Stapels immerse in world of cover crops, no till, interseeding
Early-season liquid nitrogen is applied March 15 on frozen ground to feed the rye crop to boost forage yield and quality. PHOTO SUBMITTED
CEDAR GROVE, Wis. – Brody and Jory Stapel made a bold move this spring when they sold their tillage equipment. After no tilling 1,000 acres last year, the brothers were ready to leave tillage behind and commit to a new way of farming the land.
For the past five years, the Stapels have dabbled in cropping techniques. Through the use of cover crops, interseeding and no till, they braved new terrain and came out on the other side with greener land, better cow health, higher components and greater profits.
“The goal is to have the ground covered year-round,” Brody Stapel said. “We always want to have something alive in the soil.”
The Stapels abandoned tilling in favor of greener fields and healthier soil. They removed the temptation to till and invested in no-till planters, including a new corn planter as well as an interseeder.
“The ground is softer, and there’s more soil structure when planting into green,” Stapel said. “Green fields also put carbon back into the soil. I cringe when I see dust clouds in spring and fall from people working up the fields. We’re disrupting the biology and microorganisms in the soil when we dig it up. Topsoil leaves the field when you plow. Instead, we’re trying to build that most productive layer of dirt here. We want to keep it intact.”
The Stapels have gone beyond growing traditional crops like corn and alfalfa and are experimenting with forage types that are proving beneficial for the cows and the land.
“Corn silage and alfalfa are not the answer for us anymore,” Stapel said. “A monoculture system is not working. We want soil diversity. We’re trying to get as many different forages in the ration as possible. If we can grow more feed on the farm, it reduces our purchase feed costs and improves herd health. Those are our two goals.”
Milking 260 cows and farming 1,000 acres near Cedar Grove, the Stapels started Double Dutch Dairy in 2012. They chose the name for two reasons: They live in the town of Holland, and their grandparents immigrated from Holland in 1950. The brothers also rent the farm where they grew up in Howards Grove from their father, Rudy. The Stapels raise 75 beef cattle for private sale, and the home farm now serves as the family’s beef operation. The Stapels also do custom planting, harvesting and baling and raise cash crops.
“My dad is retired, but he still helps us a lot,” said Stapel, who is also president of Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative. “This is a team effort, and we have a really good team here.”
Stapel and his wife, Carolyn, have five kids – Clayton, 11, Gavin, 9, Mallory, 8, Megan, 6, and Tierza, 17 months. The desire to raise his family on a farm was a key motivation for buying the dairy.
The Stapels are down to growing 50 acres of alfalfa this year after replacing most of their alfalfa crop last year with a cocktail mix that includes BMR sorghum sudan, Italian rye grass, clover mix and vetch. The mix is planted around June 1 after the rye or triticale crop is harvested and provides three cuts – one on July 15, another the third week in August and the last at the end of September.
“It’s both a cover crop and a forage and works well in our corn rotation,” Stapel said. “Instead of tying up land for three or four years with alfalfa and then growing corn for three or four years, we flip flop crops every other year. Crop rotation is a big thing for us as we’ve focused on soil health the last few years.”
Stapel said the beauty of the cocktail mix is its tolerance to manure between cuttings.
“We do more applications of manure with fewer gallons so the soil can handle the nutrient load,” he said. “We only put manure on ground that has something living on it, especially in the fall. Rye is 6 inches when we apply manure. Cover crops take up and hold the nutrients, preventing manure runoff and leaching.”
The Stapels are trying many ideas to see what works best.
“We have a lot of experiments going on,” Stapel said. “We’re doing a one-cut sorghum that’s 10 to 12 feet tall, which provides corn silage without the starch. We’re also doing a 10-way mix that we grow alongside our corn silage crop. It’s like growing soup in the field. We throw everything in the mix, and it helps with the diversity of our ration.”
By planting 10 seeds, Stapel said they have a better chance that something will grow. Acting as a perennial cover crop, the mix is always alive, and they can continue growing crops into it.
The mix includes three clovers, vetch and buckwheat, and is planted between corn rows with an interseeder.
“As we continue feeding more diverse feeds, our herd health is more spectacular than ever,” Stapel said. “For a Holstein herd, our components are high – higher than many crossbreed herds, according to our nutritionist. We ship to a cheese plant, so we want good components. But we’ve still maintained production.”
After harvesting soybeans in the fall of 2019, the Stapels frost-seeded oats, rye, wheat and clover the following March. They then planted corn in May when the crop was 6 inches tall. The Stapels are working with an agronomist to figure out how to set cover crops back without killing them. After taking corn silage off last year, the Stapels planted rye and triticale which they are now chopping. They will then put that field back to corn or a cocktail mix. Stapel said their strategy creates a busy time currently as they make all of their rye and plant corn simultaneously while also trying to spread manure.
“A lot of people said the things we’re doing won’t work here,” Stapel said. “I think it works everywhere if you’re willing to modify it to your farm. The words, ‘That won’t work,’ should not be in the vocabulary of a farmer.”
Without the need to level fields, the Stapels enjoyed a calmer spring this year.
“I think the way we’re doing things now is easier,” Stapel said. “We might give up some yield, but I can afford to. It’s not about yield, it’s about profitability. Soil health has to go hand in hand with keeping money in the farmer’s pocket. We’re saving time and fuel, and wear and tear on equipment, which saves us money.”
The Stapels are part of the Sheboygan River Progressive Farmers watershed group and will be hosting a Field Day in August to share their ideas with others.
“We’re willing and able to take risks,” Stapel said. “In a couple years, we’d like to reduce and possibly eliminate the use of commercial fertilizers and herbicides on our farm. I know that’s a tall order, but it’s being done on farms throughout the nation and is one of our goals. We’re branching away from conventional ag, and it’s a journey that requires patience and persistence.”