Jamie Patton, a soils agent with the University of Wisconsin-Extension in Shawano County, could not wait to get into a soil pit on Mark Schmidt’s dairy farm in Casco, Wis.
Standing in the 4-foot deep pit, Patton shared her observations about the soil’s health with the approximately 40 farmers attending Peninsula Pride Farms’ 2016 Cover Crop Field Day on Aug. 26.
“Look at the surface horizon — it’s thick, rich and dark,” she said enthusiastically. “This is great looking soil.”
The soil pit was dug in a wheat field that was harvested and then planted with a variety of cover crops, including tillage radish, crimson red clover and winter rye, on Aug. 6. Twenty days later, Patton said, the cover crops put down “nice and long” roots that will keep the root channels open so when corn in planted next spring, that crop will grow more quickly since it will not have to exert as much energy putting down those root channels.
The cover crops discussion was one segment of the field day at the Schmidt farm. The day was designed to help farmers learn more about soil health and the different ways to improve it.
Launched earlier this year, the farmer-led environmental stewardship coalition Peninsula Pride brings together the agriculture community, university researchers and scientists to develop solutions to meet the water quality challenges in Kewaunee and southern Door counties. Member farms range in size from 66 cows to 6,000 cows. The group held its first field day in April where members learned how to measure the depth of their soil down to the bedrock.
During the Aug. 26 field day, Kevin Fermanich, a professor at UW-Green Bay who studies soil health and water quality, discussed his research about water infiltration and how farmers can further minimize erosion. He and his team studied soil infiltration in a variety of settings across northeastern Wisconsin.
“We have seen pretty convincing data showing that the soil water-holding capacity increases with no- till activities,” Fermanich said.
Increasing soil aggregate stability is vital in fighting erosion, Fermanich said. He said aggregate stability was 97 percent for soils with permanent vegetation and 71 percent for soils with a corn-soybean-wheat rotation. Fermanich said fields with permanent vegetation would alternate corn, wheat and soybean crops with cover crops.
“The organic matter is the glue that holds the soil aggregate together,” he said. “That increase in soil aggregation means less erosion.”
Farmers really got a lot out of the field day, said Nathen Nysse of Tilth Agronomy, which helped organize the event. He said five farmers asked about coming to see Patton speak at another field day since they learned so much from this experience.
“Cover crops are very important because it promotes soil health, increased water holding capacity, they build and retain nutrients and prevent erosion,” Nysse said. “Peninsula Pride has created a cover crop challenge to increase the awareness of cover crops and promote the use of cover crops among members.”
During their presentations, both Fermanich and Patton said manure application plays a vital role in soil health. Fermanich pointed out how the nutrients from the manure “feed” the bacteria and fungi present in the soil.
“Manure is important for water infiltration as well as the soil’s microbial activity,” he said. “As the health of the soil’s microbacteria improves, it becomes less ‘leaky,’ which means less soil winds up in the tile drains or surface water.”
In addition to farmers using manure to feed their crops, Patton said it’s just as important to use it on cover crops. “Treat your cover crops just as you treat your regular crops — add manure and vary them up on the field. Plant corn, then crimson red clover as a cover crop, go back to wheat and then try tillage radish,” she said.
Patton said that while cover crops have attracted more attention in states further south, the practice has been slow to catch on in Wisconsin. But, farmers and researchers are learning how to utilize cover crops in the Badger State’s shorter growing season. “Cover crops can still be very effective in this region,” she said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is working with Kewaunee County farmers to create cost-sharing options when it comes to cover crops. Patton said resources are available to help farmers make the transition to adding cover crops into their rotation since there is a slight lag in yield for the first couple of years.
“No one is quite sure why that happens, but we’re here to help farmers make the transition as quickly and as painless as possible,” Patton said. “Research shows that soil is healthiest when cover crops and no-tillage practices are used.”