Exploring the latest farming techniques and technologies isn’t new to Matt Schelling of Sioux Center. He chooses corn hybrids that provide improved digestibility and the most milk per acre for his 125-cow Holstein dairy herd, takes care of his land and water resources, and works within the industry to advance the prospects for farmers.

But the third-generation dairyman had never explored cover crops or no-till farming until last year.

“We’ve just never had the op­­portunity,” explains Schelling. “We have limited acres that we own and rent, and we put it to a corn-alfalfa rotation to feed our dairy herd.” Every bit of the silage and hay he produces is fed to the cows.

Last year, Schelling gained access to an additional 40 acres and seized the opportunity to plant soybeans for the first time. “The field is steep and has some erosion issues,” says Schelling. To keep tillage costs minimal and protect the soil, he decided on a no-till approach and hired the beans to be custom planted.

Farming conditions in 2018 were far from ideal in northwest Iowa. The area received nearly 59 inches of rain, more than twice the normal amount, and saw two rounds of heavy flooding.

“Despite the flooding, Matt had no noticeable erosion in his bean field as the existing corn residue protected the soil,” says Colton Meyer, watershed project coordinator for the West Branch of the Floyd River with the Sioux County Soil and Water Conservation District. The field of beans yielded 86 bushels to the acre.

Adding cover crops

Before the beans were harvested, Schelling flew on a cover crop of oats and tillage radishes to further stabilize the soil, hold nitrogen for the next year and prevent further erosion. “We seeded the cover when the leaves on the beans were turning yellow, about the first of September,” he said.

“It was raining all the time, so we had good germination. By harvest, the oats were 10 inches tall,” said the Sioux County Farm Bureau member. “We got the beans out in good time, with the combine easily cutting through the cover, and it was so green. It was pretty as a picture.”

Schelling then applied manure from his son’s hogs using a minimum disturbance tool bar. “I’ve always thought that was a good idea, but haven’t been able to try it until now.”

To make the venture into new farming practices, Meyer helped Schelling tap Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship programs that provided cost share and the benefit of others’ experience. “It was a lot of paperwork, and a lot of deadlines, but it put us over the tipping point to be able to start,” he says. “We had to fly on the cover to meet deadline. But it was worth every bit of it. The entire season was a win-win from beginning to end.”

“Matt was able to manage his farm effectively to produce a record crop while protecting the land that provides for him and his family,” says Meyer. “The practices he implemented are tools used in the nutrient reduction strategy to reduce nutrient loading and improve water quality.”

The bean field won’t be an option for Schelling this year. The land will go back to corn. And he needs more land for alfalfa, so he won’t be able to switch over any other fields.

But he has invested in a minimal disturbance tool bar for his manure tank, so he can use it to spread all of his hog and dairy manure. He also intends to fly oats onto fields after the corn silage is harvested. “I’ll be able to apply manure without disturbing the cover,” he says.

Alfalfa as cover

The oats will help protect his soil, just like his alfalfa, which he calls “the best cover you can have.”

“Dairy producers have always had alfalfa,” he explains. “It’s good for four years, requires little to no fertilizer and has virtually no erosion.”

A groundwater nitrate study conducted by his neighbor Matt Schuiteman, Iowa Farm Bureau Federation District 3 director,  and Dordt College showed alfalfa pulled nitrates and held them as good as native prairie.

“Using no-till, cover crops and minimum disturbance manure application is an adjustment of mind-set,” says Schelling. “It takes some time, education and investment to get started, but the rewards of profitability and sustainability are well worth it.”

Queck-Matzie is a freelance writer in Greenfield.