Alternative continuous cover forages II
Alternative Continuous Cover Forages 2 (ACCF2) is a unique cropping system based on soil health management that produces good yields of high quality forages for dairy cattle. It is designed as an alternative to the traditional crop rotation of silage corn for 3 or more years depending on slope, with winter fallow throughout, followed by a spring seeded perennial. The traditional rotation has become more challenging for the small dairy farm as labor and environmental constraints become more severe on these farms. The ACCF2 system is designed to provide more crop production options to dairy farmers that allow them to harvest dairy quality feed with greater planting and harvest timing flexibility as well as cropping systems which provide greater soil cover and nutrient retention benefits.
Under the ACCF system the crop sequence, species utilized (winter small grains and summer annuals) and harvest timing all contribute to achieving increased soil organic matter levels, enhanced crop uptake of nutrients, weed control and retention of soil and its nutrients. The unique aspect of ACCF is the combination of its facets as a whole system approach. The soil is never bare for more than 3 weeks, every crop grown produces desirable forage, no pesticides are used, the harvest system is flexible (suitable for either grazing or mechanical means) and traditional equipment is employed. Although no specialized tools or knowledge are required to succeed with ACCF, a change of mindset from the traditional crop rotation approach is necessary.
At the initiation of the system, winter rye or triticale is sown in August or September into either plowed ground that was an unproductive sod, or disked ground that was in a summer annual such as corn. When sown in August these winter grains can be grazed from late September into October. The following spring, the winter grains are in the vegetative stage and are either grazed throughout May and into early June, or mechanically harvested for silage around mid-May. Farms who wish to can harvest a straw crop in July from winter rye re-growth. Either after straw harvest or anytime in June the field is plowed and fitted, followed by planting the annual Brown Midrib Sorghum-sudangrass, which is a highly digestible summer annual crop. This is grown either as a grazing crop, typically yielding 2-3 grazings, or for 2 harvests of mechanically harvested forage (silage). This crop may be inter-seeded with perennial clover and grass or planted alone followed by another season of winter grain or a late summer seeding of perennial forages. The end goal of the ACCF system is to establish a perennial stand that initially establishes with less weed pressure and greater plant vigor than in the traditional rotation and persists for seven to eight years of intensive production.
The ACCF2 project will work with cooperating farms to deploy the ACCF system where data will be gathered on soil health, crop performance, forage quality, environmental measures (nitrogen leaching), and economics. The project will also record farmer experiences with the crops.
35 farmers will change the basis of their crop system decisions. The soil will be viewed as the farm’s foundation resource, with management of its health a continual priority. This contrasts with the conventional mindset that focuses on managing crops without regarding the soil quality parameters that constitute soil health. Crop species selection, nutrient applications, tillage and harvest methods and timing will be rooted in the production and maintenance of optimal soil health. Evidence of this achievement will be adoption of one or more of the following four key components of ACCF on 10% of their acreage.
1. Assessment of soil health status through soil testing and/or use of field tools.
2. Establishing perennials by Inter-seeding with summer annuals.
3. Planting of winter annuals with subsequent spring harvest as dairy quality forage.
4. Utilization of manure as the primary nutrient application on summer annuals along with selection of healthy soil-status sites for such nutrient needy crops.
The accomplishment of the performance target will be determined by surveying the target audience as follows:
1. Brief written surveys distributed and collected at Extension meetings, designed to ascertain past and current practices and future intentions regarding the 4 key components.
2. Interviews by ACCF personnel with the project farms to determine the farms experience regarding discussion of ACCF with others and if adoption of ACCF was known to occur.
3. Establishment of one or more mentoring groups, each consisting of a project farm, two or more other farms and project personnel to guide ACCF adoption. This employs the multiplier effect.
• 100 farmers in the target audience will be reached at winter Extension meetings with presentations that illustrate and explain ACCF.
• 40 of the target audience will learn to evaluate soil health in hands-on field exercises. They will understand the impact of soil health on crop yields and production costs.
• 40 of the target audience will grasp the feed and soil fertility/health value of the non-traditional forage crops, winter rye and ladino clover.
• 40 of the target audience will learn how to produce good yields and quality of BMR SS primarily with manure and native soil fertility rather than inorganic nitrogen.
On-site written surveys of participants and documentation of project farms’ contacts outside of structured events will verify milestone achievement.
At this point early educational outreach has occurred through primarily through two means: one on one contact with farmers and agriservice personnel and through article series in the extension newsletter. Outreach is planned through extension meetings in the winter of 2005-2006 as well as direct mailing to agriservice personnel. The ACCF concept and initial experiences are being shared via distribution of the technical report prepared for the first ACCF project (ACCF 1).
There have been no significant developments that have dramatically altered our plan of work. However, consistent with our experiences in the first ACCF project, we have had to be flexible and modify cropping plans on the cooperator farms due to their unique circumstances (labor and weather constraints). However the flexibility of the ACCF system was well suited to this and ACCF crop sequences were started on all farms but one (where farmer health issues delayed implementation for one year).
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
The majority of the outcomes are pending and all results are preliminary at this time. Initial soil health measurements (aggregate stability, organic matter content) indicated that fields in the ACCF system on cooperating farms were in very good health to begin with. On one field where the system has been in place for a couple years, there is very little decline in soil health status. Crop quality measurements taken in 2005 are consistent with other years, and indicate that ACCF crops are capable of being dairy quality feed. Farms that fed these crops (primarily through grazing) experienced increased milk production consistent with previous experiences (usually 2-3 lbs per cow per day). One first year cooperator was very impressed with the performance of the ACCF system, and found that it greatly exceeded his expectations in terms of quantity and quality of forage produced thus far. Already, cooperating farms are making tillage and crop choices with more consideration of soil quality. One cooperating farm who had intended to take a fall harvest of winter grain, was delayed due to persistent rain in October. When weather did finally clear in late October/early November such that he could have taken a harvest, he chose not to citing concerns about reducing the vegetative soil cover and injuring the winter rye crop. In the coming year more work will be done to transfer these learning experiences to other farmers. We have only recently processed the 2005 data and have now got it combined with data from the first ACCF project to begin to share it with farmers and agriservice personnel.
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