As with many Vermont farms, growing feed for Fairmont Farm’s 2,800 Holsteins isn’t a set-it-and-forget-it process.
Richard Hall of Fairmont Farm plants 1,550 acres of corn each year. The land is in Craftsbury and East Montpelier, where the growing season is short, soil type varies, and much of the sloped topography is highly erodible.
But thanks to the increasingly common practice of cover-cropping, Hall has staved off erosion and improved soil health, resulting in a better crop yield. Cover-cropping is sowing a field with plants in the off-season to rejuvenate the soil. In the spring, most Vermont farms till the plants into the soil, others use herbicides.
Once less common and used mostly by organic farms, cover-cropping is now considered a best practice and is used on about one-third, or 30,000, of Vermont’s corn acres, according to University of Vermont Extension agronomist Heather Darby. That’s in part due to better understanding about the benefits. It is also more accessible: USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets offer funding and UVM Extension offers technical assistance.
Fields that aren’t covered in the winter are susceptible to the elements. As Darby puts it, “A field that doesn’t have anything growing on it… [is] more susceptible to being eroded, to soil being lost. When you have roots growing in the ground, it does magical things. It creates structure, allows porosity, allows water to be drained. It keeps the soil going, growing, producing.”
Cover crops—winter rye, oats, and tillage radish are common in Vermont—benefit farmers by recycling excess nutrients, increasing microbes, and aerating the soil. They benefit water quality by stabilizing soil and minimizing nutrient runoff, which is why cover cropping is now required for some farms in floodplains. While the practice has its challenges—upfront costs, time, and fine-tuning—farmers are finding it’s a worthwhile investment, especially as the climate becomes more erratic.
“As the quality of the water has continued to decline and people have become more concerned about the environment, the strategy to minimize erosion in agricultural systems has become more elevated,” Darby says.
Eight years ago, Richard Hall started cover-cropping as he moved to no-till farming, a method that does not upturn the soil through tillage. With this system, he can plant more difficult terrain, and take fewer passes with his equipment, which means less wear-and-tear and lower fuel usage. In the fall, he plants rye, and in the spring, he plants silage corn.
That’s “allowed us to plant corn in places that maybe we couldn’t under a conventional system,” Hall says. “Once you get into it more, you realize the benefits of soil health.” Though cover-cropping requires more time and some changes, Hall said, he’s seeing better yields.
“I never thought that I could say one-third of the corn acres are cover cropped,” Darby says. “When I started, I really only knew of 50 acres that were cover cropped. To watch the practice expand the way it’s expanded in the last five to eight years has been really amazing.”
To learn more, visit www.uvm.edu/extension/cropsoil/covercrops.
Also, you can see cover crops in action and hear more from Heather Darby in this UVM video.
Owners of conserved land can also call their VLT stewardship manager.
This story appeared in our Spring 2017 Newsletter. Story by Sky Barsch, photo by Kristen Workman/UVM Extension.