Anyone who has spent much time talking with Fairfield County cover crop expert Dave Brandt knows that he has a history of trying some unusual things on his farm. As one would expect, his neighbors have taken notice through the years.
Brandt said he has good relationships with those who farm around him, but he also rarely misses an opportunity (like any farmer) to compare his results with the neighbor’s.
To get an idea of how his long-term no-till with cover crops performed in terms of overall soil health, Brandt tested soil samples from his farm and the neighbor’s conventional farm taken on the same day to get a count of the different organisms present.
“The neighbor’s soil had 1,250 different types of critters in a soil sample,” Brandt said in his recent presentation at the National No-Tillage Conference in Cincinnati. “We sent ours in the same day and we had over 45,000 different critters. That just showed me that we were doing something right.”
Brandt said that the increased diversity in soil life pays off in a number of ways, though it may not necessarily translate into higher yields. In an effort to see how the 45,000 soil organisms in his soil affected his operation, Brandt did another experiment for comparison with his neighbor.
“Our corn this fall had a 9.1% protein level and his corn had a 5.2% with the same variety planted on the same day under our two different sets of cultural practices. We are working to find more information to determine how to make our crops more nutrient dense so that when they are fed to livestock or turned into cereals that it will make nutrients more available,” Brandt said. “When we test corn that has just had no-till with no covers we never have the protein that we should have. Corn should have 8% protein — that is how we always figured those rations. I think we can have more nutrient density as we include more species we have in the cover crop.”
Along with producing more nutrient dense crops, more diverse soils can be more profitable, Brandt said.
“I like yield, but we are after the least cost per bushel. If we can produce 200-bushels for $1.30 a bushel I can still make money at $3.50 corn,” he said. “I am sure all of these microbes help us in reducing our nutrient requirements to grow a cash crop. Soil health is about making sure that everything is balanced. We have not used an insecticide or fungicide for seven years. I think that has helped those critters stay alive and it also helps in reducing costs. With the commodity prices, we need to make better decisions about how we spend our money.”
A healthy soil can also help to maximize the resources available to the crop, including water.
“I feel that we do not have an erosion problem — we have an infiltration problem. If we can get the water to infiltrate we will be a lot better off,” Brandt said. “Nothing replaces tile, but drainage does improve with cover crops.”
The key to generating diversity in the soil life is including cover crops.
“The introduction of cover crops is the first step,” he said. “As you introduce covers, try to reduce your nutrient requirement to pay for your cover crop cost. We have been fortunate the last four or five years to have cost share available for cover crops, but at some point that funding is going to run out. We want to continue using cover crops and make it pay. Then, with more diversity in our covers, we will see that the soils respond better.”
To maximize their benefits, Brandt likes to see cover crops get fairly well established in the fall.
“We need at least a six- or seven-week window for these cover crops to grow efficiently. With that you can double the return on that cover crop. Get this cover crop out there a month or two months before harvest with a high-boy seeder,” he said. “When we do that the combine runs easier and, if we run into a wet fall, the header pushes easier because it is running on a green cover. Our fuel consumption goes down too so it is a plus all the way around.”
Brandt has also been trying something new that will likely once again have neighbors scratching their heads. In fields where time ran out to get cover crops planted in the previous fall, Brandt has tried planting corn and soybeans in the same field at the same time.
“The corn is on 30-inch rows and beans are in 30-inch rows and they are in rows 15 inches apart. What we are trying to do is utilize those beans to replace at least 50% of the nitrogen to grow a 200-bushel corn crop,” he said. “Our first year we saw a 60-bushel yield increase where we used the soybeans to replace the nitrogen. In 2014, we only saw a 12-bushel increase, but we reduced the nitrogen we used by 50%, so I thought that was good enough to try it again.”
Needless to say, Brandt’s neighbors will have plenty to discuss for the foreseeable future.