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Cover-crop methods, technology abound
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Cover-crop methods, technology abound

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ARCADIA, Wis. – The sky’s the limit when it comes to techniques, species and equipment used for cover crops – giving farmers plenty of choices for putting together a system that works for their farms.

But it can also be confusing and discouraging while trying for good results. That’s why the Buffalo-Trempealeau Farmer Network sponsored a field day this past fall to give farmers new ideas and a chance to network.

Using a field recently harvested for corn silage, the group discussed various methods available and demonstrated some new equipment as well as old standbys. Farmers were reminded that any time they can reduce inputs, they can increase profits. By using cover crops they can increase soil health while controlling erosion.

Unmanned-aerial vehicles are one of the new technologies used for seeding cover crops. Carl Geske from southern Trempealeau County explained how he used his to seed his hilly fields. He considered aerial seeding, but it wasn’t feasible to use an airplane so he turned to an unmanned-aerial vehicle – also called a drone.

The cost of the machine was $13,000, which included six sets of batteries, a charger and a generator. It holds 25 pounds of seed for a total weight of 33 pounds. Geske flies the drone at 12 miles per hour in a 20-foot pattern. Each flight takes about 12 to 15 minutes. He said the only drawback was that his system cannot track elevation. Seed size makes grasses impractical, so he uses brassicas and clovers.

One of the other new systems on the market is the Fennig SDS interseeder bar that’s manufactured in Ohio. The Fennig presses seeds into the ground without the use of incorporation by directing as much as 1,000 pounds of pressure on the seedbed. The manufacturer recommends interseeding at corn stage V4 to V5, giving a cover crop that’s 1 to 1.5 feet tall by corn harvest. A rear roller controls the depth of the seed, which is broadcast between rows. Some farmers are using the rig on combine heads. It’s also being used to apply liquid fertilizer, saving trips across fields.

Matt Oehmichen from Short Lane Ag gave his thoughts on cover cropping, starting with methods of application. They will dictate rates and costs, especially on hay fields. For example a high boy can combine tasks, doing urea applications at the same time.

He said to ask what the cover crop is going to accomplish because there are so many choices of seed. Going from corn to beans might mean using brassicas that feed nematodes. Or growing corn on corn could mean using clover to add nitrogen.

He’s a big advocate of seeding between V1 and V3 when there is no crusting, good soil texture and no shading from the crops, he said.

“If it’s too late, it will chase sunlight instead of seeking roots,” he said.

He cautioned farmers to watch the weather and avoid seeding during a dry spell because moisture is important for germination. Waiting until after fall harvest limits what can be planted because of the rush to seed before the ground freezes.

Oehmichen said another factor in seed choice is chemical usage. Chemical companies are working on new formulas that are cover-crop safe, leaving no residuals, but they’re not a silver bullet.

With good soil structure there should be no mud holes, no standing water and no mud sticking to tires. The more species in the mix gives better water-holding capacity and drought resistance.

“You don’t know if it’s going to be dry, wet or bugs,” he said. “Hedge all your bets. And sunflowers – don’t be afraid to do sunflowers. Beefies love sunflowers.”T

The Buffalo-Trempealeau Farmer Network includes the Elk Creek and Middle Trempealeau watersheds in the upper reaches of the Driftless Area region, with steep slopes and many streams. The two counties have greater average nitrogen concentrations than most of the rest of Wisconsin. The network plans to work with farmers to budget and track nitrogen applications, and improve nitrogen-management practices. They also want to work on methods and economics of cover crops, with a goal of planting at least 500 new acres or trying new methods, with a per-acre rebate. University of Wisconsin-Discovery Farms is the collaborator; call Brian Maliszewski at 715-530-1107 for more information.

LeeAnne Bulman writes about agriculture from her farm overlooking the beautiful Danuser Valley on Wisconsin’s west coast. When not writing she helps her husband on their small grain and beef farm.

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