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Young farmer finds value in cover crops

Justin Zahradka holds radishes in a cover crop of radishes, peas and sudan grass.
Justin Zahradka holds radishes in a cover crop of radishes, peas and sudan grass

by Luann Dart

Sustainable agricultural practices have taken root in Walsh County as one young farmer demonstrates the value of cover crops.

In 2011, Justin Zahradka was a high school junior who had just leased a tract of land with 40 tillable acres when he learned that Brad Brummond, the North Dakota State University (NDSU) Extension Service’s agriculture and natural resources agent for Walsh County, was looking for 40 acres as a demonstration project to grow a forage-based cover crop and graze cattle on it to study their weight gain.

“The stars kind of aligned for me just perfectly,” says Zahradka, who enrolled in the project. “It’s not every day a 17-year-old walks into his office and says, ‘I want to do this.’ ... He went out on a limb and took a chance on me.”

Zahradka was converting his land into crop production from the Conservation Reserve Program and he was looking for economical alternatives to multiple tillage passes.

Instead, he did a small amount of tillage, then planted a cover crop in July that was a five-species mix of radishes, turnips, sunflowers, field peas, and sorghum and sudan grass. His cattle then grazed the acreage in the fall.

“I was very surprised with the results,” he says.

Calves gained an average of 1.5 to 2 pounds per day, while the cows gained about a pound a day. The livestock doubled their weight gain grazing on the lush, green cover crops in the fall, compared to what they typically gained on a fading fall pasture, he says.

“It was definitely an adequate gain and an economical one as well,” he says. “I really liked how the cattle looked after they grazed on the cover crop.”

Zahradka, who is 22 years old, farms in western Walsh County about 30 miles west of the Red River Valley in the Prairie Pothole Region. The farm is served by Nodak Electric Cooperative. He started farming in 2008, when he purchased one bred heifer through an FFA Supervised Agricultural Experience grant.

“My dad had a small cow herd as kind of a hobby, and so that’s why I was interested in cattle. Then I wanted to start a small business venture myself and I was able to with that grant. It started with one animal and I grew my herd slow and steady,” he says.

Zahradka continued to plant cover crops as he graduated from high school and started college at NDSU to earn a degree in crop and weed science.

“I thought if we can plant a cover crop after a cash crop is harvested in the fall and have it come up in the spring and graze it then or just get the benefits of the soil, I thought it would be a win-win,” he says.

In 2012, he harvested his wheat in July, then seeded radishes and turnips in August, just before an inch of rain fell during what had been a dry year.

“That really turned out good that fall. I think I grazed those radishes and turnips for 45 days in September and October,” he describes.

During college, he transitioned into feeder cattle. Graduating last spring, he has now expanded to 120 tillable acres and feeds 170 head of cattle, utilizing cover crops.

“It’s small, but it’s a start. Sometimes when you’re implementing new ideas, it’s easier to start small,” he says. “It’s a challenge, but it’s an adventure, too.”

“We’ve proven you can grow two crops in one year in Walsh County,”  Brummond says. “That’s pretty groundbreaking this far north.”

“I’ve been able to show you can increase yields following planting of a cover crop, because it retains and recycles nutrients that you otherwise might lose,” says Zahradka, who won the prestigious 2015 FFA American Star in Agriscience for his work in cover crops.

His crop rotation typically includes wheat, canola and a full-season cover crop. As part of the rotation, he grazes the cover crop and generates income by putting pounds on his cattle.

“Everybody’s really focused on return on investment, especially now, so I can get a return on investment that I can see right away with the cattle gaining weight,” he says.

He also plants half the cover crop mix to legumes to place residual nitrogen in the soil for the cash crop the following year. That lowers his production costs by reducing fertilizer inputs. This fall, he planted winter rye Oct. 4, then will graze it in the spring before planting soybeans.

He’s also seen improvements in the soil through infiltration tests and compaction measurements. The soil absorbs more water, reducing erosion and keeping the nutrients in the field.

“If you stick a shovel in the ground, you can see the results firsthand. Soil benefits are there,” he says.

“If you can have some rye or radishes and turnips get up to the four-leaf stage and prevent erosion over the winter, I think that’s a value in itself,” he adds.

The cover crop residue decomposes quickly and offers other benefits in northeastern North Dakota, where wetter weather has prevailed.

“Anytime we can keep something growing in the field using moisture, I can get into these cover crop fields earlier in the spring because they’re drier,” Zahradka says.

Zahradka’s biggest challenges are time and equipment. He utilizes custom seeding and spraying, but has broadcast his radishes and turnips with a fertilizer spreader.

“You can pretty much make due with what you have,” he says.

He also must plan carefully, as herbicide residual carryover prevents some cover crops from germinating.

“It requires you to think a little bit differently and come up with a more creative approach,” he says.

The NDSU Extension Service demonstration projects in Walsh County have explored various scenarios, such as planting cover crops following wheat harvest, planting different cover crop mixes, grazing cover crops, their use in saline areas and their use in fields with excess moisture.

“We’ve explored a lot of different strategies in using cover crops,” Brummond says. “We’ve also looked at it from strictly a soil quality standpoint.”

Brummond points to sustainable agriculture as helping the production system survive into the future and helping farm families remain productive into the future.

“We need to become more sustainable. We have to evolve our farming systems into systems that are profitable, into systems that produce quality food at lower costs and leave a smaller footprint on the environment,” he says.

“It’s not a destination, sustainable agriculture is a journey,” he adds.