Working alongside Mother Nature

Managing cover crops in harsh conditions proves to be a learning experience

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WISCONSIN DELLS, Wis. — With the exceptionally dry season that the Midwest experienced in the 2023 growing season, producers are looking at data to determine what worked and what they need to improve for 2024.

Producers and industry professionals gathered Dec. 7-8, 2023, at the Kalahari Resort in Wisconsin Dells for the Wisconsin Water and Soil Health Conference, which was a combination of the Wisconsin Cover Crop Conference and the Discovery Farms Conference. A farmer panel Dec. 7 included Brad Clark from Clarkview Farms near Prairie du Chien, Brent Petersen from the Brown County Wisconsin Land and Water Conservation and Andy Bensend of Dallas.

Bensend farms 4,000 acres in northwest Wisconsin and said that cover crops were a natural progression from no-till farming. He uses a predominantly corn and soybean rotation on most of his acres. He has utilized a variety of cover crops including cereal rye, winter wheat, clovers and several varieties of brassicas.

While planting conditions were nearly normal for Bensend, rainfall ceased by the middle of May 2023. The first significant rainfall thereafter did not come until October. Without that rain, Bensend was convinced his crop would be poor.

“When we got to the end of the season and we did our harvest and looked at our yields, it was nothing short of miraculous that we raised the crop that we raised on how little water we had to use,” Bensend said. “It was just incredible.”

Bensend said he was creative with how he managed the crops in the extreme conditions. One of his fields was not planted with soybeans until June 30, which was much later than his typical planting date. He had used rye as a cover crop and decided to roller crimp it down when planting the soybeans to see if he could achieve broad leaf weed control without herbicides. He was successful.

“We live in an area where we struggle with giant ragweed, and that field was clean,” Bensend said. “To me, that’s proof of concept.”

Bensend said it was beneficial to increase the planting population when putting seed in the ground so late.

Clark said that timing is critical when dealing with extreme weather conditions. In one case, he terminated the rye before manure was applied in pre-emptive measure, in case it did rain after the manure was applied.

“In extreme conditions, if Mother Nature came in after the manure was applied, that rye would explode,” Clark said. “It would be hard to terminate.”

Because of the dry conditions, Clark also discovered that the residual herbicide did not work on the main crop. Instead, it was tied up in the cover crop. For this year, he said that, depending on the type of spring he has, he may not use residual herbicide at all and will instead terminate with the cover crop.

Peterson agreed that timing will be even more critical going into 2024.

“We’re going to be shorter on moisture next year than we were this year,” Peterson said. “We really pulled a lot from deep down this year. It’s going to be pretty important to pay attention this spring to the weather, of course, but also the timing of getting rid of that cover crop early might be beneficial this year. I don’t have a crystal ball, but we really have to be paying attention to that.”

For Bensend, the one exception to terminating cover crops early is when he plants clover because it is planted with the intent to increase nitrogen. He tends to let clover grow as long as possible with the understanding that it is drawing moisture and he is risking a penalty in yield.

Peterson said that when encouraging farmers to start experimenting with cover crops, he tries to get them to try a little bit at a time and hold themselves accountable so they can see the results. Once they see the benefits of added nutrients and water retention, they tend to want to plant more cover crops.

Bensend agreed.

“It takes a change in the way you think in order to realize what’s happening,” Bensend said. “That’s the beauty of what we’re doing. If you’re willing to learn from what you do, you will have no alternative but to continue to practice and find more things that are going to be hugely beneficial.”

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