FOCUS ON AGRICULTURE IN THE CHAMPLAIN VALLEY AND BEYOND

By Jeff Carter, Agronomy Specialist, Champlain Valley Crop, Soil & Pasture Team

 

Corn fields look a lot different this year and many people are taking notice of the changes. Yet the weather seems to repeat itself in Addison County; early warm, then too wet, and then too dry. This reminds me of two years ago, when we experienced extensive prevented plantings and over-mature
hay, followed by a good old drought for two months. I sure hope you are working closely with crop insurance agents and FSA to protect your business from the financial risk of weather extremes that we are seeing this year. This season has been a roller coaster as the early spring turned sour, and we are almost a month behind schedule for corn planting
and hay harvest.

Just taking a ride around the Champlain Valley, you see the difference in fields, with so much more cover crop activity and no-tillage taking place. I know that the rye cover crop can seem way out of control but think again, because this is a new way to farm (thanks, Robert Rodale.) The tall rye can
be a blessing for farmers who have jumped into no-till corn and use the rye to their advantage. Most of the early corn planted in May was planted no-till straight into standing winter rye, while many of the fall-plowed fields had delayed or prevented plantings. Harrowing-in a tall rye crop can be a nightmare that delays conventional planting and ties up nitrogen. However, leaving the tall rye standing can shade the new corn plants too much, even when killed. We want cover crops to benefit, not hurt, the corn crop. A few local farmers are now knocking down tall winter rye with a roller-crimper as they plant corn. (Read more about this technique
on page 4.) This looks very different, and may be a bit scary, compared to a bare soil field that was plowed and harrowed multiple times.

“GOT RYE? WE DO!” ROLLING-CRIMPING WINTER RYE OVER 5 FEET TALL!

The rye provides a nice mulch to conserve soil moisture for a dry August and saves soil. Like other practices, it takes a new mind-set to adapt and succeed when working with these fine-textured clay soils since cover crops influence the dynamics of insect and weed pressure on the crop. Let’s see how this turns out. We have seen some great success with no-till on clay and we have also seen some disasters. Cautious, yet steady, is how you need to adopt these new farming practices for success.

We are also moving into a new set of projects this year and stretching our limits with agronomy – “the science and technology of producing and using plants for food, fuel, fiber, and land reclamation.” In coordination with partners, we are looking at the economics of no-till and cover crop systems; soil amendments such as humates, mycorrhizae, gypsum and liming materials for soil productivity; testing manure slot-injection with a drag hose into hay fields; testing P levels in streams and tile outlets; developing pasture planning and grazing classes; and evaluating a new P-Index for Vermont. We are here to help, let us know how these new farming ideas work for you.

Have a question for Jeff Carter?
(802) 388-4969 ext. 332, jeff.carter@uvm.edu

SPRING BUS TOUR SENSATION; CAN ROLLING-CRIMPING HELP MANAGE COVER CROPS?

By Nate Severy, Agronomy Outreach Professional

On June 13, UVM Extension and the Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition
teamed up to host a bus tour to six farms throughout Addison and Chittenden Counties highlighting spring conservation practices. The tour showcased manure injection, cover crop and no-till systems, pasture management, and nutrient management on dairy and vegetable farms. It was a long, information-packed day. One of the most amazing things was that all of the host farms had the same general message: they care about our environment, and are working hard, taking risks, and investing a lot of time and money to try to be the best farmers they can.

One tour participant commented that they were flooded with information and hadn’t realized just how much farmers are standing up and taking a leadership role to protect water quality. The event was a great example of how farmer organizations and UVM Extension can work together to support the agricultural backbone of Vermont.

One of the demonstration projects on the bus tour was a trial of rolling-crimping a winter rye cover crop, using farm built equipment. Rolling-crimping works best on a more mature cover crop, which may be useful in a spring like this one if winter rye becomes thick and tall because spring rains prevent termination. Rolling-crimping also helps facilitate the
mulching effect of the cover crop and, with correct furrow adjustment, should address issues of light penetration to young seedlings.

Separately, Jeff Sanders, from UVM Extension Northwest Crops
and Soils, received a grant to purchase and demo a planter-
mounted roller-crimper. This is actually a shield and two disks on the front of each planter unit, as opposed to a single roller-crimper. These attachments are angled to part the cover crop material and roll it away from the furrow where the corn is planted.

No-till corn planted into tall winter rye cover crop in Addison County clay soil using the UVM planter with Dawn roller-crimper attachments on the front of each planter unit.

We used this technology on two Addison County farms totaling around 50 acres. After 4 hours of adjusting the planter, we were successfully rolling-crimping! One farm field had manure injected several inches below the surface a month before planting and another field had large scale
cover crop trials. When compared to a regular no-till field, which can
look chaotic, there is a very satisfying symmetry when the field
is roller-crimped.

However, we had some setbacks while  planting. There was so much residue that every few acres we had to stop and clean the closing wheels because at least one would plug with winter rye. Specific closing wheels seemed to be plugging more often, and we will have to investigate that further. We also had issues getting adequate down pressure to crimp the rye stalks properly; this may not be an issue with a heavier corn
planter.

We will monitor the fields over the next few months, observing changes in water infiltration/retention and drought stress response, weed and pest levels, nitrogen availability, and corn yield.

Thanks to Jeff Sanders and the participating farmers! We look forward to sharing results and to future trials.

Videos of the planter in action:

 

THINK SPRING WHEN PLANTING COVER CROPS

By Kirsten Workman, Agronomy Outreach Professional

Farmers are planting cover crops at a rapidly increasing rate across Vermont – and for good reasons. The water quality and soil health benefits of this farming practice are undeniable. However, a farmer who manages that cover crop in a spring like this one will attest to the added complexity cover crops bring to the challenges of growing annual crops in Vermont.

Through our work with many innovative producers in the Champlain Valley, we identified the need to think about planting cover crops differently. We should not only ask questions about how late we can plant or how to get the most biomass possible, but can we take a more nuanced approach to decision making? In order to use cover crops as a management tool, a farmer should first decide on the goal for that cover
crop, and then implement a plan to accomplish that goal.

The main goal is usually to reduce erosion and nutrient loss. However, are you also trying to reduce weed pressure, decrease nitrogen applications for the subsequent crop? Will you be interseeding into a standing crop? Do you want to maximize spring biomass either to harvest it as forage or to use a rollercrimper device? Or, maybe you hope to minimize spring biomass to ease spring field management without sacrificing erosion control and nutrient retention.

The latter example is one goal we have heard from many producers who value the role cover crops play in reducing soil and nutrient loss in the sensitive fall and early spring seasons, but who don’t want so much biomass to deal with in the spring when it’s time to plant annual
crops, especially on heavier soils.

Borrowing an idea from one such farm, last fall we planted cover crop plots on nine farms, from Westford to Pawlet, on sandy loam to clay soils. Our goal was to determine the “magic” combination of seeding rates for planting winter rye and spring oats in the fall to maximize fall performance, while minimizing spring biomass. The dry fall and wet spring thwarted some of our efforts, but we were able to collect data at six locations. We don’t have the final answer yet, as one year doesn’t tell the whole story. However, we found that all combinations did comparably
well at providing at least 30% ground cover to protect from erosion in the fall. With the exception of the all-oat plots, all combinations increased soil cover and biomass from fall to spring.

Winter rye (left) and winter-killed oat (right) cover crop plots at Pouliot Farm in Essex on May 1, 2017.

This trial supported previous observations that winter rye – planted with a grain drill – provides similarly high biomass in the spring at different seeding rates, down to 45 pounds per acre. The two combinations that seemed to maximize fall performance and spring soil coverage while minimizing spring biomass were 30 pounds of rye with 45 pounds of oats, and 15 pounds of rye with 60 pounds of oats. The lowest rate of rye is probably not an advisable rate on steep ground, but it should provide enough soil coverage on flat ground.

Our aim is to help farmers identify the pros and cons of different methods of cover cropping, and evaluate which methods accomplish particular goals. We are moving beyond the basics in Vermont, and it is important to utilize this important conservation tool in a way that benefits not only the watershed, but also your farm.

Cover and biomass for winter rye and oat cover crops.

 

Upcoming Events: May 2017

Events hosted or with programing support by us:
  • Spring Pasture Walk. This Friday, May 5, Addison, VT. For more information and rsvp contact Cheryl Cesario (802-388-4969 ext. 346).
  • Cover Crops as Forage Crops. Next Monday, May 8, Cornwall, VT, 11:00-12:00 pm. Meet at the Champlain Valley Motorsports parking lot. Coordinated with the Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition, this informal “crop patrol” for farmers will explore growing and harvesting a winter rye cover crop for forage. We will explore how would you manage a cover crop to maximize forage yield, fit into an annual crop system, and utilize for grazing before a summer crop.  For more information contact Nate (802-388-4969 ext. 348).
  • Spring Bus Tour – Celebrating Local Farm Conservation Efforts. May 17, 9:30 am-3:45 pm. Coordinated with the Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition, this is a day long bus tour of Chittenden and Addison County Farmers participating in conservation work and supporting the joint mission of agricultural economy and improving water quality. This bus tour is for farmers, representatives, state and federal professionals. For more information and rsvp, contact Nate (802-388-4969 ext. 348)

More information or questions about any of these events can be obtained by contacting our office.

802-388-4969 ~ 23 Pond Lane, Suite 300 Middlebury, VT 05753

 ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Events hosted by other affiliates:
  • Dairy Science and Sanitation. May 10-11, 8:30 am-5 pm, UVM, Burlington, VT. Hosted by the UVM Extension and Cornell University. More information can be found here.
  • The Youth Agricultural Individual Development Account (IDA) Program, a collaboration of University of Vermont (UVM) Extension 4-H and the UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture, has extended its deadline to May 15 for applications for its next program cycle. The free one-year program helps young farmers, ages 14 to 21, acquire the necessary financial skills and business assets to operate their own agricultural business. More info/applications here.
Other News:
  • The New RAP rules are now in effect, including vegetative buffer requirements. If you are plowing and/or planting annual crops, you should be informed of buffer rules. To see the entire list of RAP rule effective dates, see this link. Questions should be directed to VAAFM. You can also contact us if you’d like help on your farm determining how to make compliance work for your operation.
  • The Agricultural Business / Farm Viability Program, through UVM Extension has ongoing funding for water quality business analysis, to help farmers analyze options for meeting conservation and regulatory compliance goals. Analysis will include financial planning, strategic planning and coordination with related agencies. For more information or to sign up, contact Mark Canella (1-866-860-1383, toll free in VT).
 

SPRING 2017 NEWSLETTER INTRODUCTION

FOCUS ON AGRICULTURE IN THE CHAMPLAIN VALLEY AND BEYOND

  By Jeff Carter, Agronomy Specialist,

Champlain Valley Crop, Soil & Pasture Team

Agronomy and Conservation Assistance Program

Nutrient Management Plan (NMP) classes have been a major emphasis of activity for the past months and 31 farmers completed their NMP through
the UVM Extension goCrop™ classes that were held in Richmond, Middlebury and Pawlet. Statewide, over 70 farmers completed the classes offered by the St. Albans and Middlebury Extension Crop teams so farmers can develop their own crop management plans. There are plenty of field meetings, corn planter clinics, farmer manure trainings, stream floodplain restriction discussions, and buffer workshops going on now and more to come this spring, all geared toward how farmers will adopt practices to meet the Required Agricultural Practices (RAP) rules. Stay updated about current events via e-mail: join our email list at
www.uvm.edu/extension/cvcrops.

Field Research/Demonstration

We will be starting some new projects this year with financial support from the NRCS Vermont Conservation Innovation Grant Program; the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets; and the Northeast SARE program to continue our work with local farmers. One study
will start a benchmark program for the economics of growing cover crops and using no-till for crop planting. What is the true cost and benefit of moving to no-till with cover, and then how profitable are you? We need better data about the Vermont farms who have changed to these new crop systems to be sure of the right investments for your particular farm. Starting with a handful of farms who have agreed to provide the details
about their operations, the data from this project will reflect current finances of these conservation practices as they are used here on our soils.

Whole-farm phosphorus (P) mass balance has been around for some time,
but few farms complete the accounting of where the extra P comes from. We have a project to work with several farmers and their feed consultants to collect data on the extent of P imported to local dairy farms. This is good information to have, but really the issue is what to do then? Not all P is leaving the farms, and that is why farmers use the P-Index to better understand the risk of P loss and “plug” any leaks in the farm system.
We will be field testing the new 2017 Vermont P-Index and a new Northeast P-Index on several farms and relate that data to whole-farm P-Mass balances and farm conservation. We will collect data to help farmers with crop management decisions under the revised Vermont P-Index. This will then be used to address the NMP 590 standard, which is the basis for all farm nutrient plans. What to do then if you have a high phosphorus soil test? Another study we have is to evaluate the use of field applications of amendments to reduce soil test P in the field. We will be looking at three types of gypsum, including one with humates, also contrasted with short-paper fiber (SPF). When spring does get here, we
will also see how good the cover crops perform that we planted last fall.

VERMONT RAP RULES
The Vermont Required Agricultural Practices rules affects all farmers this year, and so it affects our Extension work. Focus on Agriculture means a focus on helping you to learn (like Poop Skool) and then figure out the best next steps to take (whatever that is). Give us a call, or just come to the meetings that we host with the Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition.
This is a great way to keep up with new ideas so you can deal with changing times in Vermont agriculture.

Have a question for Jeff?
Jeff Carter (802) 388-4969 ext. 332
jeff.carter@uvm.edu

COVER CROPS: FROM RESEARCH TO REALITY

By Kirsten Workman, Agronomy Outreach Professional

For the last 5 years, our team has had grant funding from the USDA to do research and demonstration projects investigating novel ways of cover cropping in corn silage and soybean systems in Vermont. We started with a small project in 2013 in Ferrisburgh at Deer Valley Farm comparing 2 different cover crop mixtures planted into the standing corn and drilled after harvest. That project was successful and provided us with enough preliminary data to start investigating additional cover crop mixtures and planting timing on a larger basis.

In 2014, we started our NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant, “Better Cover Crop Mixes in Vermont.” This project enabled us to evaluate several three-way cover crop mixtures alongside a winter rye monoculture. The cover crops were planted into standing corn (at V5/V6 growth stage and at tassel) as well as drilled after harvest. Similarly, we interseeded into soybeans at R3-5 and R6-8. As a result, we ultimately evaluated 15 different three-way cover crop mixtures during 29 different planting events for a total of 319 research plots. This work could not have happened without our farm partners. For this project alone, we collaborated with 10 farms on 13 fields in 7 Vermont towns.

So what? you may wonder. These plots provided us with valuable data to share with producers, NRCS staff, technical service providers and agency folks, and that information is helping us make sound recommendations for successful cover cropping in Vermont. However, the true value of this project (and our other cover crop projects) is the ability to enable hundreds of Vermont farmers to witness, learn about and adopt this practice. In this single grant project described above, we were able to do some amazing outreach to farmers. This included 12 field days, 6 presentations, 7 newsletter articles and 5 Across the Fence television episodes. Our field days involved over 200 farmers, 61 agricultural business employees, and 112 agency staff. Our workshops and conferences reached 153 farmers, 81 ag. business employees and 221 agency staff. And while that in itself is a tremendous feat, the real so what is that we have seen exponential increases in the adoption of cover crops in Vermont over the last 3 to 5 years.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) data, “Vermont farmers planted a record-setting 25,727 acres of cover crops on more than 2,000 fields in 2016 on approximately 25% of all annual cropland in Vermont. That’s a 58% increase in the acres of protective winter cover crops planted in 2015.” By my count, it is a 250% increase from 2014. While these research and demonstration projects are by no means the sole reason for this impressive rate of adoption, I do believe they are an important piece of the puzzle. Enabling farmers in the Champlain Valley to approach these conservation practices with solid, local information that allows them to be successful. They are able to investigate species, planting methods, potential pitfalls and see for themselves when and if these cover crops make the most sense on their farms, in their soil and weather conditions and with their equipment. And most importantly they are getting the most out of their cover crops by establishing them in a truly effective way, meaning the cover crops are functioning as intended and providing erosion control, taking up manure nutrients, and protecting water quality. In addition, the farmers are figuring out how to do it more profitably, utilizing these cover crops for forage or as a key component in their no-till systems, using less seed and planting it better, and even growing their own seed. Essentially, Vermont farmers are making them an integral part of their farming operations. This is the true meaning of adoption. Not just throwing seed out there because there is cost-share money, but REALLY MAKING IT WORK.

An example of cover crop research plots comparing broadcasting seed on the soil surface versus planting with a no-till grain drill. Both were planted on the same day, after corn silage harvest, on Vergennes clay soil, and received aproximately 4,000 gallons of liquid dairy manure/acre. Pictures were taken about two months after planting and in the following spring.

 

CROP YIELD AND NITROGEN MANAGEMENT IN A COVER CROP, NO-TILL SYSTEM

By Kristin Williams, Agronomy Outreach Professional

We just finished a two-year, multi-farm study on the health of clay soils, funded through a VT Conservation Innovation Grant through the NRCS. Measures of soil health (using Cornell’s soil health test) were not consistent, and we found that comparing practices over time was more informative than comparing field to field. One interesting, and maybe
obvious, lesson was the correlation between soil health practices and crop yields.

So, how do soil health practices influence yield? Research suggests soil health can improve yields. It is important to note our project focused on  demonstration, not replicated research. We compared no-till and conventional/reduced till corn silage on 5 farms with clay fields in our region. A simple t-test revealed no significant difference in yield between no-till (19.1 tons/acre) and conventional (19.2 tons/acre). More importantly, we were able to demonstrate that a farmer can grow no-till without yield losses, and be successful with good management practices. A yield gain might take time as the soil builds up its condition.

We also wondered how cover crop species or mixes might affect corn silage yield. We had an opportunity to use a field where the corn was accidentally killed. We planted 15 different combinations, including 4 single species, 6 two-way mixes, and 5 three-way mixes. This project was a slight anomaly in that the cover crops were planted with a drill in late August, which allowed for a more vigorous production of all cover crops. Radish was a star in the fall, maximizing both phosphorus and nitrogen uptake. We did not measure phosphorus content in the spring, so we do not know how much was retained in the soil. It seems to have allowed
for more available nitrogen in the soil at the time of a pre-sidedress nitrogen test (PSNT), therefore requiring less nitrogen. Surprisingly, legume mix covers had good fall biomass, but that did not translate into more N mineralization.

We applied nitrogen to each plot as per the PSNT recommendation for 20 tons/acre corn silage. At the end of the season, we measured corn silage
yield and compared that to nitrogen applied (see graph). The winter rye plot had a lower corn silage yield and required more nitrogen. Other than the nutrient effect of less uptake and slower decomposition, there may have been a physical barrier created by the standing rye crop, which was particularly vigorous in the spring. However, our three-way mix (winter rye – oats – radish) actually had the highest average corn silage yield, even though it required more N at PSNT time than the pure radish stand.

So, do not go abandoning your winter rye just yet. In fact, we think this three-way mix has promise and we are looking for a mix that gives both fall and spring soil conservation. Radish alone will winter kill, which may be good for mineralization, but not as good for spring soil conservation. Oats also winter kill but provide faster fall soil cover than rye by itself.

When using an over-wintering cover crop, it is clear that timing and success of termination is critical for subsequent crop yields. Nitrogen mineralization may happen later in the season with a plant such as winter rye that has a heavier carbon content. In a no-till system particularly, you may need to adjust your nitrogen rates/timing and put more on upfront. If you are using cover crops, a PSNT seems like a wise investment.

It is also important to remember that soil health is a long game, and it may take time to see the results of your labors with cover crops. We have replicated this project by replanting these cover crops in the fall of 2016, this time planted in September, and will look at this again this coming season.

More info about UVM’s PSNT test can be found at:
go.uvm.edu/getpsnt

Winter 2016-2017 Newsletter Introduction

Focus on Agriculture in the Champlain Valley and Beyond

jeffrey-carterBy Jeff Carter, UVM Ext. Agronomist

Champlain Valley Crop, Soil & Pasture Team Leader

 

We all have learned a lot about using no-till and cover crop farming practices on clay soils over the past few years, and feel good about it because improving soil health for the future really is important. If not, I don’t think you would be farming.

But the fabric of agriculture is a bit tricky as one side pulls the covers off the other, then back, and over and over. Field practices to improve crop yields and water infiltration come back to bite us with reports of fear that this will increase the amount of dissolved phosphorus in the soil, which is exactly what you want for better crops, but not if it leaks out and pollutes Lake Champlain. Now the quilt comes off again and it becomes apparent that the environmental damage may be increased by activities like improving soil health with tile drainage, no-till planting, even cover crop roots that go down into the soil to reduce compaction. All are field practices we promote with confidence that this will solve the “problem”.

Now in a recent report from Farm Journal, Field Agronomist Ken Ferrie discusses how improving soil health increases the concerns about nitrate and water-soluble phosphorus losses down through the soil. But let’s not stop with that part of the equation. This is not a bad thing; it’s just that now farmers need to be even more aware of how their field management practices impact their P losses. And how important the work we do at Extension to compare different cropping system components helps farmers decide what balance of tillage and crop types is right for their farm. One response is to stop if we are afraid; the other is to carefully move ahead with calculated confidence that we are making a positive difference, measure the effect, recognize some new problems, and move ahead.

carter-2016-december-photo-1-crop-smsize
“Wait a minute, I lost my pencil in this preferential flow pathway”.  As the season progresses, clay soils can develop cracks that swell open and then close when the soil gets saturated again in winter.

The Required Agriculture Practices are now here, and we will have a lot of “quilt pulling” as changing one thing like – requiring buffers along ditches – may trigger responses that are counter-productive like installing tile in the whole field and burying those ditches. Which way is better? I’m not sure; just that when the quilt gets pulled off me, I pull back. Switching to no-till corn is a proven way to help soil aggregate structure, greatly reduce soil erosion and reduce fossil fuel use. Yet the reaction is that preferential flow paths through the soil form as a conduit to move manure and P too fast through the soil matrix.

The Vermont Tile Drainage Advisory Group report has been submitted to the Agencies of Agriculture and Natural Resources, and will inform the Secretaries for their joint report to the legislature in January. I participated on that advisory group and the discussions highlighted that these issues are not simply good and bad. Every action, like improving soil drainage, forces a conflict between a current farm business and family sustainability, and the cost of water quality remediation for past indiscretions in our lake that we are faced with fixing.

The only way that we will be able to keep a reasonable perspective is for everyone (both sides of the bed) to continue to be vigilant to maintain a good balance of using our land resources to make money, but keep the water clean. This will never end, as the challenges of farming in Vermont are made more difficult with awareness of how a little P makes such a big problem in the Lake.

I heard a great quote: “there are no wrong turns on the journey, just course corrections when we figure out where we want to go next.” I think we should be focused on learning how to make the best next moves, together, for farming practices that will help us meet the P reduction goals of the Vermont Clean Water Act. I don’t agree with the folks who want to curtail the dairy industry in Vermont with hopes that a different farming model or land use is better. Get active in your local farmer watershed group (there are three in Vt.), come to conferences and workshops we offer to get better at these decisions, speak up so the general public and legislative policy makers hear your voice.

Have a question for Jeff? He can be reached at 802-388-4969 ext. 332 or jeff.carter@uvm.edu

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Stay updated on our events via our blogpage, or via Facebook

A pdf version of our entire newsletter can be viewed here. Our team work is funded through multiple grants and could not be accomplished without our supporters and funders.

Individual newsletter articles can be viewed on the blog below.

Beginning Farmer and Rancher Benefits

By Jake Jacobs

UVM RMA Risk Management Education

USDA has established certain benefits designed to help beginning farmers and ranchers start their operations. These benefits include:

  • Exemption from paying the administrative fee for catastrophic and additional coverage policies;
  • Additional 10 percentage points of premium subsidy for additional coverage policies that have premium subsidy;
  • Use of the production history of farming operations that you were previously involved in the decision making or physical activities; and
  • An increase in the substitute Yield Adjustment, which allows you to replace a low yield due to an insured cause of loss, from 60 to 80 percent of the applicable transitional yield (T-Yield).

How to Apply for Benefits

You must apply for Beginning Farmer and Rancher benefits by your Federal crop insurance policy’s sales closing date. You are required to identify any previous farming or ranching experience and any exclusionary time periods you were under the age of 18, in post-secondary education, or active duty military. Talk to your crop insurance agent for more information.

Cover Crop Guidelines

Recently the Farm Service Agency (FSA), Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and Risk Management Agency (RMA) worked together to develop consistent, simple and flexible policy for cover crop practices. Search for “Cover Crops and Soil Health” at www.nrcs.usda.gov or contact your local agency for more information.

beginning-farmer
Being a young farmer is challenging enough, but learning about the best options for the business like Sayer Palmer is, can be even more difficult. Contact your crop insurance agent for Beginning Farmer and Rancher benefit information. Photo: Jenn Colby.

 

How Do We Decide When To No-Till Alfalfa?

Nathaniel SeveryConsider the Density and Vigor of Your Cover Crop

By Nate Severy

UVM Ext. Agronomy Outreach Professional

Over the past year there has been growing interest in the farming alfalfa 8242016community in trying to no-till alfalfa hay seedings into winter cover crops as a way of reducing erosion and saving time and fuel.  Come spring, there will be a number of farmers who want to plant then or early summer who will look at their fields wondering “should I plant now, or wait until later?” While we have not yet done any formal research looking at alfalfa establishment under different management systems and the associated economics, there are some clues that may be able to guide us until we have more data.

One clue we can look at when deciding whether to plant in early spring or early summer is cover crop stand density. (Late-summer seeding is also a consideration that we won’t discuss in this article.) We know from helping farmers no-till-renovate pastures/hay fields that a productive and competitive hay field will outcompete your no-till seedlings for light and nutrients.  We should expect this same thing to happen when we have cover crops.

A field was planted to winter rye after corn silage harvest in early September; by December it completely covered the soil surface and was between 4 and 6 inches high.

severy-pic-1-cropped
Dense cover crops like this winter rye can be good for soil conservation, but challenging for no-till planting.

This success was due in part to early planting, full seeding rate, and timely rain. In spring, we expect that this crop is going to take-off and, with proper management, will be very high yielding.  If alfalfa mix were planted into this stand in April without any control methods, will our seedlings be able to compete?  Maybe, but we wouldn’t count on it.  We are not suggesting that a productive stand is bad, as it provides many environmental and economics benefits, but it must be managed correctly.  So, in this situation, we would recommend that before seeding an alfalfa mix, a farmer should either terminate the cover crop, or wait until mid-May and harvest for livestock feed before seeding.  If the field is terminated in April, the alfalfa should be planted with a nurse crop like barley or oats.  If properly killed, the winter rye will be barely noticeable after about a month. If there is no nurse crop, there will be a substantial amount of bare ground which will be susceptible to erosion and weed pressure.

Another field was planted in late September 2015 to winter rye after corn silage harvest. By early April 2016, although the cover crop did protect against erosion, there was still a lot of bare soil.

severy-pic-2-cropped
In contrast to the first picture, a winter rye crop that was lower yielding will be less competition for a no-till crop like alfalfa.

A crop like this can produce high quality livestock feed, but will be very low yielding.  In this type of situation, the farmer can go ahead and plant alfalfa mix.  S/he can terminate the cover crop beforehand, but there should be enough open canopy that the cover crop should not be a problem.  This winter rye can later be mowed for livestock feed, or possibly even left and combined for seed for next fall’s cover crop.

Do you have questions about this work or would like assistance with no-till alfalfa? Contact Nate [802-388-4969 ext. 348, nathaniel.severy@uvm.edu]