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.
Speak to an expert at King’s AgriSeeds now at 1-717-687-6224 or email us at [email protected].
I am just now researching for an alternative energy crop for silage to be used on semi marginal erosion prone ground and am interested in a multi species approach. I am already using cover crops, and have been doing corn sillage on level ground with only tillage for weed control, but am not yet satisfied with my weed control. I would like to avoid spray if I could. I am from eastern Iowa. Just found this website and would welcome any additional info. Thank you, Lloyd
From Dave Wilson, Research Agronomist at King’s –
Alternatives would be other summer annuals. (Drilled Sorghum-Sudangrass, Drilled Sudangrass, Drilled Millet)
The drilled crops could include medium red clover planted underneath them, which would grow slowly and wouldn’t contribute much to the yield but could give a cover underneath.
Or forage sorghum could be drilled 25 lbs/acre and taken at boot stage, or forage sorghum could be seeded in 15″ rows to be taken at soft dough stage and in this 15″ row configuration it can be planted with cowpeas similarly to how we plant the MasterGraze Corn with Cowpeas.
These drilled summer annuals could be preceded and followed by winter annuals similarly to what we do in our farming systems plots in rotation. On erosion prone soils No-till drilling and planting would be best to not disturb the soil, but no-till means spraying herbicides.
If you don’t want to spray and you are doing no-till, weeds, are likely to be a serious problem.
You may try some “rotational no-till” planting of corn by rolling of cover crops like rolling down hairy vetch or hairy vetch & crimson clover and no-tilling corn into it. But this can be tricky and is a bit of a learning experience in itself, we may have insect problems in certain years with this.
Any cover crop such as crimson clover no-till planted into and sprayed to kill would be a nice dead cover under the corn.
Another practice he can try is Interseeding into the corn with an interseeder (see http://extension.psu.edu/plants/crops/soil-management/cover-crops/interseeder-applicator) with Broadcaster into the corn. This would start another relay cover crop in succession under the corn to give ground cover and prevent erosion while building soil organic matter.
You could have strips of Rye, Barley, Triticale and or Spelt, which would stagger harvest dates and depending on how you laid it out the spelt would keep alternative strips of soil covered longer. These would be planted in alternating strips on the contour for forage production in strips parallel to the contour slope to help prevent erosion. These strips would have a living crop growing into the season preventing erosion across the field. (This also all depends on how big (wide) the field is?) By having alternating strips of forages that mature at different dates this keeps more of the ground covered with a living crop, and spreads the forage harvest out.
The strips that are harvested early like rye can be planted earlier with another crop like forage oats which will help prevent erosion. The later harvested strips of barley forage can be followed by corn, or you can have cover crop strips of hairy vetch & crimson clover among the forage strips which could be rolled or sprayed and no-till planted into with no-till corn in the rolled down covers. Also the later heading and harvested strips of triticale and spelt across the slope can be followed by Sorghum-Sudangrass, Sudangrass or Millet. Or you can use triticale plus, barley plus, or barley + crimson clover + annual ryegrass etc. for more soil building with diverse roots and better erosion prevention. These would be followed by summer annuals.
Another summer option would be MasterGraze tillering corn on 15 inch rows with cowpeas. This gave good weed suppression, but soil fertility needs to be boosted for the heavy competition of the drilled cowpeas.
You mention your considerations are on semi-marginal erosion prone ground.
I would advise first to do a soil survey for your soil type there in his fields (http://websoilsurvey.sc.egov.usda.gov/App/HomePage.htm)
Then you can have a background of “yield potential” of the soil, drainage classification and depth.
Then you know what kind of silage potential you can get there. When we look at the potential yields we have to ask ourselves “what can we grow that is going to be as productive as the corn silage yields that we can get”?
As we often say Corn is King and most likely it would pay to produce as much dry matter corn silage as you can because corn silage is the premium “energy crop” and as our yields show us often produces the most quality dry matter over summer as a silage.
As far as the semi-marginal and erosion prone ground. You can take measures to build your soil fertility (fertilizers, liming, manure). Cover crops in rotation around his corn crop.
The erosion factors can be dealt with to some degree also. Typically through a soil conservation plan. The plan can include many things including developing contour strips, diversion ditches, and permanent waterways. Breaking the field up so water running across it can not build as much momentum across the soil and wash the soil away, especially if the field is on a slope or hill. We have to take measures to slow the water down across the slope, we do this with alternating strips of solid seeded crops and sometimes with constructive measure such as waterways and diversion ditches which are kept in a permanent mowed sod.
Perennial alfalfa strips or grass alfalfa strips on the contour can also break up the slope and can can be planted in strips between the annual strips.
Strips have to be laid out to fit tractor and harvester machinery physical width considerations.
You said you are not satisfied with weed control in the corn on level ground.
Implements to consider (rotary hoe) for blind cultivation 1 or two passes then another pass after the corn is up, Leley tine weeder taken through the corn when it is small, then start between row cultivation with an S shaped vibr-shanked type cultivator then follow with a heavy buffalo type cultivator, first a pass with the disks throwing the soil in when the corn is smaller, then a pass with the disks throwing the soil out when the corn stalks are bigger and you want to bury the weeds next to the corn stalks with soil thrown out and hilled up on them. This is how the organic farmers do it with cultivation, it takes a regime of implements and multiple passes and practice. Cultivation is both an art and science.