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Asking Questions, Finding Answers

A resilient system comes from trial and error with no-till and cover crops.

There was never any question Tony Wagner wanted to be a farmer. Even at the age of 5, he gravitated toward farm machinery like a magnet. At the age of 13, he was renting his own land next to his parents’ farm near Jamestown, North Dakota.

After getting a two-year college degree, he started farming full time with his father, Mark, in 2003 – each farming his own ground. That’s when the questions began in earnest: Why not do more no-till? Why not grow more crops rather than just corn and soybeans? How can we keep our sandiest soil from washing?

It was those very questions that set Wagner on the course of growing cover crops. It was back in 2006, before cover crops and farmers’ concerns about soil health had gained real traction.

“I just happened to stumble across the notion of growing cover crops by accident,” says Wagner. “I had a field where I had just grown field peas. The soil there was light, and it tended to wash when it rained. I started asking myself how I could keep the soil in place.”

Brainstorming with his crop consultant, Lee Briese, led Wagner to replant peas in the field after the first crop was harvested in mid-July. The second-crop peas came up, but midsummer heat and a lack of moisture kept the pods from filling. Wagner looked the other way and left the sparse pea crop stand over winter.

What he saw in that field the next spring paved the way for future cover crops on his farm. “The next spring, the soil didn’t wash,” he says. “We soil-tested, and there was 40 pounds of nitrogen per acre. So we put wheat on it.”

Cover Crops and Multiple Cash Crops 

Today, Wagner grows cover crops on 90% of his land. The cover crops follow the six of the eight crops in his rotation that permit early harvesting: spring wheat, barley, oats, field peas, soybeans, and rye. Wagner also grows corn and plans to begin growing flax as a cash crop. He no-till plants all crops except corn.

“Because I want to keep my input costs as low as possible and yet realize the benefits of growing multi-species cover crops, I blend my own cover crop seed mixes from crops I grow on the farm,” he says. “It’s taken a lot of trial and error, but I’ve devised a relatively efficient system of growing cover crops by including just three or four species in a mix.”

On heavier ground, Wagner likes to include rye in the cover crop mix because it grows rapidly in the spring, using up excess spring moisture that may interfere with planting of the subsequent crop. Rye also suppresses spring weed growth.

Because it’s a heavy user of spring moisture, Wagner doesn’t include rye in fall-seeded cover crops on sandy land. “On light soil, I don’t want to grow a cover crop that overwinters and regrows in the spring, because it uses too much moisture too early,” he says.

A fall-planted cover crop mix for sandy land typically includes radishes, field peas, oats, and flax. “Last fall on one field, that type of cover crop grew knee-high by freeze-up,” he says.

When no-till planting cover crops into harvested cereal crops, he plants into tall, standing residue left by the strip header on his combine.

“I’m really starting to see the benefits in improved soil health and reduced inputs,” says Wagner after 13 years of growing cover crops by trial and error. “Organic matter in some sandy fields started off at 1% to 2%, and now those same fields have 3% to 4% organic matter.”

The color of the soil has changed from grayish-brown to black, he says. Soil aggregates have improved the soil structure, and earthworms are present.

Yields have increased, as well. “As the nutrients from the cover crop become available, I’ve been seeing that I get a 13% jump in yield of a cash crop grown on land that produced a cover crop two years earlier,” he says.

On the other side of the coin, fertilizer and herbicide inputs are reduced. “On corn following either field peas or a cover crop, I’m able to drop my fertilizer applications by 20%,” he says. “The same is true for spring wheat following a cover crop on light soil.”

When rye is included in the cover crop mix, Wagner is able to reduce herbicide applications to the subsequent crop. “If I get good cover crop growth in the fall, it outcompetes weeds because it canopies the ground,” he says. “If rye is in the mix, it starts growing early in the spring and canopies the ground again.”

Wagner’s system of combining no-till with growing cover crops has also resulted in less fuel use. “My fuel bill is a third of what it used to be,” he says.

Increasing health in the soil has led to a production system that can withstand variabilities in growing conditions. “My soils have gotten to the point where they can hold enough water to help crops be more resilient and produce a bump in yields,” says Wagner. “But it’s taken years to get to this point.”

The system has been shaped by Wagner’s continuing habit of asking questions, depending on trial and error to find the answers, and never giving up.

“When I try something new to tweak the system, I won’t give up on it just because I might get a questionable result in the first couple of years,” he says. “I collect four years of data to try to see if there’s a pattern emerging that will tell me whether to keep on doing what I’m doing or try something else.”

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A cornfield with cover crops. Cover crops can be planted in late fall, but as each species is different, it’s important to select the right one at the right time.

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