Changing times have called for a change in mindset. This past year has been challenging, not only for livestock producers, but also for crop farmers. Low prices, the ever-increasing costs of doing business and the weather have added an immense amount of stress for farmers across the country.
We can overcome the stress by changing our mindset. We’ve done that by focusing on soil health and utilizing cover crops on our operation.
This year has already brought a lot of extra precipitation, which has delayed planting of crops, seeding of much needed forages and even harvesting of the existing forages for feed. For us, though, cover crops and no-till practices have lessened the severity of the multitude of precipitation, especially on our heavy clay soils.
We’ll start with the basics of the six soil health principles, which are:
- Keep armor on the soil surface.
- Limit disturbance, both chemical and physical.
- Increase diversity, not only through crop rotation, but also with plant and animal diversity.
- Keep a living root in the soil for as long as possible.
- Integrate livestock into the system by utilizing grazing and manure.
- Everything in context – stay flexible because nothing is perfect.
Planting diverse cover crop mixes increases not only our plant diversity, but our microbial and fungal diversity in the soil. By planting diverse mixes, the plants can access their bartering system through mycorrhizal fungi, to gain nutrients that they are lacking. They can trade excess nutrients in exchange for ones that they need.
The problem, however, is that it takes time to build or repair this network. Plants, like hairy vetch, which are highly mycorrhizal, can take several years to rebuild their network in the soil. Tillage destroys this network. Along with that, diverse mixes allow for some species of plants to grow when growing conditions are not suitable for others. For example, we plant a diverse mix of summer annuals into our existing perennial pastures. By doing this, we can avoid the summer slump in our pastures.
When temperatures get hot in July/August, the summer annuals grow best compared to the perennials. By interseeding them, they create their own micro-climate, where the perennial plants are kept cool and moist by being shaded by the summer annuals. In some of our side-by-side comparisons, we produced more total feed for grazing off of the interseeding mix than the perennial mix alone.
Not only in grazing or producing forage is plant diversity necessary, but also in crop production. By mixing legumes, grasses and many other species together, we can decrease soil erosion, increase available nitrogen to this year and next year’s crop, sequester needed carbon to increase organic matter in the soil, among many others.
By using a planting method, known as planting green, we can help suppress weeds for the growing crop. We’ve done this for several years, and while it’s a little unusual to try at first, there’s no other way we’d plant anymore. Basically, the planting green method is to no-till into the growing cover crop, and either use a roller-crimper to knock it down, or use chemicals for a burn down. By leaving the cover crop material on the surface, it shades out the weeds from growing. The cover crop termination method is dependent on the crop planted, height of the growing cover crop and many other factors that are farm specific. If you want more info on implementing this practice, we highly recommend talking to someone that is currently doing it. This planting method also allows us to keep a green, photosynthesizing plant and a living root in the soil for as long as possible.
Now, taking that a step further, you can interseed a diverse mix of covers into corn. We do this with our silage corn and have seen some interesting results. First of all, we had several goals in mind when we started. We wanted to shade out weeds while the corn was growing, but we also wanted to grow diverse plant species that we thought would help increase the digestible fiber in our milking cow diet. I mean, why not have part of the TMR already mixed by nature?
We also wanted to increase the mineral content in our silage, because different species of plants will bring up different minerals from deep within the soil profile. An example would be that sunflowers bring up available zinc to be utilized by animals. Last year, we planted half of our corn silage acres with a diverse interseeding mix in order to make a comparison. While growing last year, the crop looked great, but when September rolled around, we were hit with untimely rains in the southeast part of the state, which left us unable to harvest the silage on time.
After we harvested it, we could compare the interseeding mix to the mono-crop corn silage. While a delayed harvest did not give us a good result on increasing digestible fiber, we did see an increase in available minerals and in overall plant health. By interseeding diverse mixes, our goal is to increase plant and soil health, and, in turn, increase animal health.
In short, the use and adoption of cover crops, as well as applying the soil health principles, can lead to long term farm sustainability. While this year has been stressful, the cover crops have given us flexibility. Flexibility is what allows us to be resilient, and resiliency builds long term sustainability.
Cover crops are not a “cookie cutter” approach for every farm. By applying the soil health principles as guidelines for individual farms, we can tailor it to work for each farm’s goals and aspirations.
If you’re beginning your soil health journey and are unsure of where to start, find a good soil health consultant or another farmer that has experience. Cover cropping and regenerative agriculture takes a whole systems approach, and it’s important to build a network of people who are currently doing it, in order to have a positive experience. It’s a different system than farmers are used to, and with that, a change in mindset is required. We encourage you to start with something, no matter how small, and see if it will change your mind and your business.
Betsy Lasch and her husband, Adam, run a 200-acre farm that consists of crop and pasture land near Lake Geneva. They milk cows in addition to having a beef herd, laying hens and hair sheep. They also run Lasch Livestock and Land Solutions, a soil health, cover crop and regenerative agriculture consulting and seed sales business.