HARRISONBURG, VA — The Virginia No-Till Alliance (VANTAGE) recently held its 5th annual winter meetings at a pair of locations, the Rockingham Fairgrounds and in Chatham at the Olde Dominion Ag Complex. Jeremy Daubert, dairy agent with Rockingham County Extension, estimated that over 250 people attended the event in his county.
The featured speaker at the two events was Dave Brandt, an Ohio grain farmer who has cut his input costs by using diverse cover crop mixes.
Brandt’s farm has been no-till since 1971 and has used cover crops since 1978.
Within three years of using cover crops, Brandt was able to start reducing the amount of herbicides and fertilizer he applied to his fields — because the cover crops were outcompeting weed species and were putting nutrients into the soil.
Today, Brandt has been able to reduce the amount of nitrogen use on some fields by as much as three-quarters. Yet his yields keep getting better. He gets 25 percent more than his county’s average corn yield, 17 percent more than his county’s average soybean yield, and 40 percent more than his county’s average wheat yield.
Brandt’s example is what brought Steve Kegley of eastern Rockingham County to the event. “It’s about maintaining yields and reducing input costs,” he said.
The Rockingham County event also featured a number of farmers from the Valley speak about their experience with cover crops.
Timmy French, who farms with his family near Woodstock, has used a crimson clover-radish mix on his corn ground.
The radishes, he said, “really, really made a difference in our ground. We really like what we’re seeing.”
Using crimson clover as a cover crop, he added, also gives you an additional feed source if needed.
Richard Clemmer of Rockbridge County grazed 60 cows on cover crops this past fall. He planted the cover crops in late August, following a soybean millet mix he used for grazing.
Different mixes of cover crops were planted in different plots. Overall the species used included oats, forage rye, turnips, crimson clover, and Italian ryegrass. The goal in selecting the mix, he said, was to have explosive fall growth and enough spring growth to graze again, “all the while maintaining cover through the winter.”
Total, 60 cows and a number of calves grazed 25 acres of cover crops for about a month on Clemmer’s farm. Not only did the approach save him the cost of feeding hay, it also helped improve the manure distribution in his pasture, he said, and led to better growth in the calves.
“It really helped the calves,” he said. Calves with access to the cover crops “looked at least a third better than calves that didn’t have access.”
Rockingham County dairy, crop, and poultry farmer Anthony Beery spoke about using multi-species cover crops in a silage system.
Beery likes to use barley as a cover crop and cut it at soft dough stage for heifer feed. When he combines vetch with barley, he has been able to produce yields as much as 14 tons per acre. He has also mixed triticale with barley and gotten similar yields.
When mixing vetch with barley, know that if spring conditions delay your harvest, the vetch may get quite tall. One year moisture kept Beery out of his fields for two weeks and the vetch grew to six feet tall.
Timing is thus an issue to consider when developing a cover crop program, Beery said. Make sure you will have the time to get it planted and time to get it off. Also make sure that you’re comfortable with what you plant. Start small, try a field to see if you like the crops you have chosen.
For example, Beery has also used crimson clover and radishes in multi-species cover crops, and planted cowpeas with Sorghum-sudangrass.
Another factor to consider with multi-species cover crops is weed control. Because you’ve got a variety of species, there’s probably no chemical you can use to control weeds and still keep your cover crops. Chickweed can be noisome in Beery’s fields.
His response is to get his cover crops in early and hope to get enough rain so the cover crops grow enough to crowd out the chickweed.
“Some years that works better than others,” he said.
In a silage system, Beery added, most of your nutrients probably got removed with the silage. So cover crops will need nutrients to perform their best.
Overall, he said, plan you cover crop needs based on your overall farm needs. Do you need heifer feed? Dairy feed? That can help you determine what to use as a cover crop.
Sometimes the simplest most direct solutions are the best.
As Brandt said, “Don’t overthink it. Just get out there and try it.”