Jeff farms 450 acres of a mixture of rented and owned land in Dodge County Wisconsin. He rents land on the farm he grew up on from his parents, who have owned the property for about 40 years now and lives on some land a few miles away that he purchased 24 years ago. He grows corn, soy, and winter wheat in addition to running a cow/calf operation with a herd of Simmental beef cows.
Jeff has been using cover crops for almost 15 years now. “I was looking for ways to potentially reduce my input costs, and it seemed like an easy way to do that. We started interseeding clovers into the winter wheat, and it was an easy way to get some additional nitrogen.” He now does some winter rye after soy and in corn stubble broadcasts clover seed in the spring on an ATV with a broadcast spreader. Jeff has been no-tilling on his land for about 20 years, deciding to add covers shorty after. “Scary might be the best word for it!” as he described first getting started. “It was added risk, but after talking to enough people and seeing it enough times, I was far less worried about potential problems with it. I wouldn’t say it’s become mainstream, but it’s getting close.”
This year, he’s going to try interseeding into corn and broadcasting while sidedressing nitrogen into the soil. “Our strip till machine is designed to do strip till and sidedress nitrogen, and now we’re working on also having it plant our cover crops at the same time. So we can use one machine for three different applications in the field.” Nitrogen availability has been a particular issue he’s been interested in since working with covers. By using clover and winter wheat, he’s able to get some additional nitrogen credits – a move that’s saved him a bit of money so far. “Right now I’d say it’s probably revenue neutral, except for the clover. With the clover and the winter wheat, we definitely see a nitrogen credit and I can reduce my nitrogen use on the corn that gets planted after the clover.” He’s also observed other soil health and practical benefits on his land since converting. “We’ve seen our organic matter increase, but also with having the additional cow/calf operation, we get additional forage. So we can graze our cattle on the clover after we harvest our winter wheat.” Jeff also made note of how covers have helped him meet his Nutrient Management Plan (NMP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) requirements. “We have some hillsides that we farm, and by having the cover crops on there or having no-till or strip till, we’re certainly able to meet those requirements for that.” As he looks forward to another season, he’s excited to observe the benefits of the rye after soy and interseeded corn he’s just started this past year or two. “This is going to be the first year we’re trying to apply some seeds by interseeding and we’re going the cheapest route possible by broadcast. We’re not sure if that’s going to work or not, but we’re going to give it a try to try and get our feet wet.”
Word of mouth and talking to other people at conferences and events has been one of Jeff’s greatest resources. “Things like that. What’ve other people done, what’s failed, what’s worked – mostly it’s that.” Resources from organizations like UW Extension help give hime a little background information on topics like herbicide carryover and planning, but talking with other farmers is what he enjoys most.
“Make sure you have a plan in place. Make sure you know what you’re seeding, when you’re seeding it, why you’re seeding it, and how you’re going to terminate it before you get going. Sometimes it happens quickly that you have to react in a hurry, so you want to know what you’re going to do before you have to do it. I’d also say start out small. Try one field, two fields, get your feet wet that way. Because there are some time requirements involved with it, and you have to be concerned with herbicide carryover and things like that. Instead of trying to manage that on 1,000 acres, it’s easier to manage that on 20 acres.” He encourages farmers new to cover crops not to be afraid of trying it, “Give it a try, it’s not going to ruin you by trying it. There’re people out there with negative thoughts about it, and they try it once and it doesn’t do exactly what they thought, and they consider it a failure when we don’t know if it’s a failure yet – it takes some time.”