Proactive farmers win on water quality

Soil building effort protects water, builds yields and bridges farm-urban gap.

Think Different

When trying new practices, Minnesota farmer Tom Pyfferoen recommends taking a measured approach.

When Tom Pyfferoen tried no-till on some sandy, gravelly soils, his goal was better yields. The results started him down a soil and water conservation path he didn’t expect, leading to tile outlet water with lower nitrate levels than the EPA allows for drinking water.

“After going no-till on some problem fields, I could see the soils improve. Corn yields went from 80 to 90 bushels per acre about 15 years ago to 200, while soybeans went from 35 to 40 bushels to well over 60 bushels,” says Pyfferoen. “I moved on to more and more no-till corn into soybean stubble and then to no-tilling soybeans and finally into cover crops.”

Tom Pyfferoen

The Pine Island, Minn., grower has continued to build on his first results. As yields started to improve, he increased fertility with fall broadcast of potash, MAP, manganese and sulfur. He also began splitting nitrogen between planting and sidedress.

Prevent plant began cover crops

Prevent plant acres in 2013 introduced him to cover crops, including sorghum, clover and ryegrass.  The following year he tilled some, but planted directly into other fields, learning as he went.

Tom Pyfferoen

The first time Tom Pyfferoen planted into standing cereal rye, he had to stop and question himself on what he was doing. After seeing the results, he no longer doubts the benefits to his bottom line or the environment.

“We had cutworms in the ryegrass,” he says. “We went in with Pounce and cleaned them out, but they could have devastated us if we hadn’t been paying attention.”

In 2014 he skipped covers as he concentrated on adding tile to fields, but returned to planting cereal rye in fall 2015. He got a good stand with post harvest seeding with his Kinze 15-inch row planter.

Burning down thick rye was heart wrenching for the former dairyman, he recalls. What followed was equally frustrating as rains delayed planting corn until the 18th of May.

“We planted 95-day corn, sidedressed, sprayed and this past fall harvested 213 dry bushels per acre,” says Pyfferoen.

Jim Ruen

By the time corn has reached the 3-4 leaf stage, the cereal rye thatch is nearly gone and weeds are starting to emerge.

Tile line nitrate success

He also harvested some very positive data. A local University of Minnesota extension specialist had asked to monitor nitrogen in tile lines. Pyfferoen agreed, and samples were collected from April through October when the crop came off.

“He never found nitrate levels higher than six parts per million, safe for drinking water,” says Pyfferoen, noting that the federal standard for maximum nitrate in drinking water is 10 ppm.

This was exciting news to share with the group of area growers he had begun meeting with two years prior. They shared a desire to reduce nitrogen loss and soil erosion into the Zumbro River Watershed in southeastern Minnesota. Tony Rossman, an area corn, soybean, canning crop and beef producer, was one of them.

“It is a matter of being proactive instead of reactive,” he says. “If we don’t do it, we’ll face more regulations down the road. Tom’s test results told us we were on the right path.”

Watershed farmers band together

Rossman notes that the group recognizes that these practices are the right thing to do for the environment and for their bottom lines. The loose knit group of about 15 farmers meets throughout the winter and early spring.  Some, like Pyfferoen, have tried a variety of practices, while others may have practiced no-till for years but never tried cover crops.

Tom Pyfferoen

Tony Rossman is one of an informal group of about 15 growers in the Zumbro River Watershed proactivly searching for ways to protect water quality. He recognizes the need to reduce nitrogen loss and erosion from fields like the one behind him. He is expanding his use of nitrate testing, split applications, reduced tillage and cover crops.

“We get together once a month to compare notes on what we have experienced or heard about and sometimes bring in a speaker,” says Rossman, who feels a certain sense of urgency. “Weather events are getting more common, with heavy rains like we saw this past spring. We just have to do a better job holding this precious topsoil.”

He is excited about what he has experienced and how he can integrate new practices into his operation. He has worked with grazing cover crops, planted following canning peas, and is expanding that experience to post fall harvest. He has also begun no-tilling corn into soybeans, splitting his nitrogen applications and using in-season soil and tissue testing to get a better handle on nitrate availability and plant response.

Spokesman for agriculture

Rossman considers Pyfferoen the anchor of the group. “This has become a real passion for him,” says Rossman. “He is a great role model.”

Whether Pyfferoen sees himself as a role model or anchor is hard to say. He does see himself as a spokesperson for agriculture, something he says that every farmer needs to be. He has met with various groups to discuss what he and the others are doing.

“You have to keep it simple, but you have to tell your story whenever you have the opportunity, whether it is at the doctor’s office or when you go to the grocery store,” he says.

Pyfferoen tells the story with pictures and at times with field days. This past April he hosted an NRCS field day on his farm. The drizzle didn’t stop the 67 attendees from walking across some of the 700 acres of cover crops he planted in the fall of 2016 – a walk that he notes didn’t leave their shoes muddy, thanks to the green covers.

One of the key things he shares with the local group is to take a chance and have faith in what they are trying. He recalls his first time planting into standing ryegrass.  “My guts turned inside out when I turned around to watch the planter. I had to stop and think,” he recalls. “After seeing the results, I have the confidence to go and never look back.”

(Source –

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Cover crops following wheat or other small grains

Following harvest of winter wheat or other small grains in Wisconsin, if not planted to alfalfa, these fields are often left fallow. However, with more than 40 percent of the growing season remaining, typically, planting a cover crop may be a good option. While the economics may not always be clear, many farmers are looking to cover crops to keep the soil covered, suppress some of the weeds that may otherwise grow, recycle and/or fix nutrients and improve soil health and functioning with additional organic matter. Producing supplemental forages, managing field nutrient budgets and meeting conservation requirements are other objectives for which cover crops can provide value.

The choice of which cover crop(s) depends on a farmer’s objectives and needs, and also the farm’s capabilities in terms of planting, management and termination. The cost and availability of good quality seed, versus anticipated benefits, are other factors to consider. Below are a few of the tried and true options for use in most parts of Wisconsin. Each are particularly well-suited to specific objectives. All can be seeded with light tillage or no-till planting. However, good seed to soil contact at the appropriate depth for the species is essential for good germination and establishment.

Spring cereal grains, oats, barley, spring triticale, can provide reliable mid-late summer cover and optional forage potential. They will grow rapidly in late summer and continue until a hard freeze. They will usually not over-winter in Wisconsin. These crops are often the best choice as a sequentially seeded soil cover or if fall-harvested forage is the main goal. They are more forgiving of temporary dry conditions than legume covers. Oats and barley have had equal yields in fall forage trials (1-3 TDM/acre) with spring triticale slightly lower.

Winter rye can be planted August-September for a late summer and over-winter cover. Stem elongation will not occur without vernalization (cold temperatures). Planted in August, rye will produce a thick cover, but usually less than one TDM biomass before winter dormancy. It will grow rapidly in early spring. Terminate rye as a cover crop by late April before it grows too large.

Annual ryegrass (ARG) is actually a southern-US adapted winter annual. It is considered not cold tolerant, but will sometimes over-winter in Wisconsin with mild conditions. It has rapid growth with good biomass production when summer seeded on most soil types. It has a shallow, fibrous root system desirable for erosion control. ARG can be a good compliment for brassicas and/or annual clover. However, although a somewhat popular and economical cover crop option, planting ARG is, actually, discouraged due to concerns with its potential to become a difficult to control weed. It can be a prolific seed producer, even in the seeding year, and several glyphosate resistant biotypes have been identified. If it over-winters, it can be difficult to control with herbicides.

Legumes such as berseem clover, crimson clover or field pea (annuals) as well as medium red clover (MRC) (perennial) will accumulate biologically-fixed nitrogen (N) as they grow. The N is released back into the soil, becoming available for next year’s crop, after the legume plants die or are terminated. Allare good choices for a wheat-corn-soybean grain crop rotation. Clovers may also be harvestable as forage.

The annual legumes will grow quickly when planted in mid-summer if moisture is sufficient. Medium red clover can be seeded after wheat harvest, but is best when companion seeded early in the spring. A common method for medium red clover establishment is frost seeding, or broadcast seeding into fall-established wheat early the following spring. Early-planted medium red clover will normally yield more biomass and creditable N than sequentially seeded legumes. Field peas are a large-seeded, cool season annual, best companion-seeded with a spring cereal grain to encourage climbing and minimize lodging. Pea-small grain mixtures can also be harvested as forage, with similar yield, but slightly higher forage quality and palatability than small grain forage alone. Field peas, however, provide only a minimal N credit to a subsequent crop.

(By – Kevin Shelley, source –

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