Striking gold, helping farmers test new ideas

Written by Haleigh Ortmeier-Clarke

When it comes to agricultural research, the Minnesota Corn Growers Association (MCGA) has hit a gold mine. Where is this gold mine you may ask? Well, it’s in the brain of every farmer.

While scientists go to school to learn the scientific method and the biological processes they work with, farmers live and breathe agriculture. Farmers have to use their brains every day to come up with solutions to problems and ideas to make their practice better. These farmers have some of the most innovative and efficient ideas that often go unnoticed.

This is why MCGA’s Conservation Innovation Grant program is so important. The Innovation Grants utilize the new and innovative ideas farmers come up with while offering scientific and financial support.

Wayne DeWall, Lee Thompson, and Dan Coffman are three of the 2016 recipients and have all been working hard to test their ideas. MCGA Research Director Paul Meints and interns Nicole and Haleigh had the chance to visit both sites to learn about the different ideas.

Nitrogen Rate and Timing

Wayne DeWall has been farming full-time since 1985. He has been collaborating on a project with the Root River Field to Stream Partnership monitoring runoff, sediment, and nutrient losses since 2011. Wayne has learned that he is losing around 51 lbs. per acre of total nitrogen (TN) from 60 acres, based on measurements from an edge-of-field monitoring system.

Wayne DeWall stands in his innovation plot.

Wayne DeWall stands in his innovation plot.

“There are so many negatives with nitrate runoff,” said Wayne, “We need to promote our efforts to do better.” This is what motivated him to take a look at the Innovation Grant program.

Wayne, along with other collaborators, have utilized different management recommendations to comprise three trials, each with four treatments, to test the rate and timing of nitrogen application to lessen loss.

  • Treatment #1 is Wayne’s normal yearly rate. There is a total of 170 lbs. per acre with 140 lbs. being applied as pre-plant.
  • Treatment #2 is the Best Management Practice (BMP) suggestion from the Maximum Return to Nitrogen (MRTN) calculator. There is a total of 130 lbs. per acre with 135 lbs. applied as pre-plant.
  • Treatment #3 is similar to treatment #2, but it is applied at a split rate. The pre-plant is brought down to 60 lbs. and there is another application at the V4 (fourth leaf) growth stage of 45 lbs.
  • Treatment #4 is simply a 0 rate, which means that no nitrogen was applied. These are used as check strips or as the control.

The goal of this project is to find the most economic and efficient combination of rate and timing of nitrogen application for the region Wayne resides in.

Wayne hasn’t hit any challenges or surprises yet because of the support he has from his local coop and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

“There is science behind all of this,” said Wayne, “Sound science.”

Cover Cropping Techniques

Dan and Lee have come up with a creative piece of equipment to test cover crops on their land. They took an 8 row cultivator, added 4 more rows, and attached an air seeder to run seed to each of the rows. “You can put this together pretty reasonably from a cost standpoint,” said Dan.

Lee Thompson (left) and Dan Coffman (right) stand next to the cultivator turned covercrop planter.

Lee Thompson (left) and Dan Coffman (right) stand next to the cultivator turned cover crop planter.

The treatments were split between a simple broadcast and a direct-seed method. The direct seeding method utilized drills from an old grain drill that Dan attached to the cultivator. There were two drilled rows between each row of corn. 20 acres were planted with a mixture of cereal rye, triticale, turnip, radish, and rapeseed. Another 7 acres were planted with an even mix of peas and barley.

There was some damage to the corn because the cover crop planting was pushed back to the corn’s V7 growth stage due to weather. The damage didn’t come from the planter however, but from the tractor tires. Dan would like to try this for one more year as is, with the exception of trying to plant earlier, at about the V5 stage.

“We’re excited with what we’ve been able to do, and with what we can do,” said Dan.

A few challenges have come up throughout the year. The equipment itself had to be pieced together, which takes some time. The airflow from the air seeder was also hindered at different times throughout planting. This resulted in the cover crops being planted at 15 lbs. per acre instead of 30 lbs. per acre. Because there was no pre-emergence herbicide applied, the two recognize that they have some weed problems. “Farmers say they don’t want weeds in their plots,” said Lee. This is very true, but the two feel as though in future trials they can find new ways to combat weedy invaders.

In the future, Dan and Lee would like to incorporate nitrogen application into the cover crop planting. This wasn’t needed this year though, as Climate Nitrogen Advisor showed that the fields didn’t need additional nitrogen.

Where we go from here.

These farmers are taking research to a different level by attacking common problems right on the farm. This gold mine of knowledge is vast, and MCGA is looking to continue exploration as they expand the Innovation Grant program. The new Request for Proposals (RFP) can be found here and proposals for the coming year are due on December 15, 2016.

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