This was supposed to have been done in April. May at the latest. But a little dispute with the neighbor who was going to do the planting and other field work left me searching for someone else. It didn't help that I'm more than a bit inclined towards procrastination in getting the seed and soil amendments we planned to use. Turns out finding someone else to do our field work wasn't that difficult. I stopped by our neighbor Kenny's place and asked him if he'd be interested. He was. Then came the battle of finding a gap between rains when the field would be dry enough. We missed a couple of opportunities because I didn't have the seed yet. I scrambled to get the seed and the field was planted on June 3rd, a full 4-6 weeks later than it should have been. This leaves me worrying about germination and adequate growing time.
The dispute with my neighbor centered around what we were going to plant and how much. He has many acres of alfalfa hay that he sells in southern states by the semi load. I have a grass fed operation where grass and grazing are my primary focus. He wanted to plant a very high density alfalfa crop with some orchard grass. I wanted to plant at a much lower density with orchard grass as my primary crop with some alfalfa included. Using my approach I would be able to graze my cows and sheep on the hay field in the future. With his approach that would cause serious problems with bloat since the alfalfa content would be far too high.
The original plan was for my neighbor to pay half of the costs for field preparation, planting and seed. I would pay the other half. In turn he would have the right to harvest the hay and keep half as payment. As the conversations ensued, sometimes heated, about what to plant it became increasingly clear that we weren't going to come to a meeting of the minds. He is in the alfalfa business and I'm in the business of raising grass fed animals. He also maintained that he'd never heard of anybody grazing their animals on their hay field. That would ruin it. My research turned up two fellow grass farmers who do graze their hay along with a forgage specialist from the University of Wisconsin Extension office who also agreed with my approach.
My neighbor and I also debated the density of seed needed for planing to raise a quality stand of product. The standard recommendation of the seed companies is to plant 18-20#/acre of alfalfa if you're just planting alfalfa. I asked how much to you plant if you mix in grass seed and they said 18-20#/acre. In doing my research I found that the optimum seed density is about 75 seeds/sq. ft. Any higher than that and the exta seed germinates but dies due to excessive competiion for space. My neighbor planted his field with alfalfa and orchard grass, plus oats as a nurse crop at a rate well in excess of 300 seeds per square foot. I planted mine at about a rate of 100 seeds/sq. ft. Keepin in mind that alfalfa costs about $270 per 50# bag. The difference in seed cost between my approach and my neighbors was about $1,000. Not insignficant. Now, the question remains as to whether or not my stand of grass and alfalfa will show comparable yields to my neighbor's. Year one may not be a fair comparison since he has about a six week advantage to mine. The quality of the hay, however, may be able to be measured this year which I'll address later in this update.
In order to settle this dispute I suggested to my neighbor that I pay for everything and he could still harvest the hay and get half for his services. He said he wasn't interested because all I would get is a bunch of weed infested junk that he couldn't sell. Now I have a neighbor who's unhappy with me.
Planting turned out to be a bit of a minor disaster. My neighbor had used a Brillion seeder that he rented from Crossroads Ag by Dallas Center. This is supposed to be the Mercedes of seeders. For us, it turned out to be the Yugo of seeders. We planned on planting on June 2nd but one of the cylinders used to raise and lower the planter wouldn't work. I called the guy I rented it from. He came by and stood there looking at it just like Kenny and I did and said he couldn't understand why it wasn't working. He decided to replace one of the cylinders but that didn't get done until the next day. That wasted a couple of hours of time that day for me and Kenny that neither of us could spare. A guy came the next morning and switched out the cylinder. Kenny came later in the day with his small tractor and it still didn't work quite right. I suspected it was his hydraulics that were part of the problem. He wasn't convinced but agreed to go home and get a bigger tractor. (Mind you, I'm pretty damn envious of anybody who can pick which tractor he uses when my only tractor has a blown engine). The bigger tractor worked so we started mixing seed and and loading it into the seeder and Kenny headed into the field.
Kenny planted about three of the fifteen acres and we checked the seed bins. These are set up so alfalfa (really, really tiny seeds) go into bins that are much more precise in delivering seed that the grass/oat bins. We checked the alfalfa bins and they had hardly dropped. The delivery rate is adjustable so I moved it from the recommend setting of 4 to 6 to increase the rate of seed by planted. We checked at about seven acres and it still looked like a lot of seed was left. I opened it up to 7 which is supposed to equate to about 30 lb/acre. My target was 10 lb/acre.
Meanwhile we were also fighting the seeding rate for the grass/oats. We were told to set these bins at about 2. There are two bins to set. We finished our initial run and one side was out while the other side was still half full. Trying to adjust these bins to plant at the same rate was futile, although we were able to narrow the difference a little bit. In hindsight, we ended up planting the north seven acres of my field at a a rate about double what I planned. That meant scrambling to buy more oats and orchard grass. We still had plenty of alfalfa since we couldn't get it to drop seed at anything close to my target rate. In fact, it was barely dropping seed from what I could tell. Eventually we were running into evening and we decided to stop for the night. We completed the remaining eight acres the following day with seeder problems continuing.
We kept the seeding rate constant for the remaining eight acres since it's much wetter down there and not conducive to growing alfalfa. We didn't want to increase our seeding rate down there knowing we didn't have enough seed on the north seven acres. We still had some orchard grass left and lots of alfalfa so we had Kenny recover the north seven acreas going perpendicular to his original run. We opened the alfalfa seeding rate all of the way for that and found that the right half of the seeder was dropping seed at twice the rate the left side was. Every few passes we'd move seed from the left bins to the right. Turns out we were essentially planting stripes which can now be seen as the seed has germinated and is now growing. It's clear where the seeder was delivering seed at a much higher rate on one side that the other. So much for Mercedes like precision for a seeder.
We completed planting on 6/4. I was now faced with a deadline to get some soil amendments applied before the seed germinated and started peaking out of the ground. The amendments we chose were another source of contention with my neighbor. He wanted to dump several tons of lime on the field. We had soil testing done that was well beyond the simplistic NPK soil tests that the local co-op does. It showed plenty of calcium but it was tied up in a soil structure that lacked phosphorous and sulfur. It also has high levels of magnesium that keep the calcium from being released to the roots as a nutrient. Lime would have added more calcium but would be been bound up even more in the soil. What was needed was a source of phosphorous and something to release the calcium and other nutrients. Our approach was multi-faceted.
I worked with Joe Knopp, a forage consultant out of O'Neill, NE to come up with a plan. We decided to apply three products he recommended. These included GSR Calcium Growing which would provide readily available calcium as well as help to release existing calcium from the soil. We also included PhosRite in order to boost the phosphorous level. These are water soluable products that we mixed with about 275 gallons of water. We also need to put down some Ammonium Sulfate to make the soil more acetic to further enhance nutrient release to the root system but that hasn't been done yet. Remember my comment about me procrastinating? This combination will be applied three times. The first was right after planting. The second and third will be right after cutting hay.
In addition to the GSR Calcium and PhosRite we added some raw milk and fish emulsion. The raw milk idea came from a presenation I saw at a small farm convention in MO last fall. There were multiple articles in ACRES magazine about this. The purpose of the milk is to provide food for mycorhizeal growth and microbial activity to increase the organic matter within the soil. This further helps to release nutrients in the soil and makes them more readily available to the root system. This was supplemented by the fish emulsion. Research indicates this will result in reduced soil density and an increased brix (sugar level) in the plants. That means better draining soil, better moisture retention at deeper levels and better quality forage. We're also supposed to experience better weed suppression since the desired plants will choke out the undesirable plants. I'm not sure how mother nature knows what I want to grow and what not to grow but I'm told she'll figure it out.
The benefits of a higher brix level are multiple. First, more sugar in the plant means more nutrition for the animals that eat the forage. They'll gain better and need less feed for conversion into larger carcasses. Second, insects are unable to process sugar. That means they'll go to the closest neighbor with hay that has a lower brix level. I'll be picking up a refractometer to see if my brix level is up.
The acquisition of raw milk was an adventure in itself. I thought I'd try the Midwest Dairy Association for a referal to one of their members. Instead of a referral they sent my email to the Department of Agriculture . I received an email from an inspector wanting to know if I'd cleared the use of raw milk with the DNR or EPA and if I planned to patent my fertilizer if my experience was successful. Leave it to the government to lay down as much red tape as possible rather than coming up with solutions.
I found some raw milk (without help from the Midwest Dairy Assoc. or our friendly government bureaucrats) from a dairy but it was old. Some of it had gone very sour but I wasn't too concerned about that. I was looking for bacterical activity and that had plenty. My pickup was in the shop so I used the Excursion and put down the seats. We loaded up about 70 one gallon jugs. The smell was horific but we just rolled the windows down and made the one hour drive home. When we got home we unloaded the jugs to find that one of them had leaked onto the seats and floor. It still stinks even after cleaning with an enzyme cleaner. We had to filter the milk a bit so it wouldn't clog up the sprayer. My two teenage boys struggled not to gag as they ran it through a strainer for me.
The day we sprayed we filled the tank with water and added the GSR Calcium, PhosRite, fish emulsion and sour milk. What a stinky concoction. Kenny proceeded to pull the sprayer up and down the field, apply the 325 gallons of liquid yuk proporationately to each acre. We had a lot more success doing that than we did with planting. Although, his nozzles plugged up repeatedly. He hadn't used the sprayer in about five years and the insides of the hoses had dried and cracked and were shedding small pieces that plugged the nuzzles. I must have walked five miles that day following the sprayer up and down the field. Kenny would stop and we'd pull nozzles when they'd plug. Eventually we got it done though and I was exhausted.
The spraying was completed the Wednesday before my oldest daughter's wedding. I'd taken the week off to get the house ready and run errands related to the wedding. I spent one full afternoon just on spraying.
In my next post I'll provide an update on how the field is looking.