“Cover crops play an essential role in soil improvement as well as pest and weed management and biological nitrogen fertilization,” said Thomas Bjorkman, Professor at Cornell, specializing in Cover Crop Selection and Management.
Bjorkman was speaking to a large group assembled from around central and eastern New York at the Eastern New York Commercial Horticulture Cover Crop and Soil Health Field Day held at Schoharie Valley Farms.
Bjorkman was joined in a variety of scientific presentations, demonstrations, and field tours by Cornell Team Leader/ Extension Vegetable Specialist Chuck Bornt; David Wolfe, Professor of Plant and Soil Ecology in the School of Integrative Plant Science at Cornell; NRCS Northeast Soil Health Specialist, Research Agronomist/ Cover Crop Specialist, Paul Salon; NRCS Soil Scientist Olga Vargas; SUNY Cobleskill Professor Carmen Greenwood; John Wallace, Assistant Professor at Cornell; Aaron Ristow, Cornell Extension Associate/ Soil and Crop Sciences; CCE Vegetable Specialist Crystal Stewart, and other CCE associates.
Farmer panel participants Larry Eckhardt of Kinderhook Creek Farm, Stephentown, NY, Scott Ryan of Honorone Farm, Canajoharie, NY, and Tim Stanton of Stanton’s Feura Farm, Feura Bush, NY, rounded out the day-long event with the reporting of their experiences with cover cropping in a Q & A discussion.
Bjorkman explained that the introduction of cover crops into an established system requires an “analysis of production systems, their constraints and limitations.”
However, he also emphasized that it is essential to get the cover crops in before the weeds become established.
“Starting fast is absolutely critical if you want to beat the weeds!”
Another consideration is to use cover crops targeted for your zone rating. “Getting the right cold hardiness in your cover crop is important.”
Wolfe, who is currently leading a USDA project focusing on “new tools for carbon, nitrogen, and greenhouse gas accounting and management in agro-ecosystems,” said merging science with farmer needs and protection of natural resources is paramount in motivation for research; addressing constraints to adaption of soil health practices, while building on experimentation by farmers and researchers.
Wolfe reported that soil tests developed by Cornell are being utilized nationally and internationally, and explained that soil testing will help determine which cover crop is best suited for a specific soil’s nutrient needs, since different cover crops will add different nutritional values.
“Soil tests provide information and solutions.”
Wolfe also explained that a new fact being explored is that roots actually “leak” nutrients into the soil, feeding the soil. Sudan grass was one cover crop discussed that provides exceptional nutrient values.
Soil mites, nematodes and other beneficial microscopic life was examined and reported on by Greenwood. Attendees were invited to examine samples of soil under a microscope to view communities — or “hot spots” — of these creatures at work.
“The presence or absence of hot spots is related to soil management practices,” said Greenwood, explaining that this vital life underground directly affects productivity above ground.
Test plots at Schoharie Valley Farms were toured. Soil was examined and crops were viewed. Seeding rates and seeding mixtures were evaluated, while discussions about cover crop debris were also addressed. “When you put that seed in the ground, you’d better know when it is going to die,” advised Bjorkman.
Salon and Wallace pointed out mixtures of many different cover crop mixtures that had been tested.
Of the crops examined, Forage Radishes, Sudan Grass, Hairy Vetch and Red Clover were mostly discussed for their hardiness, nutrient value and increasing organic matter. A grass-legume cover crop mix seems best for weed suppression.
For more information on cover crops for your farm, contact Chuck Bornt at 518-272-4210 x125.
This event was sponsored by a collaboration of USDA-NRCS, Cornell Cooperative Extension ENYCHP, SARE and SUNY Cobleskill.