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Managing For Soil Health

Chippewa County Farmer Proves Value in Cover Crops

Steve Siverling, soil health farmer
Steve Siverling, Chippewa County, uses cover crops like cereal rye, shown here after corn silage to increase soil health on his farm.

Madison, Wis. − May 9, 2016 − Steve Siverling, a Chippewa County farmer located in Bloomer, Wis., is a serious advocate and success story for managing soil health and using cover crops to benefit his farm. He’s been working with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service since 2003 as an early adopter of the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, installing riparian and filter strip buffers along McCann Creek. He’s also a participant in the Conservation Stewardship Program, extending a field border for water quality and wildlife protection, leaving standing grain for wildlife, using drift reducing nozzles, establishing pollinator habitat and planting multiple cover crop mixes. Cover crops provide multiple benefits in a cropping system. They prevent erosion, improve soil’s physical and biological properties, supply nutrients, suppress weeds, improve the availability of soil water, and break pest cycles along with various other benefits. Steve is passionate about his work and wanted to share his successes directly with you, firsthand. NRCS is happy to help share stories, like Steve’s, to aid farmers in conservation efforts.

You cannot open a farm paper or magazine without seeing an article on cover crops. The NRCS is promoting cover crops and soil health also. After attending a cover crop meeting, asking for more farmer input/discussion, and watching a video discussion by Dr. Joel Gruver, Western Ill. University Ag Professor and studier of cover crops and benefits they have on the soil, one question keeps coming to mind; do cover crops pay off in dollars and cents?

I have been planting cereal rye as a cover crop for around twenty years on post-soybean and chopped corn silage ground. I’ve typically planted the cover crop around September 15, but as late as November 10 over the years. To describe my soil and farm, my farm is on the edge of a glacial wash. Of the 350 acres I farm, about 80 acres are in hay; the rest of the tillable land is split between corn, soybeans, and a few acres of small grains, primarily oats, barley, and/or cereal rye. The soil runs from 10 in. of top soil (on top of 10 ft of granite) to sandy loam, some clay loam, and even the ultimate farmer’s dream; hilly, rocky, and/or chronically wet! McCann creek runs through my property, and both the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the NRCS have made me very aware about best practices in water quality. I have enacted many practices over the years to maintain or improve that water quality.

I call myself a biological farmer. To me, that means taking care of the soil and trying to improve it. I am not the best bookkeeper and sometimes I felt I might have been a little “backwards” in some of my practices over the years. But, that is the great thing about farming, you can do it your way, as long as you pay your bills and feed your family.

My soil health endeavors started 20 years ago when I purchased 80 acres across the road from my farm. After running soil tests, I found the soil contained less than 1% organic matter and the pH was around 5.5. At the time, I was a dairy farmer and my most important crop was alfalfa. Attempting to grow alfalfa on this land simply wasn’t going to happen and I didn’t have the money to make improvements.

My agronomy consultants at the time talked about soil health and building soil structure…and I listened. In 1996, I still did a lot of moldboard plowing. Forty acres (of the 80 I purchased) were flat sandy loam. I divided that parcel into two sections: 20 acres of soybeans and 20 acres of corn. When I dropped the plow into the earth, it was like plowing concrete, the ground broke and then rose up like blocks. On the soybean ground, I put a ton of high-calcium lime. The corn ground received manure. In the fall, after the corn was chopped and the beans were harvested, the entire 40 acres were planted with cereal rye. Sometimes the rye was drilled, and sometimes distributed with a fertilizer spreader. I switched the 40 acre field back-and-forth between corn and beans for about 10 years. I planted rye every year after the bean crop and spread manure every winter and spring onto the incoming corn ground.

I became aware of how the ground worked during tillage, it became mellower. Through the years, some dry periods came during growing seasons. At first, the crops took a hit because of the drought. Later on, after implementing cover crops, I had another dry period, but the crops remained greener and yields didn’t drop as much. Five years and another soil test later, the pH was at an even 6.0 and the organic matter was over 1%. About that time, there was an article in a farm paper explaining for every 1% more organic matter your soil has, the more water-holding capacity the soil would have.

I had agronomists tell me that cereal rye does not produce nitrogen, and they are correct. What cereal rye does accomplish well, is sucking up the nitrogen in the soil for a slow release when the primary crop is growing.  In addition, the rye roots help break the soil and supply air into the ground.  The most important benefit I see, is cereal rye supplies food for microorganisms, especially earthworms!  Earthworms navigate the soil; their waste, or worm castings, are very high in nitrogen.  A combination of rye, slowly rotting down and feeding the microorganisms in the soil, combined with the slow release of nitrogen, helps crops grow during the season. The most recent soil test done on the field showed organic matter to be 2.5% and the pH was 7.0. Needless to say, I can grow a beautiful crop of alfalfa now, when I couldn’t before!

Another factor I have noticed and want to highlight is the quality of the grain that comes off my fields. The test weight of my corn is up in the 54−58 lb range, when many other farmers are getting a 50−52 lb average. This has allowed me to sell corn at a premium, at times, 15 cents over market, plus free hauling…that premium adds up fast for a small farmer! The food-grade soybeans are usually at the top of their protein scale with good test weight; which means no deductions from the food-grade premium.

Do I give all the credit to cover crops? Not all of it, but the cover crops help build the organic matter in my soils, which results in healthy, productive soils. In return, I grow better quality crops with less inputs, especially purchased fertilizer. This year, I’m working with a seed company to do an experimental cover crop plot on my farm. We planted six different cover crop mixtures into rectangle plots with a cereal rye, barley, and forage peas mix around the remainder of the field. The idea is to conduct a yield check on the corn in fall 2016, and see if there is a difference in yields using different cover crop mixes. This could potentially help quantify the benefits of certain cover crops.

I am very interested in various combinations of cover crops. For us farmers in Northern Wisconsin, we are limited in what we can use because of the length of our growing season. Subsequently, I decided to fly on 80 acres of cover crops into standing corn on August 28, 2015. I used a mixture of 30 lb cereal rye, 30 lb barley, and 2 lb brassicas per acre. Am I going to be able to get a dollars and cents return-on-investment for this? I don’t know, only time will tell; here’s hoping. The 2016 weather and growing season will also impact the results of our crops. What an adventure being a farmer for sure!

The NRCS thanks Steve for sharing his firsthand successes with cover crops. Our goal is to share ideas on how to implement soil health principles and cover crops on your farm. Steve Siverling has seen many benefits on his farm through the use of cover crops including increased soil structure and organic matter, less soil compaction and erosion, improved water holding capacity in the soil, improved quality of crop test weights and protein, less purchased fertilizer inputs needed to fuel crop, potential grazing during fall and spring, increased wildlife habitation/food plots, weed suppression and breaks in pest cycles. “Steve is an active member of our NRCS farmer network with cover crops in Chippewa County and has done a great job networking with other farmers and helping NRCS advance the soil health movement one farm at a time,” said Tammy Lindsay, Chippewa County District Conservationist.

Contact your local NRCS service center or visit www.wi.nrcs.usda.gov/ to learn more about soil health, cover crops, and the technical and financial assistance available through NRCS. Improving soil health is key to long-term, sustainable agricultural production.

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