One southern Minnesota landowner’s experience with cover crops and no-till

His advice: ‘You’ve just got to try what you think will work with your mind-set, operation, money — and then adjust it as you go.’

March 31: Pipestone County farmer and Farm Bureau member Tom Griebel checked on cereal rye, AKA winter rye, in a field within Lincoln Pipestone Rural Water’s Holland Drinking Water Supply Management Area. A Clean Water Fund grant from BWSR aims to reduce nitrogen-loading here and in other DWSMAs in the county. Grant dollars offset some of the risk for producers who try cover crops or perennial cover. Photo Credits: Ann Wessel, BWSR

Tom Griebel is among the Pipestone County producers who will plant cover crops for three years as part of Pipestone Soil & Water Conservation District’s Clean Water Fund grant-supported effort to reduce nitrates by targeting ag land within a drinking water supply management areas.

By early June, Griebel plans to bale or chop the cover crop — cereal rye on part of the field, winter wheat on the rest — for livestock feed, and then plant teff grass, which he expects will produce two crops of hay this season. He’ll follow with no-till corn.

Griebel, who raises feeder cattle and sheep, gradually incorporated no-till on 300 of the 1,500 acres he runs with his wife, Barb, and parents, John and Corlys Griebel. Cover crops grow on about 200 of the 300 no-till acres. He plans to buy a no-till drill, and eventually convert the whole farm. The benefits are twofold. No-till eliminates the time, expense and machinery required for spring and fall tillage. It’s also a way to maintain the size of his operation after his parents retire.

“My plan is to eliminate some machinery and time and hopefully end up with more money in my pocket and end up with better soil on top of it all,” Griebel said.

Out of necessity, Griebel tried no-till for a short time in the early 1990s after a hailstorm. A prevent-planting after a wet spring that kept farmers out of the field led him to try cover crops a few years ago. He recommended starting slowly and talking to neighbors.

The following excerpt from that conversation is edited for clarity.

Griebel hired someone with the equipment and experience to plant cereal rye in October after the soybean harvest.

How does a person get into cover crops and no-till?

As many different farms as there are, there are that many different ways to use cover crop and no-till. One thing that I have noticed by doing it all across the different soil types that I have: There is no right, wrong, definite way to do it. You’ve just got to try what you think will work with your mind-set, operation, money — and then adjust it as you go.

If you want to try it, I would say go in and talk to (county SWCD staff), try it on a small basis. And (try for) numerous years. When I first did no-till a long time ago, I wished I would have kept it going.

How have those practices affected yields?

It seems like the longer I do it the more they keep coming up, compared to other pieces that I farm other ways. There’s a lot of things that go into the yield: the kind of year, the maturity, soil type. (We farm within) a 20-mile-diameter circle. In that 20 miles, there’s a lot of soil differences and moisture differences.

From what people tell me, it takes four to five years to really see yield drastically improve. I have seen little improvements — averaging about 5 bushels per acre for beans, about 10 bushels per acre for corn on fields were yields could be verified — which I am happy with because that means we’re going in the right direction. The no-till cover crop does take a little bit more management. There’s a little less room for error and assumptions. You have to pay attention to what’s going on and adjust to the conditions.

Griebel planned to bale or chop the rye, and then plant teff grass in early June.

What questions did you have when you started?

Am I really doing the right thing? Is this the right decision? In farming, if you don’t put that seed in right the first time, you are messed up for the whole year. That was my biggest concern. I had very little experience with it, no hands-on at all. Now I’m not quite as gun-shy.

What should people consider before trying it themselves?

Talk to people that they trust that have done it — neighbors, friends, the local FSA (USDA’s Farm Service Agency), seed dealers, chemical dealers — just get as much information about it as you possibly can. And then take a leap of faith. Try it. Mother Nature forced my hand. I am by no means an expert. Everybody’s got their own take on what works. Go in with as much knowledge as you can, and adjust to the conditions and go in with an open mind.

What are you trying next?

I am side-dressing corn this year. I’m experimenting with that to see if we can cut our nitrogen rates — feed that plant when it needs it, and then there’s less leaching hopefully. If the year looks dry, or too wet, it just opens up a lot more options.

The Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources’ mission is to improve and protect Minnesota’s water and soil resources by working in partnership with local organizations and private landowners. www.bwsr.state.mn.us

Our mission is to improve and protect Minnesota’s water and soil resources by working in partnership with local organizations and private landowners.