MANKATO, Minn. — Red Wing, Minn. area farmer Brock Olson was a vendor at the MN Ag Expo which took place in Mankato Jan 22-23. His display told the story of his three-year participation in a Minnesota Corn Growers Association Innovation Grant Program — one of 12 projects around the state in 2019.
“I came up with a three-year rotation adding winter rye to the mix,” explained Olson. “After this winter rye harvest, I plant a multi-species cover crop consisting of oats, radish, winter peas and sorghum sudan. All four of these cover crops winter kill so I don’t need any spring tillage. They’re all decayed and I can no-till my corn and soybeans directly into this stubble. And most important, I have virtually zero erosion on those slopes compared with typical corn/soybean fields in our area.”
The objective of this project is to reduce nitrate loss and soil erosion. Winter rye does this while also improving soil health. So maybe winter rye emerges as a third crop in the corn/soybean rotation.
Yes, there is plenty of rolling topography in the Red Wing area, so soil erosion is a continued threat — especially in view of the heavy rains during the past couple of seasons.
Olson uses a 12-row planter with trash wheels and no-till coulters and spike closing wheels. Following harvest of the corn field, he plants the rye cover crop to protect the land over the winter and next spring. Then he’ll no-till plant soybeans into the green rye and terminate the rye after planting with a Roundup spray application.
Spike closing wheels intended to crumble the soil didn’t work so well in last spring’s wet soils. “It was nerve-wracking because there were never ideal planting conditions,” Olson admitted. “I planted regardless. It was too wet … and it stayed too wet.”
Olson has found the soybeans aren’t affected by the growing rye crop. “I’ve sprayed the day after planting and never saw any yield hit compared with no rye. I’ve sprayed three weeks after planting without any yield hit from the rye. They seem to grow okay together for a while; and in the process certainly tend to eliminate soil erosion too.
“The goal of my project was to have zero erosion at any point during the year with any crop. So far I have witnessed zero erosion where I have applied this technique.”
And, as they say, the proof is in the pudding. Olson’s Expo display, comparing no-till corn and no-till soybeans vs. conventional tillage corn, showed $299 profit per acre with full tillage corn/soybean vs. $281 per acre for no-till winter rye with corn and soybeans. And a positive attribute of zero till is you leave less ruts in your field at harvest. “There’s more soil structure, more root mass to support the heavy harvest equipment,” Olson added.
“Yes, slightly less profit per acre, but elimination of tillage costs — and most important — zero erosion with cover crops and this third crop of rye. I also learned the importance of getting that winter rye crop seeded earlier. My first year it was mid-November seed. Last fall I seeded earlier — mid-October into my soybean stubble — and I have a great winter stand of rye this year.”
His cover-crop seed source has been Albert Lea Seed House. And yes, this young agriculturist is interested in soil health; so he’s submitted soil samples the past two years for organic matter readings on his no-till ground vs. his tilled fields. Last year he also started doing the Haney Soil Health test — a measuring device of the carbon content of the soil. The higher the number, the healthier the soil.
“Hopefully I’ll learn more in the future,” said Olson. “Though only a three-year trial run, I’ve seen positive results in reduced soil erosion. It’s not without its challenges. I’ve never raised a small grain until this year. It’s different than growing corn and soybeans. I have struggles with the timing of the herbicide application because it’s something I’m not yet used too.”
Olson is 35 years old and admits there is lots of learning yet to happen. He farms about 400 acres. This Innovative Grant project using a three-crop rotation system with cover crops was on a 40-acre field. He’s doing the same test on another 40-acre field this year.
The Minnesota Corn Growers Association shares some of the cost of these innovative grants with participating farmers. Olson said MCGA covered his cover crop seed costs and the soil testing costs. Olson is counting on his ‘testing’ concept to soon be working on his entire 400 acres of crop production!
A University of Minnesota graduate in mechancial engineering, Olson worked 10 years with 3M; but he professes, “I grew up on a family farm and just wanted to be out working with my hands in the profession of crop production and soil health.”
Variable rate planting of corn (maybe soybeans too) are next on his hopper list. His combine can generate maps of each field as he plants, so assessing soil scores and plant populations may be a 2020 project also. He’s aware of companies offering grid soil testing for adjusting fertilizer rates; as well as corn populations field-by-field — even on the go.
“The more I farm, the more I understand that our land is very variable in production and soil structure,” said Olson. “This to me means I should be farming according to these variations. But even with my engineering background, I need some time and money to get into these strategies. Maybe 2020 is my push year.”
“I try to make improvements, but you can only make so many changes in one season it seems to me. Farm size will continue to grow and consolidate … these trends seem inevitable. My hope is that the family farm can still stick around and compete because I think growing up on a family farm raises you with certain aspects you can’t get anywhere else. There’s a dedication to the soil that just grows within you. To me, it’s part of the bonding process that makes farming a very unique profession.”
Olson’s only child, Isaac, is 3 years old; but a second Olson is on the way. Yes, he thinks agriculture will need to help young people who are getting into farming. “I hope to mentor my son and get him as excited about this thing called farming as I am,” he said. “We’ll simply hope and pray that ag leaders and policymakers keep American agriculture stable and profitable forever and ever.”