Aaron Augustian said he and his brother, Todd, were looking to try something different with manure application when they were asked to join the Great Lakes Demonstration Farms Network a few years ago. Since then, the pair has switched to low disturbance manure application and introduced the use of cover crops, and for the past two years, they have used both of those practices on 100% of the fields on their farm in Kewaunee, Wis.
“It’s been working great, as long as we don’t have another extremely wet year like we did in 2019 that made things more challenging,” Augustian said during a panel discussion at the Wisconsin Discovery Farms annual conference.
Splitting the application
For manure hauling, he said they used to do a majority of their application in the fall, putting on 14,000 to 16,000 gallons per acre, but Augustian felt that wasn’t good for soil health.
“How do we put on less manure, yet get the correct amount of nutrient?” Augustian and his brother asked themselves. “Low disturbance manure application fit into that equation very well,” he noted.
Now they will typically apply 6,000 to 10,000 gallons to an established cover crop, and then, depending on soil conditions, come back with another application in the spring.
Barry Bubolz, Great Lakes Restoration Initiative area coordinator for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), said they don’t have an official standard for low disturbance manure application, but he offered a few criteria during the panel discussion.
For starters, low disturbance application is not full width tillage, and the goal is no more than 30% of row width disturbance. Ideally, he said this application is done into a living crop or cover crop, and it is also preferable if it can be followed up with no-till planting, as that is an indicator that the level of soil disturbance was low.
“Low disturbance manure application has really opened up the door for utilization of some of these conservation practices,” Bubolz said, pointing to winter rye establishment, planting green, and interseeding.
Augustian said it can be hard to convince some custom applicators to apply less manure and return to the same fields multiple times. However, they have enjoyed success with this method so far.
“Last spring, Mother Nature cooperated with us, and we could plant 100% into green using no tillage tools,” Augustian said. He noted that in a rainy spring, they would use tillage if ruts were created and had to be leveled out.
Augustian shared that along with the successes came some failed attempts. For example, they tried to use one applicator tool that continued to plug up due to the high solids content (12% to 18%) of their manure. They switched to a different machine, and it has been working great ever since.
With low disturbance application, they have been able to incorporate several cover crops. A multi-species mixture is planted following the harvest of fourth crop alfalfa, and rye is planted after corn silage is harvested. He said about 15% of their corn is interseeded into a grass and clover mix, a practice that works well for them since some of their farmland is as close as 50 yards from Lake Michigan.
“I think the cooler weather helps establish these grasses and clovers,” Augustian shared about their location. Interseeding also alleviates some of the challenges of trying to get rye planted the same time corn silage is being harvested. He said they are planning to interseed 40% to 45% of their corn next year.
While low disturbance manure application can get a sideways glance from other farmers, the public has also questioned why the manure is sometimes not incorporated. For Augustian, this has been a teaching opportunity.
“When they see manure on the ground, there are questions,” he said. “We have been more proactive in letting our neighbors know what we are doing it and why we are doing it.”
Capture the most nutrients
Fellow dairy farmer Jacob Brey also noted the importance of education.
“It’s not their fault; they just don’t know,” he said of neighbors that might question their manure application processes. “We really don’t have anything to hide. We just need to tell the public what we are doing.”
He continued, “We need to do our job as farmers to tell the public all the good things we are doing to show them farming can be a vital part of the economy and community going forward.”
Brey, who farms with his brother, Tony, near Sturgeon Bay, Wis., said it was just five years ago when he attended his first cover crops conference and all this was foreign to him.
Over the past three years, Brey said they have moved to a double cropping system on nearly all of their acres, thanks to the use of low disturbance manure injection and cover crops.
After corn silage comes off in the fall, those fields are immediately seeded down with either winter triticale or winter rye. They will plant triticale first, in September, as they found it needs to be in the ground sooner, and then they move to rye.
“After corn silage harvest, our number one priority is to get the cover crop established first to capture those remaining growing degree days we sometimes get in September,” Brey said.
They use a manure tool bar borrowed from a nearby county’s land and water conservation department and apply 9,000 gallons per acre to the growing cover crop. They let the crop grow and soak up the nutrients, and then harvest it for forage the next spring. Triticale is usually of higher quality, so they feed it to dairy cows as a replacement for alfalfa, while the rye is used as heifer feed.
Once the forage is harvested, typically at the end of May, they go through with another pass of low disturbance manure application. Last spring, right around Memorial Day, they applied 10,000 to 12,000 gallons, Brey said.
Then, after making some modifications to their corn planter, they no-till plant corn. They have found it works best to let the manure dry a few days but not too long, as the soil can get very hard in a hurry.
Their goal is to have a living crop on all their ground throughout the year and to get manure to the crops when they can best utilize it.
“Especially with the high fertilizer prices, we want to maximize every gallon of manure we have. As a dairy farm, that is a big asset for us,” Brey said.
Each farm is different
While the nutrient value of manure is undeniable, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to application. Jesse Dvorachek, who operates a custom application business based in Brillion, Wis., pumps 250 million gallons of dairy manure annually and has tried many styles of manure applicators.
“What I have learned over the years, when it comes to low disturbance manure application, is that there is no perfect tool,” he said. It really comes down to each individual farmer’s preference and situation.
Bubolz reiterated that thought.
“There is not one tool bar that fits every circumstance. You have to have the tool box loaded, because every year can be different,” he said. To find what might work best, Bubolz encouraged farmers to take opportunities to learn and visit other farms to see different practices in action.
This article appeared in the May 2022 issue of Journal of Nutrient Management on pages 18 & 19. Not a subscriber? Click to get the print magazine.