This project seeks to demonstrate that farmers can markedly improve soil health in silage cornfields using interseeded, multi-species cover crop mixes alone and with the addition of adaptive grazing. Farmers will learn to monitor soil health indicators for changes in functionality over time, using a water infiltration test and slake test for aggregate stability.
Our goal is to provide technical support to innovative farmer-leaders who will demonstrate successful regenerative practices on their farms and inspire increased adoption of a full suite of soil health practices in our farming community using on-farm, farmer-to-farmer demonstrations.
Participating in the project will result in increased use of multi-species, interseeded cover crops in corn plantings. Soil health improvements will be measured through annual soil tests and on-farm monitoring. Information will be shared with other farmers and agricultural educators and service providers through field days. Demonstrated successful practices will be adopted by other farmers in the area.
Farmers using these soil health practices reduce their inputs of fertilizers and pesticides while increasing their farm’s resilience to the extremes of precipitation.
Recent research has greatly improved our understanding of soil health. It highlights the central role of soil microbial life in improving soil health and reveals the importance of creating a hospitable environment for microbial communities in order to regenerate soil health. The adoption of soil health principles – minimizing soil disturbance, crop diversity, use of cover crops and integrating livestock – offers many benefits to farmers. By applying these principles, farmers can build soil organic matter and create stable soil aggregates that resist erosion and nutrient loss while improving water holding capacity and nutrient availability. Improved soil health provides benefits not only to farmers but also to society at large. Soil health improves water quality, reduces soil erosion, fosters a reduction in herbicide, pesticide and fertilizer applications, and removes atmospheric carbon and returns it to the soil via photosynthesizing green plants in symbiotic relationship with soil microbial life. Adaptive grazing has been shown to support the soil microbial community and accelerate the formation of soil organic matter.
Practices that improve soil health are only slowly being adopted. Estimates suggest that farmers plant cover crops on 1-5% of U.S. cropland acres, practice crop rotation on 25% of acres, and employ conservation tillage on just 25% of cropland. The recently published New York Soil Health Roadmap identified several barriers to adoption including management complexity, lack of technical assistance and policy disincentives.
Farmers also face logistical constraints including the difficulty in establishing late season cover crops after harvest and the lack of access to appropriate machinery for interseeding cover crops into a standing row crop. These are barriers to cover cropping in corn silage, nearly 1 million acres of which is grown in New York.
The New York Roadmap fails to acknowledge two of the regenerative practices demonstrated on numerous Midwestern farms through the Pasture Project and by the other farm innovators: the integration of livestock into crop production through adaptive grazing of cover crops, both during the growing season and in fall/winter, and the use of complex cover crop mixtures to accelerate improvements of soil health. Adaptive high stock density grazing is a form of grazing management that rapidly builds soil health and productivity by employing high stocking densities, frequent moves and long rest periods for paddocks. Grazing cover crops also produces direct economic benefits by providing additional livestock feed. These two benefits can make cover crops more financially viable, thus overcoming an important barrier to their adoption.
A NESARE-funded project in New York conducted cover crop trials on two dairy farms and two vegetable farms and held three field days. The project demonstrated use of various cover crops species established with several methods, including interseeding into a corn crop. The project provided valuable information on cover crop selection, methods and timing of seeding but did not focus on the effects on soil health.
Our project will provide needed expert on-farm technical support for each of the farmer-demonstrators, financial support for covering the cost of cover crop seed, and training to allow the farmers to measure changes in soil health over the life of the project. The project will also provide opportunities for farm neighbors and others to attend field days and learn from the farmers what has worked for them. The goal is to expand the farm’s use of cover crops into their silage corn acreage resulting in improved soil health and reduced input costs. Improved soil health can also mitigate damage from extreme weather events, reducing soil erosion, nutrient run-off and crop loss.
Consultant Allen Williams spent time at three farms in October, 2019. At each farm, he talked at length with the farmers about their management practices and goals for participating in this grant project. An area for the demonstration plot was identified on each farm taking into account the ability to manage grazing as part of the treatments. Each plot will be divided into three treatments; silage corn, silage corn interseeded with a multi-species cover crop at the V4-V5, and silage corn interseeded with a multi-species cover crop at the V4-V5 stage and adaptively grazed after corn harvest. Soil sampling at each location is delayed until spring, 2020 due to early onset on cold soil temperatures. Soil samples will be taken annually in each plot for analysis using the Haney and PLFA tests, as well as soil penetrometer and water infiltration measurements.
The farmers will meet in January, 2020 to discuss the demonstration plots and cover crop choices in consultation with Allen Williams. They will also work together and with consultant David Brandt to retrofit a corn seeder to allow for interseeding of cover crops in standing corn. Planting will take place in Spring 2020 as conditions allow. The Project PI will maintain regular contact and visits with the farmer-demonstrators to monitor progress, document growth over the season. Allen Williams will return in the fall of 2020, meet again with all farmer-demonstrators and lead a field day at one or more of the farms for the public to see the results from year 1. Farmers will share what worked, identify challenges and successes.