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Triple Role - Farmer, Grad Student & Mom

Sunday, January 1, 2023
filed under: Research and Development

Mikayla Tabert
Mikayla Tabert
Mikayla Tabert never intended to be a graduate student. But one simple email quickly put her on the path to doing research for her master’s degree.
        “I had Dr. Marisol Berti as a professor when I was an undergrad at NDSU,” explains Tabert.  “We were experimenting with some cover crops and interseeding on our farm.  Interseeding is the idea of planting something into an established cash crop.  We are doing it to improve our soil health, grazing, nutrient cycling.  I reached out to Dr. Berti to see if there might be an opportunity for someone at NDSU to work with us to determine the best timing to interseed cover crops into sunflower.  She mentioned she was looking for a graduate student to research sunflower alfalfa intercropping — and that I could also evaluate the interseeded cover crops.”
        Tabert turned out to be the perfect student for the research.  Her family has been interseeding and intercropping on their Red Lake Falls, Minn., farm, Trinity Creek Ranch, for several years.  In addition to farming, the family has a cow-calf operation and a small feedlot.  Their cattle graze on the cover crops they plant.
        “We started interseeding because it’s the best way we can get cover crops established.  Where we are, in northwest Minnesota, Mother Nature doesn’t allow time after the harvest of corn or sunflower to plant something else.”
        The family first tried broadcasting the cover crops, but Tabert says that was very hit or miss and that unpredictability drove them to interseeding.  They started with corn and cover crops in 2016, and in 2019 added sunflower to the rotation.
        “We’re at the point where we try to do cover crops on pretty much every field, every year.  We are maybe a little off the deep end when it comes to cover crops,” Tabert says with a laugh.  “In fact, that’s why we wanted to start growing sunflower.  We wanted a crop we could seed a little bit later and would tolerate a cover crop that we’d graze in the spring.”
Mikayla Tabert’s husband, Benjamin, and her dad, David Miller, built this 12-row interseeding unit to plant cover crops on their northwestern Minnesota farm while simultaneously applying 28% UAN. A Valmar air seeder box meters the cover crop seed mixture.
       The Taberts planted their first oilseed sunflower crop in 2019 and drilled a cover crop at the same time as planting. Tabert recalls there was a lot of sunflower yield loss that first year; she believes because they planted the cover crop too early.  So, the next year, they planted the cover crop later and used an interseeding unit her husband, Benjamin, and dad, David Miller, constructed themselves.
        “We designed the machine to be able to drill two rows of seed in between 30-inch rows,” she explains.  The problem with the 2020 crop: the sunflower provided so much canopy that the cover crop planted along with it didn’t grow.  They determined earlier seeding would probably be better to establish the cover crop.
        That’s when Tabert reached out to Dr. Berti.  She had built a relationship with her as an undergrad student at NDSU where she double majored in animal science and crop and weed science. While the idea of interseeding isn’t a new concept, there hasn’t been much research done on sunflower.
        “I’ve read a lot about intercropping with corn and alfalfa, especially in Wisconsin and the dairy regions,” Mikayla relates.  “Intercropping is growing more than one crop species at one time, and there are many variations and methods for doing so.  In the corn-alfalfa intercropping, they’re seeding corn and alfalfa at the same time, with the intention of growing the corn for grain or silage. The alfalfa is just there the first year and not harvested; but the second year they’re seeing a full stand of alfalfa that’s a lot more productive. 
        “The whole idea of intercropping with alfalfa is to get more farmers to grow alfalfa in the crop rotation profitably.
        “My research is similar to the corn-alfalfa intercropping, but instead to use sunflower, hoping the reduction in yield is less than in corn.”
        While Tabert is still analyzing her 2022 data, she says the 2021 data were promising, and she hopes her research proves what she’s known for a while: alfalfa and cover crops are good for soil health and farm profitability.
        “We are no-till and have been since I was very young, which is unusual where we live,” Tabert observes.  “But that and the cover crops really help our soil and farm profitability.  Our soil is sandy, and we have trouble with wind and water erosion in our region.  Cover crops and no-till definitely help.”
        Tabert says the family’s cover crop mixes generally include 10-15 different species, depending on the time of year. That diversity helps soil health by promoting microbiology and fixing nitrogen levels.  The Taberts are constantly tweaking things and trying new cover crops, but she shares a few of their favorites for their row crop interseeding mixes.
        “Flax always seems to do well and is great for the soil biology.  Red clover does well in intersectings and will overwinter to be something for our cattle to graze.  Cow peas and faba beans are cost prohibitive, so we don’t use them at high rates.  I wouldn’t recommend hairy vetch to everyone [since] it can become a weed; but it can also work well for grazing and fixing nitrogen if you can control it.”
        The family farm adds flowering cover crops to their sunflower fields through the interseeding, in an effort to attract pollinators to the sunflower before it starts blooming.  They use flax, buckwheat and even mustard.
        Mikayla believes cover crops and interseeding can work for producers in all parts of the country; but the methods and species might change based on climate, crop, and producer goals. 
        She says cover crops also help with weed control.  “We are a bit limited as to what herbicides we can use because of the rotation restrictions for the cover crops and grazing restrictions,” she notes. “But we have backed off quite a bit on herbicides because if you have something growing in the row, it will reduce some of the weed pressure.”
        Tabert is quick to point out that the way her family farms is pretty “far out” for many other producers.  She’s not sure how many producers will adapt the practices they use, or even intercrop sunflower and alfalfa.  But she says it’s important to always look for ways to improve your operation.
Tabert family
The Tabert family includes Mikayla, Benjamin and their children, Liam and Thea.

        “I really think in the very near future farming is going to have to change, whether because of climate policies, soil productivity or because of markets.  But I think my research will show that there are ways, like interseeding cover crops and intercropping, where we can still grow a profitable crop and also enhance our ecosystem,” Mikalya states.
          Tabert hopes to have her NDSU master’s thesis finished by this summer. — Jody Kerzman
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