WITHEE — Richard Halopka said the improvements in soil health on his farm since implementing no-till practices get more noticeable every year.
Halopka, Clark County UW-Extension crops and soils educator, examined soil samples Oct. 23 taken on the Clark Turner farm, where the county is conducting cover crop research over the course of three years, pointing out differences in soils taken from tilled fields and from untilled areas.
“Our goal is to have soil that looks something like the consistency of cottage cheese that allows water and air to infiltrate,” Halopka said. “One thing I’ve noticed since I’ve switched to no-till, is water will sit in a tilled field for two, three days. In a no-till field, about 24 hours after it rains, you don’t notice it. It’s because of the infiltration.”
Clark County Conservationist Jim Arch said before converting his own acreage to no-till cover cropping three years ago, he was getting stuck trying to get soybeans off his fields during a wet fall.
“At around that time, I heard that no-tilling really makes the ground hold equipment better in a wet year,” Arch said. “This year, I barely put a cleat mark in with my combine. There’s more to it than just protecting the soil, which is really important.”
In an effort to get more farmers to participate in soil-saving practices, Clark County is conducting an on-farm demonstration providing information on interseeding of cover crops in corn and cover crops planted after corn silage harvest on Turner’s farm south of Withee.
“We’ve got a lot of soil erosion occurring in the county,” Arch said. “We have a lot of runoff ending up in our waterways and our soil health is being reduced by the erosion.”
Turner leased the county 20 acres for three years to do the cover crop project. The project is paid for through a grant from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and funding provided by several area watershed groups.
“We talked to farmers trying to promote no-tilling and cover cropping, and they said, ‘That’s great, but we’d like you to show us that it actually works here,’” Arch said.
The project, which started this year, includes four 4.5 acre plots of corn silage, one that will not have a cover crop to test against several cover-crop seeding techniques, including interseeding, drilling and broadcast seeding. Mostly rye and clover are being used for the cover crop, Arch said.
The test plot yielded 16 tons per acre of corn silage and the interseeded plot yielded about 16.2 tons per acre. The drilled and broadcast plots saw a drop off to 10.2 and 8 tons per acre, Arch said.
“It doesn’t look like much, but there’s probably a 2 foot-drop in the way the field lays,” Arch said. “You could really tell (the low-yielding) side was much wetter.”
“When we got that heat in September, (the wet plots) finally started coming around,” Turner said.
In 2020, the test will turn to soybeans, which will be no-tilled across all four plots. Any cover crops that last through the winter will be killed by spraying, crimper roller or at planting with a herbicide.
“I’m really interested in seeing how the crimper roller works,” Arch said. “What we’ll probably end up doing is green planting into it and then kill the rye in May.”
Amanda Kasparek from Clark County Land Conservation recommended additional steps farmers can take to improve soil health on their farms. Kasparek said all farmers should get soil testing done and establish a nutrient management plan for their farm.
“A nutrient management plan helps you be more efficient and economical on your farm,” Kasparek said. “We would love for everyone to have a nutrient management plan. It makes our job more easier when you can be more efficient and utilize your manure, fertilizer and your soil appropriately and it’s not going into the river.”
Halopka said soil testing is one of the most beneficial tools for farmers looking to establish a nutrient management plan.
“That soil sample is probably the best investment you can make to improve soil health on your farm,” Halopka said. “You establish a base of what is in the soil for nutrients.
“A nutrient management plan is a management tool that can be very beneficial when you make crop decisions.”
Halopka said the wet 2019 growing season has given farmers problems right from the start, with concerns lasting into the fall.
“Hopefully it stops raining for a period we can get some work done this fall,” Halopka said. “There’s a lot of corn to be harvested.
“The $500 million question is: What’s corn silage worth? There’s a lot of farmers concerned that it’s not going to dry down. If it’s black layered, you have to make a judgment call.”