Lance Klessig (left), Winona County Soil and Water Conservation District resource specialist, and Robb Miller, an owner of Clear Crest Farm, kneel in one of the fields in June 2019 at Clear Crest Farm where soybeans were planted after triticale was harvested earlier in the spring that year.
Lance Klessig (left), Winona County Soil and Water Conservation District resource specialist, and Robb Miller, an owner of Clear Crest Farm, kneel in one of the fields in June 2019 at Clear Crest Farm where soybeans were planted after triticale was harvested earlier in the spring that year. PHOTO SUBMITTED

    LEWISTON, Minn. – A drive on Winona County backroads early in the spring will showcase a variety of fields with green growth from the many farmers using cover crops.
    “It’s definitely catching on,” Lance Klessig said about cover crop use in the county. “There’s been a strong increase in the amount of acres cover cropped, at least in the southeast corner of the state.”

    Klessig, resource specialist for Winona County Soil and Water Conservation District, created a self-guided spring cover crops tour for the county.
    “Traditionally, we do field days in person on the farm, but with some of the guidelines with COVID-19, we wanted to look for a different avenue,” Klessig said. “When you do a field day, it’s a one-time deal. The benefit of this tour is it’s over several months and you can go to it when it works for you so it’s got a lot of flexibility.”
    The tour has nine sites including two dairy farm stops: Daley Farms of Lewiston owned by the Daley family and Clear Crest Farm owned by the Miller family. Both are near Lewiston. About half of the tour participants are in the early years of their cover crop experience while the other half has been doing it for many years. Each stop on the map has a sign to mark the location along with the goal of the farm, the name of the farmer and a phone number to call with any questions about the field.
    “It’s a new approach to having farmers getting out to other farmers’ fields and learning first hand,” Klessig said. “Bring a friend and a shovel. Don’t just look at the cover crops from the truck. Get out, see the roots and assess things that way. Interview the tour hosts. Call the landowner to ask questions.”

Clear Crest Farm
    The Millers’ main goal for planting triticale on their dairy is for additional feed for their 700-cow herd. They have been double cropping for about 15 years. About 350 acres are set up for planting soybeans after triticale is harvested in the spring.  
    “Originally, we started planting triticale for erosion reduction and also to suck up any residual nitrogen that was maybe left over. This way it didn’t keep moving and leeching,” said Robb Miller, an owner of Clear Crest Farm.
    After seeing a neighboring beef farmer chop triticale for feed, the Millers and their nutritionist thought maybe the feed could be used for more than heifers. They began feeding it to the milking herd, eliminating the majority of straw purchased for the ration. The Millers saved on the cost of buying straw and the trucking costs; they also eliminated certain weeds they saw in their fields from weed seed in the straw.
    “Most of our straw was coming from Canada or Kansas and Nebraska,” Miller said. “We were starting to get southern weeds that were roundup resistant. That’s when we thought we should significantly reduce our straw and use triticale instead.”
    For the past nine years, the Millers have been using triticale in the ration instead of straw. The soybeans after triticale last year yielded 5 bushels less than fields without triticale; however, previous years the soybean yield was only 1 or 2 bushels per acre less than the other fields.
    “So, if we’re almost getting the same amount of revenue on the bean acres plus taking off 7-8 ton of triticale for feed, those end up being our more profitable acres,” Miller said.
    While the main goal of cover crops now is additional feed, the Millers benefit by reducing soil erosion. A heavy rainfall several weeks ago reaffirmed this benefit.
    “The field with the cover crops on, there was no erosion, and the fields where we couldn’t put cover crops on because we had to haul manure there is definitely erosion,” Miller said. “Anytime you’re shipping dirt down the ditch that’s equity lost. I’m leaning toward cover cropping as many acres as possible if not all of it if I possibly could.”

Daley Farms
    For the last 40 years, the Daley family has been using cover crops on their 1,500-cow dairy. Now 900 of the farm’s 1,900 corn acres have cover crops each year. The Daleys have used winter rye the last four years but have also used winter wheat, oats, succotash and triticale as cover crops in years prior. For this year’s cover crop tour field, the Daleys harvested corn silage from last year and then airflowed 75 pounds of rye before injecting manure, which helped work in the rye.
    “Winter rye comes up really good in the fall and comes up early after you plant it and it doesn’t get really tall in the fall,” said Ben Daley, a partner in his family’s dairy. “It overwinters like that so in the springtime you have a few decisions about how you want to terminate it. Last year, we were able to work it with the field cultivator and we were fine. This year, we thought it would get away from us and get too tall so we sprayed it. It’s vigorous and does really well over winter.”
    In the early years of using cover crops, the family used cover crops to prevent soil erosion.
     “That’s what my dad and uncle did, but now since we’ve learned over the years what cover crops can do, our main objective is to keep that manure we inject in the fall and the nitrogen up closer to the root zone,” Daley said.
    It has made a difference with soil health, said Daley.
    “The number of worms we have and the amount of roots we have in the ground is really good,” Daley said. “Our corn crops look really good.”
Daley said the biggest learning curve of growing cover crops is needing to have flexibility.
    “What you did in years past might not work this year,” he said.
He suggests farmers who want to try cover crops start slowly and have an open mind.
    “You don’t have to jump in and do 900 acres,” Daley said. “Do 80 acres or 40 acres or a hillside that has some susceptibility to runoff or erosion. Just do that and see and adapt. Sometimes you need different equipment or sometimes you need different management and just go from there.”