No-tilling grazing Brassicas into existing pastures: Remediation of sward and soil health for pastures

Project Overview

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2014: $14,470.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2014
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
A.Fay Benson
Cornell Co-op Extension

Annual Reports

Information Products


  • Agronomic: general hay and forage crops
  • Animals: bovine
  • Animal Products: dairy


  • Animal Production: pasture fertility, pasture renovation, grazing - rotational
  • Production Systems: organic agriculture
  • Soil Management: nutrient mineralization, soil physics, soil quality/health

    Proposal abstract:

    This project seeks to address simultaneously two components of grazing: 1. The decline in nutrient
    density of the grazing sward from September to the end of the grazing season caused by the change
    in fiber content and secondary plant metabolites of grasses. The project’s method will be to no-till
    brassica seed into the grazing sward to be available in the latter part of the grazing season. The
    increased nutrient density will aid farmers who want to extend their grazing season and also to have
    a sward that is higher in energy and capable of aiding in “finishing” livestock before the winter. 2.
    The other component is soil health of the pastures. As climate change brings wider swings in rain
    and drought, pasture soils receive accumulated damage that isn’t often seen until it is irreversible.
    This project will use bio-drill type brassicas such as Daikon Radish. These brassicas have been
    shown to break through hard pans and improve soil health indicators such as: water retention,
    mineral availability, and nutrient cycling.

    We are working with 4 farms from across New York State to do this project. There are two benefits of working with farms at large distances: There will be different weather impacts on the trials so that in one year the same trial can be observed under different weather conditions. The other benefit is that each farm can host a pasture walk which will
    expand the project's outreach.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    The study will be broken into two methods: Conventional and Organic. The only difference between the two will
    be the method to control the grazing sward in the No-till rows.
    All 4 farms will go through this same process:

    • Initial visit to explain goals of study.

    o Determine size of the study plot by establishing the size of the herd that will be grazing in August through November. The test plot should be large enough to provide grazing forage for 7 days.
    o Take soil tests

    • Prior to No-till Planting of Brassicas
    o Using a penetrometer, measure the soil's resistance to penetration at 20 sites across the plots, taking readings at 3, 6, 9, & 12 inches to show various levels of soil compaction within the horizon. The penetrometer consists of a long metal rod that can be pushed into the ground and a gauge on top that measures resistance in psi. It indicates soil compaction, and a plant's ability to put out roots that penetrate the soil. The penetrometer test will be completed again at the end of the trial. We are unsure if we will see any statistical changes, but the results will be used in future outreach to educate grazing farmers about compaction and how the penetrometer can be used to measure and compare paddocks.

    o Complete a Botanic Composition test by tossing a 1X1 foot quadrant randomly to take approximately 10 samples representative of the plot. Each clipping, which is the size of the frame with herbage clipped to 2 inches off ground level, will be placed in a bucket and mixed well. Two samples of approximately 1 lb each will be placed in plastic bags inside a cooler with ice. One sample will be sent to DairyOne for nutrient analysis and the other to be separated into 4 categories: grasses, legumes, weeds and dead. The top 3 most prominent species of grass and legume will be recorded. Each category of plants will be weighed, placed into separate pre-weighed paper bags, and then into a forced-air drying oven at 55°C for 48 hours. Dry weight can then be recorded.

    o Soil samples will be tested by the Cornell Soil Health Lab which performs a soil test that includes several indicators of soil quality. Among other things, the test will indicate the soils’ available water capacity and wet aggregate stability, which is a measure of the ability of soil aggregates to remain intact when wet and hit by raindrops. They use a "rain simulation sprinkler" to wet the soil sample over a sieve, and weight the fraction of soil that remains. The soils' aggregate stability is an indicator of its physical quality. A high rating would indicate that a soil can stand up to a heavy rainfall event better than a soil with low aggregate stability, which would be the case in a pasture with compaction. We don’t expect to find a difference in the aggregate count during our study, but will use the figure to compare to other pastures. This test results will be used for future outreach to farmers to show how soil physical health can be measured and compared. The figure can also be used by the test farm as a way to judge the management of their pasture in future years.

    • No-till Planting of Brassicas

    o Drills will be calibrated to deliver the required amount of seed. Brassica seed is usually planted at 2-5 lbs per acre, for which most drills are not calibrated. In our previous study we mixed clover seed which is nearly the same size as the brassica to achieve the desired population. For example, if we want to plant 3 lbs of brassica and 8 lbs of clover we will make a mix of the two seeds at those proportions and calibrate the drill for 11 lbs per acre. The grass seed will be in a separate hopper of the drill and will be calibrated separately.

    o Spray nozzles will be aligned to deliver whichever herbicide fits the farm’s organic status. The spray will be calibrated to deliver the appropriate amount of spray for the 3 inch strip.

    • Two weeks after planting

    o Take photos of the plots.

    o Do a brassica plant count by randomly selecting 10 strips in the plots and measuring 4 feet to determine the number of plants per foot.

    o Identify other seedlings in the No-till strip

    • 45 days after planting, brassicas have achieved most of the growth for their tops. The tubers will take another 45 days to mature.

    o Randomly select ten 2 foot strips and harvest both tops and bottoms.

    o Separate tops from tubers of these plants and complete a dry matter test to establish production.

    • First Grazing at 90 Days.

    o Ask farmer to divide the plot into seven paddocks and move cattle to new paddock every day.
    o Insert a break wire put after the cows are moved out.
    o Return after 7-10 days to evaluate brassicas feeding behavior by the animals.
    o Repeat sampling done at 45 days. Send a representative sample of both tops and tubers to Dairyone for analysis.
    o Conduct the Botanic Composition test.
    o Dig a 15 inch trench across a 48 inch area of the plot in 3 areas to determine the impact the tubers had on the soil. Take pictures.
    o Repeat the penetrometer testing.

    • Next grazing season, complete the Botanic Composition test

    o Dig 15 inch trench across a 48 inch area of the plot in 3 areas to determine what impact the tubers had on the soil. Take pictures.
    Two years won’t be enough time to measure soil health improvements. We intend to show the impact of the tubers on the soil by measuring the displacement of the tuber, which can be calibrated to equal tillage. Example:
    Three 1 inch wide tubers that are 10 inches long will equal a 3 inch wide shank on a subsoiler set at 10 inches.

    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.