Cover Crop Basics: A Q&A with Gary Zimmer

Midwestern BioAg President Gary Zimmer has planted cover crops on his farm for years. In this Q&A, we sit down with him to learn the basics of cover crop management and the resulting benefits they bring to the farm.

How do I select a cover crop for my farm?

Zimmer: First, identify the purpose for your cover crop. Will it provide nitrogen or scavenge it? Do you want to use it for grazing? How about to build organic matter? Then, identify the cover crops that will best serve that purpose within your soil type and region. Choices can be limited. In this part of the Midwest, cereal rye is sometimes all we can plant following corn and soybean harvest. In cooler regions, varieties with winter hardiness and tolerance for cold temperatures and frost are key. In the south, drought- and heat-tolerant varieties with lower water requirements are a necessity.

Should I plant a cover crop seed blend, or a single variety?

Zimmer: It can depend on the time of year and, again, your purpose for the crop. It took me 30 years to learn this, and I’ll give it to you in one sentence: Plants determine soil life. The more plant diversity, the more soil life diversity there is. Plants extract minerals from the soil differently. So, the bigger the variety of plants, the bigger the array of minerals I’ve extracted, and the more diverse biology I have. Which, if you add that all together, leads to healthy, mineralized soils.

What is the best way to establish a cover crop?

Zimmer: Treat it like a cash crop. Drilling is a common method and helps improve seed-to-soil contact. If soil is really wet, drilling isn’t always an option. We’ve used a bulk spreader in those situations. On our farm, it works best to prepare the surface to ensure seed establishment.

Which variety should I try first?

Zimmer: Oats are great at scavenging nutrients, and they are easy to manage and terminate. Red clover and rye grass are two easy-to-manage, shade-tolerant cover crops that work well interseeded into corn.

If I want to scavenge nitrogen following corn, which cover crop should I plant?

Zimmer: Cereal rye is a go-to option to scavenge nitrogen following corn. If it’s too late in the fall to establish a cover crop, I would no-till in oats in early spring. Another option is to plant shorter-day corn. With advances in technology, we can grow a high-yielding crop and have a better chance of establishing a cover crop after harvest.

Do cover crops generate nutrient credits for next season’s crop? How does that factor into my fertility plan?

Zimmer: It depends. The stage at which cover crops are harvested is critical. They will trap nutrients, but the question is: How fast are they released? If the cover crop contains nutrients and it gets too mature, it turns into fungal food. At that stage, nutrient release is slow and plant residues are hard to digest. Fungal food has a high carbon-to-nitrogen ratio, meaning nitrogen will tie-up in the soil as residues break down. This is ideal before planting soybeans, because soybeans don’t require large amounts of soluble nitrogen, and the cover crop effectively scavenges nutrients away from weeds prior to planting.

If it’s a young, succulent cover crop, it becomes bacterial food and the resulting nutrient release will be much faster and more available that season. This management approach is best before planting corn, which needs more soluble nitrogen and other nutrients. You won’t get as many credits the first year of planting cover crops as you will on a long-term basis. If you plan to add cover crops into your rotation, you have to commit to them for about three years to gain the full benefits. Cover crops have a learning curve — expect to make mistakes while learning how to manage them.

Do I need to fertilize a cover crop?

Zimmer: Yes, whether it’s manure or commercial fertilizer, fertilize right in front of your cover crop. We want maximum plant growth and sequestration of minerals in the carbon-biological cycle. When the cover crop is terminated, incorporated into the soil, and combined with nutrients from manure or fertilizer, it provides fertility for the next crop.

I’ve heard that some cover crops can tie-up nitrogen in the soil if not properly managed. Can I prevent this from happening?

Zimmer: Many people think that the bigger the cover crops get, the more nitrogen and benefits they provide. However, as the cover crop grows, the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio increases and the digestibility of the plant material decreases. This can reduce seed-to-soil contact at planting and affect germination rates. It’s important to either harvest cover crops or put them back into the soil at the right stage to control the areas of soil biology that you want to improve. Feed your soil like you would feed a cow. You want it to produce? Feed it highly digestible, highly soluble feeds harvested at the right time.

What cover crop(s) should I plant as supplemental forage?

Zimmer: Summer grasses, small grains, spring triticale and rye grass are options for late-summer planting in fields rotating out of corn silage or wheat. Last year, we planted an 85-day silage corn. Our workload was done earlier, and we had time after harvest to do some tillage and establish a cover crop. In the beginning of August, we fertilized and planted our grazing cover crop. It was grazed from mid-October until Thanksgiving. Harvesting was an option, but I worked it into the soil because I wanted to capture nutrients from the livestock manure to feed the soil.

We had a lot of rain early this summer, and we weren’t able to establish corn in some fields. Should I plant cover crops in these fields?

Zimmer: Yes, keeping soil covered helps build soil health. So, for producers with goals of driving yields, establishing cover crops in those fields is the natural decision. It will save money on pesticides and insecticides, and can reduce nitrogen needs for the next crop. Overall, I would expect better crops during the next rotation in that field.

What is the best way to terminate cover crops?

Zimmer: Cover crops feed soil life. If I terminate cover crops with spray, we’ll still get some plant nutrients back into the ground, but everything above ground can no longer feed the soil. The ideal situation is discing-in the cover crops, or shallowly incorporating them into the top soil. o

The USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) offers financial assistance to growers meeting NRCS cover crop seeding requirements. Growers can receive up to three annual payments, with rates based upon the seed mixture used. Learn more at www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs.

L-CBF Research Study: Stronger Starts, Drier Grain

Now in its second year, Midwestern BioAg’s liquid carbon-based fertilizer (L-CBF) study at the University of Illinois is once again showing positive results. In early June, Midwestern BioAg scientist Bill Petersen traveled to the University’s research farm and reported back visible improvements in plant height. “Early plant response to L-CBF treatment was consistently positive,” said Petersen. “Plants in treated plots were noticeably taller, validating for the second year that L-CBF application gives plants an early season advantage.”

Derived from cane molasses, L-CBF delivers quality plant nutrients in a carbon base to stimulate soil biology and increase nutrient availability. It can be applied to all major crops and can also be added to most other fertilizers and herbicides.

The L-CBF study, conducted in partnership with QLF Agronomy, analyzes the effects of multiple L-CBF treatments on early season corn growth. The study tracks plant development on three sites, DeKalb, Champaign, and Harrisburg, Illinois, and is overseen by Professor Fred Below and Research Specialist Tryston Beyrer of the University of Illinois Crop Physiology Laboratory.

Stronger Starts

First-year findings showed plants treated with L-CBF were taller on average than the untreated control and 10-34-0 treatments alone. Increasing early season growth in corn carries multiple benefits, including quicker canopy cover, less weed competition, reduced soil evaporation and lower moisture at harvest. A summary of each treatment and its resulting impact on plant height is summarized in Table 1. LCBF table 1

Lower Moisture at Harvest

Grain moisture at harvest was significantly lower in corn treated with L-CBF 10-14-1 and L-CBF BOOST™ added to 10-34-0. This indicates that corn treated with L-CBF can be harvested earlier in the season and will require less grain drying after harvest.

“L-CBF can help growers get out in the field early and improve nutrient availability in cool soils,” said Petersen. “L-CBF is also a great tool when planting operations are delayed. The addition of starter fertilizers can speed up development, assuring the crop is mature and dries in the field. This is especially helpful in northern climates with shorter growing seasons.” Final 2015 data on grain moisture is summarized in Table 2.

LCBF table 2

2016 Study: New Formulations, Combinations

This year’s study continues to track L-CBF’s impact on corn performance, but includes two new formulations: monopotassium phosphate (MKP) 6-24-6 with L-CBF BOOST, and L-CBF 7-20-3. All plots, including the control, received additional nitrogen per Illinois Extension recommendations prior to planting. Treatments include:

  • L-CBF 10-14-1 at 3 gal/ac and 5 gal/ac
  • MKP 6-24-6 at 3 gal/ac
  • MKP 6-24-6 at 3 gal/ac, with L-CBF BOOST at 1 gal/ac and 2 gal/ac
  • L-CBF 7-20-3 at 3 gal/ac and 5 gal/ac

Currently under development, L-CBF 7-20-3 combines the benefits of L-CBF’s molasses base with an additional high-quality phosphorus source. It has a higher ratio of ortho to poly phosphates, a feature often touted for improving season-long nutrient availability.

Figure 1 compares L-CBF 7-20-3 in-furrow at 5 gal/ac (left) to the control (right). “Plants in the treated study were taller and more robust,” said Petersen. “The added phosphorus in L-CBF 7-20-3 can be very beneficial to corn, especially in central-Illinois soil where we’ve seen bigger responses following phosphorus application.”

LCBF fig 1

Final study findings will be shared once available later this year. Information on other Midwestern BioAg research projects can be found at: www.midwesternbioag.com/research-results/research

Growing Farm Margins with High-Quality Forages

Ten years ago, Plaetz Dairy came to Midwestern BioAg looking to improve their conventional dairy farm. Farmers Bruce and Sherry were struggling with feed quality, a problem they hoped Midwestern BioAg’s forage program could help them solve.

“Everything we grow is fed to the cows,” Bruce said. “Before switching to BioAg, we spent a lot of money on feed, protein and minerals trying to keep cows healthy. A big problem was that our cows didn’t like their hay. It was bitter tasting; they picked through it.”

After testing their forages, Midwestern BioAg consultant Josh Elsing noticed excessively high potassium levels — a problem for many Midwest dairy farms. Elsing recommended a new fertility program, and the Plaetz’s decided to give it a try.

After ten years, the changes Elsing recommended have led to significant improvements in forage quality — the farm now saves 63 cents per cow per day on supplemental minerals.

Plans for Change: Going Organic

When Bruce and Sherry first began working with BioAg, they had major changes planned for the farm. “Our son, Matt, wanted to start farming with us, but it just wasn’t economically feasible at the time. We decided to go organic so that Matt could join the farm and we could stay profitable.”

“When I first started working with Plaetz Dairy, my goal was to balance the farm’s soil and improve biological activity,” said Elsing. “Knowing that they wanted to transition the herd to organic, it was important to get their ground in great shape to help make the transition as smooth as possible.” Today, the Wabasso, Minnesota, operation milks 75 cows on 520 acres. They’re organic on 320 acres and are currently transitioning another 200 acres.

A Different Fertility Program

At Plaetz Dairy, organic corn yields average 150 to 180 bushels per acre. Their organic soybeans average about 45 to 50 bushels per acre, close to the conventional average in the area — results, Elsing says, the Plaetz’s have earned.

“The Plaetz’s have worked hard on improving and mineralizing their soils so that now, after years on our program, they can reduce the amount of fertilizers needed to grow a crop. They are excellent managers — they are open minded, willing to try and they observe and learn.”

“You don’t need chemicals to grow a good crop,” said Bruce. “But you still have to take good care of the soil and use the right inputs to be successful.”

 

After ten years, the changes Elsing recommended have led to significant improvements in forage quality — the farm now saves 63 cents per cow per day on supplemental minerals.

 

Adding calcium was the first change Elsing made to the Plaetz Dairy fertility program. “We applied Bio-Cal® — and later, OrganiCal™ — to the Plaetz’s ground to improve both soil and crop quality,” said Elsing. “Calcium improves soil structure and plant uptake of other minerals, including phosphorus, boron and sulfur. This helps improve feed efficiency and reduces dependency on purchased mineral.”

The Plaetz’s organic herd is producing well on the BioAg-fertilized forages. “Production averages 60 lbs. per cow per day, and herd health is very good,” said Bruce. “For the first time in the 35 years I’ve been milking cows, we had to sell springing heifers. We’ve never had that ‘problem’ before.”

In addition to OrganiCal when needed, Plaetz Dairy bulk spreads Midwestern BioAg’s organic fertilizer blends each season. These include phosphorous, potassium, HumaCal®, K-Mag®, potash and rock phosphorous, with analyses ranging from 0-0-2 to 0-1-25. Additionally, they apply liquid fertilizer at planting, which includes a mixture of Midwestern BioAg’s OMRI-listed L-CBF TerraFed™ and fish at 5 gallons per acre.

“Now that our soil is balanced, we’re growing much sweeter, more palatable hay,” said Bruce. “One of the first things Josh told us was to take care of our alfalfa and the rest will take care of itself. We’re seeing that coming true.”

Diverse Crop Rotations

In addition to their hay ground, Plaetz Dairy rotationally grazes 40 acres of pasture during the growing season. Their TMR includes all homegrown corn silage, haylage, dry hay, high-moisture shell corn and roasted soybeans.

“We grow a lot of alfalfa,” said Bruce. “Our hay is a combination of Midwestern BioAg’s WinterKing alfalfa and High Quality Forage (HQF) grass mix.” Alfalfa on the Plaetz farm is kept in a short rotation (three-year maximum) and yields about 4 to 5 tons of dry hay per acre. Alfalfa is then followed by two years of corn and one year of soybeans.

Organic farms like Plaetz Dairy must grow a majority of their own nitrogen on the farm. For the Plaetz’s, this includes livestock manure, green manure crops like oats and alfalfa, and chicken pellets when needed. “We rotovate our fields in the fall, so they’re pretty smooth for planting oats in the spring,” said Bruce. “Once the oats are 6 to 8 inches tall, we work them in with a field cultivator.”

Transitioning Challenges

Transitioning to organic isn’t simply leaving the sprayer parked in the shed. It requires a whole new management system, including using cover crops and well-timed planting to help control weeds. “It takes courage not to use herbicides,” said Bruce. “We took the leap. Our yields haven’t dropped, our production hasn’t dropped. We’ve been truly blessed.”

For Plaetz Dairy, the initial transition to organic went smoothly. On ground where BioAg products and practices were previously applied, the change went well. However, when the Plaetz’s decided to transition additional acres in 2014, the process was not as seamless. “We had issues with grasses on land that hadn’t been in the BioAg program. We found we needed to do more work with cover crops,” said Bruce. “We didn’t get a cover crop in on two new soybean fields, and we had a mess with grass.”

“Taking a few seasons to prepare the ground before transitioning to organic can be extremely beneficial to producers,” said Elsing. “On the Plaetz farm, the advantage was very clear.”

The Plaetz’s continue to see their soils improve, a full decade after first working with Elsing. “They are getting really loose and mellow,” said Bruce. “Our soil takes the rain better, and we don’t have standing water in the field like the neighbors do. We’re excited for what’s next. Before working with BioAg, we were going backwards. Things are different now. We’re excited for the future.” 

Transitioning to Organic in Michigan’s UP

Nick Theuerkauf is the fifth generation to farm the 2,000 acres that is Elmbrook Farms. Originally a dairy, the farm shifted gears eight years ago to produce beef, feed and a variety of cash crops that included corn and soybeans.

Located in Menominee, Michigan, the Theuerkauf farm is fortunate to be situated in what is known as the “banana belt” of the Upper Peninsula. With a 120 to 140 day growing season and average annual high of 52 degrees, the region is more suitable for farming than land further north. This allows the Theuerkaufs to grow corn and beans, while the much of the UP’s limited farmland produce crops such as hay, potatoes and barley.

Nick farms with his father, Bill Theuerkauf. In 2014, they made the decision to transition to organic production when Nick’s two brothers, Travis and Stephen, expressed interest in returning to the home farm. Nick and Bill reasoned that organic production could maximize profitability on the farm, making it possible to support the larger, extended family.

Asking for Help

With the part-time help from Travis and Stephen, Nick and Bill began the transition in 2015. At the time, market trends led them to consider edible beans — on the 185 acres that could be certified organic right away, they planted pinto beans. On their transitioning acres, they added another 500 acres of black turtle beans, 40 acres of soybeans, 90 of corn and put the rest of the ground in small grains, cover crops and alfalfa.

“You have to try everything, give it a fair shot,” said Nick. “That’s the way you see what works for you.” For Nick, trying everything also included asking lots of questions.

“Ask questions, bug people, go to classes and conferences and learn as much as you can,” he said. A neighbor who had transitioned 10 years ago was a great resource both for information and equipment sharing. The Theuerkaufs did extensive Internet searches, attended webinars online and attended events like ACRES and MOSES to learn as much as possible. They recognized that the individuals who visited the farm were great sources of information. “If they are a good salesperson, they’ll be able to put you in touch with the answers,” Nick said. One such person was Midwestern BioAg sales consultant Ben Bartlett.

Having worked with organic operations for more than 10 years, Ben had a lot to offer the Theuerkaufs. He reviewed Elmbrook’s soil tests, shared them with the extended network of experts available through Midwestern BioAg and talked with the Theuerkaufs about both dry and liquid fertilizer options. To help get things going in the cold northern spring, Ben developed a starter fertilizer customized for the Theuerkauf’s sandy-loam soil. Throughout the season, Ben continued to work with the Theuerkaufs to assess program results.

Early Challenges

“One of the main challenges was a lack of soil biology. It just didn’t have that earthy smell that lets you know soil life is at work,” said Ben. He said this can be typical for farms starting their transition. “I’ve had customers come to me ready to transition, and I’ve suggested they build their soil biology for a year or two if possible. It’s not the response they expect, but if we think it’s the best business decision, then I believe we need to say it out loud.”

The Theuerkaufs faced another big challenge: Learning lots of new agronomic practices all at once. In particular, they had never grown edible beans. It was much more work than they expected, at a time when they were already taking on new challenges.

“It was a huge learning curve for us,” said Nick. Some of the problems they faced included seed maggot infestation, drown-out and wet soil issues, and weed pressure. Despite these challenges, the Theuerkaufs intend to plant more edible beans this year including dark kidney beans, as well as organic corn.

“The hard thing about transitioning is finding a buyer for transitional crops that will pay premium,” said Nick. “You know what you have is valuable and it’s hard to accept conventional prices.” In the UP, finding markets of any kind within a reasonable distance is already a challenge. A neighbor helped locate a buyer for transitional beans early on and Ben Bartlett helped them find market options for 400 acres of transitional oats.

“I was able to connect them to Mercaris,” Ben said. “It’s an online data and auction company specializing in organic and non-GMO grains.” Through the Mercaris auction system, Nick found a buyer for his oats at a strong price.

 

“It’s not just about using different products that are organic approved,” said Ben. “You have to understand how the whole system works to stay profitable.”

 

Cover crops were also challenging. Nick sees their value in fixing nitrogen and keeping his soil biology thriving, but getting them established in the short UP growing season is tough. The long fall in 2015 allowed him to seed cover crops following most of his crops. This year, he plans to experiment with interseeding cover crops into his corn. He’s also looking to use a 80-day corn (or shorter) to allow time to get a cover crop down before winter. Midwestern BioAg was able to be a resource for securing a variety of cover cop seed options for the farm to use.

A Different Mindset

“It’s not just about using different products that are organic approved,” said Ben. “You have to understand how the whole system works to stay profitable on a consistent basis.”

“We’re still figuring it out,” said Nick, as their second full season of transition is about to begin. “We’re at the point where we see it can be done. It starts making sense and you feel better about it. It’s still scary, but we feel like it was the right decision. You have to change your mindset.”

Focusing on Efficiency

Needing more hay for his beef cattle, northwestern Illinois beef producer Randy Adolph was ready for a different approach. “I wasn’t happy with what I was currently doing and wanted to try something new,” said Randy.

Four years later, he’s a lot happier with his fields — his alfalfa yields are up to 7 tons from the 5 he was getting back in 2012.

That was when he learned about Bio-Cal® from his cousin, Midwestern BioAg Certified Crop Advisor Ben Adolph. Over the past four years, Ben and Randy have worked hard to improve Randy’s yields and soils. Today, Randy uses the full Midwestern BioAg fertility program.

“When it comes to the crops, I let Ben make the decisions. As long as he can support the reasoning behind his recommendations, we go with it,” said Randy. “I set the budget and yield goals, and let him make the recommendations from there.”

Managing Variability

Randy’s 2,800 acres touch three northwestern Illinois counties. Soil and land types vary greatly — a challenge Ben addresses with fertilizer blends designed specifically for each soil type. “In the past four years, we’ve seen a huge improvement in his soil structure,” remarked Ben. “Randy’s field-to-field variability is incredibly high. After looking at his soil tests, it was clear his fields needed a certain approach that they weren’t getting.”

“With BioAg products, I’m getting a higher return in the end,” said Randy. “They are better for the soil, better for the environment and better for my bottom line.”

“Randy’s crop health and yields have really improved,” said Ben. “Randy’s ground had a lot of fertility, but nutrients were tied-up in the soil. Applying calcium helped improve plant uptake of other nutrients. We attribute a lot of the success seen on his farm to Bio-Cal.”

Cover Crop Forages

With crop yields on the rise, Randy has more time to focus his attention on his herd of 550 Red Angus and Red Angus Commercial beef cattle. That includes incorporating cover crops into his rotation as a grazing crop. “We plant late-season cover crops following wheat in July,” said Randy. “Once established, it provides at least an additional month of grazing in the fall.”

“Randy is saving money with his cover crop program,” said Ben. “We purchase and spread the seed for less than $2,000. He is saving multiple times that by grazing his bred heifers on that ground, since they would otherwise be eating hay.”

Last year’s grazing mix included turnip, rape, clover and millet. “When certain grasses freeze, they can accumulate prussic acid. We avoid those grass varieties so the cattle can graze later into the season,” said Ben.

After the fall grazing season is over, Randy applies manure and chisel plows to help fight soil compaction from late fall grazing. “You couldn’t raise a crop the next year if you didn’t,” said Randy.

Crops & Fertilizer

“Our crop rotations depend on field and soil type. We don’t typically do more than two years of corn in one field,” said Randy. “Both soybeans and wheat are one-year rotations.” Alfalfa stands stay in production for about four to six years.

Randy uses a maximum of 160 units of purchased nitrogen per year. “Dry fertilizer application rates range from 12 to 50 pounds of nitrogen per acre, depending on the crop,” said Ben.

Randy typically bulk spreads his fertilizer, but has recently started using variable rate technology (VRT). “We are integrating more technology, and have started working with the NRCS to develop a nutrient management plan,” said Randy.

“Our goal is to produce as high of yields as we can, profitably,” said Ben. “We focus on margins first. Midwestern BioAg’s fertilizer blends help keep nutrients in the field all season. Nutrient loss erodes profits, so limiting it is key.”

Improving Forage Quality & Yield

“I started using Bio-Cal in my fields with the goal to reduce total acres in hay without lowering tonnage,” said Randy. “So far, we’ve seen an increase from 5 to 7 tons per acre. I can see our end goal coming, but it’s just going to take some time.”

“We apply Bio-Cal to Randy’s hay ground regularly. Any fields that Randy uses for fall grazing receive Bio-Cal to help loosen the soil and prevent compaction the following season. Row-crop acres receive Bio-Cal as needed — about every three years,” said Ben.

“Since using Bio-Cal, my hay quality is better,” said Randy. Randy’s forages are more mineralized, helping keep his beef herd healthy and productive.

Randy’s neighbors have noticed. “My neighbor baled some of my third crop hay for me last year,” said Randy. “He said he didn’t know what I did to my fields, but it was the best hay he’s ever mowed.”

 

“So far, we’ve seen an increase from 5 to 7 tons per acre. I can see our end goal coming, but it’s just going to take some time.”

 

Randy has produced some of the best crops he’s ever had in the past few years. “Our corn yields have gone up each year since using BioAg,” said Randy. “If you get a 150-bushel average in our area, you better take it. We have a lot of rock, clay and hills. Our average yield last year was 190 bushels per acre, despite the really wet weather we had in Illinois.”

Results

Randy’s yields are up and he has the mapping records to prove it. “I’ve seen the benefits,” said Randy. “My bottom line has improved because of my yield boosts. If I can see a profit in my bottom line, that’s all that matters.”

If there’s one thing Randy has learned throughout this process, it’s to be open to suggestions and be open to change.

“I’ve had neighbors doing the same thing for 20 years, and they cannot figure out why they aren’t seeing changes,” said Randy. “Sometimes you have to mix things up a little.”

“Randy’s farm has improved significantly in two key areas: nutrient management and soil structure,” said Ben. “Those are the two major components to our success.”

Start Strong, Finish Strong

You never want your crop to have a bad day, said Alan Kauffman, Ohio-based Midwestern BioAg sales consultant. “Marathon runners don’t skip breakfast the day of a big race. That’s why we put down starter fertilizer in the spring — to get those plants off to a strong start.”

Midwestern BioAg scientist Bill Petersen agrees. “Our 2015 studies with Dr. Fred Below of the University of Illinois looked at early-season advantages of starter application. In the study, we added L-CBF BOOST™ and 10-34-0 to corn. Advantages of applying starter fertilizer were measurable and visually obvious,” noted Petersen. “I think Dr. Below says it best: Start strong, stay strong, finish strong.”

Years of research support Dr. Below’s findings that applying starters in the seedling and early vegetative stage of development encourages strong starts. “It’s well documented that if you have two plants side by side and one plant is one or two leaf stages behind the other, the plant left behind never catches up,” said Kauffman. “There’s no way to finish strong if you don’t start strong.”

Improving Early Season Uptake

Starter fertilizer ensures new seedlings have access to ample nutrients early in the season. “This is especially important in cool soils,” said Kauffman. In early spring, soil biological activity and nutrient availability is limited. “Even in high-testing soils, early season nutrient availability may be lower than expected. When roots are in the early development stages, they can’t reach the nutrients they need. Starter helps bridge this gap.”

“I recommend ammonium sulfate as a nitrogen source in dry starters for two main reasons,” said Kauffman. “When the ammonium form of nitrogen is used, it acidifies soil around the seed bed and increases phosphorous uptake. It also provides sulfate sulfur, which supports plant growth and health.”

Because starters are placed near the seed, fertilizer quality must be closely evaluated to reduce chances of plant damage. “Starters with high salt indexes can harm early root growth and reduce nutrient uptake. At Midwestern BioAg, our blends swap out commercial-grade nutrients for high-quality ingredients.”

As the salt index of fertilizer increases, the potential for seed injury also increases. “Growers on dry or sandy soils must be especially careful,” said Kauffman. “The likelihood of injury from salts increases on that type of ground.”

Balance, Concentration & Recovery

Starter fertilizers are designed to support early season growth, but not necessarily season-long performance. “In the big picture, applying basic starter fertilizer is not a season-long fertility plan,” said Kauffman. “It’s giving plants the best opportunity at a good start. The V5 to V8 growth stage for corn and beans is very important. Development during these stages directly impacts yield.”

Kauffman recommends applying dry fertilizer before or at planting. “We want to put down a balanced fertilizer blend that contains soluble and slow-release nutrients. This is when we can address yield-limiting factors like calcium and sulfur deficiencies. We can address nutrient deficiencies with dry starters, but have fewer options with liquid products.”

“I’d like to apply both a liquid pop-up and a dry starter at planting, but most farms do not have that capability,” said Kauffman. “For most customers, I recommend bulk-spreading dry fertilizer followed by L-CBF at planting. Nutrients are more soluble in liquid, which is ideal for young roots.”

Midwestern BioAg’s high-quality fertilizer ingredients give producers more flexibility at planting. Because ingredients are non-harmful to young plants, growers can go beyond a basic starter and put down a complete, balanced fertilizer without fear of plant burn. This gives farmers all the benefits of a starter fertilizer in the spring, in addition to the season-long benefits of a balanced Midwestern BioAg blend.

“We can recommend a blend to support early season growth, as well as season-long performance. With the right planter set up, this can eliminate an extra pass on the field, and help reduce compaction overall,” said Kauffman.

Next Steps

In addition to early season growth, starters provide many season-long benefits. These include quicker canopy cover, lower moisture at harvest (for corn), less weed competition and reduced soil evaporation. “For my organic producers, this is essential,” said Kauffman. “Early canopy can help shade out weeds. If the weeds are as tall as or taller than the crop, you’ve already lost the battle if you can’t use chemicals.”

Kauffman recommends closely monitoring nitrogen as the season progresses. “Split application of nitrogen is ideal,” said Kauffman. “I recommend ESN® in pre-plant applications for season-long availability, followed by L-CBF mixed with 28% or 32% as a side-dress for early season support.”

 

Starters provide many season-long benefits, including quicker canopy cover, lower moisture at harvest (for corn), less weed competition and reduced soil evaporation.

 

Because corn needs three times as much nitrogen after the V10 stage, access to late-season nitrogen is essential to support yield. “It does not take a lot of nitrogen to get things going,” said Kauffman, “but running out of nitrogen in later growth stages can lead to big yield losses.”

Finishing Strong

“The biggest factor affecting crop production is weather,” said Kauffman. “In a severe drought, there’s not a lot a grower can do to prevent yield loss. But there are a few things they can do to help keep losses to a minimum.”

By focusing on soil health, growers can improve soil water- and nutrient-holding capacity. “A good soil structure can improve plant resistance to stress factors like weather extremes and disease pressure,” said Kauffman. “Products like Bio-Cal® provide calcium to open up soil structure and help create humus — this improves soil drainage and water-holding capacity, and also helps unlock nutrients in the soil.” Improvements to structure can also increase rooting potential.

“All Midwestern BioAg products have one thing in common,” said Kauffman. “They build soil health in the long-term while supporting crop production in the short-term. If you want to give your plants a head start this season, we can help.”

Going for More

Phil Schwantz is a third-generation farmer who’s proud to be the steward of his grandfathers’ farmland. He lives on the farmstead where his paternal grandfather and father farmed and rents land from his aunt that was once farmed by his maternal grandfather.

He also feels fortunate to be working with Midwestern BioAg on a program that has created “an explosion” of earthworms on his 500 acres of tillable farmland. A leading indicator of soil health, earthworm activity can increase soil infiltration and improve water-holding capacity, help breakdown plant residues, and stimulate microbial activity, all major drivers of plant growth and productivity. Working with BioAg consultant Mike Lovlien, Schwantz focuses on improving his soil structure and providing his crops with what they need to produce top yields.
Schwantz grew up knowing the land and has been farming it since he was a young man, first with his dad and then on his own after graduating from high school in the late 1970s.

He says he’s always been competitive when it comes to farming. “If I get 200 bushels, I think we should go for 210,” he said. In his years of farming and improving the land, he has ratcheted up production incrementally. “Back in ’78, if you had 150 bushels per acre, that was considered good.”

When he began farming after high school, the county-program yield for his land was in the range of 114 to 120 bushels of corn per acre. Over the years, he’s switched from wide rows to narrow rows and went with a mostly no-till system. His ten-year average for corn production now stands at 205 bushels per acre, almost a 100 percent increase over the past 30 years.

Building Soil Capacity

Schwantz started working with Midwestern BioAg in the early 1990s after learning more about the company from a consultant. “I was always looking for something else and they were talking a little different story. I was willing to try. If we saw results then it was something we’d stick with.” Schwantz says he sees those results each year — more production per acre and less unit inputs.

Schwantz’s land has increased in organic matter and in cation exchange capacity (CEC), which is a measure of the nutrient-holding ability of the soil. “There’s no right or wrong CEC, but you need to know what it is to recommend the right fertilizer application rates,” says Lovlien.

In fall 2013, Schwantz worked with BioAg to grid sample his acres to identify nutrient deficiencies in specific locations. Using this data, he can now implement variable rate fertilizer application on his farm for optimum nutrient efficiency.

“Organic matter is increasing, CEC is rising, and yield is rising. Something’s got to be working in sync,” says Schwantz. He likes that he and Lovlien go out into the fields with a spade to look for soil life, a sign of healthy, productive ground.

Season-Long Fertility

Schwantz bulk spreads Midwestern BioAg’s dry fertilizer before planting each spring. “Last year, Phil applied 420 pounds per acre of 15-12-12-7S with high traces,” said Lovlien. “Like all our fertilizers, Phil’s blend contains high quality ingredients like ESN® and ammonium sulfate for season-long nutrient availability.”

Midwestern BioAg’s dry blends supply both NPK and a balanced supply of secondary nutrients and trace minerals. “Because yields can be limited by deficiencies of any nutrient,” said Lovlien, “overcoming yield-limiting factors on the farm starts with addressing nutrient deficiencies in the soil.”

While planting corn, Schwantz applies BioAg’s liquid carbon-based fertilizer (L-CBF) 10-14-1 at 5 gallons per acre as a pop-up starter. Schwantz has seen great results with the product and plans to apply it for the third year this spring.

About three to four days following planting, Schwantz applies liquid 28% with herbicide. “Phil applies 28% at 20 gallons per acre, or 60 units,” said Lovlien. “His dry fertilizer supplies 63 units of nitrogen. That’s 123 units of purchased nitrogen per acre — about 163 units total if we count the 40-unit credit from soybeans the previous year.”

In past years, Schwantz has planted oats as a cover crop following corn and soybeans to scavenge nutrients. “2015 was a great year for cover crops,” said Lovlien. “This fall, Phil plans to aerial seed ryegrass and radish into standing corn.”

Looking Ahead

In addition to farming his own land, Schwantz also custom-plants corn for others. He recently upgraded his planter with liquid application equipment so he can plant more acres per fill than with dry starter in the past. The planter is GPS-equipped, and Lovlien and Schwantz plan to use that function to incorporate information from grid samples. Lovlien notes that by intensively sampling fields, Schwantz can better target where fertilizer is needed and in what amounts.

 

“I want to leave the soil in better shape than when I started. I think that’s what a farmer should do.”

 

Now that there isn’t manure to haul on his farm every day, as there was in the days when he was dairy farming, Schwantz looks for different ways to manage his land. “I try to primarily no-till, which gives me more options.”

A dairy farmer until 2002, Schwantz sold his 65-cow herd when he felt he was at a crossroads of investing significant money in dairy facilities or doing something else. He decided to raise heifers for another farmer until the use of sexed semen resulted in too many heifers for his facilities. Again he was at a crossroads, trying to decide if he should invest in more livestock facilities or instead raise his own steers. Today, Schwantz rents his facilities to a beef producer.

For now, Schwantz is concentrating on his land. “I want to leave the soil in better shape than when I started. I think that’s what a farmer should do.”

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Jan Shepel has over 25 years of ag journalism experience and lives in southwestern Wisconsin.

Michaels to Scientists & Policy-Makers: Look at Farm Progress

Midwestern BioAg CEO Tony Michaels told one of the most influential audiences of scientists and policy leaders in the U.S. that many of the necessary advances in agriculture were already happening on Midwestern farms.

In a keynote address to the annual meeting of the National Council for Science and the Environment (NCSE), Michaels described progress at several farms currently being managed with the help of Midwestern BioAg products and services.

In each case, before touching on environmental issues, he made it clear that these farms have increased their profits. For Michaels and the BioAg team, that is always the first priority.

He described the progress on Chad Gleason’s farm (featured earlier in this newsletter), noting substantial yield gains and highlighting the societal benefits of the increase in soil organic matter on the Gleason farm.

“Soil organic matter has gone from an average of 3.27 percent to 4.59 percent,” Michaels said. “This is extraordinary. For every 1 percent increase in soil organic matter, 18 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents are sequestered in the soil. It’s a significant contribution.”

 

Yield Gains & Reduced Climate Impacts

He labeled Gary Manternach’s farm, in Monticello, Iowa, as a corn-belt archetype, saying it looks to the casual observer like so many farms across eastern Iowa — with one key exception.

“They made one big change in their practices,” Michaels said. “They changed what they put on their soil. We worked with them to apply calcium soil amendments. And we gave them balanced fertilizers to match their soil — going well beyond the standard NPK.

“Their yields have nearly doubled, and they did it by keeping their nitrogen use steady. So they’ve obviously succeeded. But there is more.” Because they kept their use of nitrogen stable, the yield increase meant they were close to cutting their nitrogen use per bushel of corn in half.

 

 

“For every 1 percent increase in soil organic matter, 18 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents are sequestered in the soil. It’s a significant contribution.”

 

 

“That’s a huge climate benefit,” Michaels said. “The production of synthetic nitrogen is energy intensive and comes with a high greenhouse gas burden. What they’ve done is incredible.”

And these farmers are not alone. Many BioAg customers have reduced the climate impacts associated with food grown on their farm — though many are unaware that they’ve done so.

The conference, titled “The Food, Energy & Water Nexus,” was attended by more than 1,200 scientists and policy makers. It was held in Alexandria, Virginia, just across the Potomac River from Washington, DC.

Michaels shared data from 43 farms that are relatively new to the Midwestern BioAg fertility program. These farms, on average, went from 150 bushels of corn to 180, most of them gaining that increase in the first three years.

A subset of those farms had soil samples available before and after the multi-year application of Midwestern BioAg products. The average increase in soil organic matter was 0.44%, a significant leap, given that the maximum time frame was five years.

 

Challenging Policy-Makers to Incentivize Nutrient Efficiency

Michaels challenged policy-makers to start thinking more about systems approaches to their work.

He said that regulations tend to target single problems, and most products do the same. But in both cases, the problems don’t exist in isolation.

“The best solutions come from considering them in the context of the whole system,” Michaels said. “We need any new regulations to be the result of more systems thinking, and to pursue more systems outcomes.”

He said it was time to “incentivize nutrient efficiency.” That is, farmers who find ways to apply less commercial nitrogen and phosphorous should perhaps be rewarded because they are helping avoid the societal costs incurred when those nutrients are overused and run off into waterways or are released into the atmosphere.

He also challenged policy-makers to find “better ways to align the interests of landowners and renting farmers.”

“We find that some of our customers will use our products and practices on the land they own, but not on the land they rent.” Michaels said. “They figure that if they improve the quality of the land they are renting, then the rent may just go up the following year. There is little incentive for renting farmers to build soil health for the long-term when they may not have access to those lands in the very next year or two.”

Michaels suggested this issue needed additional thought and discussion.

Michaels used photographs to make sure conference participants had a better sense of farms and farming. He described the “achingly beautiful” Otter Creek Farm, run by Midwestern BioAg founder, Gary Zimmer. He showed slides of the fields at Taliesin, the Frank Lloyd Wright Farm managed with Midwestern BioAg fertility, again focusing on the beauty of a viable, healthy farm.

In conversations after the speech, Michaels ended up in several discussions ignited by the specific examples he used.

“We see farms every day that are solving these challenges — and they are making more money doing it,” Michaels said.

“Promoting the solutions that work today is one of the most important steps toward a more sustainable food supply, healthier people and a healthier planet.”

Improving Yields & Quality

The first year of using Midwestern BioAg (MBA) fertilizers led to a 15 percent yield increase in soybeans, while oats grown on soils that had used MBA fertility for multiple years saw significant gains in nutritional values, according to two studies done in concert with a large food company (LFC). In both cases, the BioAg fertility program outperformed industry-standard recommendations.

The soybean results come from the first year of a six-year study designed to analyze how Midwestern BioAg fertilizers and practices affect soil biology, crop yields and economics. Using the food company’s research plots, it will test a rotation of soybeans, oats and corn, with cover crops grown between the cash crops. The first year of the study included three treatments on soybeans in Minnesota — one control plot managed according to the LFC standard practices, and two plots managed according to the BioAg fertility program.

Plots treated with the BioAg fertility program showed both early season advantages and harvest-time gains. Color differences among the plots can be seen in the aerial photo in Figure 1. Harvest data on plant height and pod count are shown in Table 1.

 

soybean plots

soybeans Table 1

The soybean finding is particularly important in challenging economic times. Results suggest that farmers switching to the BioAg program this year could see immediate returns on their investment.

“These initial soybean results are significant,” said Midwestern BioAg scientist Dr. Maggie Phillips. “A lot of people understand the value of healthy soils and this should add to their level of confidence that our approach works. This study illustrates what a lot of our growers have seen — that there can be a sizable first-year boost.”

“We anticipate these results compounding in coming seasons. We’re excited to see what’s next.”

“This reinforces what we’ve seen over the years,” said longtime BioAg consultant Ron Gifford. “At Midwestern BioAg, we see the soil as a major farm asset. Our products are designed to support crop performance this season, while building soil health for future seasons. This study demonstrates that farmers no longer have to choose between short-term profits and long-term improvement.”

 

Better Oats, Less Nitrogen

The oats study, done in collaboration with the same large food company, involved existing BioAg customers who established and harvested more than 2,000 acres of oats.

“We found that oats grown on the BioAg program required substantially less purchased nitrogen,” noted Phillips. “Test plots averaged 0.44 units of purchased nitrogen per bushel, about 50 percent less than what is typically applied. This is noteworthy, especially as large food companies seek to lower the carbon footprint of their supply chains.”

Reducing nitrogen use can lower the greenhouse gas (GHGs) emissions associated with its production (making nitrogen is an energy-intense process). It can also reduce the likelihood of nitrous oxides escaping into the atmosphere and nitrates leaching into the water. The study also revealed additional findings about nutritional values.

“Grain analysis showed that oats grown on the BioAg program contained nearly 59 percent more beta-glucans, or soluble fiber,” said Phillips. Beta-glucans have been shown to help lower cholesterol, allowing food companies to make “heart-healthy” claims. Protein levels in the grains also shot up close to 50 percent.

Consultant Ron Gifford said he wasn’t surprised by the nutritional gains. “The increase in nutritional values for oats looks a lot like the nutritional gains we see in forage,” said Gifford. “The same principles apply. If the nutrients are available in the soil, they’ll end up in the plant and ultimately in the food and forage.”

The two studies will continue into 2016, with the oats acreage expected to increase to more than 5,000 acres.

 

Future Projects

Current research efforts include long-term collaborations with major universities, including the Universities of Wisconsin, Illinois and Arizona. All trials are designed to evaluate products, and to assess the overall impact of Midwestern BioAg’s systems-based approach to farming.

Large food company studies will continue in 2016. In addition to this work, the BioAg research team will continue assessing current and potential products. This includes exploration of new liquid fertilizers to expand and complement current offerings, new seed genetics, as well as product analysis and comparison.

 

About Our Team

Midwestern BioAg’s research team is led by Dr. Steven Slater. Steve has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics, 10 years of experience in academia and 10 years of agriculture research experience.

Working with Steve are scientists Bill Petersen and Dr. Maggie Phillips. Bill, our lead researcher, holds a B.S. in Agronomy from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and has more than 30 years of experience in agronomy, plant biology and plant pathology.

Maggie is our project manager and our research chemist. She holds a Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is a certified project management professional.

Waking the Soil

Forty-year farmer and Marine veteran Gary Rademacher never stops improving. When he first started farming near Holdingford, Minnesota in the 1970s, 100-bushel corn yields and 40-bushel soybean yields were the status-quo. “Those were bar-stool yields,” said Rademacher, “yields you could go into town and be proud of.”

Rademacher’s farm has come a long way in the past 40 years. Today, he averages 200-bushel corn and 66-bushel soybeans in the short Minnesota growing season. “If you always do everything the same, you’ll get the same yields. We always go for more and never give up,” said Rademacher.

“With the help of my two sons and five grandsons, we operate about 550 acres of mostly corn and soybeans,” said Rademacher. A former dairy farmer and genetics expert, Rademacher sold his herd of registered Holsteins just five years ago. “We used to grow much more alfalfa when we operated Heavens View Farms. We exported embryos all over — China, England, France, Holland — and had about 350 to 400 head at any given time.”

Rademacher attributes much of his success to advancements in ag technology and his 15-year partnership with Midwestern BioAg consultant Mike Lovlien. “I wish I had worked with Mike from the very beginning. BioAg has been instrumental in taking my crop production to the next level.”

 

 

In some areas, Rademacher has achieved 230-bushel corn yields using just 130 pounds of nitrogen.

 

 

Boosting Nitrogen Efficiency

Working with Lovlien, Rademacher has topped county yields with fertilizer blends designed to support his soil. “Gary applied a 8-18-15-9S starter with high traces to his corn and soybeans this year,” said Lovlien. Rademacher applied the fertilizer in-furrow at 275 pounds per acre on his corn and 180 pounds per acre on beans.

When his corn reached the V6 growth stage, Rademacher made a second pass with 32% nitrogen and L-CBF BOOST™ at a 10 percent inclusion rate. “Gary was really impressed with his corn crop this year,” said Lovlien. “In areas where Boost was applied, Gary saw significant results — about an 18 bushel-per-acre increase.”

Made with pure sugar cane molasses, L-CBF delivers plant nutrients in a carbon base to stimulate soil biology and increase nutrient availability. “My sense is that BOOST played a role in keeping nitrogen available to support late-season growth,” said Rademacher. “With $3 corn, we can’t afford to lose any.”

Rademacher saw results from BOOST all season. “Plants this year were extremely healthy, despite the wet year. Standability was excellent, root structures were strong and fields were very uniform. A few of my neighbors also applied BOOST this year and you could see the difference from the road. Next year, we plan to double our BOOST inclusion rate on low-fertility fields. It does just what Mike said it would — it’s like it just woke up the soil.”

In some areas, Rademacher has achieved 230-bushel corn yields using just 130 pounds of nitrogen. “Mike has helped us come a long way with our fertilizer program,” said Rademacher. “He’s really helped us keep nitrogen application timely and efficient.”

Cover Crop Success

For the past eight years, Rademacher has followed fall harvest with cover crops whenever possible. He’s experimented with rye, clover, oats, and tillage radish. “We’ve had phenomenal success with rye,” said Rademacher. “There are so many benefits to cover crops, but it does take a bit of learning and adjustment.” Rademacher recommends farmers plant as early as possible to build in time for cover crop establishment later in the season.

“We like to follow soybeans with rye in the fall,” said Rademacher. “In the spring, we terminate the rye after 4 to 6 inches of regrowth, disc it in after about 48 hours, and then use a regular seed drill to plant corn. Planting rye after beans helps capture nitrogen and keeps it from leaching over winter.”

Rademacher focuses on planting cover crops on erodible acres first to help keep topsoil intact. “I’ve worked with the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to help recoup some of the extra costs of cover crops.” Sponsored by the NRCS, EQIP provides financial assistance to help plan and implement conservation practices that address natural resource concerns and improve soil, water, plant, animal, air and related resources on agricultural land.

“Cover crops have helped improve my fertilizer efficiency and break the cycle of insect pressure,” noted Rademacher. “My soils have improved and my plants show it. Seed emergence is better, and my soil is much more crumbly. Biological activity is up, and I now have that ‘chocolate cake’ soil Gary Zimmer is always talking about.”

Rademacher also works with the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program (MAWQCP), an initiative designed to help farmers take the lead in implementing water conservation practices. “We are in the process of becoming MAWQCP certified,” said Rademacher. “The things we do to promote soil health on our farm also protect water quality. It’s win-win for stewardship and profitability.”

By focusing on soil health, Rademacher has also seen residue decomposition rates increase. His crops have benefited from the increased organic matter and the biological activity in his soils.

“When I added cover crops into my rotation, rootworm and aphid issues declined,” said Rademacher. “Farmers pay about $30 extra a unit for rootworm protection. I no longer buy that trait for corn following rye because I haven’t needed it. I can’t say for certain I’ll never have rootworm issues again, but by the looks of my plants today, I don’t need it.”

Rademacher’s goal is to leave his soil in better condition than when he first started farming 40 years ago. He has no plan to stop improving any time soon. “I don’t plan on getting old too soon,” said Rademacher. “It’s just starting to get fun!”