'Caring for the Land' with Cover Crops, the Roller-Crimper & Spring CC Seeding

I “care for” 50 acres of certified organic cropland east of Caledonia in southeastern Minnesota. Although small in acreage, I am intent upon building back my soil using alternative farming practices like roller-crimping winter rye and spring-seeding rye before soybeans. I'd like to share some insights I've gathered while figuring out how to implement these techniques successfully.

My land has rolling hills with up to 12 percent slope, terraced fields and grass waterways. The soil is mostly clay-based Seaton silt loam with 3 percent organic matter, and is classified as highly erodible. Most of the fields were in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) for 15 years and were due to expire in the fall of 2014. Wanting to keep this land “chemical free,” especially since the fields border my house, I attended the MOSES Organic Conference in La Crosse, Wis., to gain ideas. Many presenters at the conference were discussing soil health and the benefits of cover crops. The message was instilled in me that I need to take care of my soil and the microbes that live there, and I latched onto the notion that this will work.

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Roller-Crimping Rye After Planting Soybeans

In the spring of 2017, I planted an oat crop on 40 acres to provide myself with a window to plant a fall cover crop. After the oat harvest, I chisel plowed on Sept. 5, field cultivated, disked and used a flat roller to level and firm the soil and then used a no-till grain drill to seed 195 pounds per acre of variety-not-stated (VNS), winter rye seed. The winter rye put on 6 to 8 inches of growth by winter freeze-up.

The rye did very little until May 2 the following spring, when it was about 10 inches tall; after that it grew about a foot per week. The white-tailed deer really liked the spring rye and I had about 30 deer congregating in my field to eat the only green stuff on the landscape. Within two weeks, the rye was three-feet-tall and starting to head out. When the rye was five-feet-tall, we had a rainstorm that dropped 3.25 inches in 45 minutes and produced strong winds. The rye was blown flat, but two days later most of the rye stood back up at five-feet tall.

When the rye was very close to anthesis stage (June 6), I seeded the soybeans into the standing rye at 175,000 seed population with a no-till drill on 16-inch spacing. In the future, I would prefer to plant at 30-inch rows with our corn planter for better seed placement and to provide the option to cultivate, use an electric zapper or a cutter device over the canopy. Also, I could not walk through the stand at the 16-inch spacing.

The day after seeding, I roller-crimped the rye with a Rodale Institute-style crimper. The termination on the rye was very good. Some rye did stool out a couple weeks after crimping, but the plants did not produce any seed. The final soybean stand was 125,000 population on the better soil and about 80,000 on the poorer clay ground. The soybeans started to flower when they were 24-inches-tall in mid-July and by mid-August I was facing considerable weed pressure with velvetleaf, lambsquarters, pigweed and some waterhemp. I pulled and cut weeds where I could walk in, but foliage from bushy beans limited access. I combined the soybeans on Oct. 24 and they yielded 35-bushels-per-acre.

Considering all the big rains we had, I was very happy with the erosion control the rye provided, as well as the overall experience. The water that ran off the terraces was always clean. For perspective, at least five southeastern Minnesota climate stations reported over 50 inches of precipitation in 2018. Caledonia alone had 56.61 inches of rain that year, which is a new all-time statewide record.

Things I will do differently in the future:

  1. Use the moldboard plow (if possible) prior to seeding rye in fall to try and control grasses, although I want to cut down on the amount of tillage I am doing.
  2. Slightly increase the seeding rate of rye.
  3. Use 30-inch row spacing with the planter to have options to cultivate, electric zap and walk fields.
  4. Obtain a less bushy bean with better lodging resistance and ability to stand. In 2018, most of the beans went flat and lodged, which may be due to the weather we had. I had lots of foliage growth and they were about 3-feet-tall before rains blew them down.
  5. If possible, I would recommend trying this on fields with minimal weed pressure, possibly after a cover crop that suppresses weeds like buckwheat.

Spring-Seeding Rye Before Planting Soybeans

After hearing about spring-seeded winter rye at the MOSES conference and discussing it with other local organic farmers, I decided to try this method on 5 acres that had been in sod for three years. I moldboard plowed the sod, which was mostly grasses, disked it twice and then harrowed it. On May 29, I seeded VNS winter rye with a drill at 6-inch spacing. I seeded at a rate of two bushels, or about 125 pounds, per acre, and the rye was up in about a week.

The rye grew quickly and was about 3-to-4-inch tall on June 14 when I planted soybeans into it with a six-row, 30-inch spacing planter at 172,000 seed population. I also applied some phosphorus and potash with the planter. This left some open ground, so I seeded another 50 pounds of rye crosswise to the planter tracks. The rye and soybeans grew together, covering the soil with nice, green growth. Because the biannual winter rye was not planted in the fall and so was not exposed to the kind of cold winter weather that can prompt the plant's flowering process—this exposure is called vernalization—by the first of August all of the foot-tall rye was brown and dying back on its own. The weed pressure increased in August, although I was very satisfied with the overall weed suppression the rye provided. I did walk the edges to termitate some velvetleaf, lambsquarters, pigweed and waterhemp.

The final stand count of soybeans was 132,000. The harvest yielded about 40-bushels-per-acre and I was very satisfied. The total cost of production, including land, fertilizer, seed and equipment, was $515 per acre. I will do this again on fields that are not prone to erosion during the spring rains. Overall this was a good experience for me.

Mark Klinski raises crops in southeastern Minnesota and recently hosted a Soil Builders Network field day. For more information on the Soil Builders Network, click here.

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