Cover crops are being promoted because they improve soil organic matter content and soil biological activity, reduce soil erosion, soil compaction, and nutrient leaching. In this outreach project, we will focus on promoting cover crop use on vegetable and grain farms in Pennsylvania.
Much of our recent cover crop research and outreach has focused on dairy farms, and the adoption of cover crops on these farms has been amazing (Hively et al., 2015). One reason we believe adoption has been fast on dairy farms is because the cover crops can often be used for forage. In addition, they are a good place to spread manure. Further, there are good windows to establish cover crops on dairy farms, such as after corn silage.
On vegetable and grain farms, cover crop uses don’t include forage and manure application, and establishment windows may be smaller, so cover crops may be a more difficult sell because benefits may be less immediate than for dairy farmers and challenges for establishment greater. Although there is a lack of statistics, casual observations suggest cover crop use is very limited on vegetable and grain farms. On vegetable farms, cover crops, or soil management for improved soil health in general, have not received as much attention. The emphasis has been on other management techniques to increase yield, improve timeliness of production (such as plasticulture), or reduce losses by pests and diseases (usually using pesticides). However, there may good establishment windows for cover crops in vegetable rotations, and the need to improve soil health is great. Common grain crop rotations provide few options to establish cover crops on time before the onset of the winter (e.g. corn-soybean rotations or corn-wheat-double-cropped soybean rotations). In addition, there has not been a large recognition for the need for cover crops. Increasingly, however, there are observations suggesting soil health in grain crops is poor. This is even the case in no-till grain crops, where significant soil erosion is being recognized as a threat due to poor residue cover after soybeans and poor surface soil structure. These are the challenges we plan to address in this project.
The opportunities are many. In vegetable rotations, windows for cover crop establishment are many. It is probably the benefits and management of cover crops that need to be highlighted and addressed. In grain rotations, new technologies have come on line recently for in-crop establishment of cover crops using inter-seeding technology, and new techniques for planting into living cover crops before termination (Planting Green). In this project we will be promoting the use of cover crops on Pennsylvania vegetable and grain farms and educating farmers about these new opportunities and techniques.
The objective of this project is to promote the use of cover crops on Pennsylvania vegetable and grain farms by educating farmers about the benefits and management of cover crops in vegetable rotations, and new opportunities and techniques for grain crops including in-crop establishment of cover crops using inter-seeding technology, and new techniques for planting into living cover crops before termination (Planting Green).
Four on-farm demonstrations are planned – three will be on working farms (2 vegetable and 1 grain) and one on the Penn State Horticultural Research Farm.
The first demonstration will be at the farm of Jeff Frey and will demonstrate namely interseeding a cover crop of rye into standing double cropped soybeans. The soybeans will be planted after wheat with a planter on 30” row spacing. The rye will be interseeded with the Penn State Interseeder or with Jeff’s own equipment this fall and a field day will be organized there in the spring of 2017.
The second demonstration trial will be at the farm of Sean McDermott. He has a cover crop of rye which will be rolled down and vegetables will be no-till transplanted into it. Sean is interested in this practice but doesn’t have any experience with it.
The third demonstration trial will take place at Nolan Masser’s Red Hill Farms LLC near Pitman in Northumberland County and will involve no-till potato and cabbage production in rolled rye cover crop. Crop Consultant Gerard Troisi will oversee this and produce a video clip of this practice.
The fourth demonstration trial will be on the Penn State Horticultural Research Farm in Centre County and will involve no-till transplanting different vegetable crops into a rolled cover crop of rye. The demonstrations at the 3 working farms will be whole field or strips (with/without cover crop) but the demonstrations at Penn State will be small plots with 4 replications. Rye cover crops will be established in September/October with a drill or broadcast, except if interseeded in double cropped soybeans which will most likely be in August with an interseeder.
Cover crop biomass will be collected on all sites, and yield of double-cropped soybeans or the crops planted into the cover crops will be evaluated. The soybean yield will be compared with a strip without cover crop, the vegetables by number, the potatoes by weight, and the vegetables at the research farm by number/weight/quality (details of this trial still need to be worked out with the horticultural specialist). Participating farmers will receive advice by the consultants or extension personnel with cover crop and economic crop management.
Educational activities will consist of the following:
- Three field days at demonstration farms: 1) at Jeff Frey farm focused on interseeding cover crop into double-cropped soybeans, 2) at Sean McDermott farm that will demonstration use of a cover crop roller and observation of the vegetables no-till transplanted into the rolled cover crop, and 3) at Red Hill Farms that will feature demonstrations and observations of no-till potato and cabbage into rolled cover crop.
- Monthly farmer meetings next to Jeff Frey’s farm to discuss cover crops.
- Field day at the PSU Horticultural Research Farm that will demonstrate no-till transplanted vegetables.
- Presentations at Pennsylvania No-Till Alliance Field Day and at PASA’s 3rd Annual Summer Conference (dates as yet unknown).
- Four presentations at winter meetings. Venues still remain to be determined, but will include the 2017 Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Convention and the Annual Conference of the Pennsylvania No-Till Alliance and possibly the PASA Annual Conference in January or February 2017.
- 6 articles on aspects of cover crops in grain and vegetable production to be published in Penn State’s Field Crop News and in the Vegetable and Small Fruit Gazette.
- Three 5 minute video clips posted on the internet – one on interseeding, one on no-till transplanting vegetables and one on no-till potatoes.
- Two consultants (Steve Groff and Gladis Zinati) will coach several beginning cover crop users on a one-on-one basis to help them adopt cover cropping as part of their rotation.
- Cover crop seed will be distributed on a trial basis to 15 grain and 20 vegetable farmers. These grain and vegetable farmers will be given a record keeping sheet that they will be required to return to the project direction so their experiences and observations can be used for educational purposes.
We had a conference call about our project in 2016. We discussed having to postpone some outreach activities to a later date due to late start of the project. Our project will now end in December of 2018 instead of December of 2017, giving us another year to accomplish our objectives.
In 2016, a cover crop meeting was held at the Amish Machinery Shop next to Jeff Frey’s farm in early August attended by 5 farmers. Dr. Duiker published an article on cover crops in Field Crop News.
The grain farmer in our project, Jeff Frey, interseeded a cover crop of ryegrass, radish, rape and clover into 30” double cropped soybeans on Aug 16th. Cover crop was planted deep (1.25-1.5”) so it would come up slowly. Although the cover crop came up good by Aug 23, the cover crop dried up so the planned field day for April is not going to be possible. We will focus on the July 25th-2017 Pennsylvania No-Till Alliance Field Day at Jeff Frey’s farm to do outreach activities.
Sean McDermoth planted rye cover crop (some mixed with legumes such as hairy vetch or crimson clover) on 8.5 acres of his farm. A portion of that will be rolled down in May 2017 and transplanted to tomato. A field day is planned at that farm for July 2017.
Tomatoes and butternut squash were planted in a research trial at the Horticultural Research Farm at Rock Springs, PA. In this trial managed by Elsa Sanchez and Sjoerd Duiker we tilled plots that were subsequently bedded and covered with black plastic, while other plots were planted no-till into a rolled rye cover crop. The research project was laid out as a randomized complete block design for tomato and for squash with three replications each. The rye cover crop was killed with herbicide in spring of 2017. Beds were created after chiselplowing the plots and driptape laid after which beds were covered with plastic in the bedded treatment. Transplants were planted by hand. Drip tape was also laid in the no-till plots. All plots received supplemental irrigation and fertilizer as needed. Yield was taken as well as infiltration rates measured. Soil samples are being analyzed for soil physical properties.
Triticale seed and oat/radish mix with data recording sheets were distributed to interested farmers at the field days on July 12th (McDermoth farm, Bethel) and July 27th (Frey farm, Willowstreet). Seed was distributed to 15 grain farmers and 6 vegetable farmers to experiment with and report experiences back to project management in Spring of 2018. The seed was distributed so that farmers could experiment with new cover crops on a small acreage. The protocol was developed by the Committee for this grant that met in the SARE Baltimore workshop in 2016. Seed for grain farmers was selected based on winterhardiness so that the cover crop could be planted late and yet still would come through the winter and would generate growth in the spring. Seed for vegetable farmers was selected based on earlier planting and winterkill to avoid complications with planting and soil warming in 2018. Data recording sheets asked for information that will help us reach out to other farmers to promote cover crop use. Farmers were asked to return data sheets after spring seeding.
Preliminary 2017 research results from the research trial at the Penn State Horticultural Research Farm showed significantly higher yield per plant for tomatoes and squash planted in beds covered with plastic compared with no-till transplants into rye cover crop. The reason is not completely known but soil temperature may have to do with it as well as greater shock to transplants planted into no-till soil. Yields in no-till vs beds were 2.2 and 4.6 lbs of tomato/plant and 3.4 and 7.5 tomatoes per plant and for squash 3.5 and 5.0 lbs/plant and 2.1 and 2.7 per plant for squash, respectively. However, because the no-till crops were planted at 4 ft row spacing and in beds on 7 ft row spacing, the yields per acre were either not significantly different (tomatoes) or significantly higher (butternut squash) in no-till (11,279 lbs/A) than in plastic beds (8,444 lbs/A). Infiltration was measured between rows with single 13 7/8” diameter infiltrometers in summer. Infiltration rate was measured in 5-min intervals until it stabilized. The stable infiltration rate was significantly higher in no-till (10.3 inch/hr) than between the beds covered with plastic (3.5 inch/hr). Aggregate stability was significantly higher in no-till (51%) than between the beds covered with plastic (33%).
The research results suggest promise for no-till vegetables into cover crops with comparable yields plus soil health and environmental benefits. One noted disadvantage in no-tillage was slower growth and later harvest which would be a significant drawback that needs to be addressed. We will repeat this trial in 2018.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
Integrating cover crops in vegetable farm production. Field Day. July 12th, 2017. Sean McDermoth Farm, Bethel, PA. Educators Duiker and Wilson gave overview of cover crops in vegetable production. Farmer Sean McDermoth gave overview of his farm operation, soil management, cover crop use and vision for future. Gladis Zinati presented Cover crop roller to manage cover crops. Educator Jeff Graybill introduced no-till transplanter. Sjoerd Duiker distributed seed to interested farmers. 6 participants.
Healthy soils: Building a strong foundation. Pennsylvania No-Till Alliance Annual Field Day July 27th, 2017 at Jeff Frey farm, Willowstreet, PA. Program included prominent speakers and PA Secretary of Agriculture Russ Redding, a soil pit, no-till planter demonstrations, cover crop mixture plots. Sjoerd Duiker distributed seed to interested farmers. 250 participants.
Cover Crop Demonstrations at Ag Progress Days. August 15-17, 2017 in Rock Springs, PA. This was a self-guided tour of cover crop plots demonstrating a variety of mixtures.
Healthy Soils: Building a Strong Foundation. Pennsylvania No-Till Alliance Winter Meeting December 7th, 2017 in Shady Maple Smorgasbord, East Earl, PA. Program included presentations by Gail Fuller, farmer from Kansas on cover crops on grain farms, Lamonte Garber from Stroud Water Research Center on cover crop effects on water quality, Jeff Graybill on no-till Transplanting of tobacco, pumpkins and vegetables, and PA Secretary of Agricultue Russ Redding. 115 participants.
Healthy soils and top yields with no-till and cover crops. Penn State Extension Soil Health Workshop held on December 14th, in Farm & Home Center, Lancaster, PA. The program featured Sjoerd Duiker on importance of no-till and crop diversity for soil health and soil conservation; Leroy Bupp, York County farmer with a soil health demonstration; Dave Dumm from Binkley and Hurst with a planter essentials presentation and a discussion by No-Till Alliance Board members Jim Hershey and Jeff Frey who talked about their cover cropping practices. 43 participants.
Healthy soils and top yields with no-till and cover crops. Penn State Extension Soil Health Workshop held on December 15th, in Penn State Cooperative Extension Office in Leesport, PA. The program featured Sjoerd Duiker on importance of no-till and crop diversity for soil health and soil conservation; Leroy Bupp, York County farmer with a soil health demonstration; Dave Dumm from Binkley and Hurst with a planter essentials presentation and a discussion by No-Till Alliance Board members Jim Hershey and Jeff Frey who talked about their cover cropping practices. 22 participants.
5 farmers were reached at the workshop in early August
Article in Field Crop News: Cover crop season is in full swing (S.W. Duiker, Aug. 24)