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This no-till organic soybean field has a rolled cereal rye cover crop mulch.

ITHACA, N.Y. — New York is a leader in organic crop production, with 1,321 certified organic operations farming over 323,000 acres in 2019, according to the USDA.

New Cornell University research informs a rolled cover crop organic no-till soybean production system that can help farmers reduce labor, save fuel and improve soil health.

Farmers interested in using the rolled cover crop organic no-till soybean system can now find techniques and tips in the new guide produced by the Sustainable Cropping Systems Lab at Cornell University.

The guide is by Matt Ryan of Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and colleagues in Ryan’s lab. The “Organic No-Till Planted Soybean Production” guide aims to provide information to farmers that will help them be successful with this production system.

“Organic soybean production in New York has increased dramatically over the past decade,” said Ryan, associate professor in the School of Integrative Plant Science. “The benefits of this system include reducing soil erosion, improving soil health and saving farmers time in the spring. However, there are challenges, and this guide offers farmers management strategies, equipment advice and management timelines. In fact, farmers can get started in September by planting cereal rye.”

The guide is downloadable through the New York Soil Health website. Individual copies of the guide can be mailed upon request, subject to availability.

The guide is divided into four chapters. The first contains a system overview of soil health and organic management, with a detailed year-long timeline. The second through fourth chapters cover the process of growing a cereal rye cover crop, terminating it with a roller-crimper and no-till planting soybean into the residue. The guide contains photos, illustrations, research highlights and four farmer features detailing their experiences with the system.

Cereal rye is planted in late August to early September as this allows for early establishment, greater ground cover, and more biomass production. Crop rotations that enable early rye seeding in the fall are ideal.

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Cereal rye is one of the most winter hardy, productive and affordable cover crops available, making it the top choice of many farmers who use the rolled cover crop organic no-till soybean system.

For example, small grains harvested in mid-summer provide enough time for cereal rye to be established early. In comparison, there is not enough time to get a good stand of cereal rye after corn grain is harvested in the fall.

Cover crops provide soil health benefits. A fall-seeded cover crop helps to stabilize the soil, and the living roots support beneficial organisms, like mycorrhizal fungi. In late May to early June, the cereal rye cover crop is terminated by a roller-crimper mounted to the front of a tractor. The remaining residue forms a thick layer of mulch that protects the soil from heavy rains.

Research conducted in Aurora found that a cereal rye-soybean management system (when a roller-crimper terminated the cereal rye) had higher biological activity in the soil and a 63% increase in water infiltration compared to soybean grown in tilled soil without a cover crop.

Even after successful establishment in early fall, farmers should be prepared to change plans if the cereal rye is patchy or does not overwinter well. By scouting fields, tracking soil moisture and weather conditions, farmers can be ready to change plans if needed. An adaptive management framework is outlined in the guide to help farmers in the decision-making process.

In this system, farmers no-till plant soybean at the same time they terminate the cereal rye cover crop with a front-mounted roller-crimper in a single pass operation. One potential issue is planting through the mulch and achieving good seed placement in the soil. Using a heavy-duty planter designed for no-till conditions is recommended, and adding weights can be helpful, especially under dry conditions.

Costs for transitioning to the rolled cover crop no-till soybean system might include purchasing a roller-crimper and a no-till planter. On the cost-savings side, the system reduces labor requirements by 34% and uses 26% less fuel than traditional tillage-based organic soybean production.

“The way rolled rye no-till soybeans is going to pay for itself is not in better soybean yields, but in leaving the field in better condition for future crops,” said Dan Gladstone, production manager at Oechsner Farm in Newfield. Oechsner Farm, Scheffler Farm, Gianforte Farm and Martens Farm are featured in the guide.

The New York State Environmental Protection Fund for the New York Soil Health Initiative and the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture provided funding for this work.

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