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Seven years of water-quality monitoring have intensified the Bragger family’s commitment to conservation. “We have to be aggressive in farming — we have families to support,” Bragger says. “But at the same time, we have to take care of our land so the next generation can farm. If we run it down, wash it out, destroy it, it won’t be there for future generations.”
Hold soil in place
Continuous no-till is the foundation of the Braggers’ soil-conservation program.
When Joe started farming in the 1980s, the family was still using a moldboard plow. “What got us into no-till was a cost share offer. We tried it and saw definite advantages in fuel and labor savings and soil.” Over the years, he experimented with a variety of minimum tillage systems, including strip-till, finally settling on “‘true’ no-till — no coulters, just trash whippers in front of the planter and spiked closing wheels with a drag chain in back.”
Cold, wet residue hindered planting this spring, “the toughest spring I’ve seen in 26 years of farming,” Bragger says. “But it certainly helped hold the soil in place with all the downpours.” Continually saturated soil made water runoff unavoidable, he says, “but erosion was kept to a minimum.”
The Braggers’ crop rotation plan is also designed to anchor the soil. The family grows corn for grain, corn silage, soybeans, winter wheat and alfalfa, plus cover crops. They also milk 300 dairy cows and raise poultry and brown trout.
On most slopes, they plant two years of corn followed by soybeans and winter wheat. The steepest areas are kept in continuous corn for maximum residue cover.
Near the dairy, they raise four years of alfalfa followed by a year of corn for grain and a year of corn silage. Immediately after chopping silage, they plant a cover crop — usually winter rye — broadcasting seed with a fertilizer buggy, then spreading liquid dairy manure over the top.
The surface application of manure coats and seals in the seed so it can germinate. “We get very good stands even in a dry fall.” The cover crop takes up and stores nutrients from the manure, and holds the soil on their side hills. “The most important thing is to have something growing all the time.”
In spring, the Braggers drill alfalfa into the living cover crop, then harvest it along with the first cutting of alfalfa. “The cover crop is a nice nurse crop for the alfalfa and we usually get an extra cutting of hay.”