DARLINGTON, Wis. – Cover-crop treatments were on display recently during what one might call an open-house day at farms near Darlington. The field day was hosted by the Lafayette Ag Stewardship Alliance to demonstrate best conservation practices with cover crops and manure application at four farm sites. The farmer-led watershed-protection group has as its mission a commitment to sustainable stewardship of natural resources.

Josh Kamps, University of Wisconsin-Division of Extension agricultural educator, was available to discuss early-spring-seeded cover crops at Kamps Farms. The farm is owned by his father, Dan Kamps, who joined the Lafayette Ag Stewardship Alliance in 2017. That was the same year the group was formed.

The Kamps family frost-seeded cover crops with a no-till drill in mid-March. There isn’t as much soil penetration at that time so they relied on the freeze-thaw cycle to work seed down into the soil for better seed-to-soil contact, Josh Kamps said. To provide more accurate data he planted 5 acres to four treatments, which were replicated three times.

  • control – no cover crops
  • oats and tillage radish
  • cereal rye and red clover
  • cereal rye

Each treatment was planted in 16 rows measuring 40 feet wide by 300 feet deep. The plot was strip-tilled in early May to prepare a seed bed to plant the corn crop. The test plot was planted on Tama silt loam, a prairie-developed soil known for its productivity. Strip tillage and cover crops have helped to improve the farm’s soil porosity and soil aggregation, which promotes resilient soil structure, he said.

“Weed pressure across the plot was low, without much difference recorded between treatments,” he said. “But soil-rooting activity was quite noticeable in the treatments.”

Among the cover crops planted was winter cereal rye. The goal with planting it early was to force it to stay in a vegetative growth stage until termination, he said. A period with cold temperatures following germination is crucial to trigger vernalization and plant-stem elongation. The plot stayed in a vegetative growth stage through termination.

Another plot near Gratiot, Wisconsin, vernalized and matured rapidly through reproductive stages. The rye that vernalized competed with corn and soybeans during the growing season, he said.

“A definite change of management will be necessary to preserve crop yields if cold temperatures trigger vernalization,” he said.

Dan Kamps said, “I hope the field day helps farmers see how cover crops might work for them. There’s a place for them. But you don’t know until you try them; you need to work your way into them.”

He joined the Lafayette Ag Stewardship Alliance, he said, because its members wanted to show the community what farmers are doing to protect water and soil. He plants corn and alfalfa on 1,000 acres, with a portion of the acreage in continuous corn. The rest is in a corn-alfalfa rotation. He strip-tills corn and seeds alfalfa using a vertical-tillage system. In the corn-alfalfa rotation he plants corn for two or three years followed by four years of alfalfa. He sells the hay.

Because he operates a custom-chopping business that would conflict with the timing of soybean production, Kamps hasn’t planted soybeans for about 10 years. He’s been strip-tilling for about eight years. He’s also planted cereal rye as a cover crop for a few years. The cereal rye helps reduce soil compaction, he said.

He may try a fall planting of clover and peas to add more nitrogen to the ground, but they will need good weather for good establishment.

“We’ll see if they make a difference,” he said.

Dan Smith, southwest regional specialist in the nutrient and pest-management program for UW-Extension, attended the field day.

The cereal rye looked good in the test plots at the Kamps Farms open house. Earlier in the season – particularly with dry weather in June – the corn growing in the treatments wasn’t looking good. But by the end of the growing season the corn improved to finish strong, even when cover crops that were 2 feet tall were terminated in early June.

“I’m impressed by the progress farmers in the Lafayette Ag Stewardship Alliance have made in adopting cover crops,” Smith said. “Many of them have dairy and livestock operations in addition to crops.”

He’s also impressed, he said, by the farmer-led group’s relatively large acreage total, varied geographical locations and willingness to test different agronomic practices.

Visit lafayetteagstewardship.org and lafayette.extension.wisc.edu for more information.

Lynn Grooms writes about the diversity of agriculture, including the industry’s newest ideas, research and technologies as a staff reporter for Agri-View based in Wisconsin.