Farmer-led cover crop trials and demonstrations for vegetable and corn silage fields

Final report for ONE16-279C

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2016: $22,465.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2018
Region: Northeast
State: Connecticut
Project Leader:
Jim Hyde
USDA NRCS
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Project Information

Summary:

The purpose of the cover crop project was to focus on two types of cropping commonly used in the northeast or New England:  mixed vegetable and silage corn production fields.  Mixed vegetable production has a number of challenges with cover cropping including, but not limited to, early and late season crops, limited acres or lack of fallow/rotation acres, and high value crops requiring accessibility for intensive management and harvesting.  Local producers wanted to test alternatives for weed management, alternatives to plastic row covers, and pollinator habitat for improved pollination and pest management with beneficial bugs.  Similarly for silage corn production, few available corn acres adds pressure to continually use the same fields for growing corn, pressure for more forage from the same acres, and common management practices may keep the fields open (no canopy cover) for periods of time between crops, leaving the fields and the soils susceptible to erosion and loss of nutrients.  Local producers wanted to test alternatives to the commonly used methods of cover crop management, largely to conserve their soil and nutrients (specifically nitrogen), but also the potential for more forage per acre.

The vegetable producers proposed testing three management practices:  living alley covers for weed control, cover crop mulch for row cover weed control, and pollinator habitat within or near the crop area.  The living alley covers used teff or red clover with some success, complicated by disease, weed, and excessive moisture.  The mulch row cover in place of plastic row covers was not successful in these trials, but with recognized faults, the local researchers believe the system is worth pursuing as there are examples of the system working in other growing regions.

The silage corn producers proposed testing germination, termination, nutrient retention, and biomass as related to cover crops.  A germination comparison of commonly used seeding for the area (broadcast, light incorporation, manure cover, drill) revealed very quickly the drilled method was much more effective in percent germination and percent canopy cover to help control weeds and protect the soil.  A termination comparison of two applications (pre- and post-planting) vs a single application (post-planting) of chemical (glyphosate) termination suggested an early season advantage to single application, but no discernible difference was noticeable after corn bolting and prior to reproductive stage plant growth.  The nutrient retention trails did not have data collected due to crop production/management pressures at the time of planting and/or harvesting.  The biomass field trial showed an overall gain to annual biomass off the field, however the complementary purpose of high value feed (for dairy ration) was not attained due to management pressures and a wet spring which prevented timely harvest of the cover crop.  As a result of the field trials, a number of silage corn producers have made changes to their cover crop seeding method (to drilling) and are continuing to test single termination or planting corn into live cover.  There are some additional limited trials of double cropping in the local area, but timing and management pressures related to harvesting cover/spreading manure/planting corn/first-cutting grass continue to be difficult to juggle within the comfort level of the producers perceived risk for attaining sufficient feed quantity for the coming year.

Summary of Results

    • Veg Farm 1 (high biomass)
      • Early roll rye (stage 10.5: seed head fully exposed) 2.7 ton DM/ac
      • Late roll rye (stage 10.54: pollination) 3.5 DM/ac
      • Wet field rye 1.0 ton DM/ac
      • Dry field rye 2.5 ton DM/ac
      • Third field 2.8 ton DM/ac
    • Veg Farm 2
      • No Results
    • Veg Farm 3
      • Pollinator: 50 bees/cu. Ft.
      • Living alley cover: cover crops provided insufficient weed suppression (2 in. deep shredded residue after termination and flail mowing)
    • URI No-till veg transplanting into killed cover crop mulch
      • Squash field: Mulch cover insufficient to provide weed control
      • Broccoli field: Mulch cover insufficient to provide weed control
    • URI living mulch for pumpkins
      • Teff living mulch reduces need for cultivation and amount of pre-emergent herbicide
      • Teff adds biomass to soil
      • Teff does not compete with pumpkins for water or nutrients, and does not reduce yields
      • Average yield: 21,500 pumpkins/ac; average fruit weight: 16 lbs.
    • Corn Farm 4
      • No Results
    • Corn Farm 5
      • Rye relative biomass: 3.0 ton/ac; average plant height: 57 in.
      • Triticale relative biomass: 3.3 ton/ac; average plant height: 41 in.
      • Triticale & clover relative biomass: 3.4 ton/ac; average plant height 42 in.
      • Tall cover crops have potential for many benefits related to nutrient management, spring operational logistics, and flexibility in avoiding operating equipment in wet fields
    • Corn Farm 6 (germination)
      • The Drilled plots had the highest rate of target plants, the fewest weeds (visually), and the lowest overall yield of the four treatment methods (3.4 t DM/ac). 
      • The broadcast plots had fewer target plants, greater weed pressure, and higher yields (4.0 – 4.6 t DM/ac).
      • The presence of all stems (target and weeds) was greatest in the Drilled and the Cultipacked plots (est. 1,000,000 stems/ac).  The Broadcast (only) plots averaged just less than 900,000 stems/ac, and the Manured plots averaged just over 800,000 stems/ac. The stems could not be identified by plant species (or even categorically as target or weed), but if allowed to extrapolate from the visual presence of weeds – the drilled plots had strong germination and plot growth of the target species where the Cultipacked had the equivalent prevalence in weed stems.  Where the weeds seemed to grow especially well in the broadcast plots – more weeds were present in the Cultipacked, however the Manured plots had the highest weed + target yield (4.6 t DM/ac).  As to the presence of and the growth of tubers in each treatment, the drilled plots had the lowest number of tubers and the smallest tubers of all four treatments.  The Manure plots had the highest number and the largest tubers of all the treatments.
    • Corn Farm 6 (termination)
      • All the corn was planted at the same time, across the two treatments.  The corn emerged and developed at the same rate, but throughout the V1-V6 plant stage, the plots not chemically terminated prior to planting (planted into the green cover crop), were noticeably 2-3 inches taller in the early growth stages.  After the V6 stage of growth, both corn treatments plant growth and plant height became indiscernible, and both treatments had similar yields at the end of the year (23 t/ac). 
Project Objectives:

Local farmers from Connecticut and Rhode Island and agricultural providers such as USDA NRCS, CT RC&D, CT NOFA, the CT Ag Experimental Station, and the Universities of Connecticut (UConn) and Rhode Island (URI) came together to participate in the 2016 Northeast SARE Cover Crop Initiative Project.

Field demonstrations were planned on five different farms and two university settings across CT and RI.  Seven different ideas were designed to be tested (twenty-four different treatments), however, in the end, six of the seven ideas had usable or measurable data points.

The seven original objectives included:
Vegetable Production:
  –  Living Alley Cover,
  –  Plasticulture replacement with rolled cover, and
  –  Pollinator Habitat for beneficial insects & diversity

Silage Corn Production:
  –  Nutrient Retention with cover crops*,
  –  Effective Germination of cover crop,
  –  Termination timing of cover crop, and
  –  Cover crop and Corn Biomass per acre per year

  •  * no data points usable for analysis

 

Educational activities included field four in-field demonstrations from 2016 – 2018 and one lecture day in 2017.  At the field demonstrations, the goal was to allow farmers to learn from other farmers.  Farmers were able to see the growth comparison of four different cover crop planting methods, cover crop termination timing, living alley covers, cover crop mixes, and most importantly, ask the farm specific questions about the practical use and implementation of the treatments.  Information shared with farmers at field days was intended to be largely visual and interactive.  The educational objectives were to discuss and gain confidence in both the information about, as well as the methods used to test their own interests/hypotheses related to:
  –  Methods of cover crop establishment
  –  Cover crop objectives and seed selection
  –  Cover crop biomass through the off-season (non-growing season)
  –  Termination alternatives for high biomass cover crops

Feedback from the field days gave positive remarks to the presenting farmers, and while the audience appreciated the academic talks, the practical information gained from the farmer talks – sharing their interests and perspectives, led to new conversations, short term changes to cover crop understanding and use, and in some instances, changes to long term goals in relation to soil and nutrient conservation using cover crops on continuously cropped production fields.

Introduction:

The cover cropping challenges addressed through on-farm demonstration trials (field days) and lecture events were two-fold:

1.   Vegetable production cover crops information and management for:
a.  alley management with living cover and
b.  biomass for no-till management with a suppressive weed mat and reduced tillage, and
c.  pollinator habitat for complimentary and diverse insects.

2.  Silage corn cover crop management and timing for:
a.  highest germination rates using commonly available seeding methods,
b.  biomass for soil structure, diversity, health, erosion protection, and
c.  crop timing and biomass for nutrient retention and double crop forage.

The cropping systems and information available to crop production often involves continuous exposure of open or clean alleyways – the open space between the rows.  As more information is coming forward about the benefits of having continuous root growth in the soil and plant cover over the soil, there is uncertainty and need for hands-on instruction to show different methods of establishment and management of cover crops, particularly with vegetable production.  There is concern in the farming community related to plant competition for sun, nutrients, and water.  However, popular crop production articles today talk about both the short-term and long-term benefits of managed covers can have with soil moisture through drought, retention and cycling nutrients for availability, and the effective increase of yield potential with the combined effects of cover crop management.  Despite the new information, farms have said they’d like to see more examples or demonstrations to see local use, and help to reduce the significant risk for potential crop loss for farmers as they learn and try the new methods on their own farm.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Jim Hyde (Educator)
  • Dan Mullins (Educator)
  • Dr. Rebecca Nelson Brown (Educator and Researcher)

Research

Materials and methods:

Accomplishments

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Five farms and two land-grant universities were identified for on-farm research or trial plots.  Three farms and the University of Rhode Island participated in vegetable production cover cropping, and two farms and the University of Connecticut participated in silage corn production for dairy.  Dry matter samples were taken just before cover crop termination, using readily available household items:  pruning shears, manual hedge clippers, kitchen or food scale, counter-top food dehydrator, measuring tape, and a bucket.  Three plant samples were taken from each cover crop plot.  A 1-square foot surface area was measured, and all plant stems were cut at ground level, and removed from the square foot sample area.  The exception was with Vegetable Farm 3 – Phacelia.  Because the phacelia stems were so intertwined, a one-square foot column, from the ground to the top of the cover crop canopy, was taken.  In this column, the plants were cut vertically, straight down to the measured square foot on the ground.  In all dry matter samples, the wet weights were taken for the one-square foot plant matter immediately, in the field.  The whole samples were often too big to dry with the available drying equipment (table-top food dehydrator).  So the samples were then taken for processing and dried.  The sample was chopped to 2-3 inch length pieces into a clean bucket, mixed thoroughly, then grab-sampled 4-5 times from the bucket.  The sub-sample was weighed for wet weight, dried for 24 hrs in a food dehydrator (105 F), checked for dry weights, dried a second 24-hrs, and re-weighed.  In most cases, the first 24 hrs with a small sub-sample (approximately 2 ounces) was enough to dry the sample to a consistent dry weight.  The sub-sample dry matter and moisture content were then calculated to estimate an average of the three dry matter samples (tons DM/acre) of cover crop in each plot.

Vegetable Farms
The three vegetable farm plots were all seeded, respective for their trials, in fall of 2016.  Farm 1 and Farm 2 were interested in high biomass covers for roll-down and weed control in place of plasticulture or mulch.  Farm 3 was interested in living alley covers and pollinators via cover crop diversity.

Vegetable Farm 1 had three fields, ranging in size from 1-2 acres each, planted for high biomass cover for roll-down mulch and no-till transplanting.  They used a drill to plant 200 lbs/ac winter rye.  The rye was seeded approximately the 3rd and the 4th week of October.  The fields were planted on conventional land (not organic land) while the farm was testing organic cover crop methods, but would still have conventional tools available for any mistakes.  Two of the fields were ‘high and dry’ on hilltops.  These were sandy loam soils with moderate drainage.  The third field was at the bottom of a hill in a relatively wet field.  This soil was silt loam with poor drainage.  The fall planting season (2016) was very dry, and there was concern for germination.  The spring (2017) growing season brought much more moisture and with good germination from the fall drilled seed and the spring moisture, the three stands had strong rye growth.  Approaching roll-down in the spring, two of the three fields were accidentally plowed under (miscommunication) in the rush and preparation for the coming planting season.  The one remaining field was split in half and rolled at two different plant development stages.  One half was rolled at seed head full-emergence, approximately Stage 10.5, after vegetative growth and in the earlier stages of reproductive growth.  The second half was rolled at pollination, approximately Stage 10.54, further into reproductive stage.  The roller-crimper was a 10 ft rear hitch roller.  The farm used one pass over the rye with good initial lay down.  The field was scheduled to have cucurbits (cucumbers) transplanted with a newly acquired 2-row no-till transplanter.  However, that plan was quickly abandoned after the tall rye (55 inches) continuously wrapped around the transplanter’s row cleaners.  The fields were then dedicated to roll-down experimentation only.  Both halves of the split plot were chemically terminated at the end of the experiment to prevent any further development or self-seeding of the rye in the vegetable field.

Vegetable Farm 2 was an eight acre community vegetable farm and had three fields for study.  Field One was planted to four replications of three treatments:
Mix 1:  Rye & Vetch
Mix 2:  Sudan & Sunhemp
Mix 3:  Peas, Vetch, & Oats
Field One was broadcast with each seed mix, however because of the dry soil/drought period, there was very poor germination.  As a result, there was a very poor cover crop establishment and the weeds quickly took over.  So the farm terminated the experiment before the weeds went to seed and no samples were taken from this field.  The farm then set out two more fields for demonstration.  Field Two was fall (2016) seeded to rye and vetch, estimated 150 lbs/acre.  In the spring (2017), the growing conditions were much improved and the rye bolted.  A set of dry matter samples was collected from this field, but the field was not rolled as intended for row-plastic replacement due to the planned roller not being readily available.  To prevent the greatly unwanted rye from going to seed, the farm mowed, disced, and solarized the field.  Field Three was planted to peas/vetch/oats (PVO) for high biomass to test rolling & crimping with the intention of using the rolled mulch as a weed barrier, in place of plastic rows or mulch.  However, the same roller/crimper was unavailable at flowering and due to the grave concern for volunteer plants in the vegetable fields, this field was also mowed.  No biomass samples for dry matter were obtained from the PVO mix.

Vegetable Farm 3 had three plots with heavy rye/vetch/oats cover and one plot with phacelia. Two rye plots were intended for high biomass as a weed barrier in place of purchased straw mulch.  The rye was shredded as the termination method, and kept in-place as a mulch.  The resulting mulch was approximately 2-3 inches thick. There was concern for weed pressure as the preferred depth for (straw) mulch on their operation is closer to 5-6 inches depth to prevent sunlight from reaching the soil below. The third plot was planted to Phacelia at approximately 8 lbs/acre as a pollinator plot in their crop rotation.   Cover crop samples were taken at peak flower (late June 2017) to describe the presence of pollinators, dry matter and biomass.

The University of Rhode Island conducted experiments on their research farm and a complete description is provided in the Results & Discussion below.  

Silage Corn for Dairy
Three diary farms fall seeded cover crops in 2016 on four different plots.  Farm 4 was interested in cover crop biomass for nutrient retention.  Farm 5 was interested in double cropping for higher forage quantity per acre and nutrient retention in the field.  Farm 6 was interested in a) high germination rates of the cover crop and, b) termination timing with the commonly used double spray (pre- and post-planting of corn) or single spray termination (post-planting corn).

Corn Farm 4 had corn variety trials growing, which presented opportunity to work with the farm to plant cover crop after each of the corn day-length varieties. There were four day lengths planted:  82, 99, 101, and 114 day corn.  Arrangements had been made to harvest the corn at optimum moisture content (32-35% moisture) for each of the day length varieties, then seed the plot with 100 lbs/ac rye to analyze for nutrient retention within the early versus late planted cover crops.  However, as the growing season progressed from cool and wet with delayed plant growth early in the corn season, to hot and dry at the end of the corn season – the corn matured faster than anticipated and the corn was harvested in two batches; late August (82, 99, 101 day) and mid September (114 day).  As a result, the cover crop was seeded as two treatments (August vs September), rather than the four planned treatments.  The cover crop was broadcast seeded at 100 lbs winter rye per acre.  Then in spring, cover crop termination and corn planting happened before cover crop samples could be collected, and the project was stopped.

Corn Farm 5 established double crop test plots on a corn field seeded with three treatments:  1) rye; 2) triticale; and 3) triticale & clover. All were seeded by no-till drill in November 2016 and then manured with liquid dairy manure at 4,000 gal/ac.  The rye was seeded to 110 lbs/ac, the triticale seeded to 125 lbs/ac, and the triticale & clover were seeded to 125 lbs/ac triticale plus 6 lbs/ac clover. The intention was to harvest the cover crop for optimum forage near dough stage.  However, the field ended up being particularly wet in the spring and early summer of 2017.  Therefore, the farm was not able to harvest at peak time for forage quality (May 2017).  As a result, samples were taken much later in growth stage, when the plants were fully in pollination stage, just prior to termination (June 2017) by chopping for low quality forage/roughage in their total mixed ration.  

Corn Farm 6 had two experiments, one for germination and one for termination. The germination study had one single cover crop mixture (King’s Agriseed Rays Crazy Summer Mix) planted 100 lbs/ac, seeded by four common methods: 1) broadcast, 2) broadcast + cultipacking, 3) broadcast + manure, and 4) drilled.  The 2 acre field had previously come out of rye cover crop from a no-till, continuous silage corn followed by winter oats the previous growing season.  The oats cover was terminated in April 2017.  The field was planted the end of April with the four commonly used methods above.  The manure application was approximately 2,500 gal/ac immediately following broadcast seeding.  Photos for green canopy cover were taken every two weeks until canopy closure.  At the end of summer (Aug 2017), the individual plots were harvested with a self-propelled chopper, laid in wide swath to dry overnight, then picked up and thrown into the farm’s feed wagon with a scale.  The wet weights were recorded and an average moisture content was used to estimate dry matter.  After chopping, stem counts for millet and radish plants from each plot were taken to estimate relative germination and live plant numbers from each treatment.

The termination experiment evaluated the difference of planting into a common chemically terminated cover crop (2 weeks before planting) vs planting green, directly into the standing cover crop.  Strip plots with the two treatments were replicated four times across a field.  The first treatment was early cover crop termination.  The second treatment was a late cover crop termination (planted green). All plots had a standard post-emergent herbicide treatment approximately two weeks after planting.  The field was otherwise grown the same for the two treatments:  a single rate nitrogen side-dress application at approximately V-4 or six inches tall and harvested in fall 2017 at approximately 35% dry matter for silage.

 

         
  CT and RI Cover Crops Timeline – Vegetable trials  
         
    Farm 1 Farm 2 Farm 3
2016        
  August   Plots broadcast seeded with high biomass mixes, scheduled farmer Demo Day based on early planting/plot establishment plots seeded
  September Cover crops for high biomass cover were drilled with winter rye at 200 lbs/ac and a second treatment of 70 lbs rye + 8 lbs hairy vetch Visual observation only, very poor germination with dry summer, only  sudax (and weeds) did well with the hot and dry growing conditions.

 

Marginal success with germination due to dry conditions.  After consultation, project deferred to Spring 2017

  October   Plots were mowed due to very high weed pressure/potential seed set.  Plot abandoned.  Re-designed new experiment plots  
  November   Two mixes planted in three reps, Farmer Demo Day held showing other examples of cover crop plantings and management on the farm, 51 people in attendence and sponsored with four sister agencies  
  December     Coordinated with farm and URI for minor improvements to study and goals for 2017
         
2017        
  January Coordinated info from 2016 and plan for 2017 field work, data collection, and field day Coordinated info from 2016 and plan for 2017 data collection  
  February      
  March      
  April Observations and canopy cover (%) recorded, preparation for roller-crimper termination. Observations and canopy cover (%) on Rye + Vetch and Peas-Vetch-Oats Prepared raised beds and alley’s
  May Observations and canopy cover (%) recorded, preparation for roller-crimper termination in June Harvest Rye+Vetch for biomass estimate, Peas-Vetch-Oats terminated with mowing, no samples recorded. (end of high biomass project) Establish alley’s with cover crop mixes
  June

Two of three plots terminated with plow.

200 lbs rye plot split treatment with roller-crimper: termination at seed head emergence, and termination at pollination.   planned to transplant fall cabbage into cover crop mat

  Observations and canopy cover (%), manage alley’s as needed to keep from competing with crop;
  July Roller-crimper roll down was insufficient termination (50%-80% termination).  Plot was chemically terminated and project was ended (end of high biomass cover project)    
  August      
  September     (end ally project)
         

 

 

         
  CT and RI Cover Crops Timeline – Corn trials  
         
    Farm 4 Farm 5 Farm 6
         
2016        
  August Harvested three hybrids (82d, 99d, 107d) on 8/23/2016. Seeded to winter wheat (100 lbs/ac) on 8/24/2016 for fall growth   Harvested 86 d corn in preparation for project, delay in project to Spring 2017 due to farm construction, planted standard cover crop via broadcast + harrow
  September Harvested two hybrids (110d, 114d) on 9/12/2016. Seeded to winter wheat (100 lbs/ac) on  9/18/2016 Harvested silage corn & seeded three cover crop trials:  rye, triticale, triticale + clover;  
  October Visual observations only, good germination following rains after dry growing season, est 2″ inch plant height August seeding, est <0.5″ inch plant height September seeding    
  November Visual observations only, reasonably good soil cover (germination) going into winter, est 4+” inch plant high August seeding, and 2″ inch plant height for September seeding Visual observation only, dry fall & seeding, late fall rains allowed for decent germination, est 2″ growth going into winter  
  December      
         
2017        
  January      
  February      
  March      
  April Cover crops terminated before samples could be collected (end of Nutrient Retention project). Observations only, good plant growth, visual distinctions with wet areas in the field (pale green and stunted growth), plants are approaching flag leaf, coordinate with farm on optimal harvest.

Termination: two week pre-plant termination of treatment 1, planted 96d silage corn, two week post-plant termination  on treatment 1 and 2.

Germination:  cover crops terminated four weeks pre-plant, one cover crop seed mix planted using four different planting methods.

  May   Spring planting pressures have delayed cover crop harvesting, plots not harvested for high quality forage.

Termination:  growth stage, height, and canopy cover measured.

Germination:  Canopy cover measured

  June   Dry matter samples only from the three treatments prior to harvest for high carbon, low feed value feed mix (end of double crop and biomass project)

Termination:  growth stage, height, and canopy cover measured

Germination:  canopy cover measured

  July     Field Day:  cover crops and equipment demo;
  August     Germination:  harvested for dry matter, stem & radish counts (end of Germination project)
  September     Termination:  Corn is harvested, seeded to fall cover mix (end of Termination project)
  October      
  November      

 

Research results and discussion:

Vegetable Farms
Vegetable Farm 1:  High Biomass cover for roll-down
The early roll was largely unsuccessful as more than 50% of the rye stood back up after being rolled at seed head emergence, and most plants did not terminate without chemical (glyphosate) application.  The late roll (during pollination) was more successful with approximately 75% of the rye rolled down and 25% of the rye stood back up.  Both roll-downs (at seed head emergence and at pollination) were considered unacceptable for the farms organic vegetable transplant conditions, without chemical use and without threat of the rye going to seed.  The whole field was later terminated with chemical burndown. No crop was transplanted to this field. Cover crop dry matter to estimate biomass was collected at the time of roll-down.  The earlier roll-down (seed head fully exposed) had an average of 2.7 tons dry matter per acre (ton DM/ac).  The later roll-down (pollination) had an average of 3.5 tons DM/ac.  The other two fields were accidentally plowed under, however there was opportunity to collect cover crop for dry matter estimates of biomass from a few missed spots still standing in the field.  Their average dry matters at plow-down were 1.0 ton DM/ac in the wet field, 2.5 ton DM/acre in the adjacent, slightly drier plot, and 2.8 ton DM/ac in the third trial field.  The third trial field had a split field with one half rye and a second half hairy vetch, which had been discussed for possible roll-down, as it reached maturity.  Purely out of curiosity, a biomass sample was taken in the vetch, at flowering stage, for a 1.6 ton DM/acre average.  Across the whole experiment, the farm was targeting 3 to 4 tons DM/ac based on recommendations from the 2016 Baltimore SARE Cover Crop conference, and specifically Dr. Ron Morse, Virg. Tech, where his talk included tips on successes and failures of organic cover crop roll-down for weed control (Fitting Cover Crops in Vegetable Rotations;  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=77wQXZlYwSs).  Combined with the recent arrival of a no-till transplanter, the farm was very interested in organic methods to reduce weed pressure (labor saving) and reduce plasticulture use, though only on appropriate crops.  The farm advised that some crops did so much better (productivity & sales) on plastic, they would continue to use plastic cover in some instances (tomatoes/peppers), but the farm was interested in eliminating plastic use where feasible, such as some of the vine crops like cucumber and pumpkins.  Keeping the vegetables up off the bare soil and away from the immediate bacterial host or soil splash was very attractive to the farm.  But the learning curve to get there was not a one-n-done process.  The cover crop trials from 2016 and 2017 were used to refine future attempts at high biomass cover crop and no-till transplanting.  

Vegetable Farm 2:  High Biomass cover for roots and for roll-down
The original experimental design of a randomized complete block with four replications and three mixes was laid out and seeded entirely by the farm in perfect form.  However, due to the very dry conditions in the summer and fall of 2016, the seed mixes did not take.  The seeds were broadcast on the soil surface, the growing conditions were dry, and the seed mixes did not germinate nearly as well as the weed seeds germinated.  The farm made a valiant effort to allow the late rains to help the seed mixes grow/catch-up, but the weeds absolutely dominated the site and a quick decision was made to mow the plot before the weed seeds developed further and caused future problems.  After some quick consultation, the farm established two additional plots to evaluate and learn the specifics of managing large biomass cover crop.  Field 2 had large biomass with a 150 lbs/ac rye seeding.  Biomass sampling revealed 2.9 ton DM/ac on average for the 0.2 acre plot, planned for curcubits in the second planting, around early to mid-June.  The plan was for the rye to be rolled with a chevron roller-crimper, but at the time of need, the roller was unavailable and the transportation was not easily accessible.  The farm is not a fan of rye because they’ve had so much trouble controlling it as a volunteer crop in past years.  Because of their experience, they wanted to be pro-active and not allow the rye to mature to viable seed.  After word came back the roller was not easily available, the field was flail mowed, then solarized, and lastly plowed, to completely kill the rye cover. The third field, planted to peas/vetch/oats (PVO) for high biomass, developed nicely and grew in as intended.  The opportunity to test rolling & crimping the mature plants for use as a rolled mulch weed barrier, in place of plastic rows or mulch, was looking good.  However, the same roller/crimper was unavailable at flowering.  Due to the grave concern for volunteer plants in the vegetable fields, this field was also mowed.  No biomass samples for dry matter were obtained from the PVO mix.

Vegetable Farm 3:  Living Alley Cover and Pollinator Habitat
Pollinator Habitat:  The phacelia plots were very successful as a pollinator draw to bring pollinators to the plot and near the surrounding vegetables on the farm. At peak flower bloom near June 26, 2017, the number of bees in the plot were estimated to be (very roughly) 50 bees per cubic foot.  It was an amazing site to see – so many pollinators working in the plot.  While it was exciting getting the measurements and plant samples, the bees were very focused on their job collecting pollen and, with slow but steady movements, the data was collected and there was no concern for stings in or around the immediate area.  Biomass weights for the phacelia were 2.5 – 3 tons DM/ac with plant heights averaging 39 inches.  Plant height was measured as canopy height, as observed.  The plants were robust, lots of vegetative growth and flowers, and very intertwined.  The plant lengths, fully-extended, were very likely well beyond 39 inches, but the plants were not measured for length, only average canopy height.  The size, scope, and diversity of pollinators absolutely met and exceeded the farms goal of bringing in higher numbers and more diverse pollinators to the farm to help pollinate surrounding vegetable plots.  The farm tries to keep some cover crop in flower throughout the growing season, which is a challenging task; a task often reserved for the winter months planning sessions with the seed catalogs close at hand.  

Living Alley Cover:  The living alley cover experiment did not go quite as planned.  One of the many ideas was to go with a three treatment comparison and evaluation of:  Perennial Rye, Rye + Clover, Crimson Clover.  The farm was very interested in living alley covers to improve soil health, reduce the amount of exposed soil, and dramatically reduce the hours of weeding with the use of a managed alley planting.  The alley cover varieties were chosen based on the plants ability to germinate and grow within a vegetable season and its ability to handle the frequent travel of foot and/or wheeled traffic through the vegetable plot.  However, as the growing season evolved, and challenges arose, the weed pressure in the allies continued to build – straw was purchased to apply to the allies before the weed pressure reached the farms threshold.  Upon observation of the straw and the farms use/placement, there was a noticeable difference between what the farm used in straw and what was available after shredding (flail mowing) a tall cover crop in-place.  The cover crop was cereal rye + spring oats + hairy vetch seeded mid-September (9/18) and terminated early June (6/8).  The shredded cover crop left a nice, even cover across the plots with approximately 2 inches depth.  This did not provide adequate cover to prevent weed germination and growth, led to problems when trying to flame the weeds in the row (fire), and led to noticeable nitrogen sinks through the growing season with detrimental effects on the cash crop growth and yield.  By comparison, the straw bales were applied at 4-5 bales per alley (19-25 t DM/ac, assuming 40 lb bales at 85% DM) to meet the farms needs for weed suppression.  This resulted in mulch depths of approximately 5-7 inches (as-placed / un-compacted) and greatly reduced the time and effort spent weeding the alleys.  Additionally the vegetable rows did not have detrimental effects of N sinks with the high carbon cover concentrated in the alley, allowing for a more crop-friendly row cover crop to help ease the carbon:nitrogen (C:N) balance.  There was a very quick and strong learning curve with the mulched alley’s.  In part, as a result of the farms continuous experimenting and efforts to improve their soil, reduce labor costs/time weeding, the farm no longer uses straw mulch and has converted to no-till vegetable beds.  

University of Rhode Island

No-Till transplanting of Vegetables into Killed Cover Crop Mulch
This experiment was intended to utilize the no-till transplanter purchased by a local, cooperating farm (Farm 1). Vegetable growers, particularly organic growers, are very interested in using killed cover crop mulches as an alternative to plastic mulch. Plastic mulch layers require tilled soil, and do not handle large clods, rootballs, or stones well so fields are generally rototilled or intensively disked prior to bed shaping. Petroleum-based plastic mulches result in non-degradable waste, while bio-based mulches are not permitted in Organic production. Most vegetable planters/transplanters require tilled soil, so strip tillage is a common approach. However, previous experiments have generated mixed results, largely due to problems controlling weeds in the tilled strips.

A 1.5 acre field was seeded to winter rye and hairy vetch on Sept. 13, 2016 using a rate of 60 lb rye and 23 lb vetch per acre. The field had been in summer cover crops in 2016 and was not tilled; seeding was done using a Truax no-till drill. The cover crop was terminated May 16, 2017 when rye was headed. Glyphosate was used to kill the cover crop, which was then rolled with a roller-crimper.

The plan was to plant 1 acre of butternut squash and 0.5 acre of broccoli using the no-till transplanter immediately following cover crop termination. Unfortunately the no-till transplanter turned out to weigh significantly more than expected, and none of the tractors available had sufficient horsepower to tow it.

In an attempt to salvage the experiment, a parabolic chisel plow was used to cut rows, and the squash and broccoli were transplanted by hand. Squash was planted with 5 feet between rows and 2.5 feet within the row. Broccoli was planted with 2.5 feet between rows and 1 foot between plants. The equipment problems and wet weather combined to delay planting until June 16, one month after cover crop termination.

Vetch dominated the cover crop biomass at termination. Mulch cover was measured using digital images taken on June 29. At this point the vetch had entirely decomposed, leaving the rye straw as the sole mulch. Mulch cover in the squash field ranged from 10% to 87% with a mean of 53% across 20 random locations. This was not sufficient to prevent weed invasion, particularly yellow nutsedge. The area planted with squash was sprayed with halosulfuron (Sandea®) when squash plants had 4-5 true leaves to control nutsedge. The herbicide also controls other emerged broadleaf weeds. By July 28 over 50% of the surface not covered by squash canopy was covered by weeds, primarily purslane and chickweed. By late August the field had been swallowed by smartweed, with some barnyard grass and pigweed. The mulch was successful in suppressing weeds long enough for the transplanted butternut squash to form a canopy, and butternut yields were normal. However, poor weed control increased the difficulty of applying fungicides in August, and added to the weed seed bank to increase weed problems in future crops.

The initial mulch cover in the broccoli field was slightly lower at 44%. Broccoli is not tolerant of halosulfuron herbicides, so shielded applications of glyphosate were used to control nutsedge between rows of broccoli. The combination of cover crop mulch and glyphosate was sufficient to control weeds between broccoli rows, but weeds between plants in  the row were a serious problem. These had to be hand-pulled, and were much more difficult to remove than weeds in fields where soil was tilled prior to planting. Weed pressure was sufficient in some areas to prevent broccoli from forming full-sized heads.

Based on the results of this trial, URI cannot recommend killed cover crop mulches for vegetable growers in CT-RI. The method merits further exploration, but some significant obstacles exist. No-till transplanters require large tractors, limiting their use to the largest farms. The weight of no-till transplanters also makes any sort of contract operation or equipment sharing difficult, as they are challenging to load and unload from trailers. The cover crops for this study were seeded in mid-September, which is extremely early for vegetable farmers in our region. Even so, biomass production was not sufficient. Using pure rye, rather than rye and vetch, might have improved weed suppression, but would have increased the need to apply nitrogen fertilizer. Weed suppression was not sufficient to prevent yield loss in broccoli or late-season weed establishment in squash.

Teff as a Living Mulch for Pumpkins
Another approach to using cover crops for weed suppression is to plant living mulches. This is particularly useful when crops have wide area between row spacings, either because of a need for access for repeated harvest or for vine crops such as pumpkin. Studies in 2016 showed that teff (Eragrostis tef), a high-altitude tropical C4 annual grass, is well-suited to use as a living mulch in our climate. Teff grows very densely, suppressing most summer annual weeds. It is tolerant of mowing and foot traffic, and is more resistant to foliar diseases than annual ryegrass. Teff does not flower until late August, and rarely matures seed. The seed also has little dormancy, and will not overwinter in the field. In 2017 we conducted a trial to determine whether teff used as a living mulch negatively affected pumpkin yields.

The field used for this trial had not been tilled since 2015, and was planted to no-till hairy vetch at 30 lbs/acre over the winter. The vetch was incorporated with a Celli Spader in late May, and medium-sized carving pumpkins were seeded by hand on June 15. Spacing was 10 feet between rows and 2 feet between plants in the row; fertilizer was banded in the pumpkin rows. Prior to pumpkin emergence, teff was seeded at 7 lbs per acre between rows of pumpkins using a Brillion cultipacker. Three treatment plots of 3 rows of pumpkins per plot received teff; another three plots were not seeded to teff and served as the control. Mechanical cultivation was used to control weeds in the pumpkin rows and in the no-teff treatment until vines began to run. By that point, the pumpkin canopy filled the space between the teff strips in the teff treatment. Teff strips were mowed once to remove broadleaf weeds which germinated with the teff; the mower blade was set to just clip the tips of the teff foliage. Sandea® herbicide was applied to the entire trial for nutsedge control when pumpkins had 4-5 true leaves.

By late August, all plots without teff had weeds wherever light could penetrate the pumpkin canopy. In contrast, plots with teff only had weeds in the pumpkin row itself, and then only where the pumpkins had been defoliated by downy mildew. Teff living mulch had no effect on pumpkin yields or quality. Yields averaged 21,500 pumpkins per acre with an average fruit weight of 16 lbs.

Using teff as a living mulch between rows of pumpkins reduces the need for cultivation or the amount of pre-emergent herbicide required. It also adds biomass to the soil, helping to compensate for organic matter oxidized during tillage. Teff does not compete with pumpkins for water or nutrients, and does not reduce yields.

 

Silage Corn for Dairy
Corn Farm 4:  Nutrient Retention
Unfortunately no data was collected from this plot due to a series of unfortunate events including weather, time, communication, and misunderstanding.  As the 2016 mid-summer warmed up and the corn crop developed and matured quickly, harvest had to happen as time, labor, and equipment allowed.  Unfortunately for the experiment, that meant reducing the treatments from five down to two.  Then in the spring, again primarily due to time and availability (reality), the cover crop was terminated at approximately 4-8 inches of growth, after a second poor fall germination due to broadcast seeding in dry conditions.  In the end, the corn field was planted without obtaining any prior cover crop samples.  

Corn Farm 5:  High Biomass Cover Crop for Soil Health and Forage
The relative biomass for the rye was 3.0 ton/ac with an average plant height of 57 inches. The relative biomass for the triticale was 3.3 ton DM/ac with an average plant height of 41 inches.  The relative biomass for the triticale & clover was 3.4 ton/ac, though there was a wide range of values (1 – 5 ton/ac) across the relatively flat, variable moisture field.  The average plant height in the triticale & clover was 42 inches.  The field was harvested as a single crop and ensiled for cattle feed, but no feed samples were taken for analysis because the plants were so mature and known poor feed quality, except as fiber or roughage in a total mixed ration (TMR).  While the plot and the crop management were difficult for this site due to weather and wet areas throughout the field, the results of the extended growth on the cover crop was a valuable change when compared to frequently used crop crop management strategies in the area.  Typically the cover crops are chemically terminated early in the spring season (early April) if possible, to allow for 2-3 weeks rest before corn planting, into the preferred short height rye.  The the short rye provides some value for soil erosion and nutrient retention on the field, but not nearly to the value and extent of a tall rye or cover.  UMass (Hashemi, et al, J. Plant Nutr. Soil Sci. 2013, 176, 69–75) has shown a very strong relation to plant growth and nutrient retention within the cover crop, at the very least keeping the nutrient (nitrogen in this specific research) in the field (as plant matter) and much reduced environmental loss.  For farms with high nutrient pressure due to large manure volumes or high soil test values, the ability to grow and manage tall cover crop would potentially be a significant cost savings specific to nutrient cycling for crop up-take and reduced liability for nutrient loss.  In addition, the ability to harvest the cover crop rather than a (pre-plant) chemical application for termination, followed by a second application for post-plant weeds was a noticeable time and management savings for the farm.  In addition, the recent headlines of glyphosate and public perception in a fairly dense, populated area has the farm looking for options to maintain and improve public relations and perceptions.  The ability to reduce spray time and acres was attractive to the farm.  Lastly, because the field was a wet field, the farm felt the ability to stay off the wet field was much to their advantage to prevent compaction or ruts, which they’ve been working hard to reduce or eliminate.  By growing the cover crop tall, they were not pressing to get into the field to terminate in the early spring and then plant, and they were able to work the field when the soil (moisture) was ready.  Noticeably, the extra time and the extra biomass in the filed helped manage the soil moisture much better than if the cover crop were terminated early, and by waiting for the plant to mature, helped reduce the time pressure to get onto the field (April vs May or June).  These effects got the farm thinking about how to manage or juggle the different spring activities (cover crop termination, manure spreading, corn planting, and grass harvesting) and how they could use these beneficial effects to their (soil & crop) advantage.  

Corn Farm 6

Germination
The immediate difference between broadcast and drilled cover crop seeding method was evident soon after planting. The drilled plots had a faster germination time and higher plant diversity of the target seeds. The broadcast plots had very minor differences (non-discernible) between them, specific to germination. There was observation and speculation whether the manure initially helped with seed germination or plant growth, but the data did not show any significant difference in this instance.  As the growing season continued, there was tremendous weed pressure and distinct high water patterns across the field.  By the end of the growing season, there were continued differences in successful target plant growth and intended diversity with the better germinated drilled plots.  The harvest yield, as dry matter, had some surprising outcomes, which should be pointed out – are suspected adverse effects of the heavy weed pressure and less germination of the broadcast (target) seed.  The Drilled plots had the highest rate of target plants, the fewest weeds (visually), but then had the lowest overall yield of the four treatment methods (3.4 t DM/ac).  The broadcast plots had fewer target plants, greater weed pressure, and higher yields (4.0 – 4.6 t DM/ac).  Immediately following harvest, upon walking the plots, questions developed about the seeming presence of treatment effect on the tubers (radish & turnip).  This led to a stem count, a tuber count, and a categorical rating of the tuber count (low = 1 – high = 5) and tuber size (small = 1 – large = 5).  The presence of all stems (target and weeds) was greatest in the Drilled and the Cultipacked plots (est. 23 stems/sq ft).  The Broadcast (only) plots averaged just less than 20 stems/sq ft, and the Manured plots averaged just over 18 stems/sq ft.  The stems could not be identified by plant species (or even categorically as target or weed), but if allowed to extrapolate from the visual presence of weeds – the drilled plots had strong germination and plot growth of the target species where the Cultipacked had the equivalent prevalence in weed stems.  Where the weeds seemed to grow especially well in the broadcast plots – more weeds were present in the Cultipacked, however the Manured plots had the highest weed + target yield (4.6 t DM/ac).  As to the presence of and the growth of tubers in each treatment, the drilled plots had the lowest number of tubers and the smallest tubers of all four treatments.  The Manure plots had the highest number and the largest tubers of all the treatments.  A rationale is not readily available to try and explain or postulate this effect on tuber presence and growth.  However, one start may be to look at how quickly the tubers had to compete for sunlight.  The broadcast plots had more open canopy for longer, before weed pressure increased.  Going back to the original questions:  which seeding method has the highest percent and fastest germination of cover crops;  because of the success of the germination trial (seeing which methods had the most seeds came up the fastest), the farm did call in an order to purchase a seed drill before the experiment was even over, and they’ve been very happy they did so.  The farms original goal had been met and their question had been more than satisfactorily answered with the on-farm trial.  

Termination
The early and the late termination cover crop plots were planted to silage corn on the same date, and developed at the same rate (V1 – R6).  However, the later termination corn (planted into the green cover crop) measured as much as 2 – 3 inches taller than the early termination corn during the first stages of growth (V1-V6).  All the corn was planted at the same time, across the two treatments.  The corn emerged and developed at the same rate, but throughout the V1-V6 plant stage, the plots not chemically terminated prior to planting, were noticeably taller.  After the V6 stage of growth, both corn treatments plant growth and plant height became indiscernible, and both treatments had similar yields at the end of the year (23 t/ac).  There was very little cover crop pressure on the late termination plot as the cover crop had a tough establishment in fall 2016 due to dry conditions and broadcast seeding.  The final dry matter content of the cover crop across the field (both treatments) averaged 700 lbs DM/ac.  Despite the cover crop difficulties, the farm was happy with the success of the trial and has since planted corn into successive years of green and growing cover crop, then terminated with a single, post-planting chemical application approximately three weeks after seeding.  The farm feels this helped get a valuable three additional weeks worth of work and growth out of the cover crop, the primary interest being to help manage the moisture content in the spring soils, which are typically wet.  The farm has been a strong advocate for plants helping to manage soil moisture both in times of excess water and insufficient rainfall.  Which ever of the weather or soil conditions prevail, the farm feels having active and growing plants in the soil helps manage the moisture for the better, and makes the fields more accessible.  Plus, the benefit of getting three more weeks of growth from the cover crop before termination also means more nutrients in the cover crop and cycling through the root zone, and less subject to environmental loss.  

 

 

Research conclusions:

In conclusion, the on-farm trials were helpful for local farmers to see alternative managements in-place and actively growing in the field.  The on-farm demonstrations and talks by farmers for farmers was better received than the academic talks from formal educators.  The academic information was very complimentary and supported the ideas or concepts being discussed, however the visual or hands-on approach received higher praise from the farms.  When working with vegetable systems, the idea of living alley covers is attractive to many producers, but the concept of managing the covers does not yet appear to be widely received because of the perceived additional time and management to control the growth of the alley covers so they don’t become a problem with the cash crop.  The on-farm visits showed managed alley’s can be done, and it has both merit and benefit to the farm as well as the soil and crop.  In regards to plasticultre replacement for appropriate crops, the cover crop target yield of 3-4 tons DM/acre was a challenging change to achieve from the preferred or typical low biomass or limited growth covers.  The learning curve of proper timing for roller-crimping termination is very important, as-is the timeliness and availability of equipment (roller and transplanter) for a complete system of no-till transplanting into a rolled cover crop.  Lastly, pollinator plantings on vegetable farms can be very successful in terms of attracting pollinators to a target field.  With the current concerns for pollinator habitat and survival, the extra effort to have a sequence of flowering cover crops within or adjacent to vegetable fields has tremendous merit.   

Specific to silage corn fields and cover crops, growing tall, high-biomass plants has both desired, as well as unintended, benefits to nutrient retention, soil moisture management, forage potential, and reduced (chemical) inputs which could significantly improve time, fuel savings, and potentially beneficial public perception.  However, the paradigm-shift to attain these management changes and the perceived risk of using shorter season corn (< 100 day) to the quantity of forage needed per year, are significant barriers to change.  As more farms make a conscious commitment to change – with equal commitment to find solutions to the associated problems as they pop-up, the successes in change are starting to gain momentum in the local farm community.  The most noticeable changes are taller cover crops, an understanding of the need to increase the growing time of the cover crops whether in the fall or the spring (or both), and the very real benefits of having living roots in the soil for as much of the year as possible.

Participation Summary
7 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

45 Consultations
7 On-farm demonstrations
1 Webinars / talks / presentations
4 Workshop field days

Participation Summary

119 Farmers
101 Number of agricultural educator or service providers reached through education and outreach activities
Education/outreach description:

One Field Day was held in Nov 2016 for vegetable farms talking about on-farm trials, establishment and management of living alley covers, dedicated pollinator areas, and off-season cover cropping for soil health.  There were 31 farmers and 23 non-farmers (such as Gov or NGO) in attendance.  Three of the farmers who attended the Baltimore SARE Cover Crop conference (March 2016) presented their farms and philosophies towards cover crops and their reasons for experimenting with new concepts on their farms.  Perhaps the most discussion during the farm tour was regarding the living alley covers on the farm.  Very few of the active farms use living covers because of the regular maintenance and the perception of competition with the cash crop.  But the model farm explained their management (regular mowing) and reasons/benefits of a covered soil and active growing roots between the rows, which got a number of people thinking and discussing.  

Three events were held in 2017 on the topic of cover crops.  One of those events (Nov 2017) was a lecture series focused on vegetable farms.  There were 27 farmers and 29 non-farmers in attendance.  Talks were given by 2 farmers and 1 ag educator, related to cover crops associated with plant diversity, biomass for roots in the soil and nutrient retention, and the combined effects of contouring and cover crops on soil loss, soil tilth, and soil productivity.  The two 2017 on-farm field demonstrations were held on July 21 for silage corn producers and Nov 6, 2017 for small scale vegetable producers.  The corn field day had 22 farmers and 27 non-farmers in attendance.  Speakers consisted of 3 farmers, 1 ag service provider, and 2 ag educators talking about the speakers farm interests in using cover crop, their reasons for taking risks with on-farm trials and trying new crops or managements every year (on a limited scale).  The ag service provider gave practical recommendations for planter set-up to plant into strong cover crop growth and common problems to avoid.  The ag educators talked about the academics of cover crops and the practical benefits seen in the field as related to corn growth and yield.  The second field day was for small scale vegetable producers.  The field day was designed as a pot-luck harvest celebration in November on a local CSA farm with a round-table discussion forum.  There were 7 farmers and 6 non-farmers in attendance.  Two local vegetable farms (and SARE Cover Crop participants) agreed to lead the forum with support from local NRCS, Conservation District, and University Extension.  There was discussion on what was being tried or tested on the farms and why, what was working – and what was not working, what the farms were looking forward to trying next season.  There was discussion on additional resources available – such as soil health testing from the conservation district, and research trials and local producers trials and tribulations related to cover cropping and vegetable production from university extension.

One field day was held in 2018 for silage corn producers related to cover crops, forage production, and one on-farm field trial.  There were 32 farmers and 16 non-farmers in attendance.  A neighboring state ag consultant spoke on the importance of growing cover crops with purpose – for quality, high forage value, reduced cash crop risk due to increased buffering or resiliency of the soil, and the positive reasons or benefits to consider less day-length corn varieties without worry for yield loss – especially if the cover crop is harvested and ensiled.  The farm led a field tour of their corn trial specific to nitrogen management as a part of their corn production system and cover crops for nutrient retention.  The farm had concerns for yield loss due to nitrogen deficiency and therefore typically applied additional ‘insurance’ fertilizer.  With the combination of cover crops, manure management, and corn trials – the farm was gaining confidence in their soil system to provide the nitrogen their crop needed throughout the season, with less fertilizer inputs than they’ve used in the past.

Learning Outcomes

65 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key areas in which farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness:

Key changes in farmer awareness or skills included some immediate changes to their cover cropping planting and integration of cover cropping as a valuable part of their cropping system.  After the 2017 on-farm demonstration of germination from four common cover crop planting methods (3 broadcast variations and 1 drill seeding), at least three farms purchased seed drills specifically for cover crop establishment.  They described the immediate value of having strong cover crop establishment as soon after their corn is harvested.  There was mention of protecting their soil from erosion, but their primary interest was the combined effects of soil biology:  the roots, the microbes, the fungi;  all working together and having a cumulative effect on their soils for crop production.

The vegetable farms had slightly less dramatic or noticeable changes.  The on-farm trials received accolades from participants, but the level of thought and management required to make the system changes, appeared to be a formidable challenge to many of the producers.  A clean alley with no weeds is easy to understand and somewhat easy to achieve.   A living, green alley brought some doubt and concern related to time and management.  Many of the producers are small farms, working on a shoe-string budget and limited time and labor.  The thought of adding a new or even just another management step…. despite the potential benefits, was not significant enough to persuade change.  The farmers acknowledged the academic benefits described, and were impressed with the living covers they saw, but there was little report of making changes to their existing cropping systems, largely due to time and management – fear of the cover getting away from them or out of control and affecting both their valuable crop yield and ability to get to the harvest-able crop in a timely or convenient manner.

The on-farm trial producers however – continue to push themselves to make changes and integrate more cover crop and strategies into their systems.  The no-till cover crop planter (Farm 1) was being retro-fitted and the high-biomass covers were being re-sown for properly timed termination via rolling-crimping.  The living alley cover farm (Farm 2) continues to push for living roots in the soil and soil coverage as much as possible.  The pollinator farm (Farm 3) has abandoned tillage, replaced with no-till vegetable beds, and continues to integrate strategic pollinator planning with consecutive flowering cover crop varieties.  

Project Outcomes

6 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
Project outcomes:

Impacts

SH_Workshop_Survey_Nov_2016 11 08 afj

Much of the vegetable community is interested in alternatives to plastic row covers and interested in lowering fertilizer inputs while maintaining good soil nutrition and yield.  The presentations and farmer discussion panel brought topics to light some producers had not considered such as how to establish pollinator habitat in adjacent non-field areas to benefit cash crops, row-spacing to allow for mowing or other mechanical means to control living alley covers to reduce weed pressure, reduce soil temperature, and increase water infiltration during hot, dry summer conditions. 

All five participating farmers have had increased one-on-one or small group conversations about cover crops and their goals.  With each conversation there are new thoughts, questions, and ideas to try.  As the farms have success, they are typically not shy about sharing their successes – particularly when the changes being implemented are noticeable or dramatically different than the norm – and the farm receives some ribbing from neighboring producers.  The peer-to-peer information sharing seems to have had the greatest effect in terms of getting new methods on other farms.  The larger meeting groups were effective to start conversations and discussions, to get ideas flowing, but the cumulative changes came from more one-on-one contact and mentoring.  

The impact of the above practices on local farms may directly improve their tolerance for extreme weather conditions (heavy rains or extended dry spells), reduce their time and labor costs needed for weed management, but perhaps more importantly, the combined effects of the different management strategies will benefit the soil, which is the basis of field agriculture for a longer, more sustainable future in farming.  

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

There were a number of success, but the perceived failures took a good amount of the limelight.  The number of farmers attending the meetings was considered modestly successful for this region.  The topic discussions as a result of the meetings lasted much longer than the 1 meeting day, and resulted in farmers reaching out to learn more, either to other farmers or ag professionals.  The farmer-to-farmer time was very valuable in terms of speakers or demonstrations hitting the important topics other farmers wanted to hear:  does it really work in the field, how much is it going to cost, how good is this change, really?   

The field trials were challenging because of time and communication.  The farmers were often very pressed for time and energy.  The need to get their field work done in time for cash crop planting and harvesting was somewhere between engrossing and over-whelming.  One of the surprising twists with the failed timings was by working outside the high-pressure seasons (after planting or after harvesting), there was a much higher collaboration and success rate with the experimental set-up or harvest.  Future attempts at field trials, may include very purposely working outside the standard timelines of the farms crop production.  Options to use short-season varieties or target very specific portions of the crops growth cycle to allow both the farmer and the researcher to focus on the research questions may have some positive effects towards completed projects.  

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.