Farmers share benefits of planting, harvsting "green"

12/24/2018
by Brooke Bechen originally written for The Country Today

WISCONSIN DELLS — Farmers that have adopted techniques to plant into growing cover crops, interseed into corn or soybeans and combine living covers and manure are often looked to as innovators, but three farmers on a panel at the UW Discovery Farms Conference in mid-December likely don’t see themselves as that — they’re farmers who tried something new, saw the benefits and decided to share their experiences.

Adam Lasch, owner and operator of Lasch Livestock and Land Solutions in Lake Geneva, is a first-generation farmer; his farm is home to beef, dairy, sheep and laying chickens, all of which benefit from the diverse crops grown there for animal feed.

“We have a very diverse crop rotation; we like diversity, the more, the better,” Lasch said. “And it has added some resiliency on our farm.”

The Lasches farm with the goal to not waste any sunlight and have something growing as many days as possible. They’ve incorporated several mixes of cover crops into their acreage and this year, they experimented with some test strips of interseeding in corn silage. Seeing success, Lasch aims to go heavier with interseeding this coming year, with plans to also skip-row corn to boost forage production.

“We do a lot of experimenting,” he said.

Lasch also practices 100 percent no-till, leaving residue on the ground to decompose and add to the soil. He said farmers interested in no-till or going green do not need a lot of “fancy” equipment; he has modified a piece of equipment he already owned to do the job on his farm.

His successes this year included harvesting a summer cover crop mix, which was used for baleage for his cows. Not only did Lasch see benefits in feeding the crop to his cattle, but he said he also noticed it in the milk check.

And while it may take a while to see the benefits, he recommended starting with rye as a cover crop and incorporating no-till practices. He also meets with a group of his peers once a month to share data and ideas and to learn from each other.

Tony Peirick, chairman of Dodge County Farmers for Healthy Soil – Healthy Water and partner in T&R Dairy LLC, Watertown, agreed with Lasch.

“It’s all about the education,” Peirick said. “We’ve got to get farmers to come to meetings like this and explain these practices to them.”

“It’s a process — no one has the answers yet,” he said. “We have to share ideas so we can all do a better job.”

The Peirick family milks 200 cows and farms 1,100 acres of soybeans and forages, as well as corn for grain and silage. In 1994, he started no-tilling on the farm and in 2005, started growing cover crops. By 2007, the family began no-till planting into those cover crops, and by 2010, had started “planting green.” Now, 80 percent of crops planted at the farm are planted green.

“It’s an interesting concept; many people say it can’t be done,” Peirick said. “But it does work.”

After harvesting soybeans, corn silage and grain, Peirick plants cereal rye. He’s also planted a five-way cover crop mix that includes oats, peas, radishes and two kinds of clover.

Using these practices has saved the family trips across the field, allowed for corn to be harvested sooner, increased water infiltration, increased earthworm activity and biological activity in the soil, and built up organic matter. The Peiricks have also seen reduced costs for inputs over the years, better weed suppression and white mold suppression in soybeans.

It took three to five years before the Peiricks began seeing results from their use of cover crops, but to the family, it is worth it. He recommended working with a crop consultant to select the best mix for cover crops and to remember there are always others out there who can help.

“It’s just amazing what you see year in and year out with the covers and no-till,” he said. “What I see is what I like.”

Derek Van De Hey, who farms with his father and two brothers at New Horizons Dairy in De Pere, has also seen success with cover crops and no-till. Van De Hey is a fourth-generation farmer, tending to 2,500 cropping acres, 950 milking cows and 850 youngstock. The family grows alfalfa, winter wheat, soybeans and corn, diversifying the crop rotations yearly.

In 2007, no-till and cover crops were added to the farm. Switching from conventional to no-till and adding cover crops has benefited the farm, especially when it comes to soil health.

“Soil health was something we’d never had on our soil type — red clay,” Van De Hey said.

But he has noticed worm castings and earthworm activity in his fields, as well as other indicators of healthy soil.

Manure spreading has also changed with the incorporation of cover crops, with half of the manure spread in the spring and the other half in the fall.

“It’s a lot less of a burden, especially with this year when it was so wet,” Van De Hey said.

He referred to the incorporation of these practices as his family’s “Million Dollar Plan.” In 2017, the family saved nearly $60,000 by utilizing no-till and cover crops; this year, the family aims to save almost $70,000.

“In less than 10 years, we feel we’ll save $1 million,” he said.

“I just had to do it once; it was eye-opening and a no-brainer.”