BROADWAY, VA – Recently, over three dozen members of Shenandoah Valley’s ag community attended an afternoon field day about building resilient soils at the farm of Mike Phillips.

Phillips has long endeavored to incorporate management techniques on his farm which improve soil health. The long-term goal is an operation which is most sustainable – including financially.

As Phillips put it, “I make a living off of cows, and our cows need to eat, and what they eat grows in our soils.”

The field day highlighted some of the practices Phillips uses on the farm, including grazing and the use of cover crops.

Regarding grazing, Phillips said, “If you do nothing but rotate, it will always get better. The better you do at rotating, the better off you’ll be.

“There is no absolute formula for grazing,” he continued. “What’s the best practice for any one farm at any time depends on observation.”

Phillips likes to stockpile grass for grazing. “Historically, what did the bison eat in the winter?” he asked. “Stockpiled forage. You can graze cattle in the snow. In the Dakotas cattle will work through 16 inches of snow to graze.”

In addition to mixed grass pastures, Phillips also plants alfalfa for grazing and to make hay. In recent years he’s been experimenting with drilling barely into the alfalfa in autumn and letting his cows graze it when it gets to soft dough stage. After that, he gets three cuttings of alfalfa hay.

“The goal is a high energy crop,” Phillips said, particularly good feed for steers and heifers.

Sharing lessons learned on improving farm soils

Field day attendees listen to Mike Phillips talk about the benefits of using aggressive cover crop sequencing between alternate years of corn production. Photo by Karl H. Kazaks

Richard Fitzgerald, area NRCS agronomist, was at the field day to discuss the benefits of alfalfa.

“The past several decades we’ve had genetic improvements in alfalfa just like we’ve had in corn and soybeans,” he said. “With high lignin alfalfa you can cut every 41 days. You only need a little starter fertilizer the first year. And when you compare seed costs to corn and soybeans, alfalfa looks good.”

Phillips’s technique of growing barley with alfalfa helps “fill in bare spots around alfalfa,” Fitzgerald said. “The vegetative growth of barley also shields alfalfa and can protect it from winter damage.

“Alfalfa is the queen of legumes,” he continued. “It’s time to bring alfalfa back.”

Phillips will grow alfalfa for four or five years then plant corn. Alfalfa provides nitrogen to corn in a number of ways. It fixes atmospheric nitrogen, recovers excess fertilizer in the soil and adds nitrogen to the soil organic matter pool through root exudation and harvest and stand losses.

In some parts of his farm, Phillips rotates cover crops every other year between corn crops. In those cover crop years, he’ll plant rye, clover and radishes once the corn harvest is complete.

“I remember the older farmers, when they cleared land, they’d put in turnips to improve the soil,” Phillips said.

In spring, Phillips follows the rye mix with a blend of oats, red clover, a brassica and peas that he cuts for hay. In summer, he’ll plant buckwheat, sunn hemp and sunflowers. That mix is a cover. The sunn hemp is great at adding nitrogen to the soil. Sunflowers and oats both have allelopathic qualities.

“Using cover crop sequencing can help reduce your herbicide use,” Phillips said. “There are many, many benefits to thinking out crop sequencing. Harmonious balance is what we’re thinking about – the whole system. I don’t take any one part of the system for granted.

“We need wildlife. We need bees to pollinate. We also need to nourish below-ground life, which supports plant life. And at the center of it all is soil.”

by Karl H. Kazaks