Guest Article: Cover Crops a Teaching and Water Quality Tool at Des Moines Area Community College's Dallas County Farm

ADEL -- Since 1999, Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC) Agribusiness students have tackled real-world, day-to-day farm operations at their Dallas County farm. Here, Farm Coordinator Travis Lautner shares the program’s take on cover crops throughout the past year.

The Rye Cover Crop
In the fall, we plant rye atop acres that we harvest as corn silage. The following spring, once the rye cover crop has put a head on (usually the end of May), we chop and bag it for excellent cattle feed. Historically, we’ve cut and baled the rye crop, but found it challenging to get it dry enough for quality bales. Soybeans are then no-till planted into the rye stubble, which is then terminated once stubble begins to regrow after about a week.  

This picture also captures a small portion of our silt fence and round bale structures used to slow water flow coming off the feedlot operation. This setup slows water flow and reduces some of the channel erosion experienced in grazing paddocks to the west. It also helps settle particulates coming off the feedlot during heavy precipitation.  

The Yield
Since utilizing winter cover crops atop our silage acres over the past several years, we’ve learned that the cover crop does not seem to inhibit the soybean yield. In fact, we experienced 2-3 bushel better soybeans on this particular field in 2015 compared to acres in the same field without rye cover crop.

In addition, we tend to experience less weed pressure on these acres during the growing season.  Check out this yield map of the South 40 field pictured photos two and four. The cover crop was used nearest the highway where corn silage was chopped the previous year. Notice the greener area towards the highway where rye was used as winter cover crop. This particular field yielded 250 bushel corn in 2014, followed by a field average of 60-bushel soybeans the following year in 2015 while utilizing cover crops. We suggest that our students start small and discover how cover crops can be implemented into their own operations. 

The Silage Acres
Students work to replace a hoop barn cover used for storing hay bales. In the background, you can see our silage acres from last fall. These silage acres were then seeded with rye as a winter cover crop. The rye is then made available to the cowherd for grazing as they winter on corn stock fields. 

The Result
The corn removed from those acres yielded in excess of 250 bushel per acre (Channel 211-98 variety of corn). We weighed two separate test strips of the standing corn next to the chopped area.

The Technology
We equipped our planter with Precision Clean Sweep units in an effort reduce a tillage pass, which allowed us to keep more crop residue atop the field. So far, we reduced an extra tillage pass with the field cultivator since we are able to remove corn stalk residue from the row when planting soybeans into rotated acres that have been disked. The Clean Sweep units, which are adjustable from the cab, are powered pneumatically through a tongue-mounted air compressor primarily used to fill our Precision Air Force down pressure system on our John Deere 1750 planter.

Our six-row planter features an up-to-date 20/20 Monitor, Fieldview, Clean Sweep, Air Force, Wave Vision, Keeton Seed Firmers, Drag Chains, and Furrow Cruisers. This gives us a great opportunity to showcase some of the latest technologies to our students.  Our recommendation to the students is to start slow and integrate some of these technologies into their planting systems. For example, in place of trading planters, make small updates to the planting equipment with some of the features listed above. 

Dallas County Farm By the Numbers

  • 100 acres corn, rotated 
  • 12-15 acres of winter cover crop planted after chopping corn silage 
  • 100 acres soybeans, rotated
  • 125 acres rotationally grazed pasture and hay ground
  • 60-70 head cow-calf and feedlot
  • 6-12 head farrow-to-finish sow operation

Grains and forages produced on the farm are used within an educational agronomy setting and either fed in the livestock operation or strategically marketed throughout the year. The majority of livestock produced on the farm is raised within an educational setting and then sold back to the public as locker beef and pork through DMACC meat sales.

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