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Double Dutch into new forage options

Martha Hoffman Kerestes for Progressive Forage Published on 31 January 2022
no-till crops

What started as a time-saving decision about five years ago has led to a journey of soil health improvement and more flexible ways to produce forage for a dairy and feedlot.

Brothers Brody and Jory Stapel farm with their father, Rudy, on Double Dutch Dairy in Cedar Grove, Wisconsin. Born and raised on a farm 30 miles north of the current dairy, the brothers decided to get back into dairying nine years ago after getting married and having families.

After several years of farming with the ideology that more tillage was better, they decided to test no-till on a few fields. The main impetus was that one to three tillage passes on top of planting and spraying in spring was too much for the three farmers on their 1,100 acres of crop ground that spans 30 miles north to south and 10 miles east to west.

Soon, they decided to move to no-till management on all their acreage.

“Spring seems to go a lot smoother,” Brody says.

Pairing of cover crops

Beyond the simple logistics improvement, they’ve embraced the long-term benefits of soil health, carbon sequestration and reduced input costs that have accompanied their use of no-till paired with cover crops.

Today, there’s something growing on every acre all year, with cover crops following cash crops and corn silage. This helps with manure applications, since they can apply to living covers to retain the nutrients and limit runoff.

In addition to everything the cover crops bring to the table for soil health and fertility management, they’ve provided a powerful opportunity to harvest the feed and reduced the need for perennial alfalfa acres. Since nearby land to the dairy operation is limited, minimizing perennial stands has allowed for more crop flexibility.

They used to keep 250 acres of alfalfa, and they’re down to 25 acres currently.

Pairing of cover crops

While they aren’t done with perennial stands – they’re currently using a mix of three alfalfa varieties, improved red clovers and a few grasses – they’re done with the alfalfa-only monoculture. Since the annual covers require more supplemental nitrogen beyond manure, they still value legumes.

Even in cover crops, their focus is on diversity. They have a variety of cover crop cocktail mixes for different applications. They’ve been doing rye or triticale after corn and corn silage, and last fall they did a triticale, ryegrass, clover and winter pea mix with the goal of harvesting forage this spring before planting the next crop.

Pairing of cover crops

They’ve been experimenting with interseeding covers into corn so they have a head start once the corn comes off. Last season, they cut and chopped rye for forage in the spring and applied manure, then no-tilled a mix of canola, kale, ryegrass, cow peas and buckwheat before planting corn on top of it all. Most of the cover crop was shorter than the corn silage harvest level between 12 and 18 inches, but some of the taller plants got added to the corn silage.

Brody says cover crops following wheat are the easiest place to start for beginners, since so much of the growing season remains when wheat comes off in July. Since many farmers are spraying or doing tillage after wheat to keep weeds down, growing a cover crop can reduce the time and cost required for those extra passes.

When they need the feed, they’ve planted a high-yielding mix after wheat including brown midrib (BMR) sorghum-sudan, medium red clover, white clover, vetch and Italian ryegrass. The goal is to have a mix of cool and warm weather grasses so it can produce well whether September is cool and wet or hot and dry.

“If we have one species, all our eggs are in one basket,” Brody explains.

Pairing of cover crops

When they’re not needing the extra feed, they’ve planted a mix including sunflower, safflower, buckwheat, rapeseed, millet, winter peas, clover, cowpea, sunn hemp and a variety of brassicas. Still, this mix could be harvested for feed if needed, and Brody says they’re open to trying a variety of things, since the worst-case scenario would produce dry cow or heifer feed instead of feed for the milking herd.

They’ve found rye, in particular, needs close attention to ensure harvest at peak quality.

“If you don’t look at it for a week, it can go from premium dairy to dry cow quality really quickly,” Brody says.

They work closely with their dairy nutritionist when including different feeds like the cover crop mixes. They’ve liked what they’ve seen so far – while Brody isn’t sure it’s all from the cover crops, they’ve seen their components jump from 3.8% fat and 3% protein to 4.3% fat and 3.35% protein on twice-daily milking on their 250-cow Holstein herd.

Those aren’t the only improvements they’ve seen. The pairing of no-till and cover crops has done remarkable things to the soil in just a handful of years.

“The soil structure that builds is a thing of beauty,” Brody says.

The practical implication of this is: When they’re forced to do field operations in more marginal weather, the soil has the resilience to handle it.

“We were chopping corn in the rain and weren’t leaving mud on the road,” Brody says.

They’ve noticed the water-holding capacity of the soil has improved, so it can handle droughts more easily and the water soaks in instead of puddling or running off when it finally does rain.

Looking ahead, they want to try more interseeded cover crops, particularly into corn. Additionally, they want to continue custom planting for neighbors who want to test a field of no-till crops or try a cover crop after wheat.

“I’d really like to help other people not be afraid to try things,” Brody says.  end mark

PHOTOS: The pairing of no-till and cover crops has done remarkable things to the soil in just a handful of years. Photos courtesy of Double Dutch Dairy.

Martha Hoffman Kerestes is a freelance writer based in Illinois.