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
Relative to milestones, well over 110 producers have reached directly, approximately 225 indirectly, with educational programming on the ACCF concept through a variety of means. Approximately 20+ farms at this point have farms have learned the value of soil health and how to evaluate it, have adopted one or more of ACCF crops for their forage value and soil health properties, and learned how to produce them successfully.
In 2006, work continued on the pilot farms to establish the ACCF crop rotation system and to provide outreach opportunities. A major flood event that occurred in June 2006 dramatically impacted much of the Delaware County and affected the outreach of ACCF project unexpectedly. Due to this flood there was major crop loss and cropland loss in the affected region. What resulted was a need by many farmers to establish another crop before the end of the growing season as a “rescue crop” to provided needed forage for the winter. The crops that we had been working with in the ACCF project fit this need very well. The previous work of the ACCF1 and 2 projects had resulting in a body of information about the forage quality and cultural production methods of the ACCF crops (BMR sorghum sudangrass, winter rye, and additionally fall seeded oats). With this information in hand, we were able to put together fact sheets for producers within days after the flood on the use of the ACCF crops for emergency forage production. These fact sheets were mailed to every farmer in the county as well as many local agribusinesses. The local agricultural disaster response teams that were on farms after the flood to assess the damage were also provided copies of these fact sheets to hand out. Approximately 250 farmers and agribusinesses received these fact sheets. We observed that there was a great deal of adoption of these crops by farmers in the county (more than doubling the number of farmers growing these crops for forage production in the ACCF manner). As a result many more acres went into the winter with some form of soil cover than would have before the flood. We now estimate that we have approximately 7.5-10% of the farms (approximately 15 – 20 farms) in Delaware County adopting the ACCF approach, up from about 1% when we started this work in 2003. These farms adopted these crops not only out of a desire to utilize them for forage production, but also – in light of the major flood – as a means to preserve soil resources.
By the end of the year an additional three farms were added as pilot cooperators, including one who is a participant in the Delaware County Precision Feed Management program, a program implemented by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Delaware County where extensive feed management planning and implementation takes place on the dairy farm in an effort to reduce nutrient loss and improve farm profitability (accessed on the web at: http://counties.cce.cornell.edu/delaware/). Six farms are now actively participating in this project.
Other educational outreach activities for this year included an invited presentation at a local agribusiness winter crop meeting in February that reached 75 producers. The ACCF crops were presented as options in a system to rejuvenate old haycrop stands. An on farm tour took place in September where the topic of soil health was discussed including hands on methods to measure soil health, as well as cropping strategies to improve soil health (no till planting and cover crops). Approximately 20 farmers attended this event. In December the project was invited to present on the ACCF concept and findings at the Northeast Region Certified Crop Advisors Training in Waterloo NY. Approximately 25 extension, USDA-NRCS, crop consultants and Soil and Water Conservation district employees attended the talk about the project. Participant’s evaluations of the presentation averaged 8 on a 1-10 scale in terms of improving understanding of the topic. Comments from participants included: “Very practical information; Soil health is critical to success! Good, honest perspective” This training was a key means of engaging the multiplier effect to get information out as participants would in turn work with a large number of producers.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
In 2005 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 and 2006 are consistent with other years, and indicate that ACCF crops are capable of being dairy quality feed. Brown mid rib sorghum sudangrass nutrient analyses averaged 16% crude protein and 58% neutral detergent fiber (NDF) as a percent of the forage dry matter. Fiber (NDF) digestibility at a 24 hour incubation period averaged 60%. The small grain forages crude protein levels have averaged 20 and 13% of dry matter respectively for grazed and mechanical harvest samples and neutral detergent fiber content averaged 45 and 58% of dry matter respectively for grazed and mechanical harvest samples. Neutral detergent fiber digestibility at 24 hour intervals was excellent averaging 63%. In comparison, the thousands of grass silage samples analyzed through the DairyOne commercial forage analysis laboratory from May 2000 – April 2007, averaged 14% crude protein, 58% NDF (both as a percentage of dry matter) and 48% 24 hour incubation NDF digestibility. These feed quality data have validated on farm with animal performance. Clearly the ACCF crops were of higher quality than average grass silage. The ACCF crops were of higher quality than average grass silage. Farms that fed these crops (primarily through grazing) experienced increased milk production consistent with previous experiences (usually 2-3 lbs per cow per day).
All current cooperating pilot farms (now six farms) have adopted continued use of the cropping system on 5-10% of their acreage from 2005 to 2006 and they have planted or are planning on planting more of the ACCF crops in 2007. The 2006 flood provided a unique opportunity to get these crops planted on more non project farms, getting us closer to our performance target of 35 farms. At present we are looking to provide more education on use of soil health measures on farm, and have been awaiting the development of the Cornell University Soil Health testing procedures for commercial analyses. We have been using soil penetrometers in field with producers in selection of cropping strategies and appropriate fields for ACCF cropping strategies. Through the integration of the ACCF project with the Delaware County Precision Feed Management Program, a program with a broader scope we are able to work more closely with a larger group of farms (currently 14 farms) in their crop planning and implementation and implement principals of the ACCF system. The Precision Feed Management program is also a mechanism to get farms together for more farmer to farmer exchange and mentoring, part of our performance targets.
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