King’s AgriSeeds Inc. recently cohosted a soil health field day at Eli Weaver’s Meadow View farm. He’s one of our local dealers, based in Leola, Lancaster County, PA, and devotes several acres to product research. The day was a perfect integrated training opportunity, because it featured Ray Archuleta of the USDA-NRCS speaking on the importance of no-till practices in managing soil health, farm profitability, and sustainability. Ray’s talk segued to a farm tour of King’s research and demo plots, where most of our summer annual products are thriving and on display, to bridge the connection between healthy soil and productive farmland – how does a no-till system look in real life? Many of the no-till practices and benefits advocated by Archuleta and the NRCS could be seen in action on Meadow View Farm, where Weaver has practiced continuous no-till for thirteen years. In that time, he brought his soil organic matter content up to 5%, almost doubling it, and his soil’s productivity, along with his triple-crop rotation (he harvests three crops from every acre each year) allow him to feed his 30-cow herd a high forage diet grown entirely on his 54 acres. And he often has some forage to spare.
A soil pit dug across MC 534 Corn and AS 9301 Sudangrass plots revealed the farm’s soil health, as well as the impact of two different rotations on the soil. Corn roots (and roots left over from the preceding triticale crop) were visible several feet down into the profile, while the soil beneath the sudangrass showed little evidence of deep root mass (sudangrass roots are often finer and shallower). The view of the soil profile showed ample earthworm and other biological activity, structure, and porosity.
Dave Wilson of King’s pointed out the dense layer of organic matter residue still decomposing in the topsoil layer. “The same organic matter that no-till is so good at preserving is also what makes no-till agriculture a challenge,” he said, when it comes to penetrating the leftover stubble with a no-till drill to plant the next crop. He found that over a thousand pounds of extra weight was needed on the drill to cut through the annual ryegrass to plant sorghum-sudan and sudangrass. The reality of farming shows us that no-till comes with its own set of challenges, but also its own set of unique long-term rewards.
As we toured the summer annual crop plots, the thick, lush growth was evidence of strong early vigor and rapid growth from heat and moisture (both of which we’ve had plenty this summer), critical for suppressing weeds and high biomass production. There were several farmer questions about the herbicide regimens, but the answer was usually that the crop’s natural competitveness itself suppressed weed growth.
One set of plots is a Farming Systems Trial, with twelve strips that each sample a different rotation, including a typical Lancaster County corn-rye system, several triple crop rotations with modifications, an annual grazing system to complement a pasture, and various alfalfa strips for perennial-annual rotation. Farmers got a good look at many of our Masters Choice corn hybrids at silking, including MasterGraze, a tillering 60 day corn for grazing. A high sugar corn with very available protein content, MasterGraze is good for grazing, green chop, or silage (with horizontal storage). Other systems plots are planted in sorghums, sorghum-sudans, and sudangrasses, including AF 7101, a forage sorghum that can be cut at flag-leaf stage or at soft dough stage and ensiled.
Farmers expressed great interest in the winter annual crimson clover and Thoroughbred/Valor Barley mix that was recently harvested from several strips. This was one of the highest-yielding of the winter annual plots, with 3.7 tons of dry matter. Triticale, another superb yielder, can be quite close to the barley in tonnage and quality if planted around barley planting dates (before October in Southeastern PA) to let it get a head start. Combining it with crimson clover pushed yields even further – the mixture of species seems to provide a beneficial effect to each other. The small grain still needs some help at green-up time with soluble N. It’s also important to keep in mind that any applied manure will mineralize and become available a little later, as the weather warms up.
Strips of MasterGraze had also been planted more informally in an adjoining field, as a cover crop by itself and in various combinations with sunn hemp and cowpeas (both
warm season annual legumes) and buckwheat, a quick-growing summer cover crop. This also illustrated the importance of planting greater diversity. Where the MasterGraze was combined with at least one other crop, weeds were unable to compete. In the MasterGraze alone (planted in 15-inch rows) there were patches of pigweed, one of the more prolific summer weeds, poking through.
These mixes can be harvested to make high-quality forage, and the components can also provide great companions for sorghum. In this case, the Mastergraze was planted using a corn planter, and we went back later in a crisscross pattern with the drill for a thick seeding of the companion crops. We hadn’t incorporated brassicas into these mixtures, but they provide another useful (and highly digestible) complement sorghum or tillering corn for added diversity.
Sunn hemp and cowpeas are tropical legumes and should be planted into soil that is at least 65 degrees F. Also, as legumes, they need to be inoculated with a strain of rhizobium bacteria that may not be native to the field, and this helps them nodulate to fix nitrogen.
In the forage seed industry, demand for cover crop mixes has only grown, and we try to work on mixes that cover and feed the soil, yet also can provide high quality forage. This interest was quite evident even among the small groups of farmers that toured these plots. This can be a challenge, but there are many possibilities for summer cover crop combinations.
Vegetable growers in the audience also expressed interest in what crops would work well between their rows of black plastic. Crimson clover works well, but for the best weed suppression, it can be mixed with oats. A winter annual like rye planted in spring can also last throughout the year to provide a slow-growing cover. A living cover managed properly between rows of black plastic can suppress weeds and won’t need to be killed with spraying or rolling/crimping.