Guolong Liang, outreach specialist for the Agriculture Water Quality Program of Extension in the Central Sands of Wisconsin, guest hosts this episode of Field Notes. Guolong talks with UW-Madison Horticulture Professor and Extension Specialist Jed Colquhoun about the use of cover crops to reduce nutrient runoff in canning and processing vegetables. For the farmer perspective, he chats with John Ruzicka of Guth Farms in Bancroft, Wisconsin and Dylan Moore, a Seneca Foods Field Representative, about Guth Farm’s journey in integrating no-till and cover crops into their processing vegetable rotations.
Will Fulwider 0:03
Today we’ve got a special episode of Field Notes, we’ve got a guest host, a first thing, first in the history of field notes, guest host Guolong, is coming to us straight from the ag and water quality program with extension. I’m very excited to have him on and talking about some of the work that he’s been doing with no till and canning or processing vegetable crops, what is it Guolong?
Guolong Liang 0:32
Mostly cover crops in the processing crops industry and the farmer also happens to be an expert in using no till all his fields as well.
Will Fulwider 0:42
Great, great. Well, first, who are you?
Guolong Liang 0:45
Oh, well, thank you well, for inviting me to be the guest host for for field notes and my name is Guolong, I am a new outreach specialist in the agricultural water quality program within Ag Institute of UW Madison Extension. I primarily focus on commercial vegetable crops. And I’m located in the central part of the state. I live and work in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. And I’m just fascinated by the interaction between the practices that we do on top of the soil, and how that affects the water quality that we all share and live in.
Will Fulwider 1:28
Cool, great. Well, we’re gonna play the episode that you’ve recorded, which I’m excited about, less work for me. No, but excited. I’m not an expert in this. So it’s good to have you on who knows a lot more than I and can speak much more learnedly with the folks about water quality, and how commercial vegetables affect that. So I mean, I guess like, what are your takeaways kind of from the conversations that you had? Or what what was your experience like?
Guolong Liang 1:58
Yeah, it was a really refreshing experience talking to a researcher, a farmer and a processor, who works closely on this topic and who have great experience on implementing conservation practices on their own specific farms. And I guess one of the takeaways that I got is, don’t back down, things are going to go wrong at some point, but with a community and strong faith to protect our shared natural resources. I think as a community, we can eventually solve the water quality problem with the practices that we do.
Will Fulwider 2:41
Great, well, coming straight to you from Stevens Point. This is Guolong’s episode of Field Notes.
Guolong Liang 3:00
Every year, the total economic impact of specialty crop production and processing is more than $4.8 billion in Wisconsin. Great economic impact is coupled with responsibility to protect our environment. What are some challenges and opportunities to protect our environment, especially water quality in the processing crops industry. Today, we’re going to hear from a researcher, a farmer, and a processor to share their efforts in this industry to help farmers become more successful in farming and protect our water.
First, I talk to a professor at UW Madison to learn more about the processing crop industry here in Wisconsin.
Jed Colquhoun 3:43
My name is Jed Colquhoun, and I’m a professor and extension specialist in the Department of Horticulture at UW Madison, where I work in processing vegetables, potatoes and fruit crops, and the processing crops in particular, I work in two big buckets. The first would be integrated pest management for processing vegetables, primarily sweet corn, peas, beans, carrots, and the major processing vegetables. A secondary of work is developing sustainability metrics for the processing industry. Things like carbon and water footprint and looking at the utilizations of inputs and processing vegetables.
Guolong Liang 4:29
Since we’re talking about processing crops, hear in Wisconsin Can you briefly describe for those who are not familiar with the industry here, where these crops are mostly being grown, and in what processing crops are grown here in Wisconsin?
Jed Colquhoun 4:47
Most people don’t think of Wisconsin as a hotbed for vegetable production but when it comes to processing vegetables, in particular were among the nation’s leaders and many different processing crops. And they’re really dispersed across the state from the shores of Lake Michigan, to the border of Minnesota on the west side. But the concentration or the largest concentration of processing vegetables would be in what we call the central sands region, in the central portion of the state, where we have coarse textured low organic matter, soils, and plentiful water. And those crops in that production region rely entirely on irrigation for consistent production. The crops include peas, snap bean and sweet corn as kind of the traditional mainstays of the processing vegetable industry. But we also grow about a third of the processing carrots nationally here in Wisconsin, we’re a leader in production of cabbage for krauts. We grow onions, dry beans, a number of different vegetables in that region, in addition to potatoes.
Guolong Liang 6:07
And a lot of the vegetables that you just mentioned require a lot of nutrient inputs, among them is nitrogen. So are there any water quality issues that come with such big production on these processing crops, especially in the central sands?
Jed Colquhoun 6:26
Yes, in the central sands in particular, the real benefit is it’s a coarse textured lower organic matter soil, where water can actually be managed as an input, because the soil has a fairly low water holding capacity. So we worry a little bit less about things like root rots and pathogens affecting these processing vegetables in saturated soils. But the downside to that really is that with the coarse textured low organic matter soil, it’s also very susceptible to leaching. This leaching risk is increased in recent years with the increase in variable high precipitation events that can lead to leaching. And with that the inputs that we use in agriculture can sometimes be found in the groundwater below it and oftentimes that groundwater table is really shallow. And so when we get leaching events, the fertilizer, more specifically nitrogen used to produce these crops can contaminate the groundwater, as well as some of the pesticides that we use to protect these crops from pests. It’s important to note when it comes to the pesticides though they most often do not exceed any sort of human health hazard. But they are noted in groundwater sampling reports.
Guolong Liang 7:55
And since you’ve been working on finding sustainable solutions to protect our water bodies, especially in the central sands, where the vegetable industry is predominant, what are some opportunities on our agricultural fields to clean our water from the processing cropping perspective?
Jed Colquhoun 8:17
Sure, there are really two ways to protect our groundwater from contamination from agricultural inputs. The first way would be to reduce the use of the inputs, which reduces the risk that they could leach to the groundwater. So doing things like looking for nitrogen efficient varieties, looking for alternative rotational crops that may be fix nitrogen and don’t rely on artificial nitrogen sources. And in general monitoring the crop with scouting, tissue sampling, soil sampling, so that the nutrients are only applied when they’re needed and not in excess. So that’s the first method, use our inputs carefully and reduce them when possible. The second method would be to find a way to have some sort of filter in the soil between the crop root zone and the groundwater below it. That’s used as a human drinking source and obviously, has many ecological implications to the local rivers, streams, lakes. So in that sense, our work is really focused on the second question, what could we possibly do with some natural inputs to be able to create a filtration zone in the soil to protect the groundwater.
Guolong Liang 9:38
Part of the goal to filter the water go into the root zone is to use the ample root system of the cover crops. So can you touch a little bit on what are some agronomic benefits of growing cover crops, especially in the central sands?
Jed Colquhoun 9:54
Our focus in the use of cover crops is to be able to intercept these nutrients and pesticides before they reach groundwater. So we’re focused on deep rooting cover crops. We’re focused on cover crops that can protect the soil, not only during the season in which we’re growing the processing vegetables, but also in what we call the shoulder seasons, April and October, prior to and after growing the main crop when the soil traditionally was left bare, and susceptible to leaching. So with that, we’ve known for a long time that the traditional cover crops grown in the central sands as a winter cover, such as winter rye are just wonderful scavengers of nitrogen and pesticides that may remain in the soil. So the primary benefit, of course is scavenging nutrients with these deep root systems. There also some secondary benefits for example, we’ve also known that yellow mustard as very good at suppressing plant pathogens, soil borne plant pathogens in particular, and nematodes in soil. So there are secondary biological pest management benefits that we can get from growing cover crops in such a system. The ultimate idea really is to use the cover crop to recycle the inputs from the main crop and carry them over to the next cropping system, so that we don’t have a leaching system. But we keep the nutrients in reserve within the crop root zone, so it’s available to the next crop.
Guolong Liang 11:35
After understanding the science behind the use of cover crops in vegetable fields, I was eager to talk to a farmer and learn if cover crops actually work in their system. Luckily, I got the chance to speak with John Ruzicka farmer at Guth Farm in Bancroft, Wisconsin, and Dylan Moore, Field Supervisor from Seneca Foods who have been collaborating closely with John on his unique system.
John Ruzicka 11:59
So we’re, we’re farming approximately 2500 acres. We grow sweet corn, green beans, peas, few carrots, and then grain corn and soybeans and a little small grain. I’ve been transitioning to work the entire farm to no till it’s probably been about a eight to nine year process right now that we’re in. And we’re seeing some really good results by direct planting into cover crops and not disturbing the soil. So it’s been, I’ve made a lot of mistakes. But I feel like we’ve done a lot of things well and had enough success that I’m committed long term to the process.
Guolong Liang 12:42
That’s great. And now I invite in Dylan to introduce yourself. Who do you work for? And what crop do you mainly work with?
Dylan Moore 12:50
Sure. So my name is Dylan Moore, Field Supervisor here in the central sands location. I’ve been with the company for seven years now. Our location specifically specializes in the pea and sweet corn operation. We’re also heavily involved in the green beans, lima beans, cabbage and quite a bit of organic crops, all our product is canned in numerous different Wisconsin locations here. What’s unique at our location: starting with the peas, all our peas are custom planted on a conventional basis. So we do all the custom planting, we run four 36 foot air seeders. So we do all the planting for most growers and then with John being unique, he’s doing his own planting with a no till system. And then moving into sweet corn. Same thing, we provide all the seed for the growers. And then we do all the custom harvesting for the sweet corn and the peas here.
Guolong Liang 13:44
So you kind of answered this question already. But, John, since you have been doing this for a long time, right, how you kind of talked about what initiated your thought before starting no till and starting cover crops. But how has that journey been? How has the past decade been for like trying different practices? And you know, there’s going to be challenges down the road, but how do you address them or face them,
John Ruzicka 14:10
Right, well, I guess I’ll say when I first started, I always call it like my aha moment. I can remember we would have sweet corn in the ground or, you know, other crops and the wind would be blowing, we would have rotary holes in the field to try to knock the dust down. We’d have irrigation running and I can remember huddling in a fence line, probably in a 40 or 50 mile an hour wind with the inch tall, sweet corn out of the ground trying to make an irrigator run. And I thought you know, I’m going to, we’re just killing ourselves trying to make this work and it’s not sustainable. And I was pretty new into the no till stuff I hadn’t, didn’t know much about it. And I thought like I’m gonna leave a little cover crop next year and just plant into it. And I could remember having a field of rye from the previous year, and I, I terminated that rye chemically, and it was probably an inch or two tall, and I thought to myself, There’s no way I can ever plant into this, this is going to be just a disaster. And it turned into 10 tons sweetcorn, which is a pretty fair yield. And I thought, this has really got some promise. And that’s where it really all started for me. I just couldn’t stand the sight of my dirt blowing. And I still can’t stand the sight of anybody’s dirt blowing, because I feel like it’s, you know, probably 95% preventable in most situations that it doesn’t have to happen. And that’s how that’s how it started. And, you know, so I started with the sweet corn. And I’m like, wow we use a lot less fuel because we’re not going out there in the spring and running a couple tillage passes over that ground. And it really evolved where I said that at some point, I stopped tilling the ground in the fall, I started broadcasting cover crop into the after the harvesters came through. And that worked okay. And then I thought I just I gotta buy a no till drill, I have to take the next step. And once we did that, I worked with Dylan. I said, I think we should we could try drilling peas in in the spring. And we started with like, 40 acres, and we looked at each other. And I think we’re both maybe thought this is kind of crazy. Is this going to work? And it worked really well, to the point that now I plant all my own peas, probably 200 to two to 300 acres a year, and no till, mostly all my sweet corn. And from there went into green beans, and there was some apprehension from the canners with the green beans, are we going to be able to harvest it are we going to pull in trash or the corn stubble the cover crop, and it really harvests very clean, and they’ve been very happy with it. So that really those few early hurdles to prove to the canners that it could work really opened the door for the whole operation, where now if I have to go till a field, I mean, maybe after you know, like the carrots I do not no till but if the field gets rutted up, and I have to go till it up in the fall, it makes me really sad to run tillage across the field because I believe so much in the system. And I just want all my ground to stay covered all the time.
Guolong Liang 17:20
That sounds great. And can you both share some benefits that you’ve seen on the farm and from the cannery perspective? How has these like no till and planting cover crops in the fall and keeping the ground covered, how have these practices been helping your operation? Both from the farming perspective and from the cannery perspective?
John Ruzicka 17:42
Well, I think from my perspective, it’s a cost per acre basis. It’s a lot cheaper, I mean, just our fuel savings alone helps pay for a lot of these practices. I mean, if you look around the area, I mean, we’re not new to cover crops. So there was probably been cover crops planted around here since the 60s and 70s. But what is different is that come springtime, we don’t go out there with a moldboard plow or a disc and work that cover crop under, we go out there and we direct seed that crop right into that cover. So if you eliminate these steps, I mean, you eliminate maybe two tillage passes in the fall, and then two tillage passes in the spring that saves a lot of money right there. I mean, and then, besides the monetary benefit, just the benefit of there’s, no there’s, I mean, wind erosion is pretty much eliminated, water erosion, for the most part, when you can keep the ground covered, is eliminated. So we’re not going out and filling in washouts we’re not losing the good topsoil off the hills to run down into the hollows leaving the hills bare. With our cover crop and no till we have better water infiltration. So like Dylan says the the harvest schedule, you know, when we get two inches of rain, we may have some spots that get tore up but we don’t have a field of mud to come in and try to harvest. I think there’s a benefit planting into a cover crop that we’re not we’re not seeing root rot issues in the field where if you look at a lot of conventional tilled fields, I think you see a lot of spots where maybe water pools a little bit didn’t infiltrate, those plants really suffer from it. So I think we see a better quality product. From that that perspective, too. I think that translates into the green beans as well. If that ground is covered, we’re not seeing a heavy rain event causing splashing of the soil, getting white mold and our green beans as much I feel like down the road. there’s opportunities that we can maybe cut back on fungicides, insecticides if we do this right but it’s just a constant learning process to get to that point.
Dylan Moore 19:56
Ah, yeah, I would say overall from the processing, the processing crop view is just the bigger window we have availability now with the cover crop season. You know, I think. I think the sands is very unique or anybody within the vegetable processing, or that anybody that grows vegetables, your window’s a lot smaller. You know, your growing seasons are shorter, say, than your conventional field corn or soybeans, it just broadens that window of, you got a lot, either you got two choices you have incorporate a cover crop within your system, or you leave that that land at risk of being bare for that much longer period. With having such a shorter crop. I think a lot more guys are taking advantage of the shorter season vegetable crop and incorporating a cover crop longer into these your seasons.
Guolong Liang 20:46
So how do a lot of these conservation practices come into play when we’re talking about contracts? Do they get in the way of it? Or it’s really a farm by farm basis?
Dylan Moore 20:57
Yeah, I would say it’s really a farm by farm, I preach a lot to guys, I would, and a lot of guys are doing a good job, there’s a few that are they struggle with it the rye for the cover crop. I always tell guys, if you’re growing rye, you have to look at it within any cover crop, you got to look at it as if you’re growing another crop within your cropping system. Rye, we run into the issue sometimes with us being so limited on herbicides, especially within the vegetable side, or we’re limited to what we can use, and the other issue we run into it the rye with it heading out within time of harvest is run into the risk of getting that rye head into our product and the risk of allergens.
John Ruzicka 21:42
Can I, can I follow up? Oh yeah. like I would just add like, like with Dylan says with the rye allergens is it does, growing a cover crop and having a green cover crop in the spring, it does add another level of management where you mean, if you’re not going to till the ground, you can’t just say like, Well, I’m gonna go out tomorrow and work it under make it black so that we don’t have to worry about that. But with the schedule of the of the canning crops compared to planting like a grain crop, you know, we plant their corn and beans, we get out during the spring plant as fast as we can, hopefully, we’re all done by the middle of May. But the planting of peas and sweet corn and green beans, you know, probably starts late April, early May and lasts into June and July. So that rye that right that might be six inches tall for a grain corn crop come you know, May 1, if you let that go, that’s going to be six feet tall in the middle of June and into July. So it does add another level of management that we need to maybe go out there and the middle of May if we know that that field isn’t going to be planted for another month, we have to terminate that cover crop so that it doesn’t get out of control. And I think there’s a benefit, you know the sweet corn is tough sometimes to get through that rye, so if you’re in doubt, and you’re going to do this, I would I would err on the side of killing that rye earlier, or wheat or whatever grain crop you have terminated earlier rather than later so that it doesn’t become a nuisance in the field.
Guolong Liang 23:12
So going back to I think one one thing you said previously as one thing you don’t want to see on your farm or anybody’s farms is for the soil to be blown by the wind right. So when you are, when you first started using no till and cover crops and when you see your neighbor’s field just being bare and the soil being blown away every every spring how and then you started using this unique practice, how did the neighbors take it? And did you did you have conversations? Were there any pressure from the peers?
John Ruzicka 23:46
Um, I guess you know, I have some neighbors that that are working and doing some of the same things I’m doing that are learning I think I have some neighbors that will never try it. I know that there’s people that neighbors that have laughed at what I was doing you know that’s never going to work and and I’m sure that if I had a failure at that time it was probably like I told you so kind of moment. But I look around and when I when I go out in the field in the spring and we’re planting sweet corn or green beans and you know I’m on my hands and knees digging and checking the depth of the seed and populations and everything involved in the planting, how nice those fields plant compared to planting into a tilled field where you’re you kneel down and you sink in three inches in the fluffy dirt and you gotta go you know, dig down two inches to find moisture because every time we tilled the ground, we pull the moisture out of it and I wonder why doesn’t everybody try this because I find it so enjoyable to do it. And on the days when the wind is blowing 40 mile an hour and I can sit and look at my fields and maybe watch the cover crop blowing in the breeze and knowing that my crops are protected, I feel like this is something I wish would catch on more in the area, because I feel like it works so well, if you can manage it correctly.
Guolong Liang 25:13
Before we ended our interviews, I asked all three of our guests the same question. What advice would you like to give to someone who is thinking about using practices like trying cover crops and no till to protect our water resources?
Dylan Moore 25:30
Yeah, so I think I touched on it earlier, too, is, you know, cover crops within a vegetable rotation, they need to be looked at as more than just a cover crop. And I think within the vegetables, specifically, John touched on how wide of a planting window we have within our vegetable crops. And I think we can a lot of guys can take advantage of the cover crop use and cover crop selection within that, you know, as we got, like John mentioned, sweet corn, we might not be planning til first week of June, last week of June timeframe. And I think guys can take advantage of that, you know, that spring timeframe of getting a good cover crop established or whether just not established, but either selling it off or utilizing it for more than just a cover crop. And I think the same thing, as far as looking into the next year’s picture. With that, you know, what, what we select, like John says, you almost have to look at it for a by field basis, and how it fits in within your crop rotation.
John Ruzicka 26:32
I think I mean, to get started in it. And I think if you ask anybody who no-tills, or if they would give advice, they would say, don’t, don’t bite off more than you can chew. You know, if you think you want to try it, maybe 40 acres is something to try it on, or, you know, I started in the green beans, I tried 20 acres and see how we work because I wasn’t going to risk losing a whole field to some unforeseen circumstance. I mean, there is like I touched on earlier there is more management, you know, like Dylan says, What are you going to plant down there next year, making sure you terminate your cover crop or grow something maybe that winter kills, so you don’t have to worry about it getting out of hand in the spring. If you see somebody doing it, stop and ask them about it. I love if someone asked me a question about it. If someone down the road who’s whose dirt is blowing away, every time the wind blows would come up to me and asked me about it, I would love to sit and talk to him about it and give them advice because I don’t have any secrets. You know, I’ve learned a lot of things, I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I mean, every, every time I have something successful, I probably screwed up 10 times before that to get to that point. But you can’t, you can’t look at it like, okay, I did all this and my sweet corn was a half a ton less than the other side of the pivot where I tilled it. So this doesn’t work You can’t necessarily look at it that way, you got to look at the whole picture, you know how much you maybe saved on all the tillage passes, how much you saved by not having, you know, a couple tons of topsoil blowing onto the neighbor’s field. So I would you know, if anybody wants to try it, they need to look at their neighbors, you know, get on the internet and read about it. I mean, there’s all kinds of stuff and podcasts to listen to. And, you know, and I mean, besides just the wind erosion and the water erosion from the soil health perspective, it’s pretty refreshing to go out in the field and dig down to find your seed and, you know, maybe find 20 or 30 nightcrawlers crawling around down in that field, too. I mean, we’re, we’re doing good things for the soil and making it better. So I think, yeah, just just to get started, you just need to ask questions and, and pay attention and make sure you’re out in that field watching that crop so that, you know, you’re not surprised by something that happens because we’ve had issues before. I mean, we’ve had issues with armyworms and other pests that, you know, was a pretty bad deal. But we learn from it and we move on. And it’s never gotten to the point where you know, Dylan or any of his co workers have ever said like, You got to stop this now because it’s not working. You know, they, we’ve worked through it, and we’ve made progress to get to where we are.
Jed Colquhoun 29:07
I think going back to the initial piece are really two ways we can protect water quality: only use inputs when we need them. And growers are very good at that already. Nobody is out there wasting inputs, it’s expensive. But pay attention to the different tools we might use to be able to capture every piece of input that we’re using in agriculture. And we have a lot of new things coming along that my colleagues are working on. For example, nitrate sensing in irrigation water so that we credit the nitrogen in the irrigation water to the crap in which it’s applied to that can help us reduce some of our inputs, better ways to monitor soil and tissue nutrient status like with remote sensing and drones and such. So there’s a lot coming along that I think will help us make agriculture even more efficient, which is a win win helps us protect our groundwater and once that gain is realized it will also help us reduce our inputs and the cost of those inputs. In terms of the cover crops themselves, I would say to a grower, if you haven’t tried it, give it a shot in a small area and see what you can do. I think that most growers would find that again, if they can overcome the timing and management scenarios, it can help them protect their soil from wind erosion, it can help them retain nutrients. And overall as a community, it can help us protect groundwater without a significant amount of additional work in most cases.
Guolong Liang 30:51
Yes, that sounds great. Thank you so much for the interview. That was really informative, and I think it will, it will make a great episode.
Jed Colquhoun 31:02
Yeah, thanks for having me.
Will Fulwider 31:12
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. A big thank you to Joe Ryan for creating our theme music and Abby Wilkimaky for a 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