LODI, Wis. – George Koepp pointed to Lake Wisconsin from a Schoepp Farms hilltop.
“That’s why we’re here,” said Koepp, a University of Wisconsin-Division of Extension agriculture educator.
The watershed is environmentally sensitive. To recognize that, Conservation Day by the Lake was being held at Schoepp Farms near Lodi. The event was attended by several representatives of producer-led watershed-protection groups as well as other farmers interested in learning about improving soil health and water quality.
Schoepp Farms is operated by Ron Schoepp and his wife, Tara Schoepp, and his parents, Dave and Nancy Schoepp. Their farm overlooks scenic Lake Wisconsin – a 7,197-acre lake located in Columbia and Sauk counties. The Schoepps mob-graze about 200 dairy heifers and 50 dry cows as well about 30 head of grass-fed beef cattle. They also raise corn, soybeans, wheat and alfalfa.
Conservation Day attendees learned about grazing practices, reduced-disturbance manure injection, cover crops, soil health and more. Available to answer questions were representatives from the Lake Wisconsin Producer Led Watershed Council, the Sauk Soil and Water Improvement Group, and the Producers of Lake Redstone.
Ron Schoepp is a member of the first two groups. He and his family are making a positive difference in the environment with their conservation-farming practices, he said.
“We can do it on a small scale and still make a difference,” he said.
Cattle graze a cover-crop mix of 11 species – millet, sudangrass, oats, ryegrass, rape, Raptor hybrid brassica, sunflower, forage pea, hairy vetch, medium red clover and Balansa Fixation clover. The Sand County Foundation is demonstrating the conservation and economic benefits of rotational grazing on cover crops such as those featured in the mix. Schoepp is one of four farmers with whom the foundation is working.
Feedback from participating farmers will help reduce the trial and error of grazing cover crops for farmers elsewhere, said Heidi Peterson, vice-president of agricultural research and conservation for the foundation. Called “Onto Greener Pastures with Rotational Grazing and Cover Crops,” the three-year project has been awarded funding from North Central Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education.
Schoepp doesn’t normally graze cover crops in the summer due to the way in which he manages his system. Instead he will plant a cover crop the first week of August and graze cattle on it in October and November.
He wants the summer paddocks to have a haybine-cut look and a manure-spread look, he said.
“I like the fact we get that look without ever starting a tractor, if grazing is properly managed,” he said. “Early-October-grazed cover crops can be taken that low because crops will normally grow back before dormancy.”
He plants three or four species that can overwinter. Those species could include clovers, cereal rye, volunteer wheat, kale and winter peas – the latter of which is good for adding nitrogen. But cover-crop performance is dependent on weather and time of planting. He said he’s seen significant differences between years.
After about mid-November he moves cattle to graze in fields that had been planted to corn. The cattle graze corn stalks; their manure supplies nitrogen to the soil. Row crops the following spring benefit from that nitrogen.
Schoepp grazes cattle in long narrow paddocks surrounded by portable fencing. Before moving cattle he ensures they’re standing up, and urinating and defecating so they don’t do that in the new paddock. The process is key because it spreads out nutrients, he said.
The “mob” grazes the paddock and then the moving process begins again. Each paddock is allowed 60 days to regenerate, although cattle could probably be grazed there again in 45 to 50 days, Schoepp said. He has about 125 acres available for grazing but some of that land is used for producing hay.
Animal manure provides enough nutrients for cover crops so Schoepp doesn’t need to apply purchased fertilizer. He moves fencing twice each day so cattle can walk to watering tanks, but they also find a great deal of moisture in the thick stand of cover crops.
Schoepp is planning to experiment with interseeding oats between corn rows at the same time the corn is planted, he said. He wants to see whether oats would have enough time to grow and go to seed. The oats could provide more biomass for grazing after corn is harvested.
Conservation Day attendees saw a reduced-disturbance manure-injector demonstration courtesy of Mike Benish and his son, Joe Benish. The two milk about 400 cows on their Lodi-area farm. They made the decision to purchase the manure injector after seeing how heavy rains in 2019 affected top spreading. Now they inject manure into the soil at a depth of 4 to 6 inches. There’s less odor and little down pressure so there’s little soil disturbance, Joe Benish said.
Rick Clark from Warren County, Indiana, told attendees he’s transitioned from using chemical inputs to using regenerative practices such as no-till, planting cover crops and implementing a seven-crop rotation. That involves corn, soybeans, wheat, alfalfa, peas and milo. The seventh “crop” is cattle. Of the 7,000 acres he farms, 4,200 acres are in certified-organic production. The remainder of the land is in transition to becoming certified-organic.
Clark has been farming for 37 years. He’s been no-tilling soybeans for 17 years and began no-tilling corn 12 years ago. He also began planting cover crops 12 years ago. Wheat or milo following a cereal crop is essential to his system, he said. He uses a warm-season cover-crop mixture of 16 species that he can chop for forage and feed to cattle. He plants corn or soybeans into living cover crops. Termination of the cover crops may not occur for as many as 30 days after planting, but he generally terminates them with a roller-crimper within five days. The system could be implemented in Wisconsin if cool-season cover crops are established early enough in the fall.
He plants soybeans before corn; he doesn’t plant corn until after Mother’s Day.
“You need to let legume packages grow, fix nitrogen and build biomass,” he said.
The use of cover crops, he said, limits evaporation and maintains moisture in the soil. That’s especially important when one is facing drought conditions. Cover crops also help suppress weeds while the crop begins to develop a canopy, further suppressing weeds. Clark has narrowed his row spacing to 20 inches for both corn and soybeans.
He’s planting as well as harvesting some crops together. Farmers might consider harvesting together corn and faba beans, for example; faba beans could provide another protein source for animals, he said.
“Or you could plant soybeans with peas and harvest them together, increasing protein by 2 percent to 4 percent,” he said.
In fall 2020 he planted winter wheat followed by winter-hardy peas. At the end of May this year he no-tilled soybeans into those crops, he said. He’ll then harvest together wheat and peas, doubling crops to improve nutrient density.