Building soil health is what Jim Hershey says the PA No-Till Alliance is focusing on. Hershey recently chaired a Farming for Success seminar at Penn State’s SEAREC unit near Lancaster, PA.
“Planting green,” he says, “is a relatively new practice. All this we are doing for a reason. We’re trying to improve water quality…as we practice conservation in the field. We must make sure that it doesn’t end there. We need to keep all that we’re putting on this field from going into the stream,” Hershey said.
On Hershey’s farm, plans are afoot for putting in up to 14 acres of buffers along his streams and water courses. He added that the public has its own perspective on who’s responsible for keeping the streams clean. “They think all these farmers are putting manure out in the field.”
Farmer and cover crop coach Steve Groff told his audience he had started planting green in 1984, and has the photos to prove it. But, he added, it wasn’t until four or five years ago he started to get serious about it. “I wanted to take full advantage of whatever cover crops had to offer,” he reasoned. “I wanted to let them grow as long as possible.”
The goal on his farm is to have the soil covered year-round. “I try to be able to plant into, and actually see, the previous year’s cover crop.” Cover crops take awhile to break down especially if they mature longer. “The only exception to that is if we happen to have a dry spring. Then sometimes we have to compromise or understand the risk of the soil getting dried out.” His point is that the new things that are being tried are not risk-free. There are rewards and risks.
About 15 or 20 years ago, a theory was running rampant advising that “you have to destroy the green bridge.”
“Cover crops had to be dead for at least three weeks,” Groff explained, “so we don’t carry over diseases and insects. I think we’ve thrown that all out in favor of working with nature.” In other words, let’s try to get something planted even while our previous cover crop is still growing. “That’s the way we’re able to take advantage of what cover crops have to offer,” says Groff. The most popular crop for planting green into is probably cereal rye and maybe triticale. Hairy vetch has also been done as well as Austrian winter peas.
Farmers are notorious for sharing what they’re doing. Often when something works one year, it might not work the second year. So when you hear ideas from other farmers, try not to consider it source material. Hearing a thing doesn’t mean it should automatically be tried. Rather you should know what’s behind the other farmer’s reasoning.
Farming in Lewisburg, PA, Lucas Criswell is a board member of the No-Till Alliance and maintains that planting green has helped him with slug control. “We started planting green in the early 90’s because of some slug issues we were having,” he said. “We were burning down covers, and every once in awhile you get ahead of yourself and plant corn into a green cover, but you burn it down right away.” According to Criswell, most of the mistakes he’s made over the years were not true mistakes but rather things he’s learned from weather conditions which forced him into situations he doesn’t consider to be disaster mode, as it does with many farmers.
Instead, he says it is more, “how do we deal with this, how do we handle that? Most farmers are good at trying to figure out problems; we are all problem solvers.” One problem had to do with slug infestation in crops. Out of the 900 acres of corn Criswell planted this year, about 50 acres fell victim to heavy slug feeding. He did not replant. “It’s hard…when you start managing the slugs. The goal has been to build more legumes into our system and drop that carbon down, and we’re gaining on it. I’m applying about 1,500 gallons of hog manure in the spring and fall. I’m also taking 30 pounds of rye and it was flat the first week in May. So we developed a system on the front of my rollers to actually lift that cover up and divide it a little. That enables us to get the planter through.”
Before Linn Fahnestock climbed into the planter to demonstrate what Criswell was describing, he said, “Four years ago at this event Charlie Martin had a planter here that had rollers on it. I looked at it and thought, ‘this might be the answer to one of the issues we have with soil erosion.’…So we started rolling. This is the second year I’ve done it. It is very dynamic. I liken it to the farmer becoming an artist. You go with the picture! But the focus is yield.”