November 10, 2022 at 4:29 p.m.
“We’ve been doing some no till for about 10 years, but in the last three to four years, we’ve really pushed toward getting as many acres as we can into no till and cover crops,” Chris Pollack said. “This year, we were really aggressive. Any ground we can get cover on, we’re trying to get something out there and are also working on harvestable buffers.”
Pollack-Vu Dairy and Steer Farm held a field day Oct. 12, inviting others to see the progress of their cover crops designed for grazing. Challenged with an inadequate amount of pasture for their expanding beef herd, the Pollacks planted a multi-species cover crop mix after canning peas and interseeded cover crops into corn with plans to use both fields for grazing cattle.
“This is the first year our cattle are going to get out on cover crops,” Pollack said. “By doing this, we can give our pasture a little break in the fall and again in the spring.”
Pollack farms with his parents, Larry and Deb, and his wife, Kelly, and their four children. The Pollacks milk 150 cows and farm 850 acres near Ripon growing corn, soybeans, wheat, alfalfa, peas and lima beans. This year, they also grew rye for cover crop seed. Three-fourths of the farm’s corn and over half of their soybeans were no till this year. Wheat was all no till, and new seeding alfalfa was also no till.
“Canning crops make it a challenge because they want stuff worked, so we try to put those on less erodible ground,” Pollack said.
The Pollacks also raise 60 beef steers, cows and calves. The family sells steers directly to the consumer in quarter and half carcasses.
“It’s fun to be on the retail side whereas milk is the wholesale side,” Pollack said. “But it also brings new opportunities and challenges with the surrounding land. This is why we’re trying to grow cover crops to put our beef cattle on. We’re looking to feed livestock without a lot of effort for as much of the year as we can.”
Rain fell persistently throughout the field day event hosted by the Upper Fox-Wolf Demonstration Farm Network, preventing those in attendance from getting into the fields.
As a result, Derrick Raspor, a resource conservationist at the Natural Resources Conservation Service, brought the field inside. He highlighted samples of each plant within the nine-species, warm-season cover crop mix which contains sorghum, two different millets, cow peas, sunflower, sun hemp, oats, collards and rapeseed.
“Overall, this is a really good grazing mix,” Raspor said. “We’re looking for plants that do different things, and this mix has that diversity component. The sunflower’s massive taproot breaks up the soil to prevent compaction, whereas millets and sudan grass have a lot of fine roots. Sun hemp doesn’t have much of a root system, but it’s in the legume family so it should offer some nitrogen fixation.”
The Pollacks planted peas in late May, which pushed cover crop planting back to early August.
“We planted peas later than we wanted to,” Pollack said. “I wish we could’ve planted the cover crop in the middle of July, then we probably would have had cattle on it for a month already.”
The multi-species cover crop mix was planted at a rate of 24 pounds per acre at a depth of one-half inch to three-quarter inch.
“It’s interesting to see what pushed through early on,” Pollack said. “For example, sunflowers and collards popped up real quick. There’s a lot of growth out there, including pockets that are waist high.”
Raspor said the Pollacks’ cover crop mix costs about $30 per acre.
“Feed is the biggest cost on a dairy, but you can try to reduce that by feeding cover crops,” he said.
The hope is to come back with cereal rye, which Raspor said is a good scavenger crop that captures excess nutrients. The rye cover crop would allow for a spring grazing prior to planting the next annual crop.
The Pollacks have received 2 inches of rain since planting the mix. To get more mass next year, Raspor said they might try to mix some rye in for quick growth along with other fast-growing crops like buckwheat, turnip, radish and clover.
A little more than 40 acres of cover crop was planted into the pea ground, and 30 acres of cover crops were also interseeded into corn in the field north of the peas. The interseeded sections will be used for grazing cattle as well once the corn is harvested. The farm planted four mixes into the corn. One was a mix of crimson clover, radish, rapeseed, flax, medium red clover, oat, rye grass and buckwheat. A second mix contained all of the aforementioned plus vetch, Japanese millet, cow peas and sunflower.
“Both mixes did well throughout the season, and there’s still a fair amount of green out there from the cover crop,” Pollack said. “Our interseeding was done earlier this year than in the past.”
The Pollacks fenced off a little over 80 acres, placing perimeter fencing on three sides and a temporary fence on the fourth side. The plan is to permanently fence in all four sides with steel post and high tensile wire. The Pollacks will divide the field into smaller paddocks to manage the cover crop more precisely and allow animals to rotationally graze.
“This ensures better utilization of cover crops and better manure distribution throughout the field,” Raspor said.
The pea field will be corn in its next rotation and interseeded with cover crops to graze after harvest, and the field to the north of it will be lima beans followed by another cover crop mix for grazing.
Raspor said it is a good practice to rest perennial pasture at this time of year to allow for a longer break in the fall.
“Recovery for grass takes longer,” he said. “The plant is putting a lot of energy into the root so it’s ready to go by spring. If we graze that plant too short, it has to use that stored energy for regrowth, and we will reduce pasture productivity. The cover crop mix Chris planted is made up of annuals, most of which will not overwinter. Annuals focus their energy on seed development, leaving less of a concern about overgrazing them.”
Raspor also ran a rainfall simulator during the event to demonstrate how rain affects four management types. The side-by-side comparison of similar silt loam soils included conventional tillage, unmanaged perennial cool season grass, no-till soybeans after harvest and Pollacks’ living cover crop mix.
After running about an inch of water that mimicked a steady rain, it was clear which management type suffered the most runoff as sediment collected in the jars beneath each sample tray. Conventional tillage had the highest amount of runoff, followed by the soybeans. Third was Pollacks’ cover crop while the perennial grass experienced zero runoff; its jar was empty. The simulator proved to be an eye-opening experiment illustrating the effectiveness of a cover crop in preventing runoff.
“A perennial soil holds its structure well,” Raspor said. “It has a lot of root mass and no runoff. This is what we’re trying to achieve. This type of system keeps our water bodies clean. It can be hard to build a system similar to perennials since we’re working with annuals. By using a combination of conservation practices, you can build a whole management system that focuses on soil principles that simulate a perennial system.”
In contrast, the bulk of nutrient and soil loss comes from tillage, and the first 80% of loss is a result of the first rain after tillage, according to Raspor. The conventional tillage in the simulator infiltrated no rainfall because it all ran off due to lack of soil structure and surface cover.
“Following soybeans with a cover crop throws resiliency into the system,” Raspor said. “Otherwise, you’re going to eventually end up with a bare field.”
Raspor said in spring, things start moving, and they take the soil with it.
“We’re trying to build a resilient system that can take a little punishment and bounce back,” Raspor said. “Through Chris’ cover crops, no till and grazing practices, he is working toward that type of system.”