SENECA FALLS, NY — An increasing number of corn and soybean growers are turning to no- or low-till systems that use cover crops. A presentation on the topic, “Fertilizer and Nutrient Management in Cover Crops and Reduced Tillage Systems Farmer Panel” allowed attendees of Empire Farm Days to learn more about the farming method from farmers themselves.
Panelists included Jim Hershey of Hershey Farms, Elizabethtown, PA; Steve Cuddeback, Cuddeback Farms, Skaneateles, NY; and John Kemmeren, Angel Rose Dairy, Bainbridge, NY. Janice Dengi moderated.
For more than 25 years, Hershey has practiced no-till farming methods and uses a mix of five cover crops on his 600-acre livestock and grain farm. He plants corn, wheat and soybeans. He plants green, meaning he plants right among his cover crops without tilling and applies liquid hog manure to the surface without incorporating, using tanker spreaders with a dragline.
Steve Cuddeback’s farm is in the Owasco and Skaneateles lakes watershed. Since 1999, he has been practicing no-till and zone till farming. He applies nitrogen in the trench, does a light tillage as needed, and then comes back with a conventional planter — circa 1985, no less — to plant. He uses a neighboring farm’s manure, which Cuddeback cheekily said his neighbor shares because he’s trying to improve the soil and purchase the land from Cuddeback someday.
Kemmerman farms 750 acres. He said most of his land is eroding and sloping. In addition to his 100 head of dairy, he raises corn and hay. He has practice cover cropping since 1995, planting cereal rye in the spring and plants green.
Each panelist said reducing or eliminating tillage has improved his yield and reduced labor hours and use of spraying.
Kemmerman related how an employee’s misunderstanding of spray directions caused an application that was half of what it should have been. He experienced decent weed suppression anyway, which he attributed to his cover crop.
“I don’t necessarily recommend that, but it worked well,” he added.
Other unconventional methods have led to success for panelists. Hershey said planting green has helped improve weed suppression; however, he added, “I don’t recommend it unless you have some knowledge about it. With planting green, you have to know how you will manage all the residue.
“Talk with someone who has some experience. I talked with someone from Pennsylvania who planted green because it was his only option and it really worked.”
He has used cereal rye as a cover crop for many years, but sometimes unexpected results have complicated planting. In 2016, the rye pollinated, resulting in the tractor radiator plugging. The tractor operator had to run the windshield wipers to clear the debris.
Hershey has also used winter barley, oats, vetch, triticale, winter peas and more.
He said when using some of his cover crop mixes, some of the nitrogen gets tied up in the cover crop. He quipped that whenever he makes a mistake in planting, he calls the area his “test plot” and tries to analyze what went wrong so he can avoid the mistake next season.
Kemmeren said he has noticed improved corn where he had planted rye as a cover crop. He plans to roll his cover crop next year to make planting easier, and use 25 pounds of nitrogen to “get it going,” he said. Kemmeren also applies 4,000 to 5,000 gallons of manure in the fall, a rate which he thinks isn’t heavy.
Cuddeback is a big believer in spreading calcium and dry lime to improve yields on his no-till cover crop fields. He usually uses 4 to 5 tons per acre and receives an extra 100 bushels per acre for the effort. He said he pays $23 per ton of dry lime delivered or $15 if he picks it up.
“We try to over lime,” Cuddeback said. “They say you shouldn’t but I have found that not true. Calcium is my crop insurance. We have had a really good crop this year and we shouldn’t have but we have good, loose soil.”
None of the panelists undertake pH mapping. Kemmeren cited busyness. He prefers to use a spade shovel to turn over some soil and observe it himself.
Hershey said his varied topography would make mapping difficult.
Cuddeback said he’d rather eyeball the soil’s nutrient needs from his viewpoint on the combine.
Cuddeback applies sulfur with nitrogen and a stabilizer.
“I believe it pays for itself,” he said.