No-Till, Cover Crop Research Challenges Old Ways of Thinking

11/30/2013 7:00 AM
By Carolyn N. Moyer Northern Pa. Correspondent

BIG FLATS, N.Y. — Decades of research have revealed that healthy soils offer benefits beyond increased productivity of the land. To that end, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS, hosted a Nov. 15 field day to challenge farmers to realize the potential of using cover crops, and convert from conventional tillage to no-till or minimum-tillage systems.

“We’ve been promoting no-till as agencies since the ’70s,” said USDA-NRCS Plant Materials Specialist Paul Salon. “Farmers who had the tenacity to continue doing that over a 10-year period initially started it in the interest of saving time, saving fuel and no picking rocks. After a 10-year period, they began to notice that their soils were behaving and functioning a little bit differently.”

Nearly 140 farmers and industry personnel watched as Salon’s two in-house demonstrations confirmed the benefits of leaving the soils undisturbed.

In the first demonstration, dried samples from forest soil, soil from a conventionally tilled field, soil from a plot where no-till has been employed for several years, and samples from undisturbed sod were partially submerged in graduated cylinders filled with water. The soil sample from the conventionally tilled field immediately began disintegrating, while the others stayed intact.

“If you improve the soil biology, the root exudates and the soils form glues that create aggregate stability,” Salon said. “Those soils that have been subject to cover cropping and those soils that haven’t been disturbed hold together really well.”

In a second demonstration, Salon poured water over simulated fields representing conventional tillage, long-term no-till, short-term no-till, and a field with a cover crop.

The water poured on the conventionally tilled soils immediately ran off the surface, while the other soils allowed the water to permeate with little or no run-off.

“Basically, the no-till field is protected by residue and has been undisturbed for many years, allowing root channels and worms and macroinvertebrates to occupy the soils, and allows for infiltration and for the water to go down through the soils,” Salon said.

For Dave Shearing, a consultant with Western New York Crop Management in Wyoming County, N.Y., zone tillage with heavy cover crop usage has been a key in his farm plans since CAFO laws limited manure spreading on sloped fields.

“We wanted to always move forward and get higher yields. Dairy cow production has been going up and up. Crop yields have gone up, but not as fast as dairy production has. The struggle between wet springs, timeliness of plantings and first-cutting hay gets more challenging with a larger number of acres,” Shearing said.

Although he works with good soils and good people, Shearing said soil health was limiting production.

“We found in western New York and we’ve tried this for many years, that zone-tilled soils in dry years produce much better and in wet years they produce much better, and in an average year, when you get rain every week, compacted soils will do all right. But it’s the uneven years when good soil health really shines,” Shearing said.

A zone tiller was onsite for inspection by the group, as was Penn State’s interseeder.

Chris Houser of Penn State Extension has been working with the interseeder during trials at the Rock Springs research center for about four years. Through his research, he has noted the difficulty in getting cover crops established after harvesting corn late in the fall.

“Our goal was to move up planting so that we could maybe plant our cover crop earlier,” Houser said.

The interseeder can plant the cover crop and apply nitrogen and pesticide at the same time. The interseeder is used well after the corn is established.

“In the first three years of research, we have not found any yield reductions in the corn crop,” he said.

Currently, they are working to find the optimal seeding rates and shade-tolerant varieties that will work best in this system.

“We like the ryegrass and we like the clover, mostly due to how well they can survive the low-moisture, low-light environment from the corn canopy,” he said.

Farmers, along with soil scientists who have been advocates of no-till farming, also have led the charge to find optimal cover crop varieties. The day’s events included a walking tour of cover crop test plots planted at various times throughout the season.

Salon moved the tour to a field where 320 plots seeded with individual species and various mixes planted at different dates could be observed. The earliest planting dates were midsummer and extended to mid-October.

Salon cautioned that when using mixes as cover crops, farmers must consider the percentages of each species as well as the growing conditions needed. During the tour, he pointed out root mass and crop establishment.

The goal, Salon said, is to get a cover crop established that will survive as long as possible into the winter to prevent erosion and to keep as much nitrogen available for the following crop. He showed examples of tillage radish planted at different dates. He also noted that some crops planted too early have the potential to go to seed.

As plantings were made later in the season, species such as the Austrian winter pea and hairy vetch outperformed other crops.

“I noticed last year when we did this, last spring the late plantings of the winter pea and the vetch didn’t perk up as well,” Salon said.

Also on the agenda was Aaron Ristow, who spoke on the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL, models that address nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment loads.

“It is a diet for the bay and places a limit for those nutrients that can make it to the bay from each state,” he said.

Under the requirements, each state was required to develop its own Watershed Implementation Plan to identify different pollution sources and address how they were going to address those sources, Ristow said.

“If we’re not keeping on track towards our goals, the EPA threatens federal action and will increase regulation in the watershed,” Ristow said. “If we don’t make it,’ farms of any size can be considered CAFOs and can be forced to comply” with the rules even if they ordinarily would not need to comply.

Beginning in 2009 and continuing each year afterward, the Upper Susquehanna Coalition has reported progress for both point and nonpoint sources of pollution, Ristow said. Data is collected through environmental programs, including on-farm acessments and other data collection methods. Ristow encouraged farmers to report cover crop usage so that these best management practices can be credited toward the overall goal.

Dale Gates, acting agronomist for NRCS New York, reviewed new standards and specifications for cover crops and encouraged farmers to work with district conservationists.

“We’re looking at a certain biomass cover that will address the concern,” Gates said. “When we cost-share something, we need to go assess it to see if it is performing the way we want it to perform.”

Gates also addressed the seeding dates for cover crop establishment using the USDA hardiness zone maps and the dates by which the cover crops must be terminated.

“I’d like to point out that the latest seeding dates are just that, the latest, not the ideal,” Gates said. “By those dates, you should be in your last field.”

Cornell University Associate Professor Quirine Ketterings highlighted results from research on using various winter forage species to boost feed supply at 45 sites across New York.

Working on sites throughout New York state using various species, Ketterings’ preliminary data shows decent yields at cover crop harvest where various nitrogen applications were used. She hopes to determine which cover crop mixes provide the best yields in the spring for harvest as well as what is needed to supply adequate nutrient availability for the following crop.

Charlie White, Extension specialist from Penn State, continued the conversation about the cover crop mixtures.

“The idea of cover crop mixtures is that we are trying to achieve a greater number of services by taking advantage of the attributes of multiple species,” White said.

In his presentation, he addressed which mixtures work best with the lowest economical strain. The cover crops were paird with a rotation of corn silage to soybeans to winter wheat. Cover crops were planted after winter wheat and after corn silage.

“After corn silage, the number of species that you can plant and really establish really decreases,” said White. “We don’t have as much of an opportunity to look at diverse mixtures.”

In the trial, six species — red clover, Austrian winter pea, canola, forage radish, cereal rye and oats — were grown in monocultures and in select mixtures. White noted that as the number of species increased, the cover crop biomass increased and then decreased at the highest diversity level. Higher diversity in the species also resulted in higher costs.

“We want to be in the highest performance and lowest cost area,” said White as he pointed to his graphs.

White’s research pointed to the rye/Austrian winter pea mixture as one of the highest performing, low cost mixtures.

“Look at the services you want in a cover crop,” White said. “We want to build organic matter, achieve nitrogen fixation, nitrogen retention, weed suppression, beneficial insects and have access to fall or spring forage.”

White’s research is now focused on finding optimal seeding rates.

“We start with an educated guess, make observations and make adjustments,” he said.

Members of the Pennsylvania No-Till Alliance were on hand to speak about their organization and to encourage New York farmers to start their own group.

Jim Hershey, president and founding member of the alliance, promotes no-till as “farmers improving soil health.”

“We started with no-till and then added cover crops,” Hershey said. “Yes, we’re preventing soil erosion, but underneath the soil, the benefits are just phenomenal.”

The day’s presentations raised questions from farmers relating to manure hauling. Dave McLaughlin spoke about surface applications of manure in Pennsylvania and has noted that the root mass from cover crops helps to carry the load of the trucks.

Donn Branton of Genesee County, N.Y., farms 1,300 acres including corn, soybeans, wheat and oats, and has been utilizing no-till for several years.

“I think the biggest thing is changing the mindset of the operations. We need to make changes. You don’t keep doing things the way you did them yesterday or five years ago,” Branton said. “We don’t want to say dispose of manure,’ we want to say, utilize it.’ We need to change our whole mindset about the ways we approach things.”

Joel Myers of Centre County, Pa., a crop farmer and no-till and soil health consultant, issued a challenge to the farmers attending the conference.

“Is this the time in New York to make something happen?” he said.

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