Problems Addressed and the Solutions Pursued: Due to the cost of purchased feeds and the limited availability of cropland in New England, corn growers tend to emphasize practices that they perceive to maximize dry matter yields; in particular, growers often select corn hybrids with the longest relative maturity that they can grow. While this may increase yields slightly, it also leaves little time for establishing an adequate cover crop. Research and local experience have shown that cover crops should be sown between late August and mid-September to develop enough vegetation to protect the soil surface, but longer-maturity hybrids –especially those grown in northern New England – are often not ready for harvesting until late September or even early October. If producers bother to sow cover crops at that point, there is usually not enough time remaining in the growing season for them to become well-enough established to provide any soil conservation benefits, including nutrient capture from fall-applied manure.
Farms could avoid this issue if they planted hybrids with a shorter relative maturity, but many producers are reluctant to do so because they perceive doing so will result in a yield penalty. In addition, they view the cost of seed and labor for the establishment to be too high relative to the benefits.
However, harvesting cover crops as an additional source of forage can result in greater dry matter production/acre on an annual basis. This practice takes advantage of fall and spring rains, and also results in reduced reliance on summer corn production as the primary source of forage. Forage production diversity is critical for resiliency in our changing climate; this was evidenced in the record-breaking drought experienced in the Northeast in the summer of 2016 that stifled corn and hay production.
Managing cover crops as a forage crop is an excellent incentive for growers in need of additional forage. This approach provides an economical solution as it can reduce off-farm feed purchases and increase production on existing land. While farmers benefit, there is also a social benefit. Improved management of cover crops to serve as forage crops conveys enhanced soil health benefits. Soil quality is protected and enhanced, preserving it for long-term agricultural production. Furthermore, nutrients – including environmentally important nitrogen and phosphorous – are more efficiently captured and cycled. Thus, fewer nutrients are entering the surrounding environment, including sensitive waterways, via run-off and leaching.
Research and Education Approach: The research and experimental design in this project were structured to test and respond to farmer concerns directly. In addition, the latest research results were shared with farmers multiple times each year via one-on-ones, workshops, farm tours, field days, newsletters, and reports. Ongoing discussions with growers allowed for real-time adjustments to the experimental design. For example, in one experiment, we tested three cover crop fall planting dates in combination with three corn hybrid maturities. This assessment allowed us to study whole-system performance in terms of yield, cost, and nutrient capture while simultaneously addressing questions about cover crop planting date, the effects of cover crops on subsequent corn production, and the performance of shorter season corn hybrids. In another example of our responsive research and education approach, we added a new research component because farmers continued to demonstrate an interest in in-season cover crop decomposition. This resulted in us adding a no-till decomposition study in standing corn using rye, wheat, and triticale residue; decomposition dynamics were studied for three years in Massachusetts and two years in Vermont.
In Massachusetts, first-year field management decisions in our research studies inadvertently resulted in poor corn establishment, which was a direct concern that farmers had expressed. With management adjustments, the problem was corrected in subsequent years. When this and other issues/concerns expressed by farmers manifested in our research trials, we were able to search for and test the underlying biological processes responsible as well as the technical management. Farmers engaged in providing suggestions and recommendations that were reflected in our multi-year experiments (up to four years) and remained involved in the outcomes. Farmers also used our experimental results as a launching point to pilot their own, amended ideas on their farms.
Some farmers participated in formal, experimental farm trials while others tailored the concepts to their farms and provided feedback that was incorporated into our educational program. This on-farm engagement was especially valuable to provide technical insight on scaling up dual-purpose cover cropping approaches. In addition, early-adopting farmers provided a breadth of unique, verified ideas on how to incorporate dual-purpose cover crops, thus greatly expanding the translation and application of the project. Later-adopting farmers have responded positively to receiving the results of this project in the full context of 1. formal research, 2. on-farm trials, 3. stories of what other growers have tried, and 4. farmer-to-farmer panels and discussions at educational events facilitated by this project.
Farmer Learning Outcomes: Farmers should be/should be able to:
- Enabled/compelled to try dual-purpose cover crops.
- Evaluate the individual needs of their production systems and make appropriate management decisions (such as crop selection, hybrid selection, fertility rates, planting dates, etc.) based on experimental results and technical recommendations.
- Understand the nutrient cycling differences between traditional cover cropping and dual-purpose cover crops.
- Compare both the challenges and the benefits of dual-purpose double-cropping systems with conventional systems.
- Understand the economic and environmental reasons that necessitate on-time planting of cover crops in the fall.
- Effectively interpret soil tests, including the pre-sidedress nitrate test (PSNT), to instruct fertility management including manure, fertilizer, and other amendments.
- Generate personal plans to incorporate dual-purpose cover crops into their production systems.
- Understand the biological and technical conditions that dictate the success of dual-purpose cover crop and corn rotations.
- Evaluate the validity of personal concerns and potential bias pertaining to corn hybrids.
There is some regional variation in optimum planting and harvest dates for the dual purpose cover crops. However, in all experiments, mid-September planting dates performed equally or better than early September planting dates in terms of yield and quality at spring harvest. This later planting date also matures later in the spring than the early planting date. Conversely, early September planting dates perform best in terms of nutrient capture and fall biomass production. While it was previously believed that an early planting date was necessary, this data suggests that there does exist more flexibility in the fall planting date for effective dual-purpose cover crops. This allows growers to make adjustments to planting time, within a 2-3 week window, to meet their individual needs. However, late September planting dates are not suitable for effective fall biomass production (some years reaching only 3 inches tall before going dormant) or effective fall nutrient capture. Although, in Vermont, this third planting date provided over 1.5 tons of dry matter/A in the spring although it produced very little fall biomass. While this management is not an effective fall cover crop, it does provide an opportunity for growers to make slow adjustments or to “through a Hail Mary” in years that wet conditions impede fall harvest and plantings.
Effective dual-purpose cover crops can consistently provide 1-2.5 tons/A dry matter in the spring of high-quality feed with no impact on subsequent corn production. However, proper cultural management practices – such as tillage, herbicide programs, and fertility – are imperative. Farmer concerns about potential, adverse effects of cover crops on corn production are not unfounded and should be acknowledged. For example, improper handling of cover crop residue can result in poor seed to soil contact when corn is planted. In turn, this results in a reduced corn population that then manifests as reduced yield/A. However, nearly all potential problems can be easily abated through cultural management practices.
The combination of cover crops plus mid-season corn hybrids result in greater, total dry matter production per acre as compared to traditional long-season corn and cover crop rotations in which the cover crop is not harvested. Perhaps most satisfactory is the observation that corn planted into cover crop plots often yielded significantly more than corn of the same variety that was planted into control plots in which no cover crop was planted. Hence, a system with a dual-purpose cover crop and a shorter-season corn hybrid can, in fact, provide the most effective dry matter production while also including all of the benefits of a traditional cover crop. In this situation, cover crops do not merely pay for themselves – they are an economic advantage.
Farmer Adoption Actions
Growers demonstrated a spectrum of actions in response to this project. Some farmers sought technical advice and were interested in farm visits to help with performance assessment or troubleshooting. Meanwhile, other growers (many) simply needed the idea of dual-purpose cover crops proposed to them once, and they immediately tried the approach on their own farm. Particularly, growers that already cover crop were observed to be the most likely to try and repeat dual-purpose cover cropping successfully. As with any new management practice change of this nature, these pioneers and early-adopters are necessary to continue to lead the way for growers still testing the waters.
Farmers that adopted dual-purpose cover crops were able to produce at least 10% of their forage ration from the cover crops. Over 30 farms confirmed increased feed inventories. Farmers also gained a better understanding of nutrient cycling on their farms and used this information to make fertility management revisions. For example, one grower acknowledged a concern that there was a history of over-applying manure to several fields (~70 acres total) and increased their efforts to spread manure on other fields or find neighbors, such as vegetable growers, to accept manure.
Interestingly, a notable number of farmers were observed to show surprise at the high yields of shorter-season corn hybrids. Anecdotally, this may suggest an increased or resurfaced need to advertise and discuss Extension hybrid reports. The combination of rapidly advancing genetic and breeding technology, a changing climate in the Northeast, and increasing use of sustainable practices (such as no or reduced tillage) has set the stage for a new conversation with farmers on this topic.
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.
The benefits of cover crops have been long established. We have a solid understanding of the ability of cover crops to reduce or prevent soil erosion, to conserve soil organic matter, and to scavenge and retain nutrients that would otherwise be lost from the soil environment. However, many dairy farms have been slow to adopt management practices to make good use of cover crops. Research conducted at UMass indicated that winter rye planted by September 1 could take up as much as 120 lbs N/ acre, but a two-week planting delay resulted in the recovery of only 60 lbs N/acre. A comprehensive survey of dairy farms in 2007 in Massachusetts revealed that only 17% of farmers plant cover crops before September 15th. At Current use of full-season corn hybrids delays harvesting until early October; sowing cover crops this late is not efficient for the optimum recovery of nutrients released from fall-applied manure.
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 small winter 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, but it also 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 contributing 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.
Over 150 dairy and livestock producers from MA, NH, RI, CT, and VT attended winter meetings in Deerfield, MA in 2013 and 2014 that featured discussions of double cropping winter small grains with shorter-season corn, forage quality, and alternative forage economics. Participants showed a keen interest in these topics and other practices to improve high-quality forage yields.
The ability to harvest cover crops for forage requires the producer to pay special attention to the management of this “new” crop. Farmers are interested in learning about best species, planting dates, fertility, and harvest strategies to maximize both crop and soil productivity.
This project assessed a variety of alternative forage systems and methods that integrate cover crops and improve soil management. The research results were shared with growers and ASPs throughout the Northeast at educational events and workshops. Trials were also conducted to translate research concepts on-farm with farmer collaborators in each of the participating states.
We hypothesize that comprehensive, year-round forage systems, not founded on corn production, result in increased profitability for the farmer, increased resiliency against climate change, and significant improvements to the environmental impacts of dairy and livestock production.
Repeated research trials were conducted at the University of Massachusetts Crop and Animal Research and Education Farm in Deerfield, MA, and at the University of Vermont Borderview Research Farm in Alburgh, VT; on-farm trials were conducted in Massachusetts, Vermont, and Maine (in partnership with Univesity of Maine Cooperative Extension). Field research in Massachusetts was conducted from September 2014 through September 2018. Field research in Vermont was conducted from September 2015 through September 2018. The core research methods developed in Massachusetts are described here. Minor and site-specific field management modifications from this description, such as harvest dates or sample size, were made in accordance with the weather and local practices at the UVM research site. For specific variations, please see the detailed UVM Extension Reports attached to this final report.
On-farm dual-purpose cover crop trials were also conducted at the following locations in 2016-2018: Deerfield, MA; Sunderland, MA: West Brookfield, MA; Leeds, ME; Clinton, ME; Westfield, VT; Swanton, VT; St. Albans, VT (see map below). Best management practices were recommended to farmers and consistent cover crop and corn varieties were provided, but management decisions were ultimately theirs. Because of the variation in these on-farm trials, reported on-farm observations are general averages unless otherwise noted.
Experiment One – Rye, Wheat, Triticale (RWT): Rye, wheat, and triticale were drilled at a rate of 110 lbs./A on 9/1 in 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017 after manure application at a rate of 8000 gallons/A. Plots were arranged in a completely randomized block design with 12 plots per replication (500 ft² each) and four replications per year. Three plots in each replication served as controls and were occupied by local weeds. In the spring, once the ground thawed, each cover crop plot received one of three rates of nitrogen (0 lb/A, 25 lb/A, 50 lb/A) in the form of calcium-ammonium nitrate (CAN). Control plots also received the spring nitrogen treatment.
Cover crops plants were sampled for plant tissue in the fall and spring; 2, 1-yard x 1-row samples were taken per plot. Fall samples were collected when hard frost set in and plants entered dormancy in mid-November. Spring samples were taken in mid-May before corn planting. Samples were placed in a drying oven for 72 hours at 70C and then ground with a sample mill (FOSS) for analysis. Samples were assessed for yield, forage quality, nutrient recovery, and crop characteristics. Forage quality was assessed by near-infrared spectroscopy (NIR) (Unity Scientific). Nitrogen capture and protein were determined by total Kjeldahl nitrogen digestion. Phosphorous capture was evaluated by dry ashing. Both nitrogen and phosphorous were quantified by flow injection analysis (FIA) (Lachat Instruments).
The cover crop plots were harvested with a flail chopper. Samples of remaining cover crop stubble were collected to determine in-season decomposition and nutrient release. The cover crop residue was terminated with glyphosate, and a pre-emergent herbicide was applied. 92-day corn was no-till planted into the remaining cover crop residue, and start-up nitrogen was banded at a rate of 40 lbs/A. Corn was fertilized in-season according to pre-sidedress nitrate test (PSNT) results. To determine yield, a ten-foot row of corn was harvested from each plot as well as two subsample plants. Subsamples were dried at 70C for 1-2 weeks and were used to determine moisture content and yield.
Experiment Two – Planting Date (PD):
Rye was drilled at a rate of 110 lbs./A on three planting dates: 9/1, 9/15, and 9/30 in 2014, 2015, and 2016 after manure application at a rate of 8000 gallons/A. Plots were arranged in a completely randomized block design with 12 plots per replication (500 ft² each) and four replications per year. Three plots in each replication served as controls and were occupied by local weeds.
Fall and spring tissue samples were collected and analyzed according to the methods described for Experiment One. Following cover crop sampling, the remaining cover crop was harvested with a flail chopper. The field was disked and debris broke down for 48 hours. Pre and post-emergent herbicide were applied and nitrogen was broadcast at a rate of 40 lbs/A. The field was then disked again and planted with 88 day (short), 92 day (mid), and 110 day (long) corn. Each corn maturity was planted in all combinations with the cover crop planting dates and controls. Corn was fertilized in-season according to pre-sidedress nitrate test (PSNT) results. To determine corn yield, samples were collected as described in the methods of experiment one.
Table One – Cover crop yields on-farm in Massachusetts, 2017 and 2018.
similar results were achieved (table one). This data was collected from an on-farm trial in a field with a history of manure application, Wheeler rye, Emerson wheat, organic VNS triticale, Trical815 triticale, and NE426GT yielded 1.5, 1.4, 1.2, 1.75, and 1.5 tons of dry matter per acre, respectively. The relative feed values (RFV) of each cover crops measured in on-farm trials also matches that observed in research trials and ranged from 104-135+. This data was collected by harvesting 3600 sq. ft. samples. It was important to validate research results on farm to ensure that the results obtained in experimental plots would hold true when scaled up under a farmer’s management. A range of dry matter production is expected from 1 ton – 4 tons per acre, in accordance with our results and other published studies.
Nitrogen treatments did result in increased yields as expected in all locations (figures one and two). However, the response rate among cover crop species or planting dates may vary. This response is apparent even by visual assessment. For example, as seen in figure one, rye that received 25 lbs. of N at the same time as triticale is clearly taller and ultimately yielded 1600 pounds per acre (table two) (at 65% moisture for baleage or hayledge) than triticale treated the same. This nitrogen addition, in this particular example, double the yield gap between rye and triticale compared to when they received no fertilizer. This is in part due to nutrient use efficiency differences, as well as underlying physiological responses are driven by genetic variation. Overall, wheat demonstrated little response to the addition of fertilizer, while triticale and rye displayed significant yield increases to additional, spring N applications. However, this is not to suggest that wheat does not respond to fertilizer.
In our experiments, we made the decision to harvest all cover crops by a certain date so as not to delay an “ideal” corn planting date. Often, this meant that wheat was harvested at a physiologically less developed stage than neighboring cover crops rye and triticale, even though they were the same age. To further clarify: rye and triticale were often at boot stage by early to mid-May and ready for harvest. This was ideal because it allowed for a quality cover crop harvest and corn could still be planted by the end of the month. However, at this time, wheat may not have even reached flag leaf stage. Thus, if wheat had more time to mature it may be a great biomass producer. But, in the context of a perennial timeline, it was not the best choice to maintain an “ideal” timeline and maximum dry matter production. As noted in the research conclusions, however, there are fields in which wheat may be an excellent forage option, such as in historically wet fields that may not be ready for planting until early June.
Figure One (left): Cover crops have easily observable responses to additional N fertilization. Table Two (right): Cover crop response to N application; yield in tons/A of hayledge at 65% moisture.
Figure Two: A typical response of small grain cover crops to spring N fertilizer.
Total nutrient capture of phosphorous and nitrogen is variable by location and history. On-farm nutrient capture followed the same trends as the observed results from formal research trials; the results presented in figure three are from an on-farm trial that confirmed our small plot results. The on-farm nitrogen capture ranged from 58.4-87.1 lbs./A and phosphorous capture ranged from 13.7-25.05 pounds per acre in the first year that dual-purpose cover cropping was implemented. In the following year – the second year of the cover crop-corn rotation – cover crops removed nitrogen at a rate of 28-38.7 lbs./A and phosphorous at a rate of 5.9-10.1 lbs./A (figure three). In this example, nutrient capture was greater than in 2017. This could in part be due to weather variations. However, we believe this is primarily evidence of improved on-farm nutrient management. Effective cover cropping in 2017 captured large amounts of excess nutrients in the soil. By the second year, the excessive, accumulated nutrients were brought back in balance and redistributed in the form of forage. This improves nutrient use efficiency and reduces wasted nutrients – and thus wasted money.
Figure Three: Nitrogen and phosphorous recovered by fall-planted cover crops in 2017 and 2018. The dual-purpose cover crops were planted in a rotation with corn silage.
In this experiment, corn yields following cover crops averaged 27 tons/A at 70% moisture for silage both on-farm and in research trials. In addition, cover crops had no negative effects on subsequently planted corn. On average, silage corn plus cover crop yields results in at least a 16% increase to total forage production potential per acre.
Experiment Two: Delaying cover crop planting results in reduced fall biomass production and nutrient capture (figure four). In both MA and VT, cover crops planted in late September produce very little fall biomass before entering dormancy, typically in mid November. These late planted cover crops cannot be used for fall forage. They are also ineffective at capturing fall nutrients that will be subject to leaching with spring snow melt. Contrarily, cover crops planted in early fall can produce ~2 tons of dry matter/A suitable for fall grazing (in this experiment, the data is for rye specifically).
Some cover crops can recover in the spring, but late planting reduces the efficiency of dual-purpose cover crops. If planted too late, plants are not able to recover in the spring from the consequences of late establishment resulting in poor biomass production (figure five). In addition, late plantings can make crops more susceptible to winter kill during harsh freeze-thaw cycles (figure six). Reduced biomass production is proportional to reduced nutrient capture of both nitrogen and phosphorous in both spring and fall samples (data not shown).
Figure Four (left): The effect of fall planting date on fall biomass production. Figure Five (right): The effect of fall planting date on spring biomass production.
Figure Six: Later-planted cover crops (foreground) are more likely to be injured by freeze-thaw events than earlier planted cover crops (background).
We ultimately found the corn yielded the same or better when planted after cover crops compared to bare plots. But, for both experiments, corn establishment proved to be a sensitive component. Poor field preparation resulted in poor establishment, i.e. a lower population, (figure seven) and thus poor yields. In 2014 cover crops were terminated with herbicide and later disked twice before planting corn.
Figure seven: poor field preparation in the summer of 2015 prohibited effective establishment of corn following cover crops.
This resulted in a common problem: a clogged planter that resulted in non-uniform plantings, poor germination due to insufficient seed to soil contact, and “skips and doubles”, which are irregularities in the planting arrangement that impact yield (figure eight). In the following year, Experiment One (RWT) was planted with a no-till planter and Experiment Two (Planting Date) was disked after cover crop termination, allowed to rest for 2-3 days, and then disked again before planting. Both of these solutions afforded reduced tillage. For farmers that do not have access to a no-till planter, the minimal disking is an efficient tillage reduction option.
Figure Eight: A corn planter clogged with cover crop debris can result in uneven planting commonly referred to as skips and doubles.
While technical issues can be corrected, these systems are not free from the burden of environmental pressure. Silage crops are rainfed, and extreme drought can tax the crop production system. In such an event cover crops may inhibit subsequent corn growth as occurred in 2016 (figure nine). The research plots received less than one inch of rain in nearly three months. While there was no difference in population (i.e. germination was the same in all plots), yields of corn silage following cover crops was 25% less than corn silage yields in control plots. We know that the lack of water prevented effective nutrient uptake, particularly nitrogen. However, we hypothesize that the slow decomposition of very high carbon cover crop residue exacerbated nitrogen unavailability by causing nitrogen tie-up in the system as mediated by microbes.
However, under proper planting management, and in the absence of record setting droughts, dual-purpose cover crops do not adversely affect corn yields as evidenced in figure ten, and can result in greater, whole system yields. This effect was found to hold true at both the UVM and UMA research sites, as well as when tested on farm.
Figure Nine (left): reduced corn yields following cover crops in summer with severe drought. Figure ten (right): Cover crop treatments have no effect on corn yield under proper management.
Harvesting Cover Crops for Forage: Small winter grain cover crops can absolutely, and fairly easily, be harvested for additional forage production on the dairy farms of the Northeast. When drilled or broadcast at 100-110 lbs./A, farmers can expect to receive 1-2 tons (dry matter) of high-quality forage with relative feed values of 100-130 and crude protein values of 9-16%. However, farmers should also be prepared to produce and manage as much as 4 tons of dry matter per acre. Dual-purpose cover cropping is a unique opportunity for growers who already cover crop, as their transitions will be the easiest as they make slight management practice adjustments.
Cover Crop Management: Cover crops intended for dual-purpose use must be prioritized as a valuable crop. Lack of prioritizing cover crop plantings in the fall is a significant cause of late plantings and poor performance. For example, priority may be given to longer season corn hybrids still on the field. The timely planting of cover crops is necessary for quality forage production and successful nutrient capture. In the spring, cover crops should be monitored so they can be harvested between the boot and flag leaf stage to preserve yield and quality. Cover crop species selection can increase spring timing options. For example, simply due to their inherent genetics and life-cycles, rye is likely to mature the fastest while wheat trails behind by a few weeks. Triticale, a hybrid of wheat and rye, matures 1 to 2 weeks faster than wheat and slower than rye.
For an early start in a field that dries out quickly in the spring and that a grower would like to plant corn in as early as possible, rye is a good crop as it will be the first ready for harvest. However, if it is not harvested in time it will become a poor forage crop as it matures must past boot stage.
Triticale is a nice intermediate that is ready for harvest in mid to late May and that does not mature as rapidly as rye. These characteristics make triticale a forgiving crop about which farmers report increasing interest. However, it is important to remember that triticale was bred for the hardiness of rye and the protein and quality characteristics of wheat. Hybrids should be selected carefully, just like with corn. Forage triticales are becoming increasingly available with improved genetics. While a forage variety of rye, wheat, or triticale should always be used, this is perhaps most important for triticale.
For a crop that can wait longer for attention, wheat is a good choice. Because wheat matures more slowly in the spring, it may not reach an ideal stage for harvest until late May or even early June. If wheat is planted in a field that a grower wishes to start working in mid to late May, they risk poor dry matter production. A farmer should of course not intentionally delay corn planting because of dual-purpose cover crops. Rather, wheat should be planted in fields that take longer to dry or are planted with corn last. This will allow wheat to provide maximum yield, and neither feed quality or ground cover have to be sacrificed. Armed with a knowledge of field history, a farmer may choose to plant different cover crop species in different fields to meet individual needs.
Finally, while cover crop spring fertilizer is not required for quality yields, a grower that becomes experienced with dual-purpose cover cropping may wish to add additional N at a rate of 25 lbs./A in order to boost yields. However, fertilizer should be applied at least 4 weeks before the intended harvest date in order to allow time for an effective crop response.
Changes to Corn Hybrid Selection: Long season corn hybrids must be traded for shorter-season varieties in order to plant cover crops on time in the fall. On-time cover crops provide farmers with increased forage production, an economic benefit. A social and environmental benefit is also provided as nutrient management and soil health are improved. Farmers have expressed apprehension about using shorter season corn hybrids. However, this study and on-going corn hybrid trials demonstrate that high-quality mid-season corn varieties perform as well as or better than historically favored longer season varieties. To select a hybrid, farmers should reference their local corn hybrid performance reports available through UVM, UME, and UMA Extension. It is also important to note that the words “shorter season, mid-season, and long season” in reference to the relative maturity of corn hybrids may be used colloquially, and what is considered to be “shorter season” in one area may actually be considered to be “mid-season” in another. Growers should consult with their Extension agents, agricultural service providers, and seed companies to select an appropriate, quality maturity in the context of both their region and their field history.
Nutrient Cycling: The notable on-farm results for phosphorous and nutrient capture in the same field over two years exhibits a nutrient surplus. The corn crops did not remove all the nutrients applied as manure and fertilizer, and the cover crops grown in this field in prior years had slowed the loss of the nutrients but did not remediate them. One year of dual-purpose cover cropping removed as much as 87 lbs/A of nitrogen and 25 lbs./A of phosphorous; the following year, the removal rates were half. This shows the ability of dual-purpose cover crops to remediate excessive nutrient levels and bring those nutrients back into circulation. By improving nutrient management and on-farm nutrient cycling, fertilizer expenses can be reduced.
Corn Yield: In both Vermont and Massachusetts, corn was found to yield more when planted into plots that previously had a cover crop as compared to bare, control plots. We also observed that, in some years, corn planted into plots planted it late September performed equally to the corn in control plots. I.e. corn yielded significantly less in those plots than following early or mid-September cover crop planting dates This does not necessarily suggest that late plantings in the fall are negative for subsequent corn production. Rather, this suggests that good, dual-purpose cover crops can improve subsequent crop production. While this is well documented in vegetable production with cover crops that are returned to the soil, this is new information for field crops following dual-purpose cover crops.
The underlying biological mechanisms for this should be further studied. Because dual-purpose cover crops intentionally and by nature remove carbon, organic matter and nutrients from the field – unlike traditional cover crops – this suggests that more complex soil biology effects are likely to be responsible for a portion of cover cropping benefits. Interestingly, in this study, we found these changes could occur within one growing season. This suggests that even minor improvements in the management of soil health can increase the profitably of primary cash crops.
For additional results and detailed recommendations please see the following reports, newsletter articles, and fact sheets. Even more results and recommendations can be found in the handouts and presentations located within the Milestones.
As of 7/11/2019, two journal articles are in prep, with the potential to write to two more. Articles will be updated upon publication.
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 concerning 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 used to deliver comprehensive, practical information to the dairy farming community. Communication with growers determined summer on-farm field day demonstrations to meet the informational needs of farmers. Field days related to implementing cover crops for winter forage and developing a corn cropping system fosters the 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 the 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, the 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 the 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 the grazing season.
- Potential challenges of dual-purpose cover crop, including timely planting, timely harvest, winter survivability, and spring fertility.
- Selection of shorter-season corn hybrids.
- 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.
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 with 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 UMA Crop, Dairy, Livestock, and Equine Extension Newsletter is produced 3-4 times per year and reaches over 1200 individuals, including both farmers and ASPs. The newsletter includes information about dual purpose cover cropping, nutrient management, hybrid results, etc., including the results of this project. UVM and UME Extension newsletters also reached an additional 500 farmers.
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.
Relevant to Milestones #2, #4 & #5: Each state developed their own materials for events and outreach. This allowed for recommendations and information to be tailored specifically to the area, such as the particular climate or the prevailing interests and management practices of farmers in that location. Select examples are included.
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.
Over 300 surveys were returned by farmers following educational events that included results from this project as well as related topics. Surveys were generated specific to the event and were made by the project leader organizing the event. A typical survey might ask participants to report how much their knowledge increased about a particular concept based on the workshop; an example is included here. This in part allowed the project leaders to evaluate how farmers perceived the results and information specifically from this project compared to related topics. For resultant farmer participation, please 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 (photo below, credit: The University of Massachusetts Center for Agriculture, Food, and Environment).
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 (photo below, credit: University of Vermont Extension, NW Crop and Soils Team).
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 (photo below: the effect of planting date of your cover crop on ground cover, tillering, and biomass production; viewed by field day participants).
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 Shoreham, VT, 35 in attendance
7/28/16 Extension Northwest Crops and Soils Program Annual Field Day, Borderview Research Farm Alburgh, 185 in attendance (photo below, credit: University of Vermont Extension, NW Crop and Soils Team).
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 nine 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. Photo below, credit: R. Kersbergen/C. Fitzgerald).
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 300 people attended the 2015-2018 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 three on-farm Organic Dairy Field Days in 2017 that highlighted farms that are implementing annual forages and pasture improvement strategies, 86 in attendance.
Hosted one on-farm Cover Crop and No-Till Field Day in 2016 that highlighted integrating triticale as a 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 assess 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.
In all three participating states, this project supported and enabled consultations with farmers in a variety of settings. Phone calls, emails, workshops and events, and farm visits allowed for one on one discussions with growers across New England.
Farmers document acres of dual-purpose cover crop/corn silage, yields of these crops, fertilizer N reductions, and improvements in soil health.
In 2018, a two-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. The three photos below (in order) show 1. The dual-purpose cover crop trail on May 16th, 2018, prior to harvest; 2. The field immediately across the street that is managed by a different farmer. The photos were taken on the same day, and this field sat bare for 1-2 weeks. 3. 3600 sq. ft samples were collected to assess yield; 4. Experimental corn samples were taken for the second year in a row before the farmer harvests the field.
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.
In 2016 soil samples were collected and analyzed for nearly 200 acres of corn silage for five farmers. The results were used to assist with crop and manure nutrient management decisions on fields with varied cover crop implementation. Recommendations resulted in reduced manure application to fields with high levels of phosphorous.
Completed two on-farm cover crop trials in 2017 that investigated millet varieties for performance and forage value (photo below).
A farmer was cover cropping for environmental reasons along St. Albans Bay, one of the most impaired watersheds in VT. They were using largely with winter rye. With low milk prices and high feed costs they decided to try to harvest their cover crop for additional feed. They switched to using triticale to obtain higher quality feed and to provide more flexibility in harvest timing and fitting in other tasks on the farm in the spring as it matures later. They were very happy with the results and decided to continue this practice and have been ever since.
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 five-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 (photo below).
Four farms were enrolled to investigate no-till cover corn and cover crop systems. Conducted initial soil test evaluations on these fields using the 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
- The importance of cover crops
- Cover crop management
- Using cover crops for forage – particularly small winter grains
- Reduced tillage practices
- Growing shorter season maturity corn varieties
- Fertility and manure nutrient management
Changes in attitude, awareness, and education were observed at conferences, workshops, and educational events and assessed with surveys and evaluations. These changes, as well as changes in actual practice, were also observed and documented on-farm or by self-reporting. A large amount of reported change was also organically collected by direct conversation with the project team.
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.
Farmers adopted effective dual-purpose cover cropping practices, increased their use of no-till management practices, and participated in soil sampling to improve fertility management and reduce nitrogen inputs.
This project exceeded the initial goal of affecting 1000 acres. Based on farm visits, farmer panels as educational events, and one-on-one interaction with farmers, we estimate a minimum of 1500 acres were affected by this project. This includes changes to N management, corn hybrid selection, cover crop planting dates, no till, and the harvest of cover crops as forage.
Changes were made on over 1500 acres. Farmers increased nutrient capture of nitrogen and phosphorus by up to 50% in the fall by improving cover crop management. Improved on-farm nutrient management resulted in reduced nitrogen applications and enhanced fertility management. The adoption of dual-purpose cover crops also provided all farmers with increased forage production, meeting at least 10% of feed ration requirements. The increased forage production allowed growers to sell more dry hay and increase profitability. The increased used of no-till methods also reduced fuel and labor costs.
Farmers typically produced 1 ton of dry matter ideal for grazing in the fall, and another 2-3 tons of dry matter for grazing or stored feed in the spring. If fed at 35% moisture, as much as 5 tons of additional feed was measured on-farm.
We did not directly reduce nitrogen applications on farm. Our research found that corn nitrogen needs were not changed; this is the primary recipient of nitrogen application. The old issue remains that there is too much manure applied to the same fields. However, we measured as much as 80 pounds of nitrogen and 30 pounds of phosphorous on farm. By removing these nutrients from the field and cycling them in forage, nutrient loss was abated. These captured nutrients reflect excessive fertility in the field from manure; there is more nitrogen and phosphorous than corn can capture, and tilling cover crops back into the soil does not remediate high levels. A key project goal was remediation of fields that have received excessive nutrients for decades. We verified that dual-purpose cover cropping can indeed correct for above optimum phosphorus and nitrogen levels.
By working with growers on technical methods for the dual-purpose cover crops (seeding rates, field prep, seeding dates, etc.) we were easily able to capture 2-3 times as much nitrogen and phosphorous from fall-applied manure compared to "traditional" cover cropping that is characterized by later planting dates and ineffective planting methods and/or seeding rates.
Based on on-farm results (both directly measured by this project and reported estimates by local farmers) and local forage and hay prices, we estimate an additional gross profit of $300-900/acre. We found that variation in farm size as well as labor and equipment expenses made it difficult to confidently estimate net profit. However, our estimates suggest a net return in the green for all growers; i.e., dual-purpose cover cropping makes economic sense.
Furthermore, our economic assessment does not include very real, but hard-to-calculate, social benefits or risk prevention. Social benefits include ecosystem services and the long-term preservation of farmland and thus, regional food security. Risk prevention includes reduced risk of crop failure via crop diversification, reduced reliance on corn silage, and the ability to produce emergency forage. Dual-purpose cover cropping also provides new economic opportunities that were previously unrealized. In one such example, a farmer sold dry hay instead of feeding it on-farm because they had ample extra forage from the dual-purpose cover crop. Not only did they supplement their forage production, but they also turned a profit on a crop that they could not previously afford to sell.
Farmer changes were documented throughout the project during farm visits and personal communication. Many farmers engaged in on-going consultation after establishing new practices, which in turn allowed for troubleshooting, improved recommendations, and adjustments to the research components.
Farmers were asked about their management practice histories (fertility, tillage, rotation, etc.) and reported the specific changes they made. In some cases, the data was self-reported, such as acreage, estimated yields, or fertility applications. In other instances, on-farm samples were collected and analyzed for both research purposes and to help growers assess and assign value to their management practice changes. Such data collection included soil samples, cover crop yield, cover crop forage quality, and corn yield.
Gross profitability, based on cover crop/forage dry matter production alone, ranges from $300-900/A. This value is contingent on yield, and is based on the current/local market value of high-quality hay. On average, an additional $50/A is saved by preventing nitrogen leaching.
Additional Project Outcomes
A Soil Health website https://extension.umaine.edu/agriculture/soil-health/ 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