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‘Low-disturbance' experiences shared

WISCONSIN DELLS, Wis. – Low-disturbance manure application provides many benefits, but what works for one farmer may not for another. Two dairy farmers from northeastern Wisconsin and a customer applicator recently talked about their experiences with low-disturbance manure application during a panel discussion at the University of Wisconsin-Discovery Farms Conference in Wisconsin Dells.

Aaron Augustian farms with his family at Augustian Farms near Kewaunee, Wisconsin. Farming near Lake Michigan, they look to minimize both soil disturbance and potential for runoff, Augustian said. They also want to experiment with new practices so in 2017 they joined the Door-Kewaunee Demonstration Farms Network,

In the past two years the family has planted 100 percent of their farmland to cover crops. They also use low-disturbance manure application on 100 percent of their ground.

“It has been working great as long as we don’t have another year like 2019,” Augustian said.

That year the area received more than 41 inches of rain. It was the wettest on record, according to the National Weather Service. The previous record was set in 1990 when the Kewaunee area received about 39.6 inches of rain. Heavy rains delayed both planting and harvest.

The Augustians establish cover crops in the fall, planting winter rye after harvesting corn silage. They also interseed cover crops into about 15 percent of their corn acres. They plan to increase interseeding to 40 percent to 45 percent of those acres in 2022.

“That will alleviate some of the pain of trying to plant rye at the same time we’re chopping corn silage in the fall,” he said.

Some of the family’s land is only about 50 yards from Lake Michigan. Cooler weather there helps establish grasses and clovers, he said.

The family raises about 100 acres of wheat and plants a multi-species cover-crop mix. When the cover crops are established the Augustians will make a low-disturbance application of 6,000 to 8,000 gallons of manure per acre. They apply no more than 10,000 gallons per acre, he said.

In the past they applied manure in one pass at 14,000 to 16,000 gallons per acre. Through participation in the Door-Kewaunee Demonstration Farms Network they’ve learned how to apply less manure per acre, yet still apply a necessary amount of nutrients.

“Low-disturbance manure application has fit into that equation very well,” Augustian said.

They now apply manure at a rate of 6,000 to 8,000 gallons per acre when cover crops are established at the end of August. They’ll apply the same rate again after corn silage is harvested and winter rye is planted. The rye may be just emerging or have already grown 3 to 4 inches by the time applicators arrive, he said. Manure will be applied again on the fields the following spring.

“We were lucky with good conditions last spring,” he said. “We were able to plant 100 percent of our farm green. We didn’t use any tillage tools; that’s the ultimate goal with low-disturbance manure application.”

He shared some successes and failures related to the manure-application equipment used. One machine couldn’t handle the solids content of the manure – 12 percent to 18 percent. Between that and sand from dairy bedding, the machine would become clogged. But Rite Way Manufacturing has an applicator with wavy coulters that has worked well, he said.

Jacob Brey of Brey Cycle Farm near Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, also is a member of the Door-Kewaunee Demonstration Farms Network. He farms with his brother Tony Brey. Together they milk about 700 cows, and raise their own young stock as well as beef cattle. They also custom-raise heifers. They don’t grow crops for grain – just forages for the cattle.

“After the past three years – thanks to low-disturbance manure injection and cover crops – we’ve moved to a double-crop system on all of our acres,” Jacob Brey said.

They grow sorghum-sudangrass in the summer for forage for the heifers. He plants winter triticale in September following the sorghum-sudangrass crop. Winter rye is planted after corn silage is harvested.

The Breys have leased a Bazooka toolbar from the Outagamie County Land Conservation Department. They try to access it in September while there are still good growing-degree units. They’ve applied manure at the rate of 9,000 gallons per acre on growing cover crops in the fall. The cover crops can then absorb nutrients during the winter and spring before they’re harvested for forage in the spring.

Triticale generally provides a better-quality feed for dairy cows, he said. The Breys feed it as a replacement for alfalfa; they feed winter rye to the heifers.

They’ll make another pass with the low-disturbance manure applicator before planting corn. In late May 2021 they applied 10,000 to 12,000 gallons of manure per acre. After that Brey made modifications to his planter to no-till-plant corn.

His goal for spring 2022 is to apply manure as soon as the cover crops are harvested. He needs to wait two or three days for manure to dry a bit, he said.

“You don’t want to wait too long though,” he said. “After triticale is harvested the ground can turn to ‘concrete’ fast.”

In 2021 there was a hot, dry period for three to four weeks. He encountered problems with not having enough down pressure on his planter to plant the corn on some of the headlands and parts of fields.

“Hopefully that was an anomaly and we’ll have more timely rains this spring,” he said.

The Breys still use the Bazooka toolbar but they’ve purchased a Dietrich toolbar for their manure tanker. They use the tanker to haul manure to fields further from the farm. The toolbar features wavy coulters and two discs that act as closing wheels.

Brey said the days of broadcasting manure have probably ended because of the visual image it creates in the public’s eyes.

Both Brey and Augustian communicate with the public about what they’re doing and why as it relates to manure application.

“We also don’t want to be losing nutrients in the atmosphere,” Brey said. “We want to inject manure into the ground a couple of inches to reduce runoff and put nutrients where plants need them.”

Given recent spikes in fertilizer prices, farmers need to be able to maximize every gallon of manure. It’s an asset for dairy farmers, he said.

“We’ll try to apply 8,000 to 10,000 gallons per acre on all of our acres to reduce our costs for phosphorus and potassium,” he said.

Jesse Dvorachek is a custom applicator. He also farms with his brother about 250 acres near Reedsville, Wisconsin. He said many farmers prefer more applications with lesser rates of manure per acre, but that’s not cost-effective for custom applicators and is more costly for growers.

“We’re less efficient when constantly moving from farm to farm,” he said.

There’s no perfect manure-application equipment with cover crops involved because of varying weather conditions and other factors, he said.

“There are so many things for farmers to decide,” he said.

Serving as moderator for the panel discussion was Barry Bubolz, a district conservationist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, and a field coordinator for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

Not every toolbar will fit every circumstance, Bubolz said. And environmental conditions are different every year so farmers need their toolbox “stacked.” That’s why a group such as the Door-Kewaunee Demonstration Farms Network is useful. Together farmers can learn what works, he said.

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.

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