Despite the known ecosystem service benefits of cover crops, many Northeast dairy farmers have been slow to adopt efficient cover crop management practices. The current use of full-season corn silage hybrids results in harvests through early October; subsequent winter hardy cover crops planted this late are inefficient for nutrient capture from fall applied manure. The crops are also subject to poor establishment and reduced tiller production, compromising their efficiency as a cover crop.
To incentivize farmers to prioritize early cover crop planting dates, we propose harvesting the cover crop in the spring as an additional source of forage production. To serve as an economically viable spring forage crop, our early results suggest overwintering cereals should be planted in early-mid September. Fall planting delays can result in more than a 50% reduction of spring yield (2014-2015: September 1 planting date, 1.38 tons A-1 vs September 30 planting date, 0.65 tons A-1) However, concerns of yield penalties associated with shorter season corn, and potential impacts of high carbon cover crops on subsequent corn production, has impeded the adoption of double cropping with dual purpose small winter grains. To address these concerns, rye, wheat, and triticale are under evaluation for feed quality and yield potential, nutrient cycling capacity of nitrogen and phosphorous from fall-applied manure, and impact on subsequent corn production in MA, ME, and VT under tillage, reduced tillage, and no-till systems.
Treating cover crops as a forage crop to be harvested instead of a source of plant residues to be tilled into the soil may lead to more widespread adoption of this critical practice. By harvesting feed from commonly used cover crops such as winter grains, farms stand to increase their feed inventories. Corn trials conducted in Maine, Vermont, and Massachusetts have shown that there is little yield penalty associated with growing shorter-maturity corn hybrids; additional forage from winter small grains will only add to the total yield per acre. Research in New York indicates that double cropping winter triticale with corn increases dry matter yield by more than 2 tons per acre over longer-maturity corn with no winter forage. When small grains are harvested at the proper stage of maturity, the forage has the potential to be high in energy and highly digestible. By incorporating this high-quality feed into their herd’s feeding program, producers may be able to reduce their reliance on purchased feeds, and can therefore improve farm profitability. Furthermore, additional forage makes producers less reliant on the single harvest of corn, and therefore less vulnerable to periods of drought, flooding, or other poor growing conditions.
Naturally, these stands of winter forage will provide all the benefits of a cover crop. Well-established vegetation will provide effective protection against soil erosion with rainfall and snowmelt from fall through early spring. They will also take up residual soil nitrates; a trial conducted by researchers at the University of Massachusetts (LNE06-238) showed that winter rye planted by September 1 could take up as much as 120 pounds of nitrogen per acre, and rye planted as late as September 15 could still take up 60 pounds of N per acre. Preventing these losses not only further reduces the cost of inputs for crop production, it reduces the environmental risks associated with leached nitrates. Stubble from winter cover will still provide a significant amount of plant residues to the soil, thereby making a contribution to improving soil health.
Double-cropping small grains with corn has the potential to reduce threats to soil and water quality by providing near-continuous ground cover over the entire year and minimizing field nutrient losses. By reducing costs for purchased nutrients and purchased feed, there are opportunities to improve farm profitability as well.
24 dairy farmers in four states adopt alternative forage production practices on 1000 acres, increasing forage production by 3-4 tons/acre, reducing N applications an average of 60 lbs/acre, increasing profitability per acre, improving nutrient capture and cycling, providing known ecosystem service benefits, and sustaining resilience to fluctuating economic markets and a changing climate.
Recruitment: We recruited dairy farmers through an extensive list of 600 contacts that was developed by the project PIs through their past extension programming. Our first interaction with farmers with regard to our project occurred at our annual winter dairy meetings, held in each state, which drew over 300 attendees.
Delivery Methods: This project implemented a variety of educational methods to deliver comprehensive, practical information to the dairy farming community. Communication with growers determined summer on-farm field day demonstrations to meet informational needs of farmers. Field days related to implementing cover crops for winter forage and developing a corn cropping system that fosters adoption of this practice. On-farm field days also allowed collaborating farmers to highlight their innovative work in this subject. On-farm trials complemented research trials, and integrated farmer-specific treatments, primarily variations in basic cultural management practices such as manure application, tillage preference, timing, and equipment. Providing farmers access to implementation of these practices on an operating farm helped us encourage adoption. New adopters were able to ask questions to collaborating farmers and researchers. Furthermore, field days held at University research farms displayed and transferred research results to the agricultural community. These tours showed farmers a broad spectrum of experiments in one area. Lastly, development of online educational materials is ongoing and assists with distribution to the broader agricultural community. Multiple newsletter articles and Extension fact sheets have been, and more will be, produced to highlight the dual-purpose nature of cover crops in forage systems. These materials also highlight benefits and challenges to consider when adopting alternative management practices.
Topics for the educational program include:
- Cover crop species appropriate for winter forage in the region.
- Cover crop best management practices (planting dates, seeding rates, soil fertility).
- Cover crop benefits including use as high quality forage, nutrient scavenging, soil health, extending grazing season.
- Potential challenges of dual purpose cover crop including timely planting, timely harvest, winter survivability, and spring fertility.
- Double cropping with corn silage or other annual crops and factors to consider including adopting shorter- season corn, herbicide management, termination of cover crop, and manure management.
- Superiority of a two-year forage cropping rotation system.
Beneficiary Support: Farmer collaborators that hosted on-farm demonstrations received support from project coordinators in the area of project design, implementation, and data collection. Farmers assisted with some data collection and were provided adequate instruction and materials for success. Project coordinators also supported all beneficiaries by developing easy access to informational sources by phone, email, internet, and both farm and office visits.
Dairy farmers in 5 states learn about alternative options to enhance forage production through direct mailing.
The UMass Crop, Dairy, Livestock, and Equine Extension Newsletter is produced 3-4 times per year, and reaches over 1200 individuals. The newsletter includes information about dual purpose cover cropping, nutrient management, hybrid results, etc, and the mailing list is comprised of both farmers and ASPs.
300 Dairy farmers in MA, ME, NH, and VT learn about alternative forage production systems, dual purpose cover crop, and corn silage, at winter meetings and receive a post workshop survey about their current practices. 100 farmers attend a winter workshop in each state and learn about cover crop species options for winter forage, cover crops establishment requirements including planting dates, and other alternative dual purpose forage crops such as brassicas and summer annuals.
8/13/18 Working Two Jobs: Cover Crops for Animal Feed. Northeast Organic Farming Association,
Summer Conference, Amherst, MA, 20 in attendance.
2/20/18 Troubleshooting Corn After Cover Crops. UMass Dairy Seminar: Strategies to Optimize Yield and Quality of Forage on Your Farm, 75 in attendance.
2/23/17 Making the Most of Winter Grain Cover Crops. The lost art of crop rotation. UMass Dairy Seminar, MA, 45 in attendance.
2/2/17 Integrating Cover Crops for Increased Forage Production and Sustainability in Corn Silage Dependent Dairy Systems. Northeast In-Service Training for Agricultural Service Providers. Portsmouth, NH, 45 In attendance.
2/4/16 University of Massachusetts Extension: Improving Dairy Productivity and Profitability, Deerfield, MA, 50 in attendance.
2/1/16 University of Maine In-Service Training Workshop for Certified Crop Advisers, Portsmouth, NH, 60 in attendance.
3/15/18 VT Organic Dairy Producer’s Conference, Randolph, VT, 95 in attendance.
11/8/17 Northeast Cover Crop Council 1st Annual Meeting, 170 in attendance.
3/9/17 Vermont Organic Dairy Producer’s Conference, 100 in attendance.
2/1/16 In-Service Training Workshop for Certified Crop Advisers Portsmouth, NH, 60 in attendance
12/15/15 Growing Pennsylvania Organic Farm Conference, Harrisburg, PA, 50 in attendance
12/18/18 Growing corn silage in a changing climate. Waterville ME, 35 in attendance.
3/26/18 Choosing the right corn silage hybrid for yield and quality. Fine Tuning Your Crop and Forage Program, UVM Extension. Bradford, VT, 35 in attendance.
3/20/18 Maine Dairy Seminar. Growing No-till Corn and Cover Crops, a panel discussion. Waterville, ME, 110 in attendance.
1/24/18 Hybrid corn maturity and feed quality: A review. (Kersbergen and Fitzgerald). In-Service Training for Agricultural Service Providers. Portsmouth, NH, 35 in attendance.
12/5/17 No-till and cover crops… The good and the not so good. Maine Soil Health Conference, Waterville ME, 65 in attendance.
2/23/17 Hayfield improvement. The lost art of crop rotation. UMass Dairy Seminar, MA, 45 in attendance.
2/8/17 The Value of Corn Silage in Your Crop Rotation. Green Mountain Dairy School, St. Johnsbury, Vt. 12 participants.
2/2/17 50 Ways to renovate a hay field. Northeast In-Service Training for Agricultural Service Providers. Portsmouth, NH, 45 In attendance.
1/26/17 Alternative forages production strategies for Maine farms. Skowhegan ME, 12 in attendance.
1/11/17 Alternative forages for Maine. Maine Ag. Trades Show, Augusta, ME, 35 in attendance.
1/11/17 Soil quality changes with cover crops and no-till. Maine Ag. Trades Show, Augusta, ME 42 in attendance.
1/10/17 Is Corn silage the only crop you should grow? Maine Ag. Trades Show, Augusta, ME, 120 in attendance.
1/10/17 No-till forage production. What works and what needs work. Maine Ag. Trades Show, Augusta, ME, 45 in attendance.
2/24/16 UMass Crops field Day, 50 in attendance.
1/13/16 Maine Agricultural Trades Show, 42 in attendance.
250 Farmers return a survey. 200 farmers provide contact information for further involvement in the project and attendance at future events. 3 farmers in each participating state plan to plant on-farm demonstrations in collaboration with project team.
- A survey of NRCS employees to evaluate adoption in their respective districts revealed that in 2017, approximately 7,271 acres of corn silage with cover crops were grown using no-till planting techniques. Using data from previous studies, that would represent a savings of at least $363,500 in fuel and labor costs to Maine farmers along with conserving soil nutrients, improving soil health and controlling erosion.
- 48% of farms that responded to the Maine Dairy Cost Production survey (2017) who grew corn silage, used cover crops as part of their cropping system. If we extrapolate that to the 161 conventional farms in Maine and the average of 207 acres of corn silage, that represents nearly 16,000 acres of cover crops on corn ground in Maine during the 2017-2018 winter.
- For farmer participation, see milestone seven.
200 farmers attend at least one field day in each state that explain the project performance target, the known benefits of cover crops, ongoing cover crop for forage research, on-farm trials.
8/11/16 Northeast Organic Farming Associate Field Tour, UMass Research Farm, Deerfield, MA, 16 in attendance.
7/25/2015 University of Massachusetts Amherst Extension, Annual Field Day, UMass Research Farm, Deerfield, MA, 100 in attendance.
8/6/18 Organic Dairy Series On-farm Workshop, Ottercrest Dairy, Whiting, VT, 39 in attendance.
7/26/18 Northwest Crops and Soils Program Annual Field Day, Borderview Research Farm, Alburgh, VT, 216 in attendance.
7/27/17 Extension Northwest Crops and Soils Program Annual Field Day, Borderview Research Farm Alburgh, VT, 302 in attendance.
10/28/16 UVM Extension Northwest Crops and Soils Program Cover Crop Field Day, Borderview Research Farm Alburgh, VT, 19 in attendance.
8/27/16 Northeast SARE Field Tour, Borderview Research Farm Alburgh, VT, 56 in attendance
8/4/16 Organic Dairy Series Field Day-Elysian Fields Shorham, VT, 35 in attendance
7/28/16 Extension Northwest Crops and Soils Program Annual Field Day, Borderview Research Farm Alburgh, 185 in attendance.
Over 2500 people visited both the corn silage variety trial at Maine Farm Days in Clinton in 2018. A table-top rainfall simulator was used to show how tilled and no-tilled soils differ in their effect on water runoff and infiltration. IN 2018, we had 43 varieties and 9 seed companies participate in this large randomized complete block trial.
In 2017, Over 3000 people visited both the corn silage variety trial as well as a trial evaluating alternative summer annuals at Maine Farm Days in Clinton, ME on August 23, 24. A Rainfall simulator was demonstrated to show the impact on water runoff and infiltration of tilled versus no-tilled soils.
9/24/16 Maine Farm Days, Clinton, ME, 38 in attendance.
Farmers attend field days at on-farm demonstration sites and learn about benefits of dual purpose cover crops including nitrogen conservation, soil health improvements, and high quality forage. Farmers also learn how to select species appropriate for their farms and goals. Cover crop establishment and harvest techniques are delivered from farmers and collaborators.
Over 150 people attended the 2017 and 2018 Annual Dairy Twilight Meetings, organized by UMass Extension. The meetings included farm tours, cover crop demonstrations, and a panel of farmers that discussed no-till and dual purpose cover cropping.
Hosted 3 on-farm Organic Dairy Field Days in 2017 that highlighted farms that are implementing annual forages and pasture improvement strategies, 86 in attendance.
Hosted 1 on-farm Cover Crop and No-Till Field Day in 2016 that highlighted integrating triticale as double crop with corn silage.
9/7/16 Goldstar Feeds Field Day, Hermon, Me 9/7/16, 41 in attendance.
Also in 2016, conducted two field days at Fogler farm (Stonyvale Farm Exeter, Maine) to evaluate cover crop establishment techniques. Soil test pits were dug to evaluate improved rotations with No-till Corn and alfalfa. Total attendance of 31 farmers and 9 USDA/Extension/crop consultants.
Farmers consult about dual purpose cover crops including information on species selection, establishment, fertility management, and harvesting with project team by phone and email.
See accomplishments for Milestone #7.
Farmers document acres of dual purpose cover crop/corn silage, yields of these crops, fertilizer N reductions, and improvements in soil health by completing and submitting verification information.
In 2018, a 2 year on-farm demonstration/research trial was completed by UMass Extension. The study assessed five different varieties of dual-purpose cover crops in rotation with corn silage.
Three, on-farm dual-purpose cover crop trials encompassing 50+ acres were implemented in the fall of 2016, and were repeated in the fall of 2017. One grower reported an estimated 100 acres under dual-purpose cover crops in 2017 as a result of this trial.
Collected and analyzed soil samples for nearly 200 acres of corn silage for five farmers in 2016 to provide assistance in crop and manure nutrient management decisions on fields with varied cover crop implementation. Recommendations resulted in reduced manure application to fields with high P.
Completed 2 on-farm cover crop trials in 2017 that investigated millet varieties for performance and forage value.
About 750 acres of corn silage were planted in 2018 to evaluate interseeding and various cover crop mixes.
One farm in central Maine adopted cover crops and no-till system in 2018 and documented improved overall corn silage yields by 50%.
In 2017, about 400 acres of corn silage were planted to evaluate an interseeder constructed by a participating farmer using a 5 way cover crop seed mixture at various corn maturities.
Also in 2017, one farm enrolled in NRCS “Adaptive Management” to evaluate no-till corn in rotation with sod crop as compared to traditional tillage on 25 acres.
In 2016, 180 new acres of alternative summer annual crops (Forage Sorghum and or Millet) were successfully planted in Maine as part of this project.
Four farms were enrolled to investigate no-till cover corn and cover crop systems. Conducted initial soil test evaluations on these fields using UMaine Soil Health Protocol. These farms will continue to be monitored to collect data and evaluate soil health changes.
Over 500 acres of airplane seeded cover crops were sown in central Maine on corn ground by producers that had never used cover crops before.
Two new no-till farms were established with an additional 750 acres planted in No-till for 2016.
Milestone Activities and Participation Summary
Performance Target Outcomes
Adopt alternative forage production practices, specifically, dual-purpose cover crops.
Increased forage production by 3-4 tons/acre, reduced N applications of 60 lbs/acre, increased profitability per acre, increased nutrient capture from fall-applied manure.
Additional Project Outcomes
A Soil Health website https://extension.umaine.edu/agriculture/soil-health/no-till-and-reduced-tillage/was produced and a section was devoted to no-till and cover crops. Also included on the site are videos highlighting one Maine farm and the benefits of no-till and cover crop on their farm system. In addition, a in 2018, a video was produced from the 2018 Maine dairy seminar panel discussion. https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=17&v=JN2QiF0SRgg