Organic No-Till Forage Crop Innovations

Progress report for ONE21-407

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2021: $29,745.00
Projected End Date: 07/31/2023
Grant Recipient: UVM Extension
Region: Northeast
State: Vermont
Project Leader:
Jeffrey Sanders
University of Vermont Extension
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Project Information

Project Objectives:
  1. This project seeks to demonstrate organic no-till (OGNT) forage crop rotations on a working livestock farm in Vermont. Our hope is to not only demonstrate it is possible, something we have not seen yet in an organic forage system, but to also give farmers a reference point for the options they have available to utilize no-till practices in organic systems.
  2. This project seeks to track all facets of the OGNT system. This will include data on field operations and equipment, inputs, yields, forage quality and cost of production.  Because these OGNT crop rotations will be designed to be adaptable for best success, we will also document important decision points along the way.  Why were plans changed, how/why were decisions made, were results as intended?  Having the farm’s Livestock Nutritionist on the project will allow us to also track how these innovate crop rotations fit into his feeding program and impact purchased grain.
  3. This project seeks to share and transfer knowledge to producers, both organic and conventional. This will be accomplished through existing outreach channels that include in-person field days, presentations at conferences and workshops, social media posts, newsletter articles and blog posts, and a published case study.

We have made good progress in Vermont with conventional forage crop producers adopting conservation cropping systems that involve cover crops and no-till practices to build soil health and protect water quality.  However, certified organic producers have not had the same success, as they struggle with rotating between annual and perennial forage crops and maintaining proper weed control without tillage.  This is challenging, as most organic producers are very motivated to build soil health and increase the sustainability of their operations.  In addition to reducing erosion, decreasing nutrient runoff, and improving soil health, we also believe that organic no-till cropping systems can decrease labor and some production costs.  We aim to highlight the opportunity for these systems to also provide an alternative for conventional producers hoping to reduce their synthetic inputs.  This project would utilize the methods we have used with conventional producers to adopt cover cropping and no-till practices with very good success.  We will demonstrate the techniques and systems on an operating farm.  We will document and share our results and the steps we took along the way.  We are taking into to account the whole farm picture – how it impacts crop production, farm operations and forage quality for the livestock.  We are working with a respected producer who is excited to share the project with his peers and is the driving force behind the project, with a very vested interest.


Organic no-till grain rotations have been studied in the northeast through the Rodale Institute’s work, Cornell’s Sustainable Cropping Systems Lab (M. Ryan), Penn State University and the USDA Beltsville ARS.  However, most of these projects focus on grain systems, tend to be situated in the mid-Atlantic portions of the northeast, and are still finding challenges to adopting these systems.  Very little, if any, of this work has been done in the context of organic forage crop production. We believe Vermont and other northeast livestock producers have a unique situation that allows them to troubleshoot and respond to these challenges with the flexibility that forage crop production and grazing brings to the system.  Dairy and beef producers in Vermont have not really been able to see for themselves the potential for how an organic no-till system could work here.  Every year at our annual No-Till and Cover Crop Symposium hosted by UVM Extension, we hear from attendees that they would like to learn more about these practices in organic systems. This project would be the first of its kind here in Vermont.


By providing examples of successful organic no-till forage crop rotations to both organic and conventional producers, we believe we can reduce two potential environmental impacts from the production of forage crops.  Reducing tillage in organic systems, which will reduce erosion and nutrient runoff and protect soil biology.  Reducing the use of herbicide in conventional no-till systems and associated impacts from these.  These benefits are already proven, so this project will focus on the ‘how’ of actually implementing the organic no-till forage crop system.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Rick Clark - Technical Advisor
  • Brian Kemp - Producer
  • Mike Thresher - Technical Advisor


Materials and methods:

Design and Implementation of Innovative OGNT Crop Rotations

The first part of this project involves the design and implementation of three very unique crop rotations.  Some of this work has already been done in preparation for this project proposal.  The project team has already reviewed the initial crop rotation plan (see attached).  The design is as follows:



PLAN: Currently in cover crop. Summer annual forage mixture (Sorghum x Sudangrass and forage pea) will be planted in May/June and harvested in late summer.  After harvest, we will plant legume cover crop mix (vetch, clover, pea) in August.  This legume cover crop will be rolled and crimped the following spring (2022) while planting corn silage.  Corn silage will be harvested in late September and followed with a winter cereal grain cover crop.  This will likely be followed the next spring with a new perennial hay/pasture seeding.

2021 Crop Season:

This field was planted to a Sorghum-Sudangrass/pea/soybean mixture in mid June.  After a good catch and growth on the crop, the farmer decided to put up a fence and graze the crop.  He moved cattle in there the first week of August and moved through the 20+ acres in ~5 days, splitting the field into 4 paddocks. UVM Extension staff collected yield measurements and forage samples and took pictures.  The farmer then followed the cattle with a slightly adjusted winter cover crop mixture that consisted of hairy vetch, winter pea, tillage radish and oats planted with his John Deere no-till grain drill.  Roughly 5 weeks later on September 21st, the farmer grazed the summer annual mix again after really good subsequent growth.  He was careful not to overstock the field and didn't break it up into smaller paddocks and moved the animals through quickly as to not damage the winter cover crop established in the understory.


PLAN: Currently in hay.  This first year we will take two cuts of hay during the season.  In August we will forego a third cut of hay and instead no-till plant a heavy seeding rate of winter rye.  Next spring (2022) we will no-till plant soybeans on 15-inch rows.  Roughly a month later we will roll and crimp the winter rye cover crop.  Depending on performance, we will either harvest the beans as forage or let them go to grain.  This harvest decision will determine what type of cover crop gets planted, and the subsequent cash crop.

2021 Crop Season:

After assessing field conditions, we decided to keep this same plan but switch field locations.  The original field had better alfalfa growth than expected, so we chose a nearby field that was mostly grass.  Otherwise we stuck to the plan.  In mid September 2021, the farmer chopped the hay off and spread manure.  He then chose half the field to do disc harrow the hay crop and left the other half in growing sod, then no-till drilled a high rate of winter rye into both sides of the field.  In the fall, the no-till side did not seem to have great growth of the winter rye, while the tilled side had good establishment.


PLAN: Currently in cover crop.  We will seed alfalfa with a small grain nurse crop this spring (2021).  We will harvest the alfalfa for two seasons.  The third year (2023), we will no-till plant corn silage and roll and crimp the alfalfa to terminate. 

2021 Crop Season:

The farm was able to seed alfalfa with an oat nurse crop in May 2021.  The alfalfa established well, and one hay cutting was harvested which consisted mostly of the oat nurse crop.  We expect to harvest the alfalfa in 2022 with no major issues.


All crop rotations are subject to modification depending on field conditions and how crops respond to planting, cover crop termination, weather and other conditions.  In order to ensure success, we maintained some flexibility to adapt to changing conditions and availability of seed, grazing animals, harvest equipment etc..  Our hope is that the diversity of crops and cover crops will lend themselves to flexibility when it comes to timing of planting and harvest to ensure the desired outcomes of reduced and eliminated tillage and high quality forage crop production.  Rick Clark plays an important role here consulting and guiding us as we stay nimble throughout the rotations.


Collecting Data

PLAN: All fields will be soil sampled annually.  We will send soil tests to the University of Maine for basic soil chemistry analysis.  This will help us make accurate nutrient and soil amendment applications for the desired crops. Manure samples will be collected as spread to account for total nutrients applied in manure on each field.  These will also be sent to the University of Maine.  Any commercial amendments will use the analysis provided by the manufacturer for nutrient content and availability.

2021 Crop Season:

All fields were soil sampled in either the fall or spring ahead of planting in 2021. 

All forage crops will be sampled for yield and quality.  Yield will be measured by field clipping just prior to harvest date.  In the case of closely spaced crops and perennial hay, multiple quadrats of a known area (6 x 36-inch or 9 x 30-inch) will be clipped, weighed wet, dried at the University of Vermont Horticultural Research and Education Center drying room at 110-degrees Fahrenheit until all moisture is driven off.  Samples will then be weighed again.  This will give us percent dry matter and yield measurements.  Field crops with wider spacing (corn, soybeans, sorghum) will follow similar protocol.  However, the field measurements will be taken from multiple 1/1000th of an acre plots throughout the field, weighed on a tripod mounted field scale and representative stalks will be run through a chipper.  Composite samples will be taken from the chipped samples and then dried to determine percent dry matter as described above.  All final dried composite samples will be ground to 2mm and submitted to Rock River Labs for NIR analysis for forage quality including parameters for protein and amino acids, carbohydrates, minerals and ash, fermentation products, digestibility, energy and anti-nutrients (molds, yeasts, vomitoxins, etc.).  In addition, the nutritionist will sample forages from bunker silo storage before feeding to be sent to the same lab.  We have chosen Rock River Labs, as that is the current lab Brian and his nutritionist use, and we want our samples to be comparable to historic forage quality information and be able to be used when balancing rations during the project period.


We will record all field operations.  This includes any planting (date, rate, depth, machinery used, etc.), cover crop termination (roll/crimp, mow, graze, etc.), harvest (dates, times, yield as above, growth stage, type), manure and soil amendment applications (time, rate, nutrient composition).  In additions fields will be photographed during multiple stages of the crop rotations.


Brian will track labor and equipment time on all field operations.  In addition, costs of all inputs will be tracked.  Any changes made to the livestock ration as a result of a new forage in the rotation (sorghum/pea, soybean, etc.) or related to yield or quality will be assessed with the help of the Livestock Nutritionist.


We will track general weather as it pertains to crop production by logging rainfall, growing degree days and temperatures throughout the season using the closest weather station (KVTWHITI13) in the Weather Underground Network.  We will also deploy Spectrum Technologies WatchDog A-Series Data Logger temperature sensors installed 4-feet above ground level and protected in radiation shields in at least one of the fields (two data loggers per field) to capture air temperatures hourly during the spring, summer and fall.


Case Study Development            

We will share data through various methods of outreach and engagement, which is described in the Outreach Plan of this proposal.  However, the final product of this project will include a published case study.  We have found these to be very useful tools for sharing the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of a farmer trying new practices in a way that other producers can find useful when embarking on their own decision making process.  In a previous USDA-NRCS Conservation Innovation Project focused on the economics of no-till and cover cropping on Vermont farms the project lead and her Extension colleague, Betsy Miller (Farm Business Educator) produced a 4-page case study that has been well-received (Workman and Miller, 2020).  This case study was focused on economics, but for this project we would look at the overall picture of adopting OGNT crop rotations including equipment, agronomics, impact on livestock rations and economics.  We will follow the guidance in the USDA’s Technical Note on developing and using case studies to assist farmers with the decision-making process of implementing conservation practices (Knight, 2016).

Research results and discussion:

2021 Cropping Season:

  • Baseline soil tests and field assessments were collected just prior to the project starting.
  • In August, we collected yield and quality data just prior to grazing of the summer annual forages planted in Field 1. 
  • We also are keeping track of field operations, inputs, and farmer impressions.

Overall this first cropping season went very well.  Brian Kemp, the Farmer/Cooperator, is committed and engaged in the project.  Having Rick Clark as a consultant has been helpful to make decisions on the fly, mid-season, when decisions and adaptations need to happen to ensure success.  We really only had one harvestable crop (by design) this first cropping season, the forage sorghum/sudangrass/soybean/field pea combination.  This turned out very well, and Brian's herd was able to graze it twice - once in August and once in September.  The winter cover crop was established between the two grazings, and we hope to see good spring growth.  Brian even invested in perimeter fencing to facilitate grazing, showing his 'all in' approach to making this organic,  no-till system work.  Next season will be where the bulk of the work and critical decision-making will come into play.  There will be two fields were true no-till crop planting will occur without the use of herbicides.  With the help of UVM Extension project staff, Brian was successful in receiving grant funding to purchase a cover crop roller-crimper.  He is also working with project staff (UVM Extension and Rick Clark), to ensure his corn planter and grain drill are equipped to plant through residue in this new system.  The key in 2022 will be flexibility, quick decision-making and good communication between the project team.

Research conclusions:

2021 Cropping Season:

As this is the very beginning of this project, we do not have any conclusions currently.  The data for the field assessments for the cover crops planted in 2021 and the soil sampling results are still being compiled and will be made available in future reports.  We will put together a table of with the pre planting cover crop, weed assessment, and nutrient usage in the spring.  The work done in 2021 was done to prepare the fields for the implementation of the project in 2022.  Pictures and details are much more relevant for the 2022 growing season when all case study and field work will be implemented.     

Participation Summary
1 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

6 Consultations
2 On-farm demonstrations

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

PLAN: As an agronomic Extension outreach program, the Champlain Valley Crop, Soil and Pasture team has developed a robust network of farmers, agriculture businesses, agency staff, service providers, policy makers and other stakeholders.  In addition, we have close ties to the Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition (CVFC), a farmer-led conservation organization who also has a similar mission and outreach network of farmers and stakeholders.  Our partnering farmer on this project, Brian Kemp, serves on the President of CVFC.  Between the two organizations, we have networks of roughly 900 plus individuals, about half of which are farmers.  Both Extension and CVFC have websites, social media accounts, email contact lists and physical mailing lists.  In addition, we often leverage our broader Extension outreach networks and those of our sister programs within Extension.


We will use a proven outreach approach, which is based on utilizing respected, innovative and motivated local producers to try new practices and share their results and experiences with other growers.  This in conjunction with tracking results and a focused outreach plan has resulted in good practice adoption and transfer of knowledge.  Brian Kemp is the perfect fit to do that for this project.  He has solid footing in both the conventional and organic farming arenas in Vermont.  He is a detail-oriented manager that keeps good records and has an established relationship with the project team.


We will target our outreach to farmers in several ways.  We will hold field meetings at Brian’s farm to showcase results of this project.  We find that farmers like to see for themselves how practices look on the ground and ask questions of the producer showcasing them.  We expect between 20 and 30 farmers to attend in-person field days, which we will do at least two of for this project.  In addition, Rick Clark will give a presentation in conjunction with one of the field meetings.  We would expect more farmers (50) to attend that event.  We will share project results at the annual No-Till and Cover Crop Symposium (NTCC).  That event draws around 100 regional farmers (200 over two years).  The published case study will also be targeted towards farmers, and will be distributed digitally and in print to farmers through directed mailings, emails and events.  We will print and distribute 300 copies of the case study and track links to the digital version.


In addition to farmers, the same approaches will be used to target agricultural businesses, agency/non-profit staff who assist producers with practice adoption, policy makers and the public.  We find that these audiences often respond better to digital communications and as such often access our email newsletters, blog posts, social media posts.  We can track those through email and blog ‘clicks’, social media metrics and also through attendance at events.  We would expect 75 of these stakeholders to attend the NTCC each year (150 over two years), and they comprise roughly half of our digital mailing list (~450 individuals). We would also expect 5-10 at each field meeting.

2021 Crop Season:

During the 2021 crop season we did not do any formal outreach or education activities.  As the first year of the project, we were focused on getting the fields and rotations established, preliminary data collected and the project team working together.  We will use data, photos, etc in future outreach/education efforts related to this project.

Learning Outcomes

1 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:

Innovative and diverse crop rotations

Reduced and no-till in organic systems

Equipment and approaches needed for alternative crops and tillage types

New crop and cover crop types/species being planted

Project Outcomes

1 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
1 Grant applied for that built upon this project
1 Grant received that built upon this project
$19,650.00 Dollar amount of grant received that built upon this project
2 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

So far this project is off to a really great start.  The farmer cooperator (Brian Kemp) dove all in and followed the crop plan almost exactly, making changes only for seed availability and timing to match weather and field conditions.  He was able to get a successful crop of sorghum-sudangrass for the first time and even built permanent fence around a field that had not been grazed in the past in order to facilitate grazing this field.  While we are only in the beginning of this project, it is already proven to be successful in getting the producer and the entire project team to think outside the box and try something new with good success.  Next crop season will be where the rubber meets the road, when we start no-tilling more conventional crops like corn and soybeans.  With assistance from UVM Extension staff, the farmer applied for and received a grant from the Vermont Agency of Agriculture's Capital Equipment Assistance Program (CEAP) to purchase a roller-crimper to use in conjunction with this project.

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.