By Matt Reese
While most farmers were toying with tillage innovations, Dave Brandt was focused on no-till on his Fairfield County farm. As more farmers focused on reducing tillage, Brandt worked with cover crop experiments. And, now that cover crops are on the radar of more
farmers for the soil health, conservation and yield benefits, Brandt again finds himself well ahead of the curve on his 1,100-acre farm.
He has been planting cover crops (other than wheat) since the late 1970s, but he remains as excited as ever about keeping beneficial crops on his farm ground outside of the confines of the normal Ohio growing season. In his farm office, Brandt scrolls through photos on his computer with the zeal of a man just starting the learning curve of cover crops.
“Look at that, isn’t that pretty?” Brandt said of a photo of a field filled with crimson clover on a farm off farm near a lake. “This farmer plants that clover cover crop for zero erosion into the lake.”
Then Brandt pulls up a photo of a pristine stand of buckwheat and grins.
“Can you believe this? Look how nice that is,” he said.
Brandt has travelled the country gathering photos, learning and spreading his own cover crop gospel to farmers interested in learning from his successes and failures over the years. Brandt has had plenty of cover crop success to share.
“I am just trying to learn and share the good and bad with cover crops,” he said. “We have not seen the changes in the soil come very quickly with just no-till corn and soybeans. When we add the cover crops, we start to see better water infiltration and better soil health. And, when we add cover crops, we do not see the yield drag that we often see with a switch to no-till.”
The benefits of the long-term work with cover crops and no-till on the farm are showing up very clearly in the mid-July fields during this very dry growing season.
“We are retaining more moisture in the soil and our plants are surviving the heat better. So far we don’t have much firing on the corn,” Brandt said. “Some fields have only gotten around two inches since early May and our corn just started rolling in mid-July. Neighboring fields have been rolling since early June. When we pull back the residue, we have a quarter inch of very dry soil then a color change and some moisture. We still don’t have enough moisture, but there is enough to keep the plants alive.”
Wheat, of course, is an important cover crop on the farm. It accounts for roughly 25% of Brandt’s acres each year and is essential for his success with the other cover crops.
“First, wheat works for us because we like the summer check,” he said. “It stretches out the rotation and it gives us more time to plant cover crops.”
By getting an early jump on cover crop planting after wheat, Brandt is able to derive more benefits. In the past couple of growing seasons, Brandt has been able to cut his nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium application rates in half. In 2011, with 80 pounds of nitrogen, Brandt’s corn averaged 197 bushels per acre.
Around 80% of Brandt’s corn acres are planted after a cover crop of alternating rows of radishes and winter peas. Both cover crops are killed off in winter. In addition to the fertilizer value, the radishes effectively break up soil compaction, the living plant roots encourage increased soil microbial activity and the soil organic matter increases.
The cover crops are planted following wheat harvest in late July or early August with a White Air Planter. The peas are planted at 15 pounds per acre and the radishes are planted at 1.25 pounds per acre. They need at least four weeks of growing time before a killing frost.
“It is $17.42 per acre in seed costs, which does not include my time or the planting costs, and we recoup $126.70 in fertilizer value per acre based on soil tests and current fertilizer costs,” Brandt said.
Brandt plants nearly all of his soybeans into cereal rye that was planted the previous fall in late October or early November. He has successfully gotten stands of rye established when planting as late a Nov. 25. Brandt’s rye seeding rates are 30 to 50 pounds per acre, with the higher rates being planted for the later dates.
The following spring, Brandt plants right into the living rye.
“If it is heading or starting to head, and you plant right into it, it will die when you run over it. If it is not heading, you will have to burn it down,” he said. “The rye does not work well before corn because they are both grasses.”
The rye leaves a thick mat around the beans that holds in moisture and suppresses weeds. It has also helped reduce pest and disease problems.
“When you have healthy soils, you do not have to worry about controlling as many problems,” he said. “We have less sudden death syndrome and less white mold in our beans and less northern corn leaf blight in our corn.”
Brandt said that farmers interested in trying cover crops might want to try cereal rye before soybeans due to its ease of implementation system.
“Just pick a field or two and give it a try,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to try. Cover crops seem to respond better to no-till, especially long term no-till.”