Cody Nelson's cattle

Cody Nelson snapped this photo of Bar N Cattle Company cattle grazing grasses in the Minnesota River bottom.

Road conditions on U.S. Route 212 weren’t the best on Feb. 4 as Cody Nelson drove his pickup east from Bar N Cattle Company near Belview. After dangerously cold temperatures in late January, and then snow and rain, the highway was completely covered with ice across Renville and McLeod counties.

If Cody were to have his way, he’d have been driving west on the same road – across South Dakota and into Montana – to big sky country. A cowboy with Minnesota roots, he couldn’t help but pine for the grand sunsets and openness of the west.

This day, Feb. 4, though, Cody was traveling on east to the Twin Cities beltway and on to Southeast Wisconsin. He was meeting with some cover crop enthusiasts in Sullivan, Wis., about 400 miles from the Nelson farm. He was going to be talking about incorporating cover crops into farm production, on Feb. 5, with a soil health group.

“They’ve been researching cover crops – all of them are starting to implement cover crops and reduce tillage practices, or in a lot of cases starting to do no till,” he said. The group received some grant money to bring in experts to present educational seminars. Cody was asked to speak on no-till and cover crop practices as well as managing weeds and reducing pests through soil health principles.

As he drove, there were signs that spring was approaching – there were now 10 hours between sunrise and sunset. Eagle pairs were sitting in their nests.

In his business, Soil RX, Cody worked with producers and also figured his own plantings.

“We’re going to be doing some no-till oats, and we’re probably going to be mixing in some clovers with that,” he said. “Oats look more profitable right now than corn, so we’ve doing a lot of projections on that – looking at oats, wheat and other small grains and how we can get them incorporated and start diversifying some of these rotations.”

For corn producers, Cody is helping them learn more about 44- or 60-inch row spacings. It involves turning off every other row on a 22- or 30-inch corn planter.

“The livestock producers are really looking at the wider row spacings so they can produce a lot more cover crop between the row,” he said. “We’ve been researching the wider row, and it seems to be working really good. With a few tweaks to the system, we can actually maintain our yields.”

The concept behind the wide row is maximizing the sunlight that hits every inch of the corn plant down to the covered soil. Populations for narrow or wide rows are kept the same, he said.

A cover crop is seeded on the surface between the rows. He suggests that the practice results in less disease pressure. The cover crop serves as a green barrier between the corn and the soil. If there are heavy rains, the soil particles stay in place with cover crops to keep the corn plant free of soil-borne funguses.

Cover crop biomass is increased 10-fold with the wide rows vs. traditional row spacing in corn. The cover crops would likely include winter cereal rye and annual rye grass ahead of a rotation to soybeans the next growing season. Cowpeas, hairy vetch or clovers might also be included in the mix.

Last year, a couple of farmers tried this concept on 5-10-acre strips. This year, several farms will be trying the wide rows over a few hundred acres, he said.

“There’s going to be lots of demonstration sites,” he said.

Back at the farm, the cattle made it through very cold temperatures in late January. They ate more – what would normally last seven days lasted only five days – so Cody had to start up the tractor as temperatures began to rise and feed more big round bales.

The actual temperature in the Minnesota River Valley dipped to minus 46 one night, and it was worse on the humans than on the cattle.

On Jan. 31, the Nelsons woke up at 3:30 a.m. to a house temperature of 52 degrees. There was no electricity, but the linemen had been working on the problem since shortly after midnight.

“They had it fixed by 4:30 a.m.,” Cody said. “I can’t imagine being a powerline worker in that cold. I felt terrible for those guys, but we’re very thankful for them.”