Taking no-till corn a step (or two) further

Project Overview

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2016: $14,800.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2018
Grant Recipient: Ward Dairy Farm
Region: Northeast
State: Maine
Project Leader:
Mary Ann Hayes
Ward Dairy Farm

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: corn, grass (misc. perennial), hay
  • Animal Products: dairy


  • Animal Production: feed/forage
  • Crop Production: continuous cropping, cover crops, crop rotation, multiple cropping, no-till
  • Natural Resources/Environment: carbon sequestration
  • Pest Management: mulches - killed, mulches - living
  • Production Systems: general crop production
  • Soil Management: soil analysis, nutrient mineralization, soil quality/health

    Proposal summary:

    Thanks to effective outreach from Cooperative Extension coupled with proven benefits for early adopters, Maine’s dairy producers are migrating to no-till crop production methods.

    However, there are downsides, chief among them: (1) the need to apply herbicides to kill the cover crop before planting corn, and (2) the increased challenges of effectively seeding down when it comes time to rotate the crop.  As a result, fields go un-rotated, soil health suffers and more inputs are applied.

    This project seeks to trial two approaches to addressing these related downsides to no-till. First, the project will trial, compare and evaluate two alternative seeding down methods.  Second, we propose to build from work done in North Dakota to trial co-seeding biannual hairy vetch with winter rye on corn fields and leaving the vetch (at 2 different seeding levels) to grow with the corn.  This regimen, if we find that corn is not crowded out, has the potential to reduce spring herbicide treatments as well as the addition of urea to supplement nitrogen during July. 

    We are fortunate to have dairy forage expert Professor Richard Kersbergen of UMaine Cooperative Extension teaming with us.  His earned reputation and broad reach among dairy producers, researchers and field advisors ensures widespread sharing of project results throughout New England. 

    This could not come as a better-timed opportunity on our farm, as we are in the midst of an intergenerational transfer and exploring new ways to enhance farm profitability and long-term soil health with a sustainable future in mind.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Proposed Solution:

    This project will explore 2 questions.  First, are either or both of two forage mix seeding alternatives to late spring drilling cost-effective when rotating from corn to perennial forage? The two methods to be tested are (a) drilling in forage mix seed with cover crop in the fall and (b) early broadcasting just before final snow melt in spring.

    Second, can seeding hairy vetch as a biannual corn cover crop along with annual winter rye produce a net gain in productivity and profitability for corn fields?  We will test for weed suppression, soil health, N levels and impact on corn yield (potential competition). 

    This work will be done on a highly regarded, 90-head conventional dairy farm in the heart of Maine’s dairy belt adjacent to the home of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association headquarters to maximize relevance to larger and smaller operations, both conventional and organic.  UMaine Cooperative Extension’s Sustainable Dairy and Forage Expert, Rick Kersbergen will serve as project advisor and ensure effective outreach to the dairy and scientific communities.  Joining the team will be our dairy nutritionist Al Fortin of Feed Commodities and our farm agronomist (TBD, current one retiring).

    Methods and Measurements:

    Once informed about the grant, we will gather the project team of the farm owners (Larry Ward and Mary Ann Hayes), the Farm Manager (Patrick Hayden) and the technical advisors (Rick Kersbergen, Al Fortin and the agronomist) to confirm the project plan.  Existing soil tests will be reviewed on all subject fields with additional samples taken if necessary to measure additional baseline soil health conditions.  All 9 fields involved in the project will be scouted to confirm conditions and observations.  The project team will meet monthly during the growing season to monitor and evaluate the experiment.

    Experiment 1:  Seeding Down Alternatives

    We have selected fields that will be split or adjacent to control fields with similar conditions to compare results. As recommended by our technical advisor in September, we began an aggressive catch-up program of crop rotation for 2016 by selecting 5 fields that have been in corn for many years totaling 20 acres.  While a cover crop (winter triticale) was drilled on all 20 acres, 10 acres were also seeded down in red clover and tall fescue. The other 10 acres will be seeded down with the same mixture via broadcast just before final snowmelt/thawing in March.  While this work will be completed before the grant begins paid fully by the farm, we wish to include these acres in the evaluation of the practice.

    By late June, we will set up our first test plots on each field to compare the planting densities of both clover and tall fescue on each of the field segments and compare the differences between the fall drilled and early spring broadcast plantings.  Measurements and photographs will be taken. 

    By mid-July, we would hope to have sufficient growth to harvest these fields and will compare yields of the two planting treatments.  This will be repeated in August (a likely time for a twilight field walk to share results) and September.   We would write up an interim progress report with what we have observed and learned at this point and note any changes to be made in seed selection, planting rate or timing in the ensuing year.

    Based on the performance of the clover and tall fescue mix, the same or a different forage seed combination will be drilled with cover crop in the Fall on half of an additional six-acre field scheduled for rotation out of corn in 2017.   A baseline soil sample will be taken.  The other half will be broadcast seeded in March 2017 (seeding rates informed by the results of the prior year) and the same measurements performed as were done the prior season on the first 5 fields.  This will provide 13 acres of each treatment (26 total) to compare and evaluate over two seasons.

    Experiment #2:  Hairy Vetch Planted with Corn

    All or part of 3 corn fields totaling 10 acres will be soil sampled following harvest in September 2016, then planted (drilled) with hairy vetch along with winter rye.  Of this, approximately half will be planted at 15 lb/acre and half at 10 lb/acre to enable comparison.  The winter rye will be planted at approximately 75 lb/acre. 

    During early May, the winter rye will be killed with an application of Intensity One at 6oz/acre.   This will not kill the vetch.  During mid-late May, manure will be applied and corn will be planted into the vetch.  Adjacent field sections not planted with vetch will be fertilized and planted with the same corn seed on the same day and used as control fields.  In late June, fields will be scouted for weed emergence and results recorded; the project team will convene to review observations, compare any difference among the test fields and decide if any further herbicide application is necessary.  

    In early July, test plots will be established in these fields.  Populations of both corn and vetch will be counted and compared.  Corn height will be measured and compared.  Soil N will be measured.  A decision will be made whether or not to add N to any of the fields.  Observations will be documented and photographed.

    In early August, populations, height, stalk condition and color will be measured and photographed.  Soil moisture and N will again be tested and compared, along with any visual observations of differences between the fields with each level and without vetch, including signs of stress on the corn, weed types and populations.  Conditions will be noted that are worthy of follow up prior to harvest. 

    In early September, the test plots will again be checked, with a focus on comparing ear size and density as well as stalk height.   Yields per acre will be calculated and compared.  Weather conditions through the summer will be documented, and the difference in soil and crop conditions attributable to each density of vetch will be recorded.  It may be apparent at this point which density of vetch is preferable, if at all.  This will provide an excellent opportunity for a twilight grower walk to share results prior to corn harvest. 

    Following harvest, soil samples will again be taken, noting relative changes from prior samples on each field and drawing conclusions as appropriate.  The fields and controls will be drilled with winter rye at approximately 75 lb/acre.  The vetch is biannual so should not need to be reseeded.

    The same methods will be applied during the 2018 growing season, except that greater attention will be given to observations regarding comparative weed suppression and soil health with the vetch in place longer.  A decision will be made whether to treat fields with different herbicide applications as weeds present, and compare results. 

    Following yield comparisons and harvest, soils will again be sampled and analyzed.  Quality changes in the soils will be documented as well as yields to generate a productivity score for each field.  The cost of applications on each field will be calculated and a net profitability score will be generated for each field.  The project team will meet to evaluate the results and discuss ramifications for farm management going forward.

    Project Timetable:

    Late April 2016:  Sign Grant Agreement, Learn Procedures, Gather Project Team, Confirm Plan Forward including Scouting Fields (Hayes 8 hours, Other members 6 hours)

    May 2016:  Harvest triticale on forage test fields (Hayden, 4 tractor hours, not charged to grant)

    Late June 2016:  Set up test plots on forage fields, measure densities, compare results of 2 seeding methods, record findings (Kersbergen lead, 8 hours all members)

    Mid July & Mid August 2016:  Harvest fields (Hayden, Ward & farm crew, not charged to grant); compare yields (Kersbergen lead, all members participate; decide whether to hold twi-light workshop, 8 hours/month/member average); order seed (Ward and agronomist)

    Mid September 2016:  Final comparative yield analysis prior to 3rd cutting; decision made regarding seed mixture for 2017 crop rotation field (Agronomist, Kersbergen & Hayden co-lead, 4 hours each, 2 hours for Fortin, Hayes & Ward), Interim progress report drafted; (Kersbergen, Hayes, 4 hours each; 1 hour review time for Fortin, agronomist, Ward & Hayden)

    Late September 2016:  Grass & Corn Harvest (Hayden, Ward & Farm Crew, not charged to grant)

    Late September 2016:  Soil Tests for field rotating to grass and 3 fields entering vetch trial (Agronomist, 4 hours)

    Early October 2016:  Drill rye and vetch (2 rates) into 10 acres of trial corn fields (Hayden, 5 tractor hours); Drill rye and forage seed mix into 3 of 6 acres rotating from corn to grass (Hayden, 1 tractor hour), Kersbergen & agronomist confirm rates

    March 2017:  Broadcast forage seed mix onto other half of rotating field (Hayden, 1 tractor hour)

    April 2017 & 2018:  Team meeting to confirm plan forward (Hayes lead, 4 hours all members)

    Early May 2017 & 2018:  Intensity One Application to kill rye (White, 2 hours)

    Mid-Late May 2017 & 2018:  Manure applied & corn planted into vetch & control fields (Hayden, 8 tractor hours not charged to grant)

    June 2017 & 2018:  Scout fields for weed emergence (Agronomist lead, 4 hours, others participate)

    July/Aug 2017 & 2018:  Test plots, take samples, analyze, discuss findings with team (Kersbergen/Agronomist co-lead, 8 hours each, others less); advertise twilight workshop

    Sept 2017 & 2018:  Yields/acre confirmed; twilight workshop held, soil samples taken, analyzed, productivity & profitability analyses, project evaluated (Kersbergen lead; agronomist assists, 16 hours each, 8 hours others),

    October 2018:  Final team meeting to confirm findings, write reports/presentations, evaluate project, confirm outreach plans, close out grant.  (Hayes lead, Kersbergen, 16 hours each, others 4 hours)

    Outreach Plan:

    Outreach will be conducted primarily by our technical advisor.  Professor Kersbergen has an enormous reach among Maine’s dairy producers and will conduct at least one, if not two grower twi-light field workshops at the farm.  We will notify the Maine Dairy Industry Association, Maine Organic Milk Producers, MOFGA and our Amish neighbors including 3 dairy operations.  Al Fortin will notify all Feed Commodities dairy customers.  We will utilize Maine Farm Bureau, NRCS, FSA and the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry to get the word out.  Larry has a strong reputation among dairy producers in the region that will draw interest and attendance.

    We will capture data carefully throughout the project and use photographs to help visualize the results for reporting and outreach.  The results will be developed into a PowerPoint presentation to facilitate sharing at grower meetings.  By the end of the project, the report will be available in the SARE database.   Professor Kersbergen will advertise its availability through the Maine Cows and Crops electronic newsletter.

    If one method clearly is more effective over the other, growers will be encouraged to adopt or at least trial the practice themselves.  Larry and Patrick will be available to talk with any growers requesting advice.

    Outreach will continue following the close of the grant.  In addition to ongoing one-on-one consultations, Professor Kersbergen has pledged to share the results of this project broadly at talks on reduced tillage corn silage production and cover crops throughout New England.


    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.