by Katie Navarra
Traditionally, production and yield were a farmer’s primary focus. Today, the environmental impact of farming practices is also among the top priorities for many farmers. “We only used to look at the production of our fields,” said Donn Branton, owner of Branton Farms, LLC in LeRoy, NY, “today our goals include leaving the soil a little better than when we started working it.”
Cover crops and no till practices are one way producers are able to balance crop yields and environmental impact. Although no till and cover crops are not a new approach to farming, it is one that has taken years to become widely accepted in New York. “The hardest part about using these techniques in New York is timing, weather and manpower,” said Corrina Aldrich, district manager for Washington County Soil and Water Conservation.
Despite the challenges, some farmers in New York began experimenting with cover crops and no till practices decades ago. Their willingness to try something different, has repaid them in dividends. In March, the Washington County Soil and Water Conservation and Cornell Cooperative Extension of Washington County hosted a workshop featuring a panel of farmers successfully using cover crops and no till practices to speak about their experiences.
Meet the farmers
As early as the 1980s, John Kemmeren, owner of Angelrose Dairy in Bainbridge, NY and Donn Branton, of Branton Farms, LLC in LeRoy, NY began experimenting with no till and cover crop practices.
In the late 1980’s Branton cautiously tried no till and cover crops on his vegetable operation. “No one around here was using either practice. There was a lot of peer pressure not to try it,” he said.
Disregarding the cynics, he tried it anyways. Starting small, he planted a plot of land as a trial. He gradually increased the acres planted with no till and cover crops until half his farm was planted with conventional farming practices and the other half was planted with no till and cover crops.
Between 2004 and 2006, he worked closely with the local Cooperative Extension to compare outcomes. Today, he primarily grows grains and some alfalfa, he’s continues to use cover crop and no till planting. “Hands down, strip tilling with nitrogen was the way to go,” he said.
Kemmeren was finding similar results on his dairy farm, Angelrose Dairy.
Although his early results were mixed, he continued to experiment. He seeded tillage radishes, oats and Austrian winter peas after harvesting small grains in early August. In 2007, he purchased his own no till drill and though he no longer grows small grains today, he now uses no till and cover crops on all 800 acres of land he plants each year. “Generally after corn silage we seed cereal rye or triticale seed. We use only certified seed that is clean,” he said.
Even during the early phases of experimenting, both farmers observed a long list of benefits the combination of no till and cover cropping offered to their land.
Reduced soil erosion is the most widely promoted benefit of no till and cover crop practices. This alone convinced Kemmeren to give it a try. “There was a government program that paid for the seed and seeding so we had a good incentive to try it on our farm,” he said.
Winters like this past winter highlight the impact cover crops have on controlling soil erosion. In Washington County, a rain event on Feb. 2-3, 2016 dropped 1 3/10 inches of rain on frozen ground. Unprotected soil slid off the fields and ended up in the ditches. “You can’t crop soil that’s in the roadside ditch,” Aldrich said, “cover crops keep the soil and nutrients in the fields where they can be used.”
Not only do fields lose valuable soil, silt gets into the waterways polluting freshwater sources. Even during winters with snowfall, cover crops have benefits. Branton has observed noticeable differences between his fields planted with cover crops and neighboring fields without them. “On my land planted with multi-species cover crops there is significantly less blowing and drifting snow compared with the unprotected fields. There are no “brown snowbanks” in fields that have cover crops,” he explained.
In addition to limiting soil erosion, cover crops and no till practices work together to improve soil health through increased earthworm activity, better drainage and increased water holding capacity of the soil.
“It’s amazing how quickly the earthworms devour a cover crop or previous crop stubble,” Branton said, “the way the earthworms process what they eat increases the nutrients in the soil.”
Earthworms also loosen soil and reduce compaction. In doing so, excess water infiltrates deep into the ground rather than ponding on the surface. In the hot, dry months of summer, no till crops retain moisture longer than those planted in tilled fields.
Because the practices work together to improve overall soil health, both farmers have saved money on fertilizer and herbicide applications. “We have decreased our commercial fertilizer purchases by 50 percent and our yields have greatly improved,” Kemmeren said.
“We even have some fields planted with multi-species cover crops where we may be able to get away without any herbicide application,” Branton added.
The benefits of no till and cover crops extend beyond a farm’s traditional production. “We plant no-till wildlife management plots,” Kemmeren noted, “we are starting to find huge benefits in providing a place for hunters to hunt, deer, turkeys and coyotes.”
Farmers already using cover crops and no till planting are a good resource for farmers who are new to using these practices. “Ask questions and learn from farmers successfully using both,” Kemmeren suggested, “by talking to successful no tillers you can find what works best.”
To be successful with no till and cover crops farmers need to do more than simply change their planting practices. These strategies require a different way of thinking, planning and management. “No till and cover crops add another level of management,” Branton said, “you have to monitor everything.”
These practices also require planning for the future. “You can’t just think about the current year. You have to think two years down the road,” he added.
If you’re not ready to invest in a no-till seed drill, the Washington County Soil and Water Conservation district can help. “We have two drills to rent and two staff members who are certified crop advisors,” Aldrich explained. “When someone rents our drills their fields have to be ready. We don’t allow fertilizer to be put through the drills so they have to make arrangements for that.”
In two years, interest in cover crops has nearly doubled. In 2014, the SWCD rented the drills 23 times for a total of 462.7 acres of no till cover crop planting. In 2015, leases increased to 51 and 913.2 respectively.
“Using no till and cover crops is a balancing act and you have to make adjustments based on the weather. The extra effort is worth the outcome,” Branton concluded.