TOWANDA, PA — With the advent of the 2009 TMDL “pollution diet” regulations in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed and the fever pitch of soil health initiatives, farmers and their respective agency and industry partners across the Upper Susquehanna River Watershed have been tinkering with getting the precious cover crops in, earlier and earlier. “We’re tasked to plant so many acres in so little time to meet our goals, it becomes a daunting job,” said Chemung County Soil and Water Conservation District Manager and Upper Susquehanna Coalition member, Mark Watts.
“One of the biggest challenges of cover cropping is to fit cover crops into your current rotations, or to develop new rotations that take full advantage of their benefits, according to the USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education Program (SARE). You should devote as much planning and attention to your cover crops as you do to your cash crops.”
In the midst of solving this timing issue with traditional establishment of cover crops in this short window via broadcasting, drilling and aerial seeding, the little bundles of soil-saving joy; a new, specialized tool is taking flight. It comes in the form of a 12-foot tall, “Transformer-like”, High Clearance (hi-boy) Cover Crop Interseeder (www.bccdpa.com/interseeder). According to the Bradford County Conservation District who has facilitated the purchase, with funding assistance through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) and runs the gently-used unit from Ohio, “It helps make every growing-day pay.”
The Pennsylvania Cover Crop Pilot Project, patterned after Delaware’s Sussex County Conservation District program, covers Bradford, Lycoming, Sullivan, Susquehanna, Tioga, and Wyoming County Conservation Districts along with the New York Upper Susquehanna Coalition partnership counties of Chemung, Schuyler and Steuben. The hi-boy interseeder broadcasts single species annual ryegrass or custom mixes of cereal rye, clover, vetch and tillage radishes at a rate of 35-120 lbs. /acre on the soil surface beneath the canopy of standing corn or soybeans using an air delivery system between the rows through drop tubes covering 90 feet with one pass.
The emerging technique can be started during those valuable, late-summer growing days giving the cover crop the jump it needs without competing with the planted crop. Even in full size corn, the stalk will bend as the machine passes over then stand back up. “The earlier the seeding, the more growth you get before frost and winter,” said Kevin Brown, Bradford Conservation District’s Agricultural Resource Specialist and “Hi-Boy Cowboy.”
“Once those cash crops come off the field, cover crops hold the soil in place,” said Debbie Absher, Director of Agricultural Programs for the Sussex Conservation District. “If you lose the top few inches of soil, you lose the nutrients.”
A 2015-16 Cover Crop Survey conducted by the Conservation Technology Information Center and Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education revealed that average acres of cover crops per farm have more than doubled over the previous 5 years. So have the financial incentives by the USDA in supporting farmers to plant cover crops. From 2005-2013, agency funding for cover crops through the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) alone, increased ten-fold — from about $5 million to more than $50 million in nominal terms.
Additionally, cover crops increased corn yields by an average of 3.4 bushels per acre, while soybeans increased by approximately 1.5 bushels per acre. In addition to the soil condition benefits, a decline in the amount of fertilizer necessary to achieve those yields is noted.
“Per-acre cost is offset if soybean yields increase by 2.5 bushels per acre [based on a long-term soybean price of $10.40/bushel]. Corn yields increase by 5.8 bushels/acre [based on a long-term corn price of $4.40/bushel],” said University of Illinois Extension ag economist Gary Schnitkey in a Farmdoc Daily report, Costs and Benefits of Cover Crops. “This yield increase would happen in the year after soybeans have been planted into the cover crop. Nitrogen application rates would have to be decreased by $70 per acre,” according to Agdirect.com.
The covers benefit soil through erosion prevention, nutrient management, improved water availability and pest control. Initial cover crop establishment can help manage soil nutrients as a way to prepare for the following growing season. “Nitrogen (N) management will probably be a major factor in your cover crop decisions for the corn-soybean rotation as a fall-planted grass or small grain will scavenge leftover N from the previous corn or soybean crop,” according to a report from (SARE).
“We think this practice, especially in Bradford County, will help alleviate increased pesticide use and most importantly, help us manage soil moisture better. We have a lot of wet soils and have worked with farmers that leave the cover crops growing as long as they can, even planting green through them and terminating them afterwards, because a growing crop will pull huge amounts of moisture out of the soil and dissipate it into the air,” said Brown. This actually helps producers get on their ground many, many days before they could have otherwise. Covers can be worth planting just for that reason, in wet years.”
The hi-boy seeder helps overcome some gnawing problems in northern counties: A corn crop too tall for other methods of cover crop seeding, crops harvested too late to get a good cover crop established, an opportunity to establish a cover crop in soybeans in September, before leaf drop and to get a more favorable moisture pattern for germination.
It’s not all sunshine, rainbows and lollipops for the gangly-armed machine. In-field hazards like washouts, rocks, diversion ditches, low hanging branches and an occasional bear or deer keep the operator on his toes. “It’s a jungle in there trying to see everything and react to conditions,” said seasonal operator and Wyalusing, PA crop farmer, Rich Howard. “Couple that with computer glitches, tubes plugging, calibration challenges, logistics of filling the unit and not knowing farmer’s smaller fields and we have some kinks to work out. It takes time and patience, but in the end, I’m excited to learn and use it myself on my soybean fields and grain corn because it covers a lot of ground fast.”
To date, over 800 acres have been interseeded on nine New York farms in five days and over 1,100 acres in Pennsylvania have been planted. In the Empire State, the Upper Susquehanna Coalition (USC) and their Cover Crop Implementation Project have benefitted from an agreement with NYSDEC and (NFWF) to help fund farmers implementing the practice up to $50-85/acre. Last year they successfully planted 2,494 new acres of cover crops across 10 counties. “Again, the goal of this grant is to increase our cover crop acres that are implemented and reported to the Chesapeake Bay Model on an annual basis,” said USC Agriculture Coordinator, Emily Dekar.
In Pennsylvania, farmers are asked to commit $15/acre for the hi-boy plus the cost of the seed with some incentives on the table. “With low dairy and crop prices, we are seeing some resistance to planting,” said Bradford County’s SWCD Agricultural Team Leader, Nate Dewing. “More incentives would help farmers as they experiment and monitor how well these practices work farm to farm. Our goal is 6,000 acres over the next three years. We think cover crop practitioners like Gabe Brown and David Brant have created a passion in our region and we want to be leading in this effort. We’ll measure our success in the color green!”