Category: cover crops


With 100 acres in production and 200 acres in cover crops, Pete’s Greens in Craftsbury, Vermont invests almost more time in managing their cover crops aka “green manures” than they do their marketable crops.  But climate smart farming means caring for soils, keeping carbon in the soil (not the air) where organic matter is a key factor in the production of quality crops.

As farm manager Isaac explains, “This takes a ton of time – we spend a lot of time dealing with our cover crops. You sort of think you plant it and away you go and you come back two years later. Planting soil into sod and getting the sod to die off before you go back into production is really difficult; it’s machinery intensive. So we’ve been doing multiple cover crops on different fields over two seasons. This is our third planting of oats on this field this year so we took straw off of these fields twice and that’s for mulching.”  Isaac uses about 300 lbs of seeds per acre to get the density of oats he wants for green manures.

As soil guru Fred Magdoff confirms in his book Building Soils for Better Crops, “It’s not easy .. Improving organic matter content requires a sustained effort that includes a number of approaches to return organic materials to soils and minimize soil organic matter losses…  All practices that help to build organic matter do at least one of two things – add more organic materials than was done in the past or decrease the rate of organic matter loss from soils.”   Knowing your soil types and rates of aeration and importantly, your starting point for percentage of organic matter will let you know whether your farm is on the trajectory for climate smart farming.

 

 

“Paying attention to the nuances of the land, I’ve learned to grow really high quality forages, protein, and energy.”  Jack and Anne Lazor, Butterworks Farm, raise their herd of Jersey cows on pasture and high-quality forages in Westfield Vermont and produce a certified organic yoghurt.

For most Vermont farmers, the variable weather of summers from the extreme dry summer of 2016 to the wet cool summer of 2017 has proved challenging.   To meet these challenges, Jack considers increasing the organic matter content of agricultural soils as an important strategy to address many of the impacts of climate change.  The farm has doubled the organic matter content of the soils over the past 40 years. This has significant benefits for water infiltration during times of extreme precipitation, while maintaining soil moisture during dry periods.  The organic matter also improves plant growth, regulates soil temperature fluctuations, and helps resist the erosive forces of rain and flooding.  “It’s all about soil building. I want to see what I can do to increase the OM of the floodplain lands and stay off the tractor when the soil is wet.”

During years of drought, Butterworks Farm has been short on feed for their herd of Jersey cows. They have relied upon increasing their land base to provide more summer forage and more hay in the winter.  Jack noted that maintaining good grazing practices during drought was crucial to the health of the entire agroecosystem.

Specifically, his rule is grazing down to only 3-4 inch height, instead of down to the ground or only 1 inch. He said, “If you want them to regrow quickly, don’t brutalize them.” That requires more land base, which not all farmers have.

Overall, Jack is transitioning is farm land to predominantly perennial forages. “Forage consumption has increased at least 40% for our transition to grassfed, which goes along with transitioning more land out of grain into permanent forage.”

“It’s all about soil building. I want to see what I can do to increase the OM of the floodplain lands and stay off the tractor when the soil is wet.” – Jack Lazor

Business Management Decisions 

Management decisions are informed by weighing a complex set of goals, challenges, constraints and opportunities. Butterworks Farm is transitioning away from grains because there are so many challenges, some of them directly or indirectly climate related. Jack says, “Though I love it, its not financially viable.” The farm is striving the make a transition into the hands of the next generation while reasserting a strong presence in the organic dairy market, though these trends are informed by, but not driven by climate change projections.

Constraints and Challenges

Jack recounted the history of the economic successes and trials of his business over the last 40 years, explaining that when the yogurt business took off and the business was flush with cash, they were able to not only purchase extra equipment and amendments, but also invest in the ecological sustainability and climate resilience of the farm. In this way, Jack linked the farm’s capacity to invest in new adaptive management strategies directly to the financial stability of the farm and market opportunities. Since 2008, the farm has experienced a decline in skim milk yogurt sales, which has dominated much of the farm’s strategic decision-making.

Making the investment into good soil and committing to regenerative agriculture takes a leap of faith, time and money, and Jack sees that some farmers are afraid of that. In Jack’s experience on the land, he sees the return on his investments into the minerals, soil amendments, cover crops and equipment show up in the health of the soil and the plants, and then in the health of his cows and quality of milk and cream.

Greenhouse Gas Mitigation Strategies and Potential

“My main takeaway from being on the land for 40 years is you think you’re being kind to the earth, but there’s always more you can do. Everyone needs to educate themselves and make changes.” – Jack Lazor

Jack emphasized the importance of developing a carbon consciousness. Agriculture has a lot of potential to offset the greenhouse gas emissions in multiple ways. We know that some carbon is captured by perennial, reduced tillage and other systems that increase organic matter, but exactly how much is captured is difficult to measure. Further research is needed on the carbon sequestration potential of grazing systems, and innovative manure and tillage methods. We should be proactive about this, even if the exact amounts of carbon sequestration or reduction in greenhouse gas emissions are unknown- every bit counts!

Contributing author: Alissa White, Research Specialist, Agroecology Livelihoods Collaborative (ALC), visited Butterworks Farm in April 2017.  Suzy Hodgson, UVM Extension Center for Sustainable Agriculture, visited in June 2017.

Butterworks Farm is one of Vermont’s oldest certified organic dairy farms, and has a strong reputation for growing some of the finest organic grains in the state. The farm building complex and surrounding fields are situated on gently sloping fields near the border of Canada. A herd of Jersey cows produces milk which is processed on site into yogurt, kefir and rich Jersey cream for direct and wholesale markets.

Jersey cows, Butterworks Farm, photo credit: Suzy Hodgson, UVM Extension

Butterworks Farm leases and owns additional parcels in the surrounding area, including some floodplain fields. The farm has grown a diversity of whole and milled grains for regional markets, and animal feed and is currently transitioning to a 100% grassfed operation with a bedded pack system. Alissa White visited Butterworks in early April 2017 to talk to Jack Lazor about how he manages his production with the impacts of climate change in mind.

Climate Vulnerabilities

Regional climate change projections predict agriculture in the northeastern US will experience a variety of direct weather impacts, and indirect impacts as a result of climate change. For Butterworks Farm in northern Vermont, the site-specific vulnerabilities of climate change encompass potentially both direct and indirect climate change impacts.

Butterworks Farm. Photo credit: S. Hodgson, UVM Extension

Direct Climate Change Impacts

  • Warmer temperatures overall,
  • Longer warmer growing seasons,
  • Precipitation increases,
  • Extreme precipitation events,
  • Increased flood damage and erosion,
  • Severe wind and storm hazards,
  • Elevated atmospheric CO2,
  • Increased potential for drought.

Indirect climate change impacts lead to increases in:

  • Weed competition and invasive species,
  • Populations of damaging insects,
  • Incidence of plant pathogens,
  • Livestock heat stress, and
  • Pressure from pathogens and parasites of livestock.

Adapted from Janowiak et al 2016 and Tobin et al 2015

Management goals

Jack and his family balance many goals and challenges when making decisions about managing their farm. Climate concerns fall into both short and long-term decision making at Butterworks, but at the forefront of farm decision making for their family at this time are long-term financial solvency and near-term intergenerational transfer of ownership. Climate change considerations are important, but auxillary to day-to-day management and long-term planning.

How do we manage climate change and weather-related risks at the field scale?

Jack implements a number of practices on the field, specifically, managing for flooding and controlling soil erosion.  He has transitioned land which is particularly prone to flooding from grain production into permanent forage. “We’ve been farming this floodplain property for 20 years…Increased incidence of high water… could come any month of the year now… Then we only loose one cut out of three if there’s high water.” In previous years, the farm has used underseeding cover crops to limit erosion from high intensity rain events.

“We’ve been farming this floodplain property for 20 years… high water… could come any month of the year now…”

Jack Lazar, Butterworks Farm. Photo credit: Suzy Hodgson, UVM Extension

Jack attributes many benefits to crop rotations, including some that are directly associated with climate risks. His goal is to do less with tillage in all fields because he sees evidence of better soil quality and healthier plants without tillage.  By minimizing tillage and keeping roots in the ground, he maintains soil health with organic matter of 8-9%.

At the field scale, Jack is focused on increasing soil health to buffer the impacts of drought, flooding and extreme precipitation. Cover crops are planted to help hold soil from erosive forces, and land which is particularly flood prone is being transitioned into perennial forages to protect soil.

Building soil biological health and organic matter levels has multiple benefits for the farm.  Jack sees the soil health reflected in the plant growth, and in turn the health of his farm’s Jersey cows.  Increased organic matter limits the damage of extreme precipitation and holds moisture in times of drought.  In response to 2016 summer drought, Jack relied upon increasing his land base for forages and maintaining good rotational grazing practices.  In contrast, grain production has been challenging financially as it’s prone to disease during wet summers and storm events. Overall, the farm’s trajectory is towards perennial forages and away from grain production.

Contributing Author: Alissa White, Research Specialist, Agroecology Livelihoods Collaborative (ALC)
Department of Plant and Soil Science, University of Vermont

Normal temperatures at the end of March in Burlinton, VT are typically in the mid 40s like today.  Over Easter weekend, it was 16 degrees warmer than normal. With the warmest winter on record, what does this mean for Vermont farmers?

Revisiting Tamarack Hollow Farm, I checked in with co-owner Amanda Andrews. How is your new location working out?

Our new farm was great last season and held up during the heavy spring rains while our old farm was flooding. That said, heavy rains continue to be a worry, and so we are planning with erosion in mind.

To control erosion, we are planting low-growing cover crops between beds, moving towards a permanent raised bed system. We also installed drainage tile in one field with heavier soils to ensure it dries out quickly, even with heavy storms.

Spring is coming early this year – did we even have winter?   How has this affected your plans? Any thoughts on pests and diseases?

greens in hoophouse intervale

“With the warm winter, we are expecting heavier pest and disease pressure, so we are planning to use more row covers to control insects – and the diseases they spread.”

“Certain vegetables (tomatoes, cucumbers), we are only growing in tunnels. I am growing additional varieties of greens this season, especially looking for heat and disease tolerance as the three month forecast looks like a warm spring and summer.”

 

More than just dirt, our soils are alive. Healthy soil ecosystems, like ones found in nature, are dynamic and complex. Plants, microbes and fungi work together to cycle nutrients, filter water, and regulate the climate. When treated correctly and allowed to function properly, soils can do wonders for the productivity of a farm and the quality of food it produces, and Vermont farmers are starting to take notice.

Cover crops show healthy soil where soil and roots are one system

Cover crops show healthy soil where soil and roots are one system.

At the 5th annual Vermont Farm to Plate Gathering, farmers, community members and scientists came together to discuss the inseparable link between healthy soils, clean water, and good food. Success stories of higher yields from no-till fields and saving money from using less pesticides and herbicides were shared, showing that paying attention to soil health pays off. Though some soil conservation practices may go against conventional techniques, one thing is clear: the healthiest and most successful farms are taking care of their soils by farming like nature.


Plant and soil are one and need each other to function properly.


Nature’s time-tested processes have allowed organisms to survive on this planet for billions of years. It’s time for us to use these processes to our advantage, an idea known  “biomimicry”. In the natural world, forests and prairies flourish without pesticides or plows. Trees and plants remain year-round, their leaves nourish the soil in the fall and their roots hold water and soil in place when it rains. Come springtime, these ecosystems are teeming with growth and life. Nature knows how to farm.

Key-note speaker Ray “The Soils Guy” Archuleta spoke passionately and urgently about farming like nature. (Hear Ray on Across the Fence.) According to Ray, “healthy soil is covered all year round,” just like in nature. Cover crops are the most essential component of restoring and maintaining soil health. Plant and soil are one and need each other to function properly. Plants keep the soil cool and moist, and retain soil structure with their roots. Plants take energy from the sun and feed the microbes, which in exchange pull more nutrients from the soil to the plant.  Allowing these natural processes to occur significantly decreases the need to purchase and apply additional chemicals and fertilizers that may runoff and damage local waterways during heavy precipitation events.


Healthy soil is covered all year round – just like in nature.


When soil is kept in place and macropores are allowed to form, water quality impacts from agricultural runoff and sedimentation are greatly reduced. Soils also play a large role in regulating carbon. Tilling breaks apart the link between plant and soil, releasing carbon into the atmosphere and depriving microorganisms of their food. Soils become starved, and fail to function properly. But when covered with detritus and plants, soils sequester that carbon and use it for growth instead.

When Ray Archuleta visits a farm, the first thing he looks for is how the soil in the field compares to soil in the forest. If the soils are healthy, a shovel-full from each should look the same, with a layer of detritus, or organic matter, on top, and soil aggregates clinging to the roots of plants on the bottom.

Is your soil bare or covered? Learn more about the secrets in the soil by watching the videos on Ray’s Soil Health Page.

Contributor: Michelle Graziosi, the ECO AmeriCorps Water Quality Research Technician at UVM Extension’s Center for Sustainable Agriculture, attended her first Vermont Farm to Plate gathering.   Michelle graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in May with a B.S. in Environmental Sciences.

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

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