CE-MR-3-Soil health1by Elizabeth A. Tomlin
Soil health is one of the most important factors that crop-growers face and an educational clinic about soil health and the role that winter forage cover crops can play, was recently presented by Delaware County’s Soil and Water Conservation District, Delaware County’s Cornell Cooperative Extension and Joleanna Dairy Farm in Unadilla, NY.
“We’ve been using cover crops on our farm for several years and have been growing corn using strip-till for the last six years,” said Derek Johnson of Joleanna Farm. “We feel that by doing this we are able to improve our overall soil health and achieve greater yields.”
Methods of tillage and aeration were discussed at the event and demonstrated by White’s Farm Supply and AerWay’s Eben Weil, who had brought implements to the clinic.
Johnson told about his experiences with no-till and conventional tillage, when planting rye cover crops followed by corn. “We’d grow 20-30 acres, cut early straw and let it bleach out and we wanted to get corn on as quick as we could. We were doing a lot of tillage in a short amount of time and we realized that with different types of tillage — or no-till — we could get corn on that ground really quick.”
Johnson said with the strip-till he didn’t have the risks involved with no-till or the surface compaction that resulted from heavy equipment traffic. “We had the potential for fuel savings, times savings and getting all of the benefits of full tillage with conservation tillage and no sacrifice on yields.”
One disadvantage of strip-till is the need to be vigilant about weed management. “Going to the rye as a cover crop has helped a lot, it holds down the weeds between the strips.”
Examination of soil where rye had been used as winter cover crop showed it had also played an important role in promoting soil health and efficiency.
“We’ve known that cover crops is a good practice for a long time,” said CCE Delaware County’s Paul Cerosaletti. “A majority of our Ag and New York State dairy farmers have realized that there is a real forage benefit to this crop as well. When we have a dry year and we need forage this becomes an even more valuable crop to the dairy farmers.”
Delaware County Soil & Water Soil Scientist Larry Day had prepared a site for attendees to examine the soil where the cover crop had been used in combination with conservation tillage compared with soil from conventional tillage. “This entire area received the same manure application last spring,” said Day. “So, tillage management and winter cover crop are the differences.” Day said steps to improve soil quality include improvements in physical, chemical and biological soil features.
Day noted the large population of earthworms in the soil at Joleanna Farm and commented on their significance, stating that evidence shows earthworms contribute to crop production. An absence of earthworms in the soil indicates an absence of organic residue and low soil moisture, unsuitable for most crop production.
Cerosaletti had prepared a “plot set-up” demonstrating how Delaware Co CCE was investigating how much fertilizer is necessary to apply, to achieve ideal crop growing conditions. “The goal of this project is to determine the optimal nitrogen rate needed by winter cereals seeded after corn silage and harvested for forage prior to corn planting.”
The site had four replications of five different nitrogen rates of 0, 30, 60, 90 and 120 pounds per acre. Soil samples taken before fertilizer application determines fertility of each plot. Future harvesting from each plot determines the quality and quantity in relation to the amount of nitrogen applied.
CCE Delaware Co Field Crops Educator Dale Dewing and USDA-NRCS Soil Scientist Olga Vargas presented demonstrations showing the positive results of soil management.
“The three soil health demonstrations emphasize the importance of soil management and how it can effect soil behavior,” said Vargas. For each demonstration the same soil type was used but the soils had different management. The management systems most favorable to growing crops used cover crops and reduced tillage. “These soils had less runoff, increased water holding capacity, better soil structure, and more soil biota. These demonstrations show cover crops not only control erosion, but also build organic matter in the soil. Using cover crops and reduced tillage allows farmers to keep the soil covered, minimize disturbance, diversify, and keep roots growing for as long as possible,” Vargas stated.
Cerosaletti credits a New York USDA NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant for being able to develop the Cover Crop and Soil Health Program and for making the field day possible. “Today was one of our big educational efforts for that project and we will be continuing to have them over the course of the next three years,” Cerosaletti said. Another aspect of that grant is helping farmers get the winter crops planted — due to the timing of the necessary seeding.
“A group of us met here last year and identified one of our biggest challenges for the adoption of cover crops is just getting them in when they need to get in, because we’re busy chopping corn,” Cerosaletti reported. “So, we have awarded a contract to Chris Cole, CRC Custom Harvesting, to help develop this service. A big part of this grant is to help farms get going with timely cover crop seeding.”
Joleanna Dairy has been planting winter rye, which is very hardy and can be seeded after late harvested crops. Other winter cover crops used in the Northeast include hairy vetch, oats, wheat, red clover and mixtures of these.
“We have been using cover crops for about 5 years and have 200 acres of both winter barley and cereal rye this year,” said Bob Hofmann of Cheshire Valley Farm. “The Johnson’s are superb farmers and to share their experiences was priceless.”
CCE Central NY Field Crop Specialist Kevin Ganoe summarized the day’s event.
“Soil health is important because the healthier the soil, the better crop production we get,” said Ganoe. “We need to minimize compaction by reducing tillage and trips across the field. Cover crops help because they protect the soil with their top growth from direct contact with the weather. Cover crop roots help hold the soil and the roots help form the aggregate stability that is desired for good plant growth.”
For more information on Cover Crop & Soil Health Programs contact Ganoe at khg2@cornell.edu .