Plant green, harvest green, spread green panel recap

Plant green, spread green, harvest green farmer panel recap

Derek Van De Hey runs New Horizons Dairy with his father and two brothers. The farm was founded near Wrightstown in 1899, and the family is working to ensure they have a flourishing farm to hand off to the next generation. Van De Heys milk 1,800 cows and crop 2,500 acres. Derek is a leading voice for no-till, cover crops and innovative manure applications in Northeast Wisconsin. New Horizons Dairy is a member of the Lower Fox Demonstration Farm Network, a group of farms dedicated to testing and spreading conservation farming practices.

Derek participates in the Discovery Farms tile drainage project, hosting two sites where tile drainage water from his farm is monitored.  Always willing to share his knowledge, Derek also hosted a Discovery Farms tour from Western Wisconsin this past summer. His latest contribution to Discovery Farms was as a panelist at the annual conference held this past December. The theme of the farmer panel was “plant green, harvest green, spread green”. Derek shared some particularly exciting ways that he spreads manure and plants in green, growing plants.

Van De Heys plant winter cereal cover crops immediately following harvest on nearly all their corn silage and soybean acres. The drill chases the combine or chopper, ensuring that the cover crops get as much time to grow as possible. After those covers are up and growing for a few weeks, Derek applies 6-8,000 gallons of manure either on the surface or with a low disturbance injector. The cover crop is minimally impacted by the application, and after several days it is difficult to tell that manure was applied.  Those growing covers capture many of the nutrients in the manure, protecting them from loss and storing them for next year’s crop.

Derek will harvest some of those cereal rye acres as heifer feed in spring, adding immediate value to the soil and nutrient holding benefits of the cover crops. He can haul spring manure onto the cover crop acres that were not harvested. The growing rye helps dry the soils and improves the soil structure, allowing manure equipment to access fields at a time most conventionally farmed fields would be too muddy to drive on.

Another innovative method Derek uses for getting manure onto growing crops is by spreading manure onto newly planted corn. Using a drag hose, Derek applies 6-8,000 gallons within 3 days of planting his corn. The additional moisture from the manure helps the corn germinate evenly, and the nutrients in the manure will become available when the corn needs them.  If manure had been spread prior to corn planting, he would have to wait two days or more before the field conditions would be right for planting. The priority is put on getting corn planted early, which is important for yield.

In addition to spreading manure onto green plants, Van De Heys also plant green into standing covers. Derek doesn’t spray the cereal rye cover crop until the day before they plant.  If it is killed earlier, the thick mat of dead vegetation keeps the ground from drying out enough to plant.  Planting green keeps the soil in planting condition.  Derek says the key to successfully planting green is that the ground be dry.  If the ground is dry, most any no-till planter and closing wheels will work.  His main planter modification is the addition of concrete weights on the ends of the planter to maintain down pressure for proper seed placement.

When it comes to cover crop mixes, Derek likes diversity, but only if it makes sense and is cost effective. He uses three different mixes, depending on his goals.  His most expensive mix is used on acres he harvests as forage, since he seeds that heavier for a decent yield. Even so, his seed cost is less than $15/acre. His other mixes cost less than $10/acre.  By planning mixes based on seeds per square foot instead of focusing solely on pounds per acre, Derek can plant a quality cover crop that builds soil and holds nutrients while keeping his costs very low.

Derek sees their new farming style as not only good for soil and water quality, but helping their bottom line. By moving from conventional tillage to no-till and cover crops, Van De Heys save about $40/acre on input costs. Derek expects the farm will save $1 million in expenses over the next 10 years because of their transition to no-till and covers.  As Derek says, “The less money you spend, the less money you have to make”.  Especially in this difficult farm economy, that is a sentiment we can all get behind. §