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
As of the end of 2007, relative to milestones approximately 196 producers have been reached with educational programming on the ACCF concept through a variety of means. Twenty five (25) farms at this point 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 2007 considerable effort was made to provide soil health educational experiences for producers to reinforce critical concepts of managing soil health in the ACCF system. These efforts were enhanced by the implementation of a no-till planting initiative though the Delaware County Precision Feed Management Program, whereby state of art no till planting equipment was made available to Delaware County producers at a reduced rental rate. In the wake of the 2006 flood and with fuel prices at record high levels, Delaware County producers indicated increased interest in no-till production methods in a survey conducted by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Delaware County. As a result of the survey Cornell Cooperative Extension of Delaware County developed this No-till initiative, which included an educational component to help producers adopt no-till methods successfully. Much of this education focused on soil health. A spring crop meeting attended by approximately 40 producers contained presentations from the Cornell University soil health group. In the summer, three farm (field) meetings were held, one on an ACCF cooperator farm, to demonstrate principles of the ACCF system, including ACCF crops and soil health measures. These meetings were attended by 45 producers. They included hands on use of the soil penetrometers and visual discussion of the impact of soil health on crop development. Integration and of the ACCF project and the no till initiative continued into the fall when, through the No Till Initiative, winter rye seed was made available to Delaware County producers at a subsidized rate to increase adoption of this ACCF crop on corn silage acres as a winter cover crop, using no till or minimum till planting methods.
The integration of the ACCF project into the Delaware County Precision Feed Management (PFM) program (accessed on the web at: http://counties.cce.cornell.edu/delaware/) continued and extended the reach of the ACCF project as the PFM program expanded to 25 farms in 2007 (previously 14). The PFM program will engage 35-40 farms by the end of 2008, affording an excellent opportunity to help more producers implement ACCF concepts through comprehensive crop planning conducted on these farms as part of the PFM program as well as foster farmer to farmer learning.
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. 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).
Through the No – Till program in 2007, fifteen (15) producers tried no-till planting methods for the first time in Delaware County resulting in 500 new acres under no-till management. This represented a 250% increase in the number of farmers using no-till management in the county. These farmers all received soil health training as part of the No-Till initiative. At least fifteen farms adopted one or more the ACCF crops in 2007, primarily winter rye as a cover crop, much to be harvested for dairy feed. As a result of the No-Till/ACCF program effort to encourage adoption of rye as a cover crop after corn silage, one local agribusiness reported that their winter rye seed sales in fall of 2007 were 230% higher than the previous two years. This one vendor alone sold enough winter rye seed for 250 acres, and at least another 100 acres of winter rye was planted through other vendors. This acreage is significant as the average dairy farm in Delaware County may have only 200 tillable acres. According to the 2006 New York State Agricultural Statistics, there were about 5,600 acres of corn silage planted in Delaware County. If a similar acreage was planted in 2007, 300 acres of winter rye planted after corn silage harvest would represent over 5% of the total corn silage acreage for the county under winter rye cover. The farms that did adopt winter rye as a cover crop (approximately 15) have adopted this practice on 10% of their total tillable acreage (assuming 200 tillable acres per farm), one of the performance targets for this grant, and far more than 10% of their corn silage acreage.
This widespread adoption we believe represents a momentum of interest and implementation that is a result of the programmatic efforts under the ACCF 2 project and other programs, and represents the kind of adoption “wave” that could be expected through a successful research, demonstration and education program. We are expecting to double the number of No-Till Initiative participants in 2008 and this, in addition to the increase in PFM program participants, should provide more opportunities to promote adoption. Two ACCF farmers who are also involved in the PFM program have been sharing their experiences with other farmers in farmer to farmer venues and are enthusiastic supporters of the ACCF concept. We are preparing in depth economic analyses of cost of production for one of these participants, which he is planning to share at a March 2008 educational venue.
End of project soil health analyses will be completed in spring of 2008 due to laboratory constraints and has necessitated a six month time extension to complete the project.
Bovina Center, NY
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