Is Fall the Best Time for Soil Sampling?

Many growers take soil samples in the fall after their crops are off. It’s a good time to sample for several reasons. In fall, it’s convenient to drive the fields and pull samples when there isn’t anything growing to get in the way, and soils tend to be drier. Fall also tends to be less busy than spring, giving more time for sampling. Knowing your soil nutrient levels in fall gives you time to put on a fall soil amendment and plan your spring fertilizer application. These are all good management reasons for soil sampling in fall, but are there scientific reasons why we should pull soil samples in the fall rather than the spring?

Seasonality of Soil Characteristics

The fact is that there are fluctuations in soil nutrient levels throughout the year, but like so many things in soils, there is no one exact answer for what those fluctuations are. Nutrient levels and seasonal fluctuations are all impacted by soil type, soil health and what inputs are applied to the soil. In general, soil P and K levels tend to all be higher in the spring and lower in the summer as crops are growing and removing nutrients. Soil pH also tends to be lower during the peak of the growing season, especially if commercial nitrogen is applied in spring. Soil pH levels will drop as that nitrogen converts to nitrates, and also as plants grow and put out acidic compounds through their roots.

P and K levels then tend to come back up again in the fall, though not necessarily to the same levels they were at in the spring. How much of the nutrients were removed and how much becomes available again in fall depends upon what crop was grown, the amount of residues left on the soil, as well as moisture levels and biological activity in the soil. Soil pH levels will also tend to come back up in the fall. As crops are removed, there are fewer root exudates, and this combined with slowing of soil biological activity, microbial respiration and nitrification all contribute to the pH rise. But these fluctuations in pH and mineral levels aren’t easily predictable, and vary quite a bit depending on the soil’s organic matter level, biological activity, if a cover crop is present and overall soil health.

Given seasonal fluctuations in pH and nutrient levels, the best strategy is to sample at the same time each year. Ideally, sampling would also be done at about the same soil moisture level, but that isn’t always possible. In order to control as many variables as possible and to get the most consistent results, try to sample at the same time each year. Given the management advantages to sampling in fall, it makes sense to take your soil samples each year after your crops are off.

Soil Sampling Support

Midwestern BioAg is ready to help you with your soil sampling. We offer both grid and non-grid soil sampling services at all our locations. Grid samples are taken from 2.5-acre grids; non-grid samples, or composite samples, are taken from 5- to 20-acre parcels. Once the soil test results are in, we provide a complete program based on the soil samples we take. Growers who sample with us get a comprehensive look at what’s in their soil, help with interpreting data and access to variable rate technology (VRT) fertilizer recommendations.

Soil sampling is a good investment. We recommend that growers sample each field every three to five years. The return on investment from soil sampling can be significant. After taking that sample, you’ll be able to determine what nutrients you need, how much to apply and where to place that fertilizer. This is a more efficient way to spend your fertilizer dollar then purchasing a standard fertilizer and applying it throughout the field. With a soil test, you will be spending money on nutrients only where they are needed, applying the correct amounts and increasing the chances of achieving higher yields, better soil mineral balance and increased soil health.

From the Desk of Gary Zimmer

I’m sitting at our big table in the farm office this morning looking out at the rain. Two months late, but here it is. We got so dry this fall it was hard to work down the corn stalks after seed corn harvest. Overall our crops are OK, and some are looking really good. We’re now gearing up for a fresh start next spring. We need to put on our fall fertilizers (mostly Midwestern BioAg calcium sources and manures), do fall tillage and plant cover crops and then we’ll be ready.

Farms, as with life, are always changing. On my family’s farm we made two major changes this year. The first change was adding RTK, along with bigger equipment and all auto steer. We also have guidance systems with cameras. I know we weren’t the first ones in the game, and of course we had our excuses (like cost and poor GPS reception) but it should be a great improvement on weed control as we get things more precise.

The second major change is that we are taking the grain away from the dairy cows. Starting in spring we will be going to an all forage diet. At present we are about a 21,000 lb producing organic herd. These are mostly Holsteins and I’m sure there will be a learning curve. I’m also sure we will lose some milk, though hopefully no more than 10 to 15%. I have been on all forage dairies that get only 8,000 lbs of milk from their cows. At that level we can’t pay our bills! We have been feeding some corn silage, a small amount (10 lbs) of corn, 1 to 2 lbs of roasted beans and super quality forages. We will add more varieties of forages, like plantain, sudan grasses, brassicas and small grain silage cut before it heads out. Protein won’t be our problem, energy will! We just added organic liquid sugar into the cows’ diet and will continue that. Whatever we add to the diet—energy, protein, minerals—will be things that are missing in the forages but we will make sure we get all the nutrition in our forages we can.

As I mentioned in my summer letter, our farm went through other changes this year as we added more acres and milk fewer cows. The corn stalks now stay in the field. On fields where we grow oats underseeded with alfalfa, clover and grasses, the straw following oats harvest stays, then the underseeded mix grows as a cover crop. Late summer it gets clipped to keep it from getting too big, and the following spring when the legumes get a foot tall we turn the whole mix into the soils. This used to be bedding and livestock feed – now it’s soil livestock feed!

As I write this I’m looking out my window at a new seeding alfalfa field that had 5 cuttings this year. The alfalfa is now about a foot tall and next spring when the new growth gets a foot tall it will be turned into the soil to become soil livestock feed that will turn into a corn crop. Yes, we are growing one year of alfalfa grass forage and then one year of corn. This is done near the dairy barn where we are trying to export minerals off the land because the soil level is high due to a lot of manure use plus balanced fertilizers for 20 years. We don’t skimp. We also don’t grid sample on our farm. I think grid sampling is a good idea if the soil is lower testing on fertility. Ours is not.

When we fertilize we start with calcium and phosphorus, apply manures, and then add potassium and trace minerals to every field. After a while, the soils really change. I was visiting with a farmer yesterday who is trying cover crops, is interested in better fertility, but is still using every chance he can to apply plant protective compounds like insecticides, fungicides, etc. because he said research says it pays. What pays is having a healthy crop with no limits on production. One thing good about organic choices being limited is that we can’t bail out the crop when trouble happens so we have to farm for soil health and plant health in order to prevent problems from happening in the first place.

Midwestern BioAg also has a lot of changes this year with the introduction of our new TerraNu™ product line. Our TerraNu Nutrient Technology™—using the digestate from dairy cow manure coming out of an anaerobic digester and turning that into a granulated fertilizer that can be precision-applied—is a big part of the future at Midwestern BioAg. As results come in from farms, we like what we see. It’s exciting and a bit overwhelming to be involved in the future of obtaining healthy, high yielding soils and crops.

Have a great harvest.
Gary F Zimmer

 

Introducing REGALIA® Rx Fungicide

This growing season has been taxed by heat and humidity, creating ample opportunity for plant health issues to erode yield potential. At Midwestern BioAg, we’ve recently expanded our agronomy product line-up beyond plant nutrition to include a fungicide treatment option for our growers – REGALIA® Rx biofungicide. REGALIA® Rx is designed to provide defense against fungal pests on cereal grains, corn, soybeans, cotton, forage, peanuts, sorghum and sugar beets.

What is REGALIA® Rx Biofungicide?

REGALIA® Rx is a group P5 fungicide. P5 is a FRAC code specific to this fungicide because it has a unique mode of action (MOA). Common fungicides like Headline® (group 11), Stratego® YLD (group 3/11) and Priaxor® (group 7/11) all have similar MOAs, which can lead to increased chances of treatment resistance. According to the 2017 Fungicide Resistance Action Committee’s Code List, resistance risks associated with these common fungicides are:

  • Group 11: High risk
  • Group 7: Medium-to-high risk
  • Group 3: Medium risk
  • Group P5: Resistance not known

What makes REGALIA® Rx truly fascinating and special is its MOA. REGALIA®’s unique MOA – host plant defense induction – provides needed diversification in fungicide programs while also boosting plant health. 

 

Understanding Induced Systemic Resistance

REGALIA® Rx works through induced systemic resistance (ISR). ISR is a unique mode of action that works by stimulating plant response to disease pressure before actual diseases are detected. This results in strengthened plant defenses, helping prevent the onset of actual disease when it is imminent.
At application, the REGALIA® Rx product stimulates plants to produce phenolic and antioxidant compounds, which can strengthen plant cell walls and protect against oxidative stress. Additionally, multiple plant defense systems are activated, including the production of pathogenesis-related proteins (PR proteins) and phytoalexins which can directly inhibit the growth of pathogens.  These changes systemically fortify the plant and protect it from future pathogen invasion and environmental stresses.

REGALIA® RX in the Fungicide Program

REGALIA® Rx is active against most pathogens commonly found in Midwest cropping systems. As a plant-health product, it should be used to target diseases affecting vegetative growth.  REGALIA® Rx is proven to be effective against many common vegetative diseases that traditional fungicides have targeted, in addition to certain diseases resistant to other fungicide treatments. This flexible product is also OMRI listed for use in organic production.

Enhancing the Integrated Pest Management Strategy

There is currently no known disease resistance to REGALIA® Rx, making it an excellent addition to existing pest management programs and IPM strategies. As a tank mix partner, it can improve the efficacy of other fungicides and increase plant yield potential. Over three years and 140 trials*, REGALIA® Rx application has generated yield increases up to 7.2 bushels in corn and 3.4 bushels in soybeans. It aids in disease prevention like the Headline’s and Stratego’s of the world, but through a mode of action that may have a more desirable environmental outcome for the grower. 

It’s important to remember that most annually persistent plant diseases take refuge in crop residues. If residue management is contributing to persistent plant disease issues, actions to improve soil health must become a top priority. Once soil health issues are addressed, products like REGALIA® Rx can begin disease prevention processes early in crop development, improving crop success rates and yield potential.

Application Rates

Apply one pint of REGALIA® Rx with preferred fungicide tank partner at:

  • Corn: V4-V7, or near VT
  • Soybeans: R1-R3
  • Wheat: 50-100% flag leaf emergence

*Based on data collected from 140+ trials conducted between 2013 – 2016 by Marrone Bio Innovations, Inc. and Koch Agronomic Services.  In these trials, REGALIA® Rx + fungicide increased yield compared to fungicide alone in 77% of the corn trials and 67% of the soybean trials.  The average yield benefits shown represent data from the trials in which the grower fungicide + REGALIA ® Rx resulted in a yield increase compared to the yield delivered by use of the grower fungicide alone. All users should keep in mind that results may vary based on a number of factors, including environmental conditions.

Regalia and the Regalia logo are trademarks of Marrone Bio Innovations, Inc.

From the Desk of Gary Zimmer

Farming is an ever-changing and challenging business. By this time of year, crop outcomes are mostly out of our hands. Being organic, operations at Otter Creek Farms are always intense, from planting time all the way up until the window for weed control passes.

In southwestern Wisconsin, organic production got off to a poor start with all the rain and cold. However, the last ten days in May were great, and the crops are looking good. Recent changes at Otter Creek Farms include fewer livestock, more crop acres and increased crop diversity. We’ve typically used our herd “above the ground” to feed the herd “below the ground” through manure application, but with fewer livestock we needed to increase cover crop use and crop diversity to keep our soil biology thriving.

Previously, everything we grew was harvested for our cattle, including corn stalks for bedding. We always put manure back on the land, but distribution was a challenge. Now, not only can the corn stalks stay out in the field as a carbon and nutrient source, but we’ve also been able to add more small grains into the rotation as we transition ground out of hay production.

We under-seeded many of our small grains with clover, alfalfa and grasses this spring. For fields without an under-seeded mix, we will plant a cover crop mix after harvest (much like how we manage our rye fields). After small-grain harvest, we generally clip the under-seeded mix, let it grow in the fall and apply nutrients as needed alongside manure. We also leave most of the straw in the field as an additional complex carbon source. The following spring, we work the mix into the ground after about a foot of growth. Results from this approach have not only improved our soils, but also allowed the farm to produce outstanding row crops.

Changes at Otter Creek

We planted over 100 acres of seed corn this year at Otter Creek Farms. Talk about a challenge! Female seed corn plants are typically weaker and slower growing. Male seed corn plants are equally challenging to manage and must also be planted at different times. At the last cultivation for this season, we seeded a clover cover crop mix into the seed corn fields. Our goal is to get good ground cover so when they de-tassel and open up the field, it doesn’t turn into a weed patch. 

With seed corn, fertility management remains simple: we know what it takes to have enough nutrients available and delivered in time for plant uptake. Managing diverse rotations, cover crops and soil health requires a lot of common sense and the right tools for the job, especially in regard to tillage. I prefer shallow incorporation of residues and deep ripping as needed. I would love to be a zone-till or strip-till organic farm, but I haven’t figured out a plan to make that work to manage cover crops and weeds.

Updates from the Office

As we announced last summer, we did not host a field day at Otter Creek Farms this year. We have certainly enjoyed showing our farming system to thousands of customers, friends and curious minds over the past 25 years. We look forward to exploring new ways to share information on soil health, cover crops and balanced crop nutrition to an ever-expanding group of interested growers across the Midwest.

Midwestern BioAg’s newly released TerraNu fertilizer line is one of the most exciting innovations I have seen in my many years in the fertilizer business. This is truly a game changer in agriculture. TerraNu fertilizers provide excellent coverage of nutrients in the field but also help close the nutrient gap in farming by giving large-scale row crop farmers easy access to manure. This brings the benefits of Midwestern BioAg’s carbon-based fertilizers through TerraNu’s manure matrix, a carbon-rich food source for soil life. This feature feeds soil life while providing optimum coverage of nutrients and enhancing plant uptake.

Early-season results following spring application of TerraNu are positive. Findings include larger leaf-area indices and improved nutrient uptake.

Our next step is to create an organic-allowed version of TerraNu for our organic customer base. Our research team is actively working on this project, and I look forward to bringing another great product into the organic marketplace.

Wishing you a successful summer and bountiful harvest,
Gary Zimmer, Founder, Midwestern BioAg

Seeding Alfalfa this Fall

The most important question you need to ask yourself if you are interested in seeding alfalfa this fall is the following: What do I want to obtain from this alfalfa? Answering that question leads us to these case scenarios:

Seeding alfalfa as a forage crop in new fields

The most important decision when establishing a new alfalfa field is variety selection. A good variety not only guarantees better yield and forage quality but it also helps with crop establishment and crop management. A more complete technical review for establishing new alfalfa fields will be covered in the article “Establishing New Alfalfa Fields – Your Technical Checklist” in a future edition of From the Ground Up.

Seeding alfalfa after alfalfa

Because of alfalfa’s autotoxicity properties, seeding alfalfa after alfalfa can be risky. Studies recommend waiting at least three to five weeks between elimination of the old alfalfa crop and establishment of the new one. Tillage seems to help new alfalfa by breaking down residue and the toxins affecting new alfalfa establishment. Rainfall and soil biology also affect the success of reestablishing alfalfa. Rainfall helps wash out the autotoxic compounds and microorganisms that help degrade the toxins.

Re-seeding alfalfa to fix poor stands

Any grower with a current alfalfa field should plan on making a field/crop assessment this fall, ideally after the final harvest of the season. A final assessment should be done to determine any liming, nutrient or reseeding needs. Alfalfa is a crop that naturally tends to lessen its density over time because alfalfa doesn’t reseed itself. Planting more alfalfa into current alfalfa fields is not recommended since alfalfa has autotoxicity characteristics. A good population/density is about 35 well-growing stems per square foot. If population density is very low then a grower could consider planting a new field or interseeding with other species/grasses to improve the current crop.

Seeding alfalfa as a cover crop

YES, alfalfa can be used as a good cover crop between main crops! If used as a cover crop, you need to take into account that alfalfa is a great soil builder, a good source of N, an effective subsoiler and an erosion preventer. However, alfalfa is neither a very good N scavenger, nor is it a competitor against weeds. If used as a cover crop the time of planting is key (August to early September is ideal). You also need to take into account variety selection. Non-dormant varieties would be better for this purpose since they do not survive winters. Otherwise you will need to schedule and budget tillage (multiple passes) or herbicide applications to kill your alfalfa cover crop during the spring. 

Benefits of Bio-Cal® for Soil Health

When Gary Zimmer was first looking for a calcium-based product to improve his soil quality, he discovered Bio-Cal®. He noticed remarkable improvements to his soil quality, as well as forage yield and quality, soon after the first application to his hay fields. Bio-Cal is now known for its proven benefits for yield and quality on forages and is also an excellent soil conditioner that improves water infiltration and soil structure – benefits that any crop can take advantage of!

Bio-Cal contains five different kinds of calcium, ranging from immediately plant-available to more slowly available sources. The combination of the five sources act on soil chemistry to help break up tight soils and improve water infiltration while at the same time providing an essential nutrient to soil organisms, including earthworms, building that beautiful, chocolate-cake texture that is indicative of healthy soil.

Gary Zimmer has been applying Bio-Cal (and its organic counterpart, OrganiCal™) to his farm in the fall for many years. Gary prefers to apply Bio-Cal or OrganiCal in the fall for several reasons. “On my forage ground, Bio-Cal helps get the alfalfa conditioned for winter. I like to apply it this time of the year to improve forage quality and soil structure.” Gary also sees benefits from applying Bio-Cal or OrganiCal to non-forage acres in the fall. “For ground going into corn and beans next year, after harvest in the fall is the best time to spread Bio-Cal. The ground is generally drier, and I don’t have as much to do as in early spring, which means I have time to get Bio-Cal on all of my ground. Putting it on in the fall also helps with residue break down and gives the calcium a chance to interact with the soil, improving soil structure for spring.”

It’s been an extremely wet year in much of the Midwest, and all of the heavy rainfall events have taken a toll on the soils on many farms. Even if you’re taking steps to improve your soil structure, getting six inches of rain in one day can lead to runoff. Below are two pictures of neighboring fields in Wisconsin. On July 19 and 20, six inches of rain fell on these fields. One week later, most of the water soaked in on the field that received Bio-Cal, while the neighboring field, which did not receive Bio-Cal, is still saturated. Given that these fields are managed differently, Bio-Cal may not be the only factor in the difference in soil quality, but there is no doubt that the Bio-Cal-treated field was able to absorb the heavy rainfall much better than the field that did not receive any Bio-Cal.

Call your Midwestern BioAg Consultant today and ask how they can help you get Bio-Cal on your farm.

Are You Ready to Go Organic?

With low commodity prices and high organic crop prices, transitioning to organic can look awfully appealing. But is organic really right for you? Successful organic farming takes good soils and a different mindset than conventional farming. Are you, and your soil, ready to go organic?

Below are a few things to consider when assessing whether organic is a good fit for your farm:

Are my soils healthy, with a lot of organic matter and good nutrient cycling?

In organic production you need to rely on a balance of nutrients from naturally-mined sources and healthy soils to cycle nutrients. If your soils aren’t healthy now, switching to organic doesn’t automatically make them better. Spend some time building soil health, using calcium and balanced fertility and building organic matter before starting to transition, or plan to set aside two years of transition to really build up soil health without worrying about taking off a crop.

Do I have good weed control tools and the knowledge needed to run them?

In a 2016 Oregon Tilth survey of transitioning and organic farmers, farmers said the biggest obstacle to success was weed management. Switching from a couple of spray passes to mechanical control is daunting and requires time and skill. It also helps to have some cooperation from the weather. Learning how to manage weeds can make or break your yields and profits for the year.

Do I have access to a good manure source?

Manure is an excellent source of nutrients for organic crops. You can get the nutrients you need through mined minerals, cover crops and healthy soils, but having a good manure source provides needed nutrients, especially nitrogen, and can help build soil quality.

Am I ready to add some different types of plants to my rotation?

Plant diversity builds soil quality and breaks pest cycles, and organic rules require plant diversity on organic acres. Plant diversity includes the use of cover crops and green manures. In order to be successful, adding new plants can require learning some new techniques.

Am I ready to think differently about my farm?

Organic farming requires a different mindset: The whole farm must be managed like an ecosystem, where all of the parts interact. Keeping everything healthy and functioning is your top priority. Building soil health, keeping plants healthy by applying a balance of all minerals, focusing on preventing pests and diseases rather than treating them, spending more time monitoring crops, and being prepared to till up a crop that doesn’t look good and put the field in cover crops for the year – these are all management and mindset shifts that are required in order to have a productive, high-yielding organic farm.

There is a lot of appeal to higher prices in organic crops in the current farm economy. If you have the right mindset, and are open and willing to make some changes on your farm, transitioning to organic can be a very profitable and satisfying way to go.

Leveraging Soil Microbes to Build SOM, Crop Yields

Healthy, productive soils have large pools of stable soil organic matter. Soil organic matter (SOM) is key to plant drought resistance and sustainable food production. Understanding how to build and maintain soil organic matter is key to achieving high crop yields, while also maintaining healthy soil structure and reducing nutrient loss.

Soil Microbes & SOM Formation

Research done at the University of New Hampshire is shedding new light on the role that microbes play in the formation of soil organic matter.1 Their research suggests that SOM is a mixture of dead microbial cells and the byproducts formed when microbes breakdown plant roots and residues, rather than coming directly from the plants and residues themselves.

It is now understood that microbes play a key role in converting crop residues and other inputs in the soil ecosystem. Microbes (bacteria and fungi) can take carbon sources (sugars, plant material) and convert them to various organic molecules such as proteins, lipids, and complex sugars. It is these that make up the bank of SOM, or soil humus, from which we derive agronomic benefit.What the researchers at the University of New Hampshire have shown is that soils can accumulate large amounts of the complex, stable soil organic matter in the absence of plant residues and exudates.

In fact, even when microbes were fed only table sugar, the SOM that was produced was nearly identical to the SOM found naturally in fields. This is an important step in understanding SOM formation because knowing whether a particular molecule of SOM came from a plant or a microbe, once it is formed, is practically impossible.

Healthy Microbes, Healthy Soils

The microbes that are present in the soil drive this process — more so than the actual soil type. This means that if you focus on the health of the soil microbiome, you can build soil health. Microbial communities and soil types differ from field to field and even within fields. And with these changes, the rate and type of SOM formation changes. What does not change, however, is that healthy, diverse soil microbial communities supported by good agronomic practices drive healthy, diverse organic matter formation in the soil.

Fertility plans should account for crop residue and nutrient removal to build soil health and fertility. By focusing on the health of the soil and the microbial communities in the soil, we are most likely to optimize soil organic matter formation, increase crop yields and improve plant health.2

Many actions can be taken to preserve and rebuild soils to maximize the retention and recycling of organic matter and nutrients.3 This can be accomplished by minimizing losses to leaching, runoff and erosion through reduced tillage, diverse crop rotations and fertilizer selection.4

 

References:

1. Kallenbach CM, Frey SD, Grandy AS. Direct evidence for microbial-derived soil organic matter formation and its ecophysiological controls. Nature Communications (2016) 7:13630, DOI: 10.1038/nommons13630

2. Amaranthus M, Allyn B. Healthy Microbes, Healthy People. The Atlantic. June 11, 2013.

3. Bot A and Benites J. The importance of soil organic matter. FAO Soils Bulletin. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. (2005)

4. Cookson WE, Murphy DV, Roper MM. Characterizing the relationships between soil organic matter components and microbial function and composition along a tillage disturbance gradient. Soil Biology and Biochemistry (2008) 40: 763-777.

Proactive Management, Cow Comfort Keys to Organic Farming Success

In 1993, the team at R & G Miller & Sons, Inc. opted to make the switch to organic dairy farming. “We weren’t satisfied with the way things were going on the farm,” said Ron Miller, general farm manager. “After becoming organic certified on all 1,550 acres and feeding our cattle organic feed for a year, we became fully organic certified in 1997. Since the transition, our yields have gone up, and I’ve only seen one alfalfa field on the farm that could benefit from pesticide application.”

Established in 1852, the Columbus-based family farm has a rich history in the Wisconsin dairy industry. The operation has come a long way since its establishment, allowing for major improvements in cow comfort, a focus at the heart of the farm’s success. “We put in one of the first parlors in Wisconsin in 1969,” said Ron. “It was a double six herringbone parlor.”

Since then, that same herringbone parlor was replaced with a 30-stall Rotaflo carousel parlor, older farm buildings have made way for new freestall housing featuring rubber-filled mattresses for the cows, and a wood-heated building with advanced ventilation now houses the farm’s replacement calves.

A Midwestern BioAg customer since 2011, Ron and his team work with Dave Meidl, Midwestern BioAg’s Director of Nutrition, to help manage the farm’s livestock nutrition and agronomy programs. Dave works with all members of the dairy’s team to leverage inputs across the farm, helping keep production strong and profitable.

“R & G Miller & Sons is an excellent example of how managing the farm as a system builds profitability,” said Dave. “On organic dairy farms, access to an ample supply of quality forage is essential to success. Cows on nutrient-dense, high-forage diets stay healthy and perform well. When you have limited treatment options for common issues like milk fever, preventive care from a quality feed program is invaluable. We have to keep those cows eating.”

In the past six years since working with Dave and making changes to their cropping system, the team at R & G Miller & Sons has almost doubled their corn silage yields to 20 ton/ac, improved alfalfa yields by 5 ton/ac and increased their rolling-herd average by 4,000 lbs to 22,358 lbs.

Organic Fertility Program

“We fertilize our hay ground after the first and third cutting,” said Ron. “We dual-apply a Midwestern BioAg forage fertilizer and OrganiCal™.” OrganiCal is Midwestern BioAg’s OMRI-listed calcium and sulfur soil amendment designed to improve both forage quality and yield. “Our custom harvester says we have some of the highest-yielding hay fields he’s seen,” said Ron.

Forages are typically bagged, tested and labeled by field and cutting. This allows Dave to adjust rations as feeding changes occur, maximizing the efficiency of all supplemental minerals.

The typical rotation at R & G Miller & Sons includes alfalfa for three years, followed by corn, soybeans, corn and winter triticale. Triticale grain is roasted and fed to the herd, while the residue is used for straw bedding.

A diverse crop rotation is essential, and required, in organic farming. It helps build soil fertility and break pest and disease cycles, important benefits to farms with limited access to crop protection chemicals. Crop nutrients are added as needed following the farms nutrient management plan and National Organic Standards (NOP), which stipulate nutrient application needs must be identified by a soil test.

The farm uses manure as their primary nitrogen source, partnering with a nearby conventional dairy farmer for additional access to manure. “We also apply some chicken manure,” said Ron, “and plant cover crops following corn silage when the weather cooperates.”

Cover crops seeded at R & G Miller & Sons have included tillage radish, sorghum, buckwheat and rye. “We’ve had good luck with tillage radish and buckwheat,” said Ron. “Rye can be difficult to manage, so it’s important to plow it under while it’s young, before it can tie up too much nitrogen.”

The farm applies starter at planting for their corn and soybeans, and uses a blend of Midwestern BioAg’s SuperRoot® and elemental sulfur for additional nutrients. “We apply this blend through our insecticide box. It helps keep the birds out of our fields, which improves emergence,” said Ron.

The farm’s rotationally grazed pastures are fertilized each fall with a combination of Midwestern BioAg pasture fertilizer and OrganiCal. Paddocks are reseeded as needed to keep quality high.

Tips on Transitioning

“On the crop side, our biggest transitioning challenge was dealing with weed pressure in corn,” said Ron. “There weren’t many other organic farmers to network with at the time, and a lot of what we learned was by trial and error. Since then, we’ve learned that rotary hoeing twice before the corn gets about four inches high helps us stay ahead of weed pressure.”

R & G Miller & Sons uses a Lemken field cultivator for tillage. This tool allows them to keep tillage as shallow as possible and prevent unnecessary soil disturbance. “An implement dealer brought the machine to our farm as a demo,” said Ron. “It never left the farm. It plowed under a two-foot stand of alfalfa easily, something we could never achieve with our chisel plow.”

The team typically cultivates corn twice in the spring, or as needed based on weather and weed pressure. In extreme cases, they use a flame weeder. “We retrofitted a sprayer with an LP tank and burners to help us address severe weed pressure,” said Ron. “It can create a yield drag, so we only use it when necessary.”

The dairy herd transition went smoothly. “Transitioning the herd wasn’t difficult for us,” said Ron. “We saw a slight drop in production since we weren’t pushing as much protein, but the milk price increase made up the difference.”
R & G Miller & Sons has worked with Organic Valley for milk marketing since they first transitioned. “The team at Organic Valley is fantastic. We really value them as a partner,” said Ron.

The farm uses Ex-cell Countdown 7000 for mastitis treatment, aspirin as needed and feeds probiotics regularly to all their animals. Electrolytes are given to calves as needed to help with scours and other issues.

Future Projects

With an eye on continuous improvement, R & G Miller & Sons is currently trialing an organic-allowed liquid sugar supplement from Midwestern BioAg for their dairy herd. “Dave came to us with the idea in January and was excited to try it,” said Ron. “When Dave gets excited about something, we usually do, too.” The farm hopes to use the product to combat the “summer slump” often seen in grazing herds in late summer. “We plan to use it as an energy source for our cows to improve overall performance,” said Ron. “I think we’re already seeing a difference in digestion and body condition, as well as milk production.”

“R & G Miller & Sons is a leader in the industry,” said Dave. “It’s inspiring to be a part of their team. Their dedication to cow comfort and attention to management is admirable. I look forward to continuing to be their partner in organic farm management.”

You Spoke. We Listened.

Dear Customer,

Last year, Midwestern BioAg conducted a survey to help evaluate our customer service and products. Survey participants were chosen at random, and over 360 customers responded. We gained key insight into areas where we can improve administratively, and also gained better understanding of what matters most to our customers. From the analysis, a few key findings emerged:

  • Soil heath matters. A majority of our customers reported that they do business with us to improve soil health on their farms. We are inspired and honored to have you as our partners as we help the industry achieve better farming through better soil.
  • Better in-season support. Many of you requested more in-season support to help evaluate crop and product performance. When things are working — and even when they are not — we want to make sure we are there to support you. We are actively discussing steps we can take to improve in-season support this year.
  • Growing interest in organic transition. We were impressed — and surprised — to learn that many of our current conventional customers are considering a transition to organic farming. If you’re considering switching to organic, please don’t hesitate to reach out to your consultant for helpful tips and advice.

We can’t thank you enough for all your helpful insights! We wish you a successful summer growing season and a plentiful harvest this fall!

—The Midwestern BioAg Team