On Friday, July 21, 2017 “Planning for Soil Health, Growing More with Less” was held at Valleyside Farm in Woodstock, CT to update those in attendance on the area of soil health. The particular emphasis was on no-till management and maximizing the use of cover crops. The program was sponsored jointly by the Connecticut Resource, Conservation and Development, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and Northeast SARE.
John Guszkowski, president of Connecticut Resource, Conservation and Development, extended words of welcome as did Tom Morgart, Connecticut State Conservationist USDA, NRCS. Lucas (Luke) Young then welcomed everyone to Valleyside Farm. Luke is the third generation in his family actively engaged in the everyday workings of the farm. He gave the group a run down on the farm’s transition from conventional tillage practices to a no-till, high cover crop operation.
Other speakers included: James Hyde of the USDA NRCS; Jack Clausen of UConn; Chris Creek of Precision Planting, LLC; Johnny Hoffman of Johnny’s AG Services; Jim Smith of Cushman Farms; and Jim Covino of the USDA.
Support activities go on in our communities, many of which we are completely unaware. One of these is the ongoing monitoring of our streams and rivers for contamination conducted by Jack Claussen who manages the PATH Regional Cooperative Conservation Program (RCPP). Jack is a professor of Natural Resources and the Environment at UConn. He monitors contamination issues such as bacteria in surface water. As an example, Muddy Brook which flows near Valleyside Farm and courses through farmland regularly shows high bacteria counts after heavy rainfalls. This is due in large measure to run-off from fields fertilized earlier in the spring. One of the reasons for this monitoring is to measure the possible contamination of public water supplies.
Chris Creek covered a number of factors which can influence the size of a corn harvest that tie directly into the conditions under which the crop was planted. As the technology associated with corn planters continues to evolve it is critical the operator ensures all components of the unit are properly adjusted. Proper seed spacing is important to ensure maximum yield per acre. Too far apart and valuable space is wasted and underutilized but too close together and plant growth is compromised. The depth at which the seed is planted is of upmost importance. Seed should be placed at a depth which ensures contact with moisture. Failure to do so will delay germination. When planting in a no-till program the front coulter is designed to break down and spread out the plant material so the coulter opening the furrow is not impeded by debris to make as clean a seed bed as possible.
While seed should come in contact with moisture, planting too deep is to be avoided in order to avoid delayed germination. Soil temperature should be checked. Planting when the soil temperature is not at the optimal level will result in delayed germination and very possibly result in the seed rotting.
Ray Covino demonstrated the effects a variety of ground covers can have on water retention. To illustrate his point regarding the use of proper ground cover he had a demonstration table set up with four trays each of which contained a different type of common ground cover. One contained dense cover with several types of vegetation. Another contained a strip of grass from a nearby lawn. The third tray held plain soil with no vegetation while the last tray held a less dense growth of grass and weeds. Jars were suspended under the table, one in front of the trays which were tipped towards the front of the table, and placed directly under each tray. A nozzle was placed about four feet above the table to simulate a rain shower. The unit was turned off once the amount of water applied reached one inch.
The amount of water which ran off the bare soil was considerable while none ran off of the tray with the heavy vegetation. The amount of water retained in the tray with bare soil was minimal while almost all of the water was retained in the tray with the heavy vegetation. This demonstration was designed to show the benefits of a good cover crop.
Close to the water retention demonstration Luke had planted a demonstration plot with a variety of cover crops. One of particular interest was a mix of sunflowers, wheat grass and peas.
The corn planter had made a pass through this mix and planted several rows of corn. The work of the planter was evaluated for spacing of seeds and depth of planting. A lively discussion followed regarding the pros and cons of the program.
Lucas pointed out that the size of the equipment now used in harvesting makes it impossible to broadcast the cover crop while harvesting so he has reverted back to the use of a grain drill to plant the cover crop. The size of the grain drill is large in order to minimize the number of passes over a field to get the planting done.
The benefits of no-till combined with a cover crop best suited to a given soil type are many. Weed control is reduced to a minimum, water retention is maximized, usual spring soil preparation practices are eliminated, valuable organic matter is returned to the soil or can be harvested as feed. Traditional methods of corn cultivation have to give way to newer cultural practices as they are proven to be superior to those which have been practiced for decades.