NEW ROCKFORD, N.D — Farmers with cattle in Iowa, South Dakota Minnesota and North Dakota increasingly are trying the “wide-row corn” — interseeded with crops and cover crops — to improve profits while helping the environment.

And the concept is moving northward to Eddy County in central North Dakota, where an incentive and demonstration program is helping to take the financial risk out of trying it.

Shannon Anderson, district manager for the Eddy County Soil and Water Conservation District, said an incentive program grew out of “Shop Talks” with landowners and producers last winter. Organizers of the project hope it will demonstrate a new way to produce feed for bison or cattle, and improve soil health and water quality — all at a profit.

“Right now, things are looking pretty good in most of the fields,” said Jim Collins, Jr., of Bismarck, N.D., a regional environmental scientist in the water quality division of the North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality. The district in 2020 began cooperating with the department to start a three-year study and demonstration program. Collins is a regional watershed liaison for soil and water conservation districts, helping to develop “prescriptions” for protecting and improving water quality in lakes, rivers and streams.

The program is using $32,000 from the Nonpoint Source Pollution management funds. The state agency pays four cooperators one-time payments of $52 to $54 per acre in Eddy County, with an agreement over three years. The incentives were pegged to equal to one-year’s prevailing cropland cash rent, but require participation across three years. (Some seed dealers also cooperated with a reduction for corn or cover crop seed.)

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The funds pays for 40-acre demonstration plots, plus signage and tours (in person or virtual, as COVID-19 rules dictate). The district has scheduled a caravan tour on Sept. 14 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The caravan expects to visit four demonstration sites on a program involving state incentives.

Anderson said there might have been more participation in the program, but federal crop insurance wouldn’t insure 60-inch corn rows against a crop failure.

Besides the four 40-acre Department of Environmental Quality cooperators, other farmers have said they’re trying their own 10-acre projects without the subsidy. Anderson predicts that if the system works well in 2020, it could set the tone of approval for the next two years, and then perhaps more years after that.

Grazing paradise

One hopeful cooperator is Frank Walker.

Walker, 67, grew up near Watford City, N.D., and graduated from veterinary school at Iowa State University in 1977. Facing drought in his home area, he joined a large animal practice 200 miles to the east at New Rockford, N.D., in 1980. Walker bought some land but soon put it into the cropland land-idling Conservation Reserve Program.

Shoulder injuries forced Walker to retire from his practice in 2004, but he kept his “Flickertail Farms” and cattle operation going.

Walker runs about 145 Angus and Angus-cross cow-calf pairs and another 30 heifers. He has about 1,200 acres he uses for haying and pasture and practices no-till farming on 450 acres that he puts into corn, soybeans or oats, which he feeds to his cattle.

Walker hadn’t planted corn for about five years because of difficulty getting the crops dried down for harvest, and he had planted soybeans last year in a field that this year he planted corn with 60-inch rows.

He signed up for the grant program and on May 28 planted 60-inch wide rows with 87-day maturity corn seed (Proseed 1487 RR). He hopes the sunlight and air movement dry corn to 20% moisture or less for harvest. He increased the corn population to 28,000 seeds per acre and fertilized for a 140-bushel corn yield.

When the corn was 6-8 inches tall, he used an air-drill to overseed a cover crop between the corn rows. He tried two seeding rates of 10- and 20-pounds of seed per acre. The nine-way mix included Winfred forage brassica, Manken buckwheat, cowpeas, crimson clover, purple top turnip, Garza radish, Sunn hemp, Jerry oats and annual ryegrass.

Northward march

Collins acknowledges 60-inch rows are better known farther south.

In North Dakota, Kelly Cooper, a research agronomist at the Oakes Irrigation Research Site, has been working for two years on a project with Sargent County Soil Conservation District and a grower on 60-inch rows.

Some farmers in Richland County are using “poly-cropping,” putting beans between the corn, which looks promising. The idea is to get the corn crop, but also a bean crop and to "keep something living on the soil and keep those roots going as long as you can, and following that with some kind of cover crop so you get roots over the winter as well," Collins said.

South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois have growers trying the technique to see how it improves profitability, and how it works for those who either have cattle or don’t, and how follow crops work. Iowans have seen some mild yield loss in some fields and improvement on others.

Collins admits it would be difficult to measure environmental impacts in Eddy County — runoff from a field. Some projects elsewhere have looked at root and soil structure below the surface.

In the New Rockford-area demonstration, two producers have cattle and one has buffalo to graze on the fields for “aftermath grazing." The resulting manure keeps the nutrients “right where they’re supposed to be.”

For now, the New Rockford project will focus mostly on yields and input costs.

“If it doesn’t pencil out, is it really worth doing?” Collins asked.

Collins's project will track expenses over a three-year period and will measure production.

“We might find that we have to tweak some things — maybe less seed per row, maybe a different species of cover crop,” he said.

Walker is impressed so far. He notes deer seem to have munched the cover crop so far, Walker said.

“It’s supposed to be very tasty for the cattle as well,” Walker said. “I really appreciate wildlife. And I really appreciate how things meld together … for good.”

He envisions turning the cattle into a “grazing paradise” in late October, perhaps after the ground freezes but before significant snow.