As fall arrives, farmers turn to harvest. Once the dust settles, some fields lay bare while others show signs of life heading into winter. We talk with Kevin Shelley of UW-Madison’s Nutrient and Pest Management program and Scott Carlson, a farmer in northwestern Wisconsin, about the benefits, challenges, and choices of planting winter cover crops.
[Will Fulwider] Michael, How are you doing today?
[Michael Geissinger] I’m doing well, Will. Just kinda gearing up
here for the fall harvest and pumpkin-flavored everything
as we get into this fall. I do have a little question for you here today that I wanted to start out with though. Have you heard why
you should never tell a secret on a farm?
00:00:20,265 –> 00:00:33,620
[Will Fulwider] I have not.
[Michael Geissinger] Because the corn has ears and the potatoes have eyes.
[Will Fulwider] That was terrible.
[Michael Geisinger] You got to start things off with a light note.
00:00:42,790 –> 00:01:01,650
[Will Fulwider] Welcome to field notes. My name is Will Fulwider and I’m joined by my co-host, Michael Geisinger. We are two regional crops educators with UW Madison Extension in Wisconsin, combining our skills, knowledge, and experience to help farmers and agronomists develop research-based solutions to issues facing agriculture in Wisconsin.
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[Michael Geissinger] Today we’re going to be discussing fall planted cover crops with a focus on cereal rye being planted after soybeans or corn silage, and in some cases corn. For our guests today joining us, we are joined by Kevin Shelley, a nutrient and pest management specialist with UW Madison that works in South Central Wisconsin and Scott Carlson, a farmer from the St. Croix/Polk County area, who will be sharing their expertise with us today. So Kevin, hello, how are you doing today?
00:01:43,430 –> 00:03:48,559
[Kevin Shelley] I’m doing great, Michael and Will, thanks for having me.
[Will Fulwider] Absolutely. So I’ll just kick it off and say and ask really, what is important about planting fall cover crops in Wisconsin?
[Kevin Shelley] Well, fall cover crops are important in certain situations to help cover the soil during a period that’s otherwise fallow after we harvest the crop in the fall and we have nothing otherwise that would be growing fall through the winter and into the spring. So a cover crop can help to keep the soil covered, which will help prevent erosion that can occur from fall rains and spring rains and snow melt over the winter. As the water runs across the soil surface, it can take with it soil particles or soluble nutrients that are then lost from the field and find their way to surface water resources. Or also there can be a certain amount of leaching of water down through the soil profile that can take with it soluble nutrients like nitrate. A cover crop can help to take up some of those nutrients and keep them in the root zone, where they can be recycled for use by a crop later on, rather than being lost to groundwater. Cover crops are also known to just add a little bit more organic matter to the soil than we would otherwise have, help condition the soil, help improve the structure, help with water holding capacity, water infiltration and a number of other benefits. But particularly kinda fall through spring, there are some eco ecosystem services that can be provided by cover crops.
[Michael Geissinger] We know one of the most common cover crops planted in Wisconsin is cereal rye that’s planted after soybeans or corn silage, sometimes after a corn for grain. Could you just speak into a little bit why that might be?
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[Kevin Shelley] The winter cereals. The
winter cereal grains are the crop that’s really most adapted to be planted at that in the fall, late, very late in the season. They’re adapted to germinating and emerging and establishing themselves in the fall. They’re called a winter annual because they will, they need to go through the winter. They need to have a kind of a cold period or a vernalizing period before they regrow and complete their life cycle the following spring, so they’re really adapted to being planted late going through the winter and establishing themselves again in the spring.
And so we’re, we’re talking about cereal rye or winter cereal wheat, or there’s a kind of a hybrid cross between those two species called triticale, that would also be another good choice.
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[Will Fulwider] It seems like, at least in my experience, that people have really focused on cereal rye, rather than the triticale or the wheat as a cover crop. Is there a reason why that is? Is it better at withstanding winter kill or something like that?
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[Kevin Shelley] It really is the most winter hardy. Triticale would be a close second, but it’s (winter cereal rye) going to establish the fastest in the fall and get started again, the fastest in the spring. Also, the seed tends to be a little cheaper because this is a cover crop. Considering economics, it tends to be the cheapest seed that’s available at least so far. Yeah.
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[Michael Geissinger] And what has your personal experience been working with cereal rye in your role, whether that’s doing some projects working on cereal rye or farmer’s success stories with it that kinda demonstrate some of the research that’s been done around it?
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[Kevin Shelley] Sure. Mostly where I have worked with rye is after corn silage, both in terms of just using it as a cover crop or as that early season forage crops like corn silage is a situation where we really should have a cover crop because we’re harvesting silage and we don’t leave a lot of crop residue to cover the soil. It’s also a place where we tend to put manure, so it can be a situation vulnerable to soil erosion and nutrient loss. And it also, corn silage is harvested a little earlier than our full season grain crops. So it’s a time when we can, you know, a little bit more easily get a cover established because we can plant it in a lot of times in late September, mid to late September throughout most of the state or at least in the first week of October.
You know, particularly after soybeans.There’s still an opportunity if we’re not following our soybeans with winter wheat as a cash crop. Now we may want to consider getting rye planted for a little bit additional cover even if it’s no till and we’re not, we’re just leaving the rye residue there. We can maybe get a little additional cover in the fall if we can get that rye planted by the first week of October. Beyond that, we’re not gonna get a lot of cover in the fall, but if we’re willing to let it grow in the spring in late April and maybe the first week or two of May, that helps with resilience against some of those early season rains that we get in late April through early June. Even if after we terminate the rye maybe there’s still a little additional residue there that helps protect the soil against the forces of those heavy rains that we can get at that time.
So, my experience primarily after those earlier harvested crops, but to some extent after soybeans or even after corn for grain. Again, there we’re late enough where there’s going to be very little fall growth, but we can get some spring growth that can help with these cover crop objectives that we have.
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[Will Fulwider] It sounds like the further you push into winter in a way is the less success that you’re going to have in establishment. And are there other considerations if you are trying to plant it after corn for grain? And I know a lot of farmers that I work with, they are planting it after corn for gain that you should be making are taking into consideration when you’re planting that rye, either upping the seeding rate or what have you. Are there other factors like temperature and precipitation that’ll affect that the success of that establishment and that stand in the following spring?
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[Kevin Shelley] Yeah. Temperature and moisture will definitely be a factor, but, you know, at that
time of the year, it’s largely going to be just the temperature and a little bit day length too. These species are sensitive to the amount of sunlight that we have. So, even if it’s warm, just the short day length and at that, once we get into the end of October, early November is gonna be a big factor. So I do think, you know, normally a typical cover crop seeding rate for rye would be 40 to 60 pounds, if it’s per acre of pure live seed. If you need to consider the germination percentage
on there, see what we have, but that’s about where we’d be if we’re in that mid the mid September to the first week of October. Once we get past that, we’re going to probably want to bump it up, you know, 5 to 10%. And then that’s assuming we’re still planning it with a grain drill or air seeder where we’re able to get some good seed to soil contact and maybe a little bit of
that residue cover over the seeding. If we’re just broadcasting it on the surface, we’re going to probably want to bump it up another 5 or 10% and then probably expect a little less success and a little more risk, and a little more variability in terms of what we’re able to accomplish.
But rye is amazing. If you can just get it down in the, in the residue cover a little bit and get enough moisture and it does seem to set route pretty, pretty reliably.
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[Michael Geissinger] That’s great that you just talked about kinda seeding cover crops and planting. Because the next question I have is kinda related. How are you going to get
rid of that cover crop after you’ve planted it?
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[Kevin Shelley] The more, the longer we can wait and let the cover crop grow before we terminate it, the more above-ground biomass that can be recycled back into the soil, we will have and it will also have more root growth. So, just more fresh organic matter to incorporate back into the the, the root zone of the soil for soil conditioning. And soil quality and soil health improvements.
But of course, the downside is it can cause additional challenges for establishing the following crop just in terms of planting into it or incorporating all the residue, all the biomass that we might get. So most of the work that I’ve done has been with the more traditional early termination of that rye. So probably in late April, you know, when the rye is kinda still tillering, maybe just at the onset of stem elongation, maybe we’ve got only probably four to eight inches of growth by that time. We’ll, we’ll get it terminated with tillage or probably more often with a herbicide application like glyphosate. And then wait about ten days before we go in and plant. And that really helps the soil to kinda mellow out, become more workable. And we get a good seed bed where we’re able to go in there with the no-till planter and open the seed slot, close it back up. And then I would say, if we’re in an early termination situation like that or a weed management program isn’t really changed very much from what it normally would be. We’d probably still want to include a residual grass broadleaf herbicide program at that at that burn down and, or be prepared to come back with another pass either right after planting or in early post-type of situation like that.
If we’re, if we’re going to wait and let that cover crop grow a little bit more. And there’s some interest in planting green, that’s a little bit of a emerging interest in planting right into the green and growing cover crop. And in that case, I think unless we’re gonna get really extreme with
that and let it grow even, even beyond planting time. Then, that might be a little bit of a different ball game where we can depend on that cover crop, especially if it’s rye, to be more of the weed control part of our program. But, if we’re if we’re kinda planting green and terminating that rye
at planting or just shortly after, so we’ve got about 10-12 inches of growth there.
Again, I think we’re probably going to want to include some residual grass and grass and broadleaf herbicide at that time or just because of the, the biomass that we have there. There’s a little bit more of a risk of that tying up the residual herbicides. So we might want to come back a little bit later and do kind of an early-post there, based on what we’re observing in terms of weed emergence or what we anticipate based on a historical weed pressure.
So, a little bit of an adjustment in terms of timing, but I don’t think it results in a drastic change in our weed management program from what we would normally have, in most cases.
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[Michael Geissinger] Yeah, and it certainly seems
to be the case too that often the weed management effect of cereal rye is when it, when you have an opportunity to lay it flat on the ground and we’re still sorting out what that looks like.
Obviously, we see the roller clampers and things like that. But as far as really narrowing down the management technique to get that, yeah, it can be a little bit of a challenge.
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[Kevin Shelley] Yeah, it’s definitely the cover crop. A more advanced approach to using and managing cover crops as far as planting green later and into higher levels of biomass.
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[Michael Geissinger] So Kevin, if you had one piece of advice to someone considering planting cover crops for the first time. What would that be?
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[Kevin Shelley] I mean, the typical recommendation is to start small, don’t don’t go full bore the first year. Give it a try on a few acres. I would point to a couple of resources that are out there. We have a number of educational informational publications on using cover crops on our website at the nutrient and pest management program that that’s the integrated past and crop management website. It’s IPCM.wisc.edu or WISC.edu.
In fact, we have a brand new publication on managing cereal rye as a cover crop. There’s another cover crops 101 publication that kind of provides a good introduction to what cover crops can do for us and a little bit on management. Any of us in the crops and soils program and extension, you can contact us for information and knowledge that we have or we know the right direction to the point of. So there’s a lot of resources that can be accessed for guidance and guidelines.
So I would encourage reaching out to those, those sources. And there’s a number of Seed salesmen out there to see companies that are working with cover crops to that can be very helpful.
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[Will Fulwider] So uh, Kevin, thanks for being a fount of knowledge of Cereal rye as a cover crop and talking with us today.
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[Kevin Shelley] Thanks for having me.
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[Will Fulwider] Absolutely. We’ll be right back talking with Scott Carlson, a farmer in Northwestern Wisconsin.
[Transition Music; Start of Scott Carlson Interview]
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[Scott Carlson] I farm about 2600 acres up in Southern Polk County, northern Saint Croix County.
[Will Fulwider] Again, Scott Carlson.
[Scott Carlson] We grow three, actually, we’ve added a fourth crop period as of lately, but corn, soybeans, and then we grow about four to 500 acres of rye as grain crop and straw. And then we throw in snap beans behind a field or two. after the rye as well. Been growing the rye as grain crop for almost 15 years now and it’s been a nice diversification for us. Nice rotation, corn, soybeans, just kind of a that every other year we were looking for a third crop to rotate to and it’s filled in very well for us.
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[Will Fulwider] Did you initially start using rye as a cover crop then transition out to actually growing it out as a, as a, as a full crop in your rotation?
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[Scott Carlson] No. We did the full crop first and then over the years started. We basically got into growing rye as a third cash crop and then growing it as covers came later. To be honest, we actually started growing it for export market for bread, rye bread. It was going overseas. And that was our sole purpose of growing it at that point. And then, oh, probably ten years ago we convert it to the cover crop market for our sales.
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[Michael Geissinger] What’s kinda been your personal
experience working with cereal rye? You’ve already talked about it as a cover crop, but especially in that kinda unique way of producing it for cover crop seed. Could you just kinda give us a 30 thousand foot overview of what that looks like on your farm?
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[Scott Carlson] We harvest basically the middle or average start date is probably the 15th to the 18th of July. It’s a it’s a quite slow process. We’ve over the years, we just kinda figure 40 to 50 acre average day. Then, we bail all the straw and we have sales for that. We small square, about half our crop for the small square straw market. The big squares go to a couple of dairies for feed in their dairy rations. We harvest as early as possible. We put it in a couple of different air bins. We condition it, send off germ samples. Then, once we’re all done, I have a cleaning system we set up in a shed and then we will start cleaning it. Because I would say 80% of our rye seed goes out cleaned. Majority of the guys are drilling it or running it through an air system where they don’t want any beards or anything like that.
Those that do broadcast will take it as bin run. We supply several dairies in the area. I have a couple of other larger operations that resell it, but we have gone through the steps of being licensed and those proper channels to do it properly. But yeah, it’s quite a process. I just kinda clean as we go and it’s a month-and-a-half process of cleaning a few loads here and there, and just shipping as guys need it. It’s filled a void for us quite well. It’s time-consuming, but it fits in our operation.
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[Michael Geissinger] Since you have that experience growing it as a third crop, wondering too what kinda sense you have of how environmental factors affect the success of a cereal rye crop, whether as a cover crop or as cereal rye for grain? And especially the factors like temperature or precipitation?
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[Scott Carlson] Cereal rye is just a very, very vigorous growing, fast growing crop. Cool season grass works great in the fall. It loves that cool weather to get germinated. In. For instance, last fall, we had a very late warm fall, and we got germinated, it got up, it got growing and especially corn silage guys, we actually had some complaints that they had to do much growth. And then an earlier spring, this spring and they actually had more growth than they really wanted. And those that needed, a lot of the dairies need to till their ground. They’re not set up for no till. No tilling into it I think would have been fine. But those that did need to till to level some ground off from a manure applications or whatever it might be.
Really kinda had a challenge this spring. We had a very short window to get it sprayed off. They struggled with just kinda being sod bound. But that’s part of growing a cover crop is every year is different. There’s never a year that’s the same. You have your fall conditions, you have your spring conditions. Very seldom will you have a back-to-back year with the same experiences.
So that’s the one thing that I’ve kinda pushed is don’t expect every year to be the same results.
It’s not a cookie cutter approach. They are a challenge, but they’re not challenges that can’t be dealt with. You just have to be a little more flexible. Having your own sprayer is a definite plus, not a must, but it’s a plus. Just due to the window of opportunity of getting termination.
Once again, just to step back. We have rye that germinates on our combine. If it rains and sits
for three days, you’ll have rye growing on the steps. So it’s just an amazing, amazing seed that you give it moisture, it’ll, it’ll germinate. To go along with that, the tillering capabilities of it are just very aggressive tillering, which gives you that good ground cover. In turn, you get some
I’ve found rye to be quite easy and economical to terminate. I personally I’ve heard of people that have had a challenge getting it terminated. I personally have not. Low dose of glyphosate. And usually, I shouldn’t say usually, I’ve always had success terminating it with a low dose of glyphosate. For us, it’s not been that much of a challenge to deal with in addition to your normal everyday cash crop.
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[Will Fulwider] Speaking a little bit more about termination. We have people down here, they’re starting to kinda delay that termination of that [indiscernible] they’re planting green or taking that timing and messing with it a little bit, in order to get some weed management out of, out of the rye cover crop or they’re terminating early and trying to make sure that, that nitrogen doesn’t get immobilized by this huge amount of biomass that the rye produced. And I’m wondering in your experience, what does your timing look like from termination? Sounds like you’ve had a lot of success using glyphosate as termination. I’m just wondering. What about that timing have you really kinda dialed in for your farm?
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[Scott Carlson] I have changed my focus on this a little bit over the last few years. Everything we read this I will say is definitely a location thing. It’s always the cookie cutter excuse for us Northern folks, but everything I’ve always read, I actually still read it, is seven to ten days prior to planting, get that cover crop or that cereal rye terminated, then you’ll be planting into it soon after it’s dead.
And that’s what I always did. Well, so many of those years up here, our window is so tight that I was out terminating cereal rye cover crop and it was maybe an inch or two tall. And I just really wasn’t feeling like I was getting the effects. Well, once again, that’s what success did we have in the fall getting it germinated and growing, and then what kind of spring did we have?
So actually watching some neighbors that have been successful growing a cover crop in the fall, planting their corn and waiting a week, ten days, 12 days, depending on what kind of growth do you get, then burning it down, following the planter later letting that crop grow.
So about three years ago, four years ago, I shifted and started doing some of that. My program now is let that rye grow as tall as I can when I feel the time, which again is that is gonna be flexible. Get out there. And if I did have a field this year, we threw the early post program with the residual, we threw it all in. We did it one time and had really good success. We did get some weed suppression. I can’t claim full weed suppression as the roller crimper guys can.
But we’re just too far north or rye takes too long to get that tall and to get that roller crimper advantage. My personal opinion and experience.
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[Michael Geissinger] Yeah. So you’ve kind of already spoken into a little bit about how cereal rye affects weed management in the following cash crop. But I’m curious a little bit to hear if you have anything to add to that or if there’s any effects that you’ve seen on yield of the cash crop that follows rye or anything like that?
[Scott Carlson] Once again, I have not done the roller crimper route so that that I would truly believe would be tremendous weed suppression. But I don’t have the experience there. I know there has to be some suppression there in the spring just with the competition, but I’m not sure.
We’re spreading 50-55 pounds. I don’t like a real thick cover crop. Weed suppression in my program isn’t necessarily my goal. It’s more erosion and soil tilth because I don t know that that bushel or less rate is thick enough to get full, full suppression unless it goes full term. And you can get that roller crimper and lay that mat down.
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[Will Fulwider] Do you have any other options for cover crops after kinda fall harvest that could look at maybe fixing some nitrogen or getting a mix in there rather than just rye or is rye really your only option at that point?
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[Scott Carlson] I go two ways. I only have experience with rye. I know of a couple of neighbors that have tried some multi-species after soybeans, even early soybeans. And I have always said my experience just knowing with the cover crop multi-species that I grow after our rye for grain crop. We’re usually done by the 10th 12th of August, maybe the 15th of August because it typically takes us till about the first of August to finish our whole harvest crops of that rye.
And I see how long it takes to get any of those. For me, it’s clovers and radish rape. Getting them established, it’s amazing how long it really takes. They germinate right away, but just to get them established and get any benefits. It takes so long. There’s no way that you could up here, plant a multi-species the first of October and expect to get any benefits. I’ve seen two times locally where it’s been done and they did it one year and that was it.
We just we just don’t have the timing. Maybe last year we could have because it was so warm so long. And then we typically are getting a killing frost the first week of October, second week. This last fall, it was almost the first of November. But year in and year out, the multispecies, I just there’s not enough time to do any good. There’s winter wheat I’ve heard some people use, I have not done it. And I don’t really have any experiences from the people who’ve gone that route. There’s a few that have done some oats. I know there’s some trying that this year just to see if they can get away from that very vigorous cereal rye growth and then to have a natural fall kill with frost. I don’t have any experience with oats, but I would just think that getting germination of oats if you don’t have soil contact, I think it’s gonna be difficult, but I don’t have any experience there.
So yeah. I really only have experienced with cereal, rye and then the multispecies after our rye grain crop.
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[Will Fulwider] Thanks for sharing all your knowledge and your experiences with cereal rye and to end us here with one final question. It’s, you know, what, if you had one
piece of advice for other farmers that are considering planting cover crops, cereal rye, whatever it is for the first time, what would it be?
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[Scott Carlson] There’s always the advice. Try it on a small-scale, try a 40. Try a 20, whatever fits. But the most important thing is have an open mind and just know going into it that whatever anybody told you, you can probably guarantee it’s going to be different. Because we’re in Wisconsin, we’re up north. The weather factors change everything every year. And it’s just, you’ll never get the same results to the neighbor did or because every farm is different.
And I’ve always been one to tell. Well, just the extension people and the watershed people that I deal with it. Every single farm is different and be able to, there’s just no cookie cutter approach to any part of farming for that matter, but cover crops as well.
Just, it’s never the same. You know, it’s a challenge, but it’s not I mean, it’s not challenges that
we can’t deal with. It’s not impossible. It does work. There is no doubt about that. It does work. So I we’ve had good success with it. I’ve never had a failure. Yeah.
00:34:48,925 –> 00:34:59,424
[Michael Geissinger] Well, that about wraps up our questions for you today, Scott. We appreciate you taking the time to join us and provide your expertise.
00:34:59,424 –> 00:35:00,374
[Scott Carlson] Yeah.
00:35:00,374 –> 00:35:02,719
[Will Fulwider] Good luck on your cover cropping this fall.
00:35:02,719 –> 00:35:05,459
[Scott Carlson] Yeah. Thank you. Thank you.
00:35:06,310 –> 00:35:36,180
[Will Fulwider] Thanks for listening. This has been Field Notes from UW Madison extension. My name is Will Fulwider, regional crops educator for Dane and Dodge counties, and I was joined by my co-host, Michael Geissinger, crops educator for St. Croix, Barron, Polk, and Pierce Counties. A big thank you to Joe Ryan for creating our theme music and to Abby Wilkymacky for our logo. If you have any questions about anything you’ve heard today or about your farming practices in general, reach out to the extension agriculture educators serving your region.