Farmer-led cover crop trials and demonstrations for vegetable and corn silage fields

Project Overview

ONE16-279c
Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2016: $22,465.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2018
Region: Northeast
State: Connecticut
Project Leader:
Jim Hyde
USDA NRCS

Annual Reports

Commodities

  • Agronomic: corn, oats, rye
  • Vegetables: broccoli, cabbages, cauliflower, cucurbits, sweet corn, tomatoes
  • Animals: bees
  • Animal Products: dairy

Practices

  • Animal Production: feed/forage
  • Crop Production: cover crops, double cropping, no-till, conservation tillage
  • Education and Training: focus group, on-farm/ranch research
  • Energy: energy conservation/efficiency
  • Farm Business Management: budgets/cost and returns
  • Natural Resources/Environment: soil stabilization
  • Pest Management: competition, mulches - killed, mulches - living
  • Production Systems: organic agriculture
  • Soil Management: green manures, organic matter, soil analysis, soil microbiology, soil quality/health
  • Sustainable Communities: local and regional food systems, partnerships, public participation

    Proposal abstract:

    The Eastern Connecticut Conservation District is partnering with local farmers and agricultural experts from Connecticut and Rhode Island to participate in the 2016 Northeast SARE Cover Crop Initiative Project.  The cover cropping challenge addressed is two-fold:      1.   Vegetable production cover crops information and management for:                a.  alley management with living cover and                b.  biomass for no-till management with a suppressive weed mat and reduced tillage, and                c.  pollinator habitat for complimentary and diverse insects.     2.  Silage corn cover crop management and timing for:                a.  highest germination rates using commonly available seeding methods,                b.  biomass for soil structure, diversity, health, erosion protection, and                c.  crop timing and biomass for nutrient retention and double crop forage The cropping systems and information available to crop production often involves continuous exposure of, or clean, field alleyways.  As more information is coming forward about the benefits of having continuous plant growth and cover on the soil, there is uncertainty and need for hands-on instruction different methods to establish and manage cover crops, particularly with vegetable production.  There is concern for competition to sun, nutrients, and water.  However, popular crop production articles today talk about the benefits of managed covers and long-term benefits they can have to help with moisture through drought, retain and cycle nutrients, and effectively increase the yield potential of the vegetable fields.  Despite the new information, there is a shortage of examples or demonstrations for people to see, and a significant risk for potential crop loss for farmers to try the new methods on their own farm.  Research-based evidence about the benefits to farmers and farm ecosystems from achieving the cover cropping have been shown to improve soil structure, soil nutrient retention, soil carbon, soil moisture & resiliency to weather events, and reduced field inputs including fertilizers and ag chemicals. The number and type of farms and extent of agricultural production that could potentially benefit from cover crops used in this manner make up a significant portion of the ag community in Rhode Island and Connecticut. Combined, CT and RI have an estimated 23,000 acres in silage corn on 212 and 27 farms, respectively.  And nearly 11,700 acres of vegetables on 900 and 243 farms, respectively (USDA NASS 2012 census).  The potential benefits for increased knowledge and confidence in the methods to use cover crops on their fields could include anticipated soil health benefits as well as reduced crop inputs.  Chemical expenses in RI topped 1.1 million dollars in 2012, and commercial fertilizers at 4.7 million dollars.  In CT the same relative quantity of products on farm fields for CT were 15.7 million and 38.1 million dollars (USDA NASS 2012 Census).  The opportunity to cut both expenses and quantities of fertilizers or chemical controls on farms would have a reaching effect both economically and environmentally for local farms. Evidence that farmers in the state have an interest to learn more about using cover crops to meet the challenge of cover crop seeding, mixes, timing, and biomass is evidenced by the farmer’s contribution to this set of projects, and the communities increasing economic support of local farms, local foods, and responsible food production practices. Local farms have been participating in soil health and cover crop workshops in CT for four years, consistently bringing an estimated 30 farms, on average 60 attendees, per meeting.  Currently six farms have signed on to plant demonstration plots.  They are so interested in the information, they have said they may consider planting some of the ideas on a less scientific basis (no reps), with or without the local cover crop team’s assistance.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Project Activities

    Field demonstrations are planned on five different farms and two university settings across CT and RI.  There are methods to test seven different ideas, and a total of twenty-four different treatments being investigated. 

    The methods to test the comparisons will include visual tools (photos) for documentation and teaching, digital tools (Canopeo) to estimate plant canopy, and cover crop yields. The vegetable cover crop yields will be measured for quantity (dry matter/acre) and flower power (open flowers – pollinator experiment only).  The corn fields will be measured for silage yield (ton/ac), cover crop biomass (tons DM/ac), Nutrient Retention (lbs N-P-K/ac), and canopy cover (%).  All measured variables will be run through SAS statistical analysis.

    Educational activities proposed to facilitate farmers’ learning from the field demonstrations include three field days in 2016 and three in 2017 where farmers can see the growth comparison of different cover treatments, ask the farm specific questions about the practical use and implementation of the treatments.  Information shared with the farmers at field days is intended to be primarily visual and interactive, just before or during data gathering/harvest.  Data collected from plots (yields, % cover, etc.) will be written up in the corn and the vegetable factsheets and used in talks throughout the states after the project period.

    Field days will be held in both fall and spring. Fall field days will focus on cover crop establishment methods, success and biomass going into winter. Spring demonstration days are planned so farms can see the full growth and potential of the cover crops before termination.  One of the uncertainties farmers have about cover crops is the growth or height potential (biomass); farmers aren’t sure how to manage a tall or high yielding cover crop.  The spring demonstration days are intended to address those topics (harvest for forage or roll/crimp for weed mat). 

    Timeline

    Aug 2016:  lay-out blocks and seed corn and vegetable plots for Fall 2016 demonstrations.  Monthly observations using photos and % canopy cover. 

    Fall 2016:  Corn Silage demo day on germination and spring vs fall cover seeding.

         Vegetable demo day on alley cover and pollinator/biomass

         Vegetable demo day on no-till cover for biomass/weed mat

         Plant roller-crimper cover crops with monthly observations (photos, canopy cover)

    Spring 2017:  Veg demo day for roller/crimper and no-till planting into resulting mat

         lay out blocks and plant short season corn plots

    Summer 2017:    continue monthly documentation of the cover crop plots (photos & % cover)

    Fall 2017:  Two corn silage demo days, one for double cropping on shorter season corn (95d), and one for nutrient retention/soil protection from different day-length corn varieties.

         Compile data from all corn and vegetable trials for statistical analysis and observations

    March 2018:  Final write up of goals, materials & methods, analysis, and conclusions

    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.