With support from Mark Cannella, Farm Business Management Specialist
It should not be news that the new Required Agricultural Practices (RAPs) are coming into effect this month. While some farms may have to make relatively small adjustments to their production systems, others may have to make drastic changes to fully comply with the law. In economic terms, this law is an attempt to “internalize” some “externalities” of farming. That is, the costs of compliance will be borne by the farmer. In many cases, most notably “conventional” dairy production, these internalized costs are not easily pushed up the chain from farmer to processor to consumer.
As farmers are acutely aware, fluid milk prices are low. With the exception of the incentive program through Caring Dairy, milk payments to farmers are generally not connected to adoption of these practices. Therefore, farmers have to navigate how these practices, minor or major, play into their farm’s economic viability. Farmers without a comprehensive business plan or economic analysis may now need to take an honest look at where they stand.
In addition, major fixes to farmstead structural projects can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and take substantial amounts of time and effort to implement. Experts working in the fields of regulation and farmer outreach need to be asking the question: “What is the phosphorus reduction in comparison to the costs of a given project, and how can both
conservation and farm viability be met?”
Practices and engineered structures, by rule, have to meet very specific guidelines in order to meet Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) standards for financial assistance, though it may or may not always be in the best interest of the farm operation for a given structural investment. Farmers navigating these choices should have a clear understanding of their business finances, and what the horizon looks like for their operation.
AGRICULTURAL BUSINESS PROGRAMS: A UNIQUE OPPORTUNITY FOR WATER QUALITY RELATED BUSINESS PLANNING
Enter Agricultural Business Programs (also known as Farm Viability) at UVM Extension. These programs teach and advise farm owners working to make the best decisions for all aspects of their business. This includes business planning support, financial analysis, research projects and educational training. Right now, the UVM Agriculture Business Team is inviting farms to participate in water quality business analysis. This is in addition to their foundational “farm viability” program that is always available for in-depth business planning or transfer/succession planning.
Farms enrolling in Water Quality Business Analysis projects work one-on-one with a business educator. The team facilitates strategic planning and nut-and-bolts financial analysis to ensure positive cash flow as farmers make changes to meet water quality goals. UVM Extension business educators serve in the key coordination role of the planning process when multiple people from state agencies, NRCS and land trusts need to be at the table to see a project move forward.
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 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.
As farmers, nutrient management planners and soil conservationists, many of us deal with the estimated loss of soil from fields. We often use a very important tool called the Revised Universal Soil Loss Equation (commonly referred to as RUSLE2). If you have a nutrient management plan, you know about RUSLE2. This tool, however, only estimates soil loss in the form of sheet and/or rill erosion. This is the gradual and sometimes unnoticeable erosion that sheets off fields or that forms small, uniformly spaced and sized channels (less than 4 inches deep). With proper crop rotations, reduced tillage, good cover cropping, good organic matter and even proper manure applications, we can manage for this erosion fairly simply and inexpensively.
Gullies, on the other hand, are the “unaccounted for” erosion that can have a major impact on soil loss, soil health, water quality, and crop yields. Gullies are water formations with increased intensity to sheet and rill erosion, and can also exacerbate sheet/rill erosion. While we have all seen photos of giant gullies big enough to consume a tractor, those tend to be rare. However, the gullies in Vermont farm fields are no less impactful on our landscape. According to an older, but interesting analysis from USDA-NRCS in 1997, they estimated that (19 years ago), roughly 6.1 tons/acre of soil loss per year was attributed to gully erosion, making up roughly 58% of the total sediment lost through water erosion annually (the remaining 4.5 tons/acre/year was from sheet and rill erosion).
Types of Gullies
Ephemeral gullies recur in the same area each time they form, can be partially or totally erased or filled in with tillage, and frequently form in well-defined depressions or natural drainage in a field. As described by the USDA –NRCS (1997), “most ephemeral gullies occur on fields with highly erodible soils, little or no crop residue cover or where crop harvest disturbs the soil.” They are associated with water flow in areas where runoff is great, including snow-melt runoff like that experienced in the Northeast.
True or ‘classic’ gullies are “channels too deep for normal tillage operations to erase.” (NRCS, 2015). They may get bigger in subsequent years, but can also stabilize and become more permanent drainage channels. They tend to start as ephemeral gullies that were left untreated. They can also start as a result of tillage, for example adjacent to a dead furrow. Or they may start at the edges of established grassed waterways or buffers that were inadequately sized or not maintained.
In this pictured example, a gully started upland as an ephemeral gully, but when it reached a dead furrow, this larger scale channel formed. You can see how quickly a gully like this can be an even more significant contributor of soil loss than typical sheet and rill erosion. Depending on how the field is managed a gully like this can account for two to four times the sheet and rill erosion from an entire 25-acre field. It’s hard to tell, but in the picture you can see the field had been cover cropped and no-till planted to corn, but it was too late to prevent the ultimate result. This gully has subsequently been repaired and now has a diversion at the upland slope to prevent its reoccurrence.
This type of significant erosion has many costs associated with it: water quality degradation, decreased yields, and the sometimes significant costs to repair (potentially tens of thousands of dollars). The cost of fixing and maintaining an area where a classic gully has formed can be drastically more expensive and time intensive than preventing them from forming. Once a gully begins forming, additional measures will need to be implemented. Continuing to till and level out an ephemeral gully every year only introduces more soil into the drainage area for erosion.
Conservation practices to prevent gullies include grassed waterways, cover crops, crop rotation and no-till. These practices relate to not re-tilling the gully area, maintaining residue on the soil surface, keeping soil covered and preventing erosion from starting in the first place.
Grassed Waterways are constructed channels that are planted with fast growing grass species that are mowed regularly to reduce sedimentation. These waterways convey the water to a stable outlet where it will not cause erosion. They not only significantly reduce erosion, but are located in the areas of the field where drainage wants to occur anyway and tend to not be very productive. Once installed, they can be permanent with proper maintenance.
Conservation Crop Rotation is a management practice that simply changes the rotation pattern of the field in question. In dairy forage systems this includes reducing the number of years of corn production, and rotating into a perennial sod.
Cover Crops are close growing crops (grasses, legumes, forbs) planted to provide protection from soil erosion on annually cropped fields in the times between cash crop growth. In addition to other conservation benefits, they provide significant decrease in erosion.
No-Till otherwise known as Residue Management is the limiting or elimination of soil disturbance to maintain plant residues on the soil surface all year. By not tilling, soil is not exposed to erosion and it is more stable and able to infiltrate more water and support equipment operations without disturbance. In conjunction with cover cropping, it may eliminate the need for grassed waterways or other more expensive conservation practices, if the gully erosion has not already become a serious problem.
An existing classic gully will need repair. This is a big ticket item. It often requires significant machine time, may need stone or pipe, and often includes a water diversion structure to prevent it from forming again. These can cost more than $20,000 per gully to repair.
Gully erosion is the not so hidden, but unaccounted for, source of erosion in our watersheds. It is detrimental to our waterways, our cropland and pastures, and the sustainability of our farms. Take an afternoon and take a look around your fields. Do you see any gullies forming? Do you see where gullies could potentially form? See a gully in need of repair? Visit your local NRCS office and get help, either stopping gullies before they start or fixing existing gully problems.
+ Estimations based on field observations and NRCS erosion calculations based on dimensions, frequency and soil type.
While recently attending a Certified Crop Adviser Conference in NY I started doodling Venn diagrams of the information I was digesting. In the world of soil health, the ‘classic’ Venn diagram is Chemical-Biological-Physical properties all interacting and collectively leading to the ever elusive thing we call soil health. Thinking larger, we can ask the question, does soil health always lead to environmental health? Notably for us, does soil health always lead to a reduction in phosphorus loading to water bodies? And from the agricultural perspective, does soil health always lead what I am terming farm health? What I mean is agricultural productivity and sustainability, including economic realities and crop yields. If we add more organic matter, will we always get greater crop yields? If we increase infiltration, will we always get reductions in phosphorus loss? We’d like to think so, but unfortunately for us reality is complex. Along with this Venn diagram is the overlap. Things take time and teasing out these realities to make sound management recommendations can be tricky and confusing. We continue to use a combination of research and demonstration trials in an attempt to approach that perfect union where farms are building their soil quality, increasing their farm profitability and having more positive environmental impacts.
The Possible Use of Gypsum Amendments to Reduce Soluble Phosphorus
Currently on the market are a number of products being sold both for increasing soil health and better utilization of phosphorus. One demonstration project we began this fall in McKenzie Brook watershed is looking at the use of gypsum amendments to increase soil health while also reducing soluble phosphorus loss. Gypsum (calcium sulfate dehydrate) actually has a long standing history as an amendment, as a source of sulfur and calcium (without a pH change). The NRCS has a practice standard for gypsum application to improve physical and chemical properties of the soil, improve water infiltration, reduce dissolved P in surface runoff and subsurface drainage, ameliorate subsoil aluminum toxicity, and reduce potential transport of pathogens in cases of manure and biosolid application. Utilization of this practice is more common in other parts of the US and applied in bioswales. Science research thus far has primarily focused on flue gas gypsum (FGD) and results suggest there is some efficacy in improving soil health and reducing P loss, but the magnitude of effects may vary.
Sulfur is required for protein synthesis and nitrogen fixation, so in theory, additions of gypsum could increase yield potential if sulfur is limiting in the soil. Calcium is also needed in cell wall and membrane function, growth and fruit development. Perhaps even more importantly, calcium can help improve soil structure as a flocculating agent; that is, calcium can help with soil aggregation via its role as a positively charged ion (Ca2+) held by soil’s negatively charged exchange sites (CEC). It has a stronger bond than other lower charge particles like sodium (Na+), which is why gypsum amendments are used in reclaiming sodic and saline soils. This feature is also particularly relevant to our clay soils if soil aggregate stability and infiltration is poor. Gypsum can theoretically reduce phosphorus loss by two related means. The first is by increasing soil aggregation and therefore decreasing the loss of P with sediment. The second is that calcium-phosphorus complexes can form, keeping the P in a less soluble form. We have begun a demonstration project in McKenzie Brook utilizing multiple types of gypsum in contrast to a short paper fiber lime product, and hope to build upon it next year. We will have more on this topic as this project evolves.
This has been a busy year for our Extension team in Middlebury. I prepared a summary for my boss, and during this past year we offered 72 workshops, conferences, classes and field day events and tallied 8,143 “educational contacts” who came to our programs. Many farmers and ag business members came to more than one event. We also provided 1,873 individual consultations this year for one-on-one education and production technical assistance. I hope you were able to be there. We have several new projects starting this fall and look forward to many more farm demonstrations with new cover crop mixes planted, no-till corn strategies, calcium sulfate (gypsum) and other soil health amendments, reducing compaction in clay soil, actual farm crop budgets and whole-farm mass nutrient balances. This winter will be just as busy with meetings and classes for no-till corn, cover crops and soil health, pasture and grazing, manure applicator training, nutrient management plans, updates on farm environmental laws, and regular meetings of the Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition.
New RAP Law Comes Into Effect this Fall
The rules have changed again for Vermont farmers this fall with the new RAP laws (Required Agriculture Practices) going into effect before the snow flies. Once these rules clear the last legislative hurdle, this will be a dramatic change to meet the demands for cleaner water for the future of Vermont. Not so big news if you have been following the progression of increasing restrictions on how soil and farm nutrients will be kept on the farm and not lost to our lakes and streams. All farmers need to know how this will affect them and the Agency website has all the latest news regarding these new rules for farmers: http://agriculture.vermont.gov/water-quality/regulations/rap
With the ever present focus on water quality in the state of Vermont, now is a good time to know where you sit on a map. Watersheds are not always an intuitive concept, particularly in Vermont where things can drain in unpredictable ways. A watershed is an area of land where the brooks, streams, and rivers all drain into a common location such as a lake or larger river. You can think of watersheds as a hierarchy. A drainage basin is the larger watershed unit for which all waters drain into a common large water body, such as Lake Champlain. Watersheds and sub-watersheds are a division of basins into smaller units. The entire lake is subdivided into sections for the management of water quality. One such segment is South Lake, which includes the McKenzie Brook watershed.
There have been efforts in the state to focus on these smaller watershed and sub-watershed units as a way to target efforts and resources in reducing phosphorus loading on Lake Champlain. Part of this effort is a funding focus on the part of NRCS. This approach is being piloted in an attempt to demonstrate whether more success can be gained from a geographic strategy. It should be noted that the “targets” are areas where additional money and time is being allotted, with the possibility that those “targets” will move as successes are reached. This is the first year of this approach.
The Champlain Valley Crop, Soil and Pasture Team has been participating in this focused effort. The watershed currently targeted that falls within our farm community is McKenzie Brook. Other watersheds currently in NRCS focus are Pike River, Rock River, and St. Albans Bay. McKenzie Brook proper is actually in New York, but this is the name of the watershed that extends above Crown Point Bridge in the north (near DAR state park, Addison VT) to Route 73 in the south (just north of Mt. Independence state park, Orwell VT) and covers a narrow geographic region inland from the lake including Hospital Creek, Whitney Creek, Braisted Brook and the Lake Champlain Tributary.
One of our grants that recently wrapped up was assessing the status of farmer’s nutrient management plans and helping farmers who needed new or updated plans get through the process. A second grant focused on the McKenzie Brook watershed is ongoing assisting farmers in signing up and following through with NRCS EQIP contracts to implement best management practices (BMPs). Thus far, NRCS has been able to obligate $800,000 of a $1 million dollar allocated potential for targeted conservation practices in McKenzie Brook watershed.
We will continue to assist farmers in signing up and implementing practices. In addition, we are happy to help farmers try projects on small plots that may be outside the payment structure of NRCS. Collectively, we hope to quantify both NRCS and non NRCS funded practices in McKenzie Brook to demonstrate conservation success over time. We also have demonstration projects set up specifically in McKenzie Brook, and will continue to facilitate discussion over successes and agronomic realities of practices. Look for information about upcoming events on our events webpage. However, you don’t have to be in McKenzie Brook to try a new practice. We have a lot of work going on in and around Chittenden, Addison and Rutland Counties, and imagine that “targets” may eventually move to other areas within the South Lake region.
This spring we also began engaging in a unique collaborative project with Middlebury College and the Department of Environmental Conservation that we will be continuing this fall/winter and hopefully into the future. Middlebury College students in a capstone environmental studies class embarked upon a semester long group project of their choosing. This spring students mapped existing water quality data in McKenzie Brook watershed, attended some of our workshops and meetings to distribute a farmer survey about water quality and tile drainage, attempted some water quality sampling, and presented findings to farmers. This fall another group of students will continue this work on water quality and land use mapping, water sampling, and/or “ground-truthing” of water quality modeling.
One important outcome of this work this spring was the visualization of data in a digestible format. The average concentration of phosphorus at five sample sites from 2012 to 2014 taken by the DEC is depicted in the map below (click to enlarge).
It should be noted that concentration and loading are two different things. We do not have flow data corresponding with this map (which may explain for example why concentrations in Upper Hospital Creek are greater than that of the West Tributary of Hospital Creek). We hope continued work will include flow monitoring to capture loading rates in addition to concentrations.
Another take-away point that should be reiterated in all this discussion of the Lake is that turning off the “valve” of phosphorus from sources isn’t the same as removing the phosphorus in the Lake. It may take substantial time to see efforts realized in the Lake even if various sectors in VT come together to reduce phosphorus loading, particularly as other factors such as rainfall and temperature continue to impact algal blooms. Therefore, we are hoping to capture an increase in farming BMPs over time as we work together with farmers, and hope to see that correlate with reduced phosphorus loading in particular tributaries. We aim to demonstrate the utility of BMPs and that the farming community is actively engaged in this process. This is an ambitious goal, and success will require buy-in from farmers and dedication from parties involved.
How do we have the “watershed moment” about watersheds? Hopefully, with continued engagement on this topic we can foster a collaborative community where farmers can learn from their neighbors and technical service providers can share information among farmers about how conservation practices are making for thriving agriculture and cleaner water in their own corner of the map.
Join Us For This Great Event Full of Useful Information For Your Farm!
February 17th at the Sheraton Hotel and Conference Center, Burlington, VT
Registration is now open for this event. We have a day filled with guest speakers and professionals from around the state, country and also Quebec. Speakers will be addressing soil health, herbicides, cover crop research and demonstration trials, no-till successes and challenges, economics and soil conservation.