WISCONSIN DELLS, Wis. - Tom Novak, a crop consultant and farmer from Sullivan has learned a lot in over 25 years of on-farm trials to evaluate nitrogen rates, timing and application methods. On his farm he uses both strip-till and no-till and he incorporates cover crops into his rotations.

His work in evaluating the test plots on his own farm and others that he serves led to over a decade of replicated on-farm nitrogen rate studies in conjunction with Larry Bundy and Matt Hanson of UW-Madison. 

Like Novak, other crop consultants, farmers and researchers are looking at ways to fine tune cropping in order to save on inputs and protect the environment while not sacrificing yields.

Novak and others shared what they have learned at the Discovery Farms annual conference last month in Wisconsin Dells learned. Panelists agree that information technology will get even more complex in the future.

Pictured from left to right: Megan Wallendal Tom Novak and Andy Kiefer. Photo Credit: Gloria Hafemeister

Right now there is a great deal of good information being collected on farms but the next challenge will be to figure out ways to make the best use of it.

When it comes to crop production, averages don’t work as a guide for fertilizing and controlling weeds or pests. If a grower collects data and then uses averages as a guide, the field will be over-fertilized in some places and under-fertilized in others.

Novak said his goal has been to try to pinpoint the amount of nitrogen to apply to a given crop to get better yields without wasting or losing any. One challenge, he says, has been when land changes ownership and records are lost.

“I’ve been a big proponent of repetition of tests,” he says. “Every year and every field is different.”

Farming Organic, Conventional

Also sharing strategies was Megan Wallendal of Wallendal Farms, Grand Marsh. Wallendal Farms is a 3,200 acre diversified farm on irrigated land in the central sands area of Wisconsin. They utilize manure from a large dairy farm in the area.

Producing abundant harvests hinges on soil nutrients available immediately as well as throughout the growing process, according to Wallendal. The farm uses precision technology in a variety of ways and is not afraid to try something new to improve their system. 

“Historically, ever since this farm has been here, we’ve always been involved in research,” she said. “We have controls and research on almost every field. A control check is important to proof-check that what you’re doing is something that makes sense and gets the results that you hypothesized you would get.”

Wallendal says, “We primarily use conservation and strip tillage. When it comes to fertilizer, we ‘smart apply’ according to the type and timing of crop needs. We do split applications of fertilizer to prevent the excess from washing away. This approach helps our farm minimize loss and improve our bottom line.”

While some farmers may not have the opportunity to do split applications of nutrients, she says since they are already irrigating, incorporating the liquid manure fertilizer into their irrigation system is a way they can make numerous applications of smaller amounts of fertilizer and minimize the risk of losing any of the nutrients.

This method also provides nutrients to the crop at the time the crop needs them most. That’s done by considering factors affecting the rate of nutrient release such as microbial action and soil temperature, moisture and aeration as well as how to control soil fertility.

She urged farmers to be open to new tools that are available for helping to manage nutrients. 

She says, “We ask ourselves what is the purpose for doing anything we consider.”

She explained how they try to stay ahead of the curve by testing and continually evaluating new production techniques and technologies such as field mapping, computerized pivot panels and variable rate fertility. They examine crop and tillage systems over multiple years, not just for the crop of that year or the moment, and also understand the legacy of prior crops.

A third panelist was Andy Kiefer, an agronomist with the Outagamie County Land Conservation Department who also runs an organic farm.

He works with farmers to find conservation practices that improve soil health and reduce their dependence on tillage. Conservation practices include strip-till, no till, cover crops and low disturbance manure injection.

He described two recent successes in injecting manure into growing cover crops and also injecting manure into growing corn and soybeans.

He sees variable rate manure application as a big plus for farmers in the future. He urges all farmers to make use of the tools available.

Closing Skills Gap

Panelists also shared ideas on how to close the skills-gap and help farmers understand how to use the technology in a way that is practical and will benefit their farms.

Dr. Josh McGrath, Associate Professor of Soil Management at the University of Kentucky said, “It’s not only a skills gap but also a knowledge gap. We have technology for things like split application but we haven’t figured out a way to teach and get farmers to use it.”

He suggested that many companies are not sharing information because there is a fierce competition in the marketplace when it comes to designing precision tools and as companies strive to improve their tools they are reluctant to share what they have learned.

Wallendal suggested that farmers must have a willingness to adapt new ways of doing things and traditionally farmers are the last to be willing to change.

Novak suggested that more farmers might be willing to adopt new technology if it would be simplified. He suggested that UW-Extension can help with teaching how to use these new tools but farmers need to be willing to learn, too.

He also suggested, “We need mentors out there who will help farmers learn about the new technology. 

Loretta Ortiz-Ribbing, Dodge and Fond du lac County’s UW-Extension soils and crops agent, says, “Research dollars are important for developing better ways to do things but there also has to be an education arm that allows Extension agents to deliver it to the farmers.”

Events like the Discovery Farms annual conference are one way farmers have an opportunity to learn about ways to farm efficiently and protect the environment at the same time.

Amber Raddatz, co-director of the Discovery Farms program says, “Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board has supported Discovery Farms from the start. That’s a leap of faith and says that dairy farmers think it’s important enough to protect the environment that they are willing to spend money on research and teaching farmers. Public money is drying up. You in Wisconsin ought to be proud of how environmental protection has been supported.”