Agronomist Kurt Dagle oversees 12,000 acres of cropland in South Dakota and western Minnesota for Olsen Custom Farms. It’s a lot of ground to farm, especially in a wet year when between late April and early June, crews were able to get in the field a total of 10 days.
Out of his 9,000 corn acres, only about 60 percent were planted this year. That prompted Dagle to revise plans and look instead to next season.
Crews from the Hendricks, Minnesota-based Olsen Custom Farms spend all summer on the road planting and harvesting from Oklahoma to Saskatchewan. Dagle focuses on managing crops closer to home. That also means managing water.
“Our biggest limiting factor is moisture balance,” he said, speaking June 18 at a field day put on by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Resource Service at its soil and water research farm in Brookings, South Dakota.
He turned to cover crops to help him balance moisture three years ago, and he’s already seeing the benefit, he said. Soil structure is improving to hold more moisture in the dry years, and in the wet years, cover crops like red clover and rye help use excess soil moisture.
He also uses cover crops to fix nitrogen. He plants legumes, which can be expensive, he said, but he calculates it into his fertilizer cost.
“Legume seed to me is nitrogen,” he said.
Next, he hopes to eliminate all commercial potassium and phosphorus applications by using manure from nearby feedlots.
Another goal of his is to cut back on the farm’s reliance on glyphosate to fight weeds. In their current program, a field sees glyphosate once every three years.
Weed control is the No. 1 issue producers will have to contend with on acres they were unable to plant due to wet conditions this spring, and one way to combat weeds while also reducing erosion and keeping soil microbes active is to plant cover crops.
“Microbes don’t take a day off,” Dagle said, stressing the importance of getting something growing on prevented planting acres.
Once it became apparent that fields wouldn’t get planted with the usual cash crop, Eric Barsness was on the phone nonstop fielding questions about caring for those acres. Barsness is a field agronomist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Brookings.
When deciding what should make up a cover crop seeding mix, Barsness said to consider your purpose for planting. If you want to control erosion, look for mixes that will give good cover. If you’re trying to build soil health, use a diverse mix of 10 or more species. For breaking up compaction, he suggests a cover with a deep tap root.
Some farmers are dealing with compacted ruts left by heavy equipment in the field. One remedy is tillage, but Barsness suggests staying as shallow as possible or perhaps making two passes with the cultivator instead. He also urges producers to seed cover crops the same day the spot is tilled before weeds take hold.
Drilling cover crop seeds is the best way to plant them, according to Barsness. It gives the most even coverage. Cover crop mixes can also be planted with an air seeder and mixed in with potassium and phosphorus. If broadcast seeding, Barsness advises growers to increase their seeding rates.
Covers should be planted around July 15 to 20, aiming for a frost to kill them off in the fall before they go to seed.
Federal cost share programs are available for cover crops and other soil health building efforts. The EQIP program provides up to $5,000 ($28.35 per acre) toward cover crops and up to $9,500 ($35.21 per acre) for forages. There are also programs for planting grass waterways and installing sediment control structures. Local NRCS offices can guide producers through the process from planning to planting.
Janelle Atyeo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.