Justin Morris, of NRCS, compares the water runoff from the no-till sample (left) and the conventional tillage sample during a Farmers of Barron County Watershed field day July 14 hosted at Glen and Sue Wohlk’s farm near Almena, Wis.PHOTO BY BRITTANY OLSON
Justin Morris, of NRCS, compares the water runoff from the no-till sample (left) and the conventional tillage sample during a Farmers of Barron County Watershed field day July 14 hosted at Glen and Sue Wohlk’s farm near Almena, Wis.
ALMENA, Wis. - With the Hay River and two small creeks running through their farm north of Almena, Wis., the Wohlk family always has water quality in the back of their mind as they grow crops and care for their 55 milking cows.
Glen and Sue Wohlk, with their son, Clayton, hosted a field day on their farm July 14 with the Farmers of the Barron County Watersheds (FBCW) group for farmers and agriculture professionals to showcase how they have been able to use no-till to grow quality crops, particularly alfalfa where no-till can be more challenging.
Clayton began the field day by explaining the benefits they have seen on their farm from using no-till practices.
"I grew up with no-till. My dad did the research, and I was 12 years old in 2000 when we got our six-row no-till corn planter," Clayton said.
In addition to no longer needing to pick rock every spring, the Wohlks have also improved planting efficiency and sharply reduced fuel costs from only making one pass over each field.
"We're using less than one gallon per acre of fuel during planting," Clayton said. "Our fields are smoother, and there's less time spent waiting after a rain event to get in the fields to spray and apply fertilizer."
Glen said no-till has also enhanced yield consistency despite variable weather conditions from one field to the next.
"I know that no matter what the weather is, and this is hybrid dependent, too, that we'll get 160-170 bushels to the acre for grain corn with an 84- to 86-day hybrid," Glen said.
The Wohlks' crop rotation begins with five years of alfalfa before killing it off in the fall of the fifth year to ensure a better kill and more residue, then planting a cover crop over winter.
"Then, we test the soil in the spring and apply lime," Clayton said.
After the cover crop is sprayed off, the field then goes into grain corn, then soybeans, and then silage corn. After silage is chopped off, winter rye is no till drilled for harvest in the spring for heifer feed. When the rye is harvested, alfalfa is no till drilled in, and whatever emergence from the rye is sprayed out a couple of weeks after planting.
"Silage corn is a little easier to work with for cover crops than grain corn because it's taken off earlier," Clayton said.
In short, the Wohlks do not want to disturb the soil while growing crops to make feed for their cattle.
"Ruts are caused by driving on fields when they aren't supposed to be driven on," Clayton said. "We never, ever want to disturb the soil."
Justin Morris, regional soil health specialist for NRCS, was also on hand to talk about water quality and soil health with a rainfall simulator.
"I believe we make our own droughts and floods, and what we do to the land affects the water and carbon cycles," Morris said.
Everson said that, contrary to what some may believe about soil, it is alive and it needs plants to function.
"There is an entire universe of organisms in the soil," Morris said. "They get their energy through carbohydrates in the plant roots, and soil life depends on green, growing plants that serve as millions of biological solar panels."
Before turning to the rainfall simulator, which would imitate a historic rain event with 1 inch of rain in four minutes, Everson explained the four pans of soil that would be treated with the simulator: a sample from one of the Wohlks' fields, a field with bare ground, a continuously grazed pasture, and a carefully managed and rotated pasture with tall grass.
The simulator had two jars for each sample: one would collect water that would run off the soil surface, and the other would retain water that would soak into the soil.
After the simulator had ran, the jars were analyzed. The sample with the greatest amount of soil loss came from the field that had been laid bare, while the no-till field had very minimal water runoff and soil loss. The sample with the least amount of soil loss came from the managed pasture.
"Grass has a tremendous healing effect on soil," Morris said. "Nature doesn't like to farm naked."
With that thought in mind, cover crops were also a hot topic at the field day. Andy Bensend, a crop farmer from Dallas, Wis., who also uses no-till, agreed that silage corn was easier to work with for planting fall cover crops due to an earlier harvest date.
"Winter wheat is a good cover crop, but it isn't as hardy as rye," Bensend said.
Bensend also spoke about air seeder that the watershed group is experimenting with to establish cover crops in standing row crops before shading occurs, finding varieties that can handle shade until the leaves drop in late summer and early fall.
Tim Jergenson, UW-Extension agriculture agent for Barron County, and Craig Hamernik, from FBCW, spoke about some of the pests they have seen in cover crops, particularly rye.
"Slugs have been spotted in rye," Hamernik said. "They don't seem to like barley as much for some reason, though."
Jergenson said army worms have been spotted this year, as well.
"Scout your fields regularly and work with your agronomist or crop advisor to develop a plan just in case you see them," Jergenson said.
Colin Schild, of Cameron, Wis., was also present to talk about waterway construction. Schild, who constructs waterways for farmers across northwestern Wisconsin, echoed Everson's sentiments about not leaving ground bare.
"Waterways are a little more necessary up here compared to locations further south because the soil isn't as strong," Schild said.
All in all, attendees came away with greater knowledge of farming with continuous no-till knowing that productivity and profitability are not always mutually exclusive from caring for the environment.