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.