George Foster and son Jeremy manage crop production on the Foster
family’s fifth generation 2,200-acre dairy farm in Addison County, Vermont. They
grow 550 acres of corn silage, 300 acres of soybeans, 100 acres of small grains,
and 1,250 acres hay/haylage each year on their farm, which is predominated by
Vergennes heavy clay soils. The family not only sells milk
through the Agri-Mark Family Dairy Farms® cooperative where it is made into
world-famous cheese, but they also operate Vermont Natural Ag Products—home of
the Moo™ line of compost and soil amendment products.
Today George has become a humble, yet impactful leader of a soil
health movement in Vermont. While the farm has always had a conservation ethic,
George and Jeremy have dramatically changed their cropping systems over the
last eight years. After some failed attempts at no-till 20 years ago, George
attended the UVM Extension No-Till and Cover Crop Symposium and that was when
he knew he could make it work on their farm. He had a solid vision and took a
pragmatic approach to implantation of these practices.
The Fosters agreed to help us investigate on the economic
plusses and minuses of cover cropping and no-till through a state Natural
Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG).
Making the Transition
After acquiring a new no-till corn planter in 2012, the Fosters
began transitions by applying no-till on their lighter soils utilized for corn
silage, and then fields going into first-year corn silage on their clay fields,
while simultaneously adding cover cropping. Paying good attention to nitrogen
management was key to maintaining and increasing yields. Adjusting equipment
was important, and they now have a roller-crimper and no-till drill in addition
to the no-till corn planter. All of their crops and cover crops are now no-till
and they grow their own cover crop seed!
Why Cover Crops?
When you ask George why he grows cover crops, he’ll tell you, “It’s what makes no-till work!”He’s
sure it’s the reason no-till didn’t work 20 years ago when they first tried it.
He explains that the cover crop roots open the soil while the leaves protect
the soil surface. He has observed many of the benefits we often espouse like
improved water infiltration/management, increased organic matter, increased
soil biology, improved soil structure, reduced compaction, and resilient crops
leading to more reliable yields which are less stressed by weather extremes.
Cost of Entry
Cost of entry of conservation practices is a common challenge and
concern for producers. To manage these costs, spacing out investments,
borrowing equipment, hiring custom work, cost sharing and grant funding are all
ways producers manage these investments. Foster Brothers Farm utilized all
these approaches. Out-of-pocket expenses made up roughly 53% of the equipment
cost. Divided over their corn acres, the equipment was paid for in 5 years. Including
soybeans and small grains, it only took 3 years to see a return on investment.
Changes in Costs Associated with Cover Crops and No-Till
In this project we calculated economic cost estimates (not actual
cash expenses), with producer interviews and the NRCS Machinery Cost estimator
(Cover Crop Economics Tool, version 3.1). Foster Brothers Farm saw an increase
in costs related to planting the cover crop and use of a roller crimper for
termination of cover crop. Cost decreases were seen in labor, plowing and
harrowing (see graph). The net effect of these changes is approximately a $45
/ acre decrease in cost as compared to conventional tillage on this farm.
Compared to their previous tillage system, this method requires
less labor, leads to better crop quality, reduces/eliminates replanting costs,
increases yields, and provides more resiliency to wet springs and dry summers.
Their corn yields have been steadily increasing and their soybean fields saw a
substantial increase. More efficient spring operations and changes in new hay
seedings improved earnings.
George is still tweaking the cover crop system with his soybeans,
and he is mindful that avoiding compaction is more important than ever. He
reminds farmers who are trying no-till to be patient in the spring and check
underneath the surface before planting.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
We know, buffers and grassed waterways are not always the favorite
topics of farmers, but when it comes to water quality, they can
make a big difference. With our grant focus in the McKenzie Brook
we will be hosting spring and summer field events. Look for event
details soon, and please let us know if you would like to host one
on your farm. We will discuss: New RAP rule on buffers in effect April 15, 2017. All farmers covered under the RAPs will be required to have a 25-foot buffer on streams and a 10-foot buffer on ditches. Let’s face it, this will mean adjusting plowing and planting practices this spring. Grassed waterways. Although not mandated, these can be very
effective, particularly where other practices aren’t enough to
prevent gully erosion.
Planter Clinics: Getting Ready to No-Till
For the third year, our team is hosting no-till corn planter clinics in coordination with Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition. Are you on our e-mail list to find out dates and details? Like conventional till, successful no-till comes down to healthy soil, a properly set-up planter, and the right timing: they’re even more critical since you can’t correct mistakes with an extra harrow pass!
April 6, 2017 at Gosliga Farm in Addison, VT from 10 am to 12 pm, located on Sunset Lane (off Rte 17). For more information about this event, see our flyer or contact Rico Balzanzo at (802) 773-3340 ext. 281
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.
By Rico Balzano, UVM Extension Agronomy Outreach Professional
Here in Vermont, when farmers are considering a no-till system, several
questions often arise: What about incorporating manure? What about cold
soils? What about ruts leftover from harvest? Vertical tillage offers a solution with minimal soil disturbance and virtually no soil inversion, thereby maintaining a natural soil structure essential for success when otherwise no-tilling.
Vertical tillage can be a vague and confusing term for both equipment dealers and farmers, mostly because there are so many implements that claim to accomplish vertical tillage. A very general definition of vertical tillage equipment is any implement with disks, shanks, or teeth that enter AND leave the soil vertically, only moving soil up and down. Implements that move soil horizontally, such as moldboard plows and disk harrows
(with concave disks), create restriction layers that impede water movement and root growth. These implements shear or smear the soil, which can lead to compaction in or below the tillage depth.
By definition in-line rippers and chisel plows (with straight points) are vertical tillage tools, and can be used to “reset” the soil profile when restriction layer(s) are present. Ideally, this “reset” should happen only when necessary and not on an annual basis, which would just amount to a conventional tillage system. Most often, vertical tillage refers to shallow or surface tillage that sizes and incorporates residue and manure without creating a stratification layer. Usually the depth is limited to 2” to avoid
creating a compacted layer under the seed. This allows vertical tillage to fit into a reduced tillage system, with the goal of seeding at or below tillage depth. Other advantages of vertical tillage in a reduced tillage system include warming the seed bed in the spring, incorporating
cover crop seed in the fall, incorporating manure, and leveling out ruts from harvest or other field activities.
Most vertical tillage tools consist of vertical cutting blades set straight or at a very shallow angle to size and incorporate residue while minimizing horizontal soil movement. Also, most implements have some combination of rolling baskets and cultivator wheels to break up clods and level the seed bed. Aerator machines can be effective vertical tillage tools, especially when equipped with some combination of coulters, rolling cultivators, or rolling baskets. Some manufacturers’ vertical tillage implements have
concave disks or straight disks set on an aggressive angle. These set-ups can help incorporate residue and manure, but increase the chances of smearing soil and creating compaction in the tillage zone. Care must be taken not to use ANY tillage implement when soil moisture is too high, as more harm than good will be done.
Where’s Rico? Rico Balzano has moved to the Rutland Extension office, but he is still an active part of our team and continues to be involved in programming
content and outreach. Contact him at:
(802) 773-3340 ext. 281, firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
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.