest management educator, presented on nutrient management and species selection. He highlighted the importance of focusing on what you want from the crop when selecting plant species. Seeding rates and planting at optimal depth also drive a crop’s success. Shelley emphasized a single species can outperform more complex mixtures.


Nick Arneson, weed science outreach program manager at WiscWeeds Lab, presented on residual herbicides. Arneson focuses on corn, soybeans and small grain production in his work. He discussed effective burn down times after harvest and the importance of collecting biomass samples.


A short presentation on grass waterways was also shared by Jared Winter, Dodge County land & water conservation technician.


Jamie Patton, senior outreach specialist with UW-Madison nutrient and pest management program, impressed attendees with her presentation on soil health in a soil pit. Patton shared results of a pit fall experiment to see what kind of insects are out in the field.


“There is quite a bit of diversity in this field,” Patton said. “Certain insects are beneficial because they eat weed seeds, organic matter and keep balance.”


Patton also talked about the glacial soil in the wheat field. There will almost always be some surface compaction; it’s not uncommon in a no-till field. The key is to gauge compaction.


“If I was a root, how hard would it be for me to get through the soil,” Patton said.


Patton share there is great value in stacking practices. When a farmer starts with a cover crop, it provides more biomass for the soil. Having something growing in the spring will then help improve soil erosion and water quality. Applying manure this time of year is also great for nutrients.


Biljean Farms has been practicing no-till for over 40 years. The improved soil health from practicing conservation was highlighted through the presentations by local experts.


Wrapping up the event was a field equipment demonstration of practicing strip till and no-till practices. Thank you to our sponsors Byron Seeds, Dairyland Seed, Martin-Till, PIP Seeds and State bank of Reeseville.


Field Notes Podcast July 27, 2022

field notes
Wed, 27 Jul 2022

In this, the first episode of Field Notes, we dive headlong into the practice of interseeding cover crops into standing corn, a practice becoming more and more popular in Wisconsin. To help us out, we talk with Anne Pfeiffer, program manager for UW-Madison’s on-farm research research network, and Marty Weiss, a farmer in Dodge County and the vice-president of Dodge County Farmers for Healthy Soils Healthy Waters farmer-led watershed group.

Lush Farms organic worm castings feed the soil



By Jamie Fisher

Dodge County Farmers for Healthy Soil & Healthy Water (HSHW) sponsored a farm tour on July 21 at Lush Farms, LLC in Watertown, Wis. Nearly 50 attendees learned about worm castings and soil health benefits.

Troy Hinke, Living Roots Compost Tea owner, presented on soil health and microbiology. The conversation focused on healthy soil biology and the benefits of creating soil structure, increasing water holding capacity, increasing airflow and attracting earthworms.

“Feed the soil, not the plant,” Hinke shared, “Dirt is dead, soil is alive.”

Anthony Arbucias, co-owner of Lush Farms, shared details about raising African night crawlers. Lush Farms is a producer of organic worm castings, raising worms and selling their castings. Worm castings, also known as vermicasts, contain important trace minerals and natural plant growth hormones not found in commercial fertilizers or manure.

“A worm will eat 1.5 times its body weight in a day,” Arbucias said.  “The healthiest worms eat the most and breed the most.”

Similar to all other species, a worm’s habitat includes shelter, water and food. Organic matter provides shelter, water in the soil provides moisture and food comes from plants living roots.

 Lush Farms is continuing to grow its business. In 2019, it started out with four bins and now has 300 bins. Each bin contains 6,600 earthworms measured by weight. Worms like it cooler, and the lights stay on 24/7. If the soil is too dry, the worms will clump together. If the soil is too wet, the worms will drown. 

Lush Farms understand the importance of providing biology as soon as possible. The worm castings provide biology and organic matter to the soil. When the worm casting adds microbiology to the existing soil, this releases nutrients in the soil for plants to absorb, ultimately creating healthier and stronger plants.

Composting worms are primarily sold commercially to soil blenders who repackage them. On a smaller scale, sales are available during open houses, at home gardening businesses and on their website, Future goals include converting the castings into a “compost tea” spray, providing an opportunity to benefit farmland acres. Lush Farms believes stronger plants make healthier food which makes healthier people. 

August summer 2022 events

Aug. 11 - 11 a.m.  Building soil health after winter wheat with cover crops

DCF - Aug 11 Covers over Wheat
Field day topics:
Nick Arneson presents on residual herbicides
Kevin Shelley presents on nutrient management & species selection
Jamie Patton presents on soil pit
Land Conservation will showcase new grass waterway
Field equipment demonstrations
Lunch is provided.
Please RSVP:
Location: Biljean Farms
N1566 State Rd 26, Watertown, WI
Thank you, Sponsors: Byron Seeds, Dairyland Seed, Martin-Till,
P I P Seeds and State Bank of Reeseville