Soil Health: When the Neighbors Take Notice

Background: Land Stewardship Project Soil Builders Network member Willie Erdmann raises corn, soybeans, cover crops, hay, small grains, 100 beef steers and 25 beef cows on 300 acres near Ridgeway in southeastern Minnesota. On cropland, Willie is now almost entirely no-till, and has been using cover crops steadily since 2013. Here he shares his thoughts on the benefits he's seen from utilizing cover crops and no-till to build soil health.

I have been no-tilling for five or six years now and I know my soil is getting better. It’s like planting in a Imagecompost bed; it is getting soft now and not crusting behind the corn planter anymore. I have earthworm castings now like crazy. Where people till on a corn-soybean rotation, their ground is tight, there’s not much for earthworms, and there’s a lot of runoff.

The cover cropping actually began in 2009. I started with one field of hay that didn’t turn out very well. So I hauled some manure on it and on July 20 planted sorghum Sudan grass. The next spring, I tilled it under and right next to that field was a corn-on-corn field and you could see right to the line how much darker the soil was where I had cover-cropped. That was an eye opener for me.

I got back into old habits again (no cover crops) for a few years until 2013, when it was so wet and we couldn’t put corn and soybeans in on time. In fact, we couldn’t plant at all. With the “Prevent Plant” program, the government said, “You’ll still get crop insurance, but you have to plant cover crops.” I ended up planting cover crops on Aug. 1; it was a tillage radish and crimson clover mix. And when that seed ran out I switched over to planting some winter rye I had just harvested.

In the spring of 2014, I could see again where I ran out of the radish/clover seed in one field. All summer long the corn where the radish clover mix had been, we had taller, darker, thicker cornstalks. And come harvest time, the yield also showed better on the mix side. I learned to plant cover crops based on what the next crop is going to be — clovers for corn, winter rye for soybeans. I try to plant some cover crop mix every year now, and I no-till almost everything — anything I can do to keep a cover on the ground. I don’t have ditches like the neighbor either.

In August, I’ll sometimes put in tillage radish and crimson clover — in my opinion, they’re actually superior to rye. Based on previous experience, doing this allows for better corn: color, health and yield were all improved. I’ve also no-tilled barley and red clover into soybean stubble in the spring and then combined off the barley. The clover grew all fall and was beautiful. I’ve put corn right into it and sprayed the clover off two days later. The corn has been just as good-looking as my neighbors’, plus I’ve had huge cobs and loads of earthworm activity.

In 2017, I did have one problem — there was too much snow cover for the turnips to freeze off, so I sprayed them off in the spring. They were so thick and were dying as I planted corn into them, but again, the corn ended up looking good.

Once I worked a long time with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service to get a cover crop mix that I thought was more appropriate for this farm. But ultimately, it wasn’t worth sacrificing what I knew would work best on my farm in order to do what the government wanted me to do. I think the cover crop incentive program would be better if the government wouldn’t be so picky about the seeding rates. When you’re buying certified seed at $30 an acre, that’s just too expensive to be seeding at such high rates.

Cover-cropping is great during heavy rains. In 2017, I found that my neighbors were asking me more about how I do what I do. In fact, neighbors who used to tease me are now coming over to talk and ask, clearly seeing some success and better soil health. I’ve even planted corn directly into a living cover of red clover about a foot tall and sprayed it off a couple days later. Some people thought I was crazy, but that ended up to being close to 190-200 bushel per-acre corn. It’s a learning curve, but it’s fun to see what a guy can do to make healthy soil and still keep a “normal” yield.

I really don’t want to see erosion or washouts. I’ve got a strong sense of keeping the farm in the family. It was my great uncle’s farm and I really hope that one of our two daughters will run it one day.