Ridgeway area farmers Mike Steinfeldt (left) and Luke Bergler (right) tried out inter-seeding on their farms for the first time this year — growing cover crops in between corn rows.
by CHRIS ROGERS
Normally, when plants other than corn are growing in a corn field, we call those plants weeds. Ridgeway farmers Mike Steinfeldt and Luke Bergler are growing all kinds of plants in between their corn rows — some 15 different varieties. They’re doing it on purpose. It’s called inter-seeding, and Steinfeldt and Bergler believe it will make their farms more profitable while protecting the environment.
Inter-seeding is the practice of growing cover crops on the same field as a still-growing cash crop. For Bergler, that means in late June, when his corn stalks had grown to just-below-the-knee-height, he drove across the field, seeding radishes, turnips, rapeseed, hairy vetch, seven species of clover, and other cover crops into the spaces between his corn rows. He used a rotary hoe — a tractor implement whose business end looks a b it like a bunch of circular saws formed a chorus line — to make a furrow for the new seeds, and simultaneously ran a seeder called a Gandy Box that blows seeds into each furrow.
Some farmers plant cover crops after harvesting soybeans or corn — a practice that helps prevent erosion and improve soil fertility. However, depending on the year, corn harvest can be pretty late in the season. Even cover crops that are capable of surviving the winter need some time to grow before the cold hits. Sometimes corn harvest does not leave enough time in the growing season for those cover crops to get established. Inter-seeding solves that problem by getting cover crops established while the corn is still growing.
The radishes and clover plants between Bergler’s corn rows are pretty small now and largely shaded by the towering corn stalks, but once he harvests the corn this fall, the cover crops will be ready to flourish.
It stands to reason that the inter-seeded cover crops would compete with cash-crop corn for nutrients and water, but Bergler, Steinfeldt, and soil science experts say that counterintuitively, just the opposite happens. In a University of Wisconsin trial, inter-seeded corn fields yield slightly more bushels than fields without cover crops. “A lot of guys will say, ‘You’re going to lose nutrients; it’s going to take moisture from your corn.’ It’s not happening,” Bergler stated.
Bergler doesn’t smile for just anything, but he flashed a grin as he sized up the big ears of corn on his field last week. He said he expects to get just as many bushels with inter-seeding as without. The cover crop seed costs money, but Bergler said he will recoup that cost and then some from the value of forage the inter-seeded cover crops will provide to cows he will graze on the corn field after harvest.
Winona County Soil and Water Conservation District Resource Specialist Lance Klessig explained that cover crops help mine nutrients from the subsoil, extract nutrients from the air, and hold those nutrients on the land in a form other plants can absorb when they die.
Bergler did fertilize his inter-seeded corn field; Steinfeldt didn’t. Steinfeldt said he still expects a decent yield, and Bergler said he plans to reduce his fertilization rate next year, saving him money.
Steinfeldt said he decided to give inter-seeding a try after Klessig showed him a video about it. He and Bergler, his neighbor, had already been trying a variety of cover crops and other soil health practices on their farms. Where other farmers might have started with a one- or two-acre experiment, Steinfeldt inter-seeded 10 acres. Bergler did 30. “Most guys would not take steps like this,” Klessig said. Bergler admitted he is the kind to take “baby steps into the deep end.” He explained, “For me, if I had done just 12 rows and it worked, I’d be [ticked] off. If I’m going in, I’m going in 100 percent.”
“For me, just the value I’ve seen from having cover crops in the ground — even before inter-seeding — is huge,” Steinfeldt said. “And then to say I can integrate my cattle into this and not have to feed them for a few days — it’s very beneficial.”
By providing more forage for their cattle at the end of the season, Bergler and Steinfeldt save on feed and chores. “The more nights I don’t have to feed cows, the more nights I can go deer hunting,” Bergler stated. It’s also another day that the cows spread their own manure instead of relying on Bergler’s and Steinfeldt to spread it for them.
Plus, the cover crops provide higher quality forage, Steinfeldt stated. Previously, he purchased protein cubes for his cattle to eat, to supplement the so-so nutritional value of corn stalks alone. By offering his cows a mix of legumes and brassicas, as well as corn stalks, Steinfeldt said he won’t have to buy protein cubes this year.
“Profits per acre,” Steinfeldt said. “Not bushels,” Bergler finished his sentence.
The Winona County Soil and Water Conservation District offers cost-share programs for cover crops and other soil health practices. For more information, visit www.winonaswcd.org. Bergler and Steinfeldt’s farms were featured in a recent Land Stewardship Project Soil Health Field Day. For more information about upcoming field days, visit landstewardshipproject.org/lspsoilbuilders.