AUSTIN, Minn. – “It all comes down to making it work,” says Tom Cotter of Austin.
He’s referring to his 20 years experience with cover crops, no-till and strip-till.
Plowing is a thing of the past on his farm, having been replaced with no-till and cover crops. The result is an Outstanding Conservationist award in 2016 from the Mower Soil and Water Conservation District. He has also earned recognition as a National Wildlife Federation Cover Crop Champion and as a certified clear-water farm.
Cotter currently plants corn, soybeans, canning crops and oats for his primary production. He also plants a mix of as many as 17 different cover crops. That gives him plenty of flexibility for cattle grazing, he said, and extends his grazing season. A recent mix he used for grazing consisted of rye, turnip, kale, red clover, rapeseed, common vetch, African cabbage, radish, cow pea and buckwheat.
“I love diversity,” he said.
Cotter made an interseeder for planting his mixtures in strip-till corn. He combined two eight-row cultivator tool bars and parts from two rotary-hoe gangs. He mounted an air seeder on the top and attached hoses that lead the seeds to a spot behind the hoes. That makes a good seed bed between the corn rows, he said. Using the homemade planter he can plant 15 to 20 acres per fill when the corn is at the V6 stage. At V6 the corn is in the growing stage, with the growing point above the soil and the nodal root system established. His plans for this year are to try interseeding with his sweet-corn canning crop.
He said cows will pick their own nutrients – and plants give different nutrients at different times. In the past his operation included 500 feeders, but he transitioned to 50 cow-calf pairs. He said he enjoys the change, which is part of his plan to increase fertility in his soils and decrease his use of chemicals. Cover crops work better with livestock, giving him more flexibility for planting. He likes to graze from April 1 to December or January if he can. Even if the animals graze the plants down to the soil, there’s some residue left. He can also use some of the marketable cover crops for harvest – and then turn down the stubble for fertilizer credits and organic matter.
“I like green manure,” he said.
Another thing he really likes is soil.
“You don’t have to be a scientist to look at soil,” he said. “I like to smell it. We forgot how to use our senses. We need to use our intuition.”
Soil is addicted to chemicals and it needs to be weaned off them, he said. He firmly believes that crop diseases come from the soil, especially unhealthy soil.
He thinks farmers need to change their processes to compensate for environmental storms where the rain comes all at once. He thinks he has good soil structure even in heavy rain, he said, because cover crops and the use of no-till stop water before it starts to cause damage.
The results of all his work create less.
“Lots of Less,” he said. “Less erosion, less exposed soil, less weeds, less tillage compaction, fewer temperature swings, less flooding, and less fuel, equipment and labor. As well as less fertilizer, chemicals, disease, stress and bad press from town.”
For those who want to start using no-till cover crop techniques, he suggests starting with cereal grains and learning to no-till soybeans. He says it can be a scary thing to do, but he encourages farmers to take the step and trust themselves.
“Every year I want to try something more extreme,” he said.