Category: climate change adaptation


On-farm and field trials in Pennsylvania, New York and Vermont show that cover cropping produces a number of financial benefits for farmers and wider environmental benefits for the community. Cover cropping increases soil organic matter (aka carbon) and microbial diversity while suppressing weeds and stabilizing soils, which can help farmers transition to organic methods as well as improve their agricultural practices cost-effectively. Fields with a cover crop have less erosion and less runoff, meaning nutrients stay in the soils, better not only for soil quality and crop yields, but also for preserving water quality and ecosystem health.


Fields with a cover crop experience less erosion and less runoff, meaning minerals stay in the soils, better not only for soil quality and crop yields, but also for preserving water quality, ecosystem, and climate health.


While the benefits of cover crops researched by Northeast Extension teams in crop, field, and soils are clear, the prescribed planting methods, timing, and seeding rates need careful consideration for successful seed establishment and sufficient cover growth depending on a number of factors including the site conditions, harvesting schedules, and farmer circumstances.

In Westford, Vermont, a cover crop of radish, rye, turnip, and white clover was successfully seeded after corn was harvested at Tony Pouliot’s farm under the guidance of UVM Extension agronomy expert Heather Darby.

Pouliot was pleased to see his soil protected, the most valuable asset of his farm as you can see in this Across the Fence video.  Heather Darby and her team at UVM Northwest Soils and Crops provide invaluable advice to Vermont farmers in choosing appropriate cover crop seed mix, deciding on the methods and timing of planting whether before or after harvesting the cash crop, and many specifics related to the farm’s cropping systems, equipment available, location, topography and soil types.

A 2014 Cornell cover crop experiment with soybeans no-till planted into mulch from a winter cover crop at the Hudson Valley Farm Hub showed that a farm’s net profit was highest when seeding rates were double the recommended seeding rates of conventional soybean production. Five planting densities were compared and the crop population, weed suppression, and crop yields were measured.  Matthew Ryan’s report on cover cropping strategies and his research projects are part of Cornell Sustainable Cropping Systems Lab.

Cropping strategies for Organic Food Grain Crop Production, Matthew Ryan

Cropping strategies for Organic Food Grain Crop Production, Matthew Ryan

UVM Extension’s Northwest Crops and Soils program produces guidance and tips on interseeding cover crops for Vermont farmers growing feedstock such as corn and soybeans. Advice concerns the timing of seeding, the level and depth of seeding, available labor and proper equipment, and altering other management practice (e.g. pesticide applications and tillage), which would harm cover crops.

Roller crimper turns cover crop into mulch for cash crop

Roller crimper turns cover crop into mulch for cash crop


The benefits of cover cropping reach beyond the farmer to the community and the climate.


Importantly, research has found that cover cropping may have no negative impact on corn yields and can sometimes have a positive yield effect. When over-wintered cover crops are “terminated” with a roller crimper in the spring, the mulch mat, which is formed suppresses weeds during the growing season for cash crops. In addition to increased profits to the farmer, the energy savings related to less diesel fuel used, less fertilizers and pesticides applied, result in less greenhouse gas emissions from the farm. The benefits of cover cropping reach beyond the farmer to the community and the climate.

 

 

 

The Betz family started High Ledge Farm in 1999. Paul and Kate Betz grow certified organic vegetables on a small parcel of 2.5 acres and manage a 4100 sq. ft. of greenhouses for plant and tomato production. They have a CSA program and sell their produce at the Montpelier Farmers’ Market.

High Ledge Farm

Impact of Rain

The climate change effects, which worry the Betz family, are heavy rain events. These have resulted in soil fines rising to the soil surface and sealing it so that in seedlings have difficulty emerging. The Betz’ have experimented with the timing of their plantings and tried multiple plantings to increase the opportunities for seeds to germinate in these potentially adverse conditions.

This past year the Betz family planted their carrots twice because of the risk of soils sealing and preventing sufficient germination. Planting twice meant two opportunities for seeds to germinate.

The problem is that any time bare soils are exposed directly to rain with minimal cover to protect them from the impact of raindrops, erosion can occur and soil structure can deteriorate with the possibility of fines rising with the excess water. By minimizing the time that bare soils are exposed directly to rain and keeping soil covered with a crop as much as possible will in turn reduce the possibility of fines and soil surface sealing.  The UVM Extension’s Center for Sustainable Agriculture has fact sheet about controlling drainage and increasing the water holding capacity of soils. Rather than take a gamble with weather forecasts to anticpate the possilbity of soil crusting, improving soil composition with organic matter and using winter cover crops to lessen impact of rain will help soils retains more water.

Protecting soils from rain

Improving soil composition with organic matter and using winter cover crops to lessen the impact of rain will help soils retains more water. The Natural Resource Council provide a useful guide on the factors affecting soil crusting and measures which can be taken to improve soil quality

UVM Extension agronomist Dan Hudson explains that healthy soils not only hold water but can also help stabilize the movement of water and soil particles. Cover crops are a critical part of the soil system as they help support microbial activity which further enhances soil structure and organic matter in the soils. The key to healthy soils are:

  • organic matter in soils
  • debris and plant cover on soil surface
  • living roots in soils

Cover crops are a critical part of the soil system as they help support microbial activity which further strengthens soil structure and enhances organic matter in soils.


 

Too much tillage can damage living roots and the soil structure and living roots hence reducing the microbial activity, which makes nutrients available to plants.

As Hudson describes in his soil blog, healthy soils have high microbial activity with microbes secreting organic compounds and releasing nutrients in plant-available form.

 

Reducing risks with greenhouses

While the effects of climate change include heavy rains with impacts on soils and a longer growing season in Vermont, the temperature variations within the growing season are widening. This risk of a cold snap or heat wave can undermine any perceived benefit of a longer growing season.

Recognizing the variability and extremes of Vermont weather, farmers have turned to greenhouses and hoop houses in growing numbers.   Their strategies for coping with variable weather start from the ground up.  Maintaining and improving soil quality is essential with additions of organic matter, cover cropping, and minimizing tillage. Soils which have more plant matter including living roots in the soil and leaves on the soil have increased microbes which help retain more moisture during dry spells and can cope with absorbing more rainfall during wet periods.


Essentially, healthy soils with high organic matter perform better in both dry and wet weather periods


While soils with higher organic matter content can help mitigate wider ranges in precipitation, greenhouses help mitigate wider ranges in temperature. Using a greenhouse to control the environment, the Betz family benefits at both the start and the end of the growing season so that the swings in temperatures during Vermont’s shoulder seasons of spring and fall don’t result in swings in income.

Contributions from Catherine Lowther, Goddard College, Faculty in the BA in Sustainability Program, Chair of the Sustainability Committee and UVM Extension Center for Sustainable Agriculture

Expecting the Unexpected – Dairy Farming and climate change in Vermont

In our first interview of  this series, Moving to Higher Ground, we talked to Amanda Andrews, owner of Tamarack Hollow Farm about her decision to move to higher ground.  In this blog, we check in with Yves Gonnet, owner of Midnight Goat Farm, who also recently moved to higher ground;  he relocated his dairy goat farm from the Huntington valley to the Huntingdon hills in Vermont.

Midnight goat's new dairy barn

Midnight goat’s new dairy barn

Here are some snippets from recent conversations.

Well Suzy, it’s May 4 2015 we’re expecting the temps to hit 78 with 12mph winds gusting up to 21mph mid day.  As a lay person who farms goats, bushes and bacteria, I have noticed some things in the past decade.  I think the operative words are extreme and unpredictable.  Colder longer, hotter faster and much much wetter (at times).

July 10, 2015.   I wish we could have 3 straight days of sun.  It is getting old watching hay go to seed or get pounded into the ground by rain.

July 20, 2015.  Headline weather: “Hail, Thunderstorms and Flooding Hammer New England.”  Hail the size of tennis balls fell in New Hampshire. The day will likely end up as one of the top five hottest for this summer in New England. The heat index is close to 100 in southern New England.  

In Northwest Vermont, we’re spared the hailstones, but we’re sweltering with hot temperatures, then hit with heavy rains.  Hand milking goats is quite the workout.

August 11, 2015  Heavy rain in most parts of Vermont.  We’ve had 50% more rainfall since June 1, when compared to National Weather Service’s recorded normal climate as measured from 1981 to 2010.

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Yves Gonnet herding his dairy goats at his farm, Midnight Goat.

Center for Sustainable Agriculture, CSA So how does a dairy goat farmer manage weather in Vermont?  Can you describe your decision-making to move your farm to higher ground?  What role did climate change play?

Yves: We moved our farm operation to higher ground to help avoid the issues we had with flooding, increased water levels and encroaching wetlands.  We settled recently in a spot three miles from where we had been, but 500 feet higher in elevation.  A nearby water source was important to us so we selected a property, which is bounded by the Baker Brook, a year round protected waterway.  Over the past seven years, we have seen the weather extremes become more intense and have sought greater elevation and easily drainable landscape to help us buffer these extremes.  Where we had been located we were more and more frequently finding ourselves trapped by the Cobb Brook unable to get our goats to pasture.

 


Over the past seven years, we have seen the weather extremes become more intense and have sought greater elevation and easily drainable landscape to help us buffer these extremes.


 

CSA:  Have the weather-related effects of climate change been what you expected?  Have they been manageable?

Yves: I don’t think we are in a position anymore to expect weather.  It is more a matter of reacting to what it is.  So far we have been able to cope with this year’s extremes fairly well, but are always learning how to improve our systems for new surprises.

CSA:  When and how did you make the decision to move to higher ground?

Yves: We started looking for our new spot a couple years ago.  Our criteria was pretty specific so it took some time to find.  We started building fall 2014.


We moved our farm operation to higher ground- 500 feet higher in elevation. –  to help avoid the issues we had with flooding, increased water levels and encroaching wetlands. 


CSA: What particular site characteristics were you looking for beyond higher ground?

Yves: We looked for southern exposure, goat forage, fruit trees, maple forest, running water and sufficient acreage.

CSA:  Moving forward, are you planning for weather changes due to climate change?

Yves: Absolutely.  We have made ourselves much more autonomous.  We provide our own solar power, have over sized waste water systems and water supplies and plan to continue to build systems, which make us less vulnerable to weather changes.

Midnight goat - barn

Solar panels on Midnight Goat Farm’s barn

CSA:  Are climate change effects affecting your goats and kidding?  If so, how?  And how are you dealing with this?

Yves: The extreme cold of this March made kidding more difficult and dangerous for the newborns.  Fortunately, we were prepared, from prior January kiddings, for cold and quick changing weather.  We have divided the kidding areas into well protected spaces, which allow for spot heating and complete enclosure when necessary.  We employ heated kidding boxes for newborns and have internet accessible cameras installed to monitor expectant does and their offspring.


We employ heated kidding boxes for newborns and have internet accessible cameras installed to monitor expectant does and their offspring.


CSA:  Is there any advice you would like to give to other farmers about climate change and its effects?

Yves: Be prepared for unpredictable weather and shortages of feed.  Don’t take water for granted.

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