WISCONSIN DELLS, Wis. – Farmers devoted to developing consistently healthier land discussed their cover crop, no till and interseeding systems while highlighting the equipment they use to get the job done.
In a session entitled, “Buying new or making do?” at the 2022 Winter Wisconsin Cover Crop Conference Dec. 13 in Wisconsin Dells, panelists Peter Graff, Zack Voss, Brooke Stewart, Monte Bottens, Aaron Augustian and Chris Conley highlighted their successes while recognizing their failures in implementing cover crops.
Voss farms 1,500 acres of corn, wheat and soybeans near Mauston. He and his dad started with cover crops on their soybean ground using a dry box spreader and vertical tilling rye on 40 acres.
“The next year, we doubled our soybean yields on that field,” Voss said. “We’ve seen many soil health benefits as it’s taken a lot of compaction out of our fields. The financials are there too; it pays for itself. Our farm-wide averages are the best they’ve been since we started using cover crops.”
Voss wanted to go bigger and now tries to put cover crops on everything.
“We like doing cover crops, but the two-pass system wasn’t working for us,” he said. “It was too slow. We wanted a one-pass system that could handle multiple species easily.”
Voss purchased a granular air applicator/seeder for $25,000 a couple years ago. The seeder features adjustable spacing up to 90 feet and can be put in front of a wide range of implements. The new piece of equipment gave Voss the higher efficiency he was looking for.
“It’s super easy to calibrate and can do 25 acres per hour at 25 feet,” Voss said.
Tired of the amount of erosion on bare fields from mid-September to when corn canopied the following September, Graff, who milks 750 cows near Stetsonville, began interseeding in 2018.
“I have a roof over my head, my cows have a roof over their heads, my chopper sits in the shed, so why shouldn’t I cover the ground too?” Graff said. “It’s interesting to see how things have improved, and it’s nice to see my field green from side to side. I chose to interseed in corn silage specifically because we don’t have enough time in spring or fall to get anything established.”
Graff has gone through several phases in his interseeding endeavor. He started out using a Vortex spreader experimenting with clovers, which resulted in uneven emergence.
“I don’t know if we got clover to go 50 feet,” Graff said. “From 2018 to 2020, we were broadcasting stuff on. We had good catches and bad catches and we’re trying different mixes but not having success.”
Graff bought a grain drill with 10-inch spacings and took out every third row. He cut the rate back to 10 pounds per acre for clovers and rye grass, shooting for small seeds that gave him a lot of seeds per pound to keep his seeding rate and cost down.
“It worked really well, and I could cover all these fields going 6 to 7 mph at 20 feet,” Graff said. “It produced a beautiful stand, but I had to find something that could go faster and replicate this. The corn was already knee high, and we were getting behind way too quick.”
Graff switched to a Valmar air seeder, which he uses today.
“It has five discs with downforce just enough to tear up the soil,” Graff said. “I plant with a high-speed 12-row planter, so I figure I can cover my corn acres in a week with that.”
Bottens, of Cambridge, Illinois, is utilizing cover crops for the benefit of the five soil health principles and to aid in his goal of bringing livestock back to the land. He has been doing no till for about 25 years and cover crops for 10 years.
Bottens farms 2,800 acres which includes 300 acres of pasture and 2,500 acres of corn and soybeans. The Bottens have cover crops on every acre and are taking it to the next level by integrating livestock as much as possible to improve soil health.
“We love to plant green, especially soybeans,” Bottens said. “It works really well. I’ve done beans into wheat, harvested the wheat, came back to harvest the beans and had some pretty good success. I see it as a good organic no till transition tool.”
Bottens does a winter cover and summer cover back and forth for two years as part of regenerative grazing before going back to soybeans.
“In June, we were harvesting triticale and clover, and I’m really excited about this,” Bottens said. “We got 5.7 round bales at 1,740 pounds per acre at 52% moisture. It was absolutely incredible.”
Bottens’ seeder is set up to do skip-row seeding, and he plants his 30-inch corn and soybeans into the skip row.
Augustian milks 1,000 cows and farms 1,500 acres near Kewaunee. His close proximity to Lake Michigan served as motivation for doing cover crops.
“Some of our fields border the lake, and our No. 1 reason for planting cover crops was to protect water quality,” he said.
Interseeding is his planting method of choice because it enables him to spread out the farm’s workload. He has been interseeding for the last seven years.
“We get interseeding done on a third of the acres in June or July, and interseeding also helps with fall manure applications,” Augustian said.
Augustian used to spread seed on top with an air seeder but saw little success. In the years that followed, he mixed interseeding in with urea and spread it on top with a 12-row cultivator.
“That worked extremely well,” Augustian said. “The plants took off and grew great, but that cultivator put a lot of ridges in the fields.”
With going to no till, he wanted to limit the amount of soil disturbance. Therefore, Augustian rented a 6-row interseeder that covered 15 feet, which was not effective when trying to cover a couple hundred acres in a short window. Augustian decided to look for a 12-row interseeder but could not find what he was looking for. Thus, the Augustians took it upon themselves to design and build their own machine. The unit is set up for 120-inch rows and contains a multi-speed transmission.
“It works great,” Augustian said. “We can pound out 150 to 160 acres per day with no problem.”
Conley milks 52 cows on his 174-acre farm near Neosho. Approximately 120 acres are cropland, and 22 acres are permanent pastures for rotationally grazing milk cows and dry cows.  
Conley began experimenting with no till in 2017. In 2018, he went full no till and started experimenting with cover crops. By 2019, he was full into cover cropping, and the year after that, he was planting green.
“Our farm is really hilly which is one reason we decided to start no tilling and planting green,” Conley said. “I made the transition really fast. I wouldn’t suggest doing it that fast.”
Conley planted with an old conventional grain drill at first.
“It worked but not that great,” he said.
The next year, he borrowed a Yetter no till coulter bar from a neighbor to pull behind the drill.
“I spaced the no till coulters out to make it fit into the row on the disc,” Conley said. “It worked good on level ground but wouldn’t track right on the hills. Seed depth was too deep on level ground, and there were a lot of inconsistencies.”
Conley’s next move was to rent a drill from a neighbor, which was a significant improvement. Eventually, Conley wanted his own drill and purchased a 10-foot no-till drill. He also converted his John Deere 7000 corn planter to no till.
“Early adopters of no till started with this planter, so I figured I could too,” he said. “I found some used row cleaners, Keeton seed firmers, May-Wes poly spiked closing wheels, and added two 50-pound bags of sand in each row in the insecticide box for weight.”
Conley’s upgrades cost him around $1,300.
Stewart, an agronomist with Agridrone, uses drones for cover crop aerial seeding, herbicide application, spot spraying and seeding, and test plots. Her drone has a payload capacity of 30 liters, or 8 gallons, which equates to 50 pounds of seed or fertilizer.
She flies 10 feet above the crop canopy which gives her a 30-foot spray and spread pattern at a rate of 25 acres per hour. When doing cover crop aerial seeding, Stewart recommends using 8 to 15 pounds of seed per acre or more.
“Get seed out as soon as you can, and plan around a timely rainfall,” Stewart said. “Corn should be done at the V3 to V5 timeline. Soybeans can be seeded at leaf drop or sooner.”
For those new to cover cropping, the panelists offered the following tips.
“Get out and try it, but don’t go all in right away,” Stewart said. “Try a field and see how it turns out. If it doesn’t work, get back on your feet and do it again.”
Voss agreed.
“Start small, like on a 10-acre field,” he said. “If you go to big acres right away, you could have big problems.”
Bottens takes a different approach than Voss and Stewart.
“You need to go big enough to where you have skin in the game so that you’re paying attention to it,” he said. “Don’t do 5 acres on the back corner. Instead, do 40 acres on the highway.”
Conley could relate to Bottens.
“I did all my acres in one year; that makes you pay attention,” he said.
Graff said when working with corn, get in early when the ground is loose enough to get the seed in.
“Get seed out as early as you can, like June,” he said.  
Persistent in their cover crop journeys, these producers are experimenting with equipment and techniques that make the most sense for their operation and encourage fellow producers to do the same.
“We’re trying to help people start wherever they’re at,” Bottens said. “It’s amazing what’s possible with cover crops.”