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Cover Crop Conference Examines Role Conservation Practice Plays in Soil & Water

Madison, Wis. ‒ October 23, 2017 ‒ Over 75 farmers and partners attended the Wisconsin Cover Crops Conference October 4, 2017. Conference partners included the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, Sheboygan County UW-Extension, Washington and Ozaukee County Land Conservation Departments, Clean Farm Families Group, Cedar Creek Farmers Group, The Conservation Fund, Milwaukee Municipal Sewage District (MMSD), and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Local participating farmers and tour stop hosts were Ross Bishop of Jackson, Mike Paulus of Fredonia and Jim Melichar of Fredonia. “We’re working with partners to inform producers of the benefits of soil health, like cover crops, getting diversity into your rotation, no-till and reduced tillage, keeping residue and a living root in your soil; the goal of the conference is to show the important role soil health and cover crops play in soil and water quality,” said Michael Patin, NRCS District Conservationist.

Cover crop plots FY18 Cover Crop Conference

Participants learned about the importance of cover crops and soil health from Keynote Speaker, Jamie Patton, Shawano County UW-Extension. Patton discussed the differences cover crops can make on farming operations in the short term, including decreased erosion due to residue cover, additional forage, improved weed control and nitrogen production and retention. “Management impacts the way our soil functions; proper management through the use of soil health practices, like cover crops, can directly increase your soil’s organic matter and water holding capacity; we can all do better using these practices,” said Patton. Continued use of cover crops also have long term impacts on soil health and organic matter, including improved soil structure, enhanced nutrient cycling and retention, increased water retention and increased microbial activity.  

Jamie Patton Cover crop conference FY18After an initial discussion of cover crop benefits, participants visited the first field tour stop at Ross Bishop’s 600-acre farm in Jackson, Wis. where he raises beef cattle and grows corn, soybeans and wheat. Ross has practiced no-till for 23 years and has also used a variety of cover crops for the past decade, experimenting with various multi-species mixes. In one test plot, participants saw a multi-species mix of well-established annual ryegrass, cow peas, forage peas, hairy vetch, radish and sunflower. Participants also saw separate test plots of well-established crimson clover, berseem clover, oats, cereal rye, sorghum sudangrass, triticale and peas, radish/barley/berseem clover, radish/hair vetch/annual ryegrass, hairy vetch/turnip/annual ryegrass and radish/cereal rye/crimson clover. Ross noted he had great yields for his corn and soy crops during the 2012 drought due to continued, long-term, multi-species cover crop use. A few tips Ross shared; he uses an old cement mixer to blend cover crop seed mixes, uses a scale on the drill to help calibrate seeding rates and he recommends using a small alfalfa seeder box for small cover crop seeds like turnips. Ross is a participant in the NRCS Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) to further his efforts with cover crops and implement conservation practices. “CSP is a wonderful incentive to move into no-till and try cover crops to see what works best in your area,” said Bishop. “We can modify mixes to make things work with your needs; USDA offers an incentive opportunity for cover crops at around $70 an acre; we’ll help you cover the seed and cost of planting; the incentives takes a lot of the risk away from farmers and can be a catalyst in helping them try conservation practices they may not have, without the assistance,” added Patin.

The second tour stop featured Jim Melichar’s farming operation of 1,200 cattle and 1,500 acres of land. Melichar highlighted a test plot of corn, soybeans and barley, planting seven different cover crops between the corn and soybeans. Melichar used a Penn State interseeder, on display during the tour, to plant the cover crops. Jim is chair of the Milwaukee River Watershed Clean Farm Families group and is making it his goal to locally educate the public and other farmers about the importance of water quality and the steps local farmers can take to preserve the natural resource.

Interseeder FY18 Cover Crop Conference

The third tour stop featured Mike Paulus’ farming operation in Fredonia. He grows alfalfa and corn to feed dairy herd. Mike started using winter rye ten years ago as a cover crop and as early spring forage. Winter rye can be used after corn silage to protect against soil erosion and has multiple uses and benefits beyond conservation also, including forage production, nutrient management and weed suppression. “Winter rye should be planted as soon after corn silage harvest as possible in mid-to-late September so it has time to establish; rye grows rapidly in spring and can either be burned down and planted into, or left as a forage which can yield fairly high quality forage even if planted in later October plantings,” said Patin. Paulus has been no-tilling portions of his 800 acres for the past three years, uses various cover crops and is experimenting with different harvesting techniques. Paulus highlighted low disturbance manure injection equipment on site and also talked about how it is effective in injecting manure into cover crops after wheat and corn silage which can utilize the nutrients right away, while keeping nutrients in the green manure for next years crop.

turnip cover crop conference FY18radish cover crop FY18 cover crop conferenceInterested in trying cover crops and other soil health practices on your farm? For more information on financial and technical assistance available from NRCS to help implement these practices, visit or contact your local NRCS Service Center.

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