Soil Health Workshop & Alliance Annual Meeting

Inter-seeded Corn

Inter-seeded Corn

The WNY Soil Health Alliance is holding its Soil Health Workshop & Alliance Annual Membership Meeting, December 19, 2018, from 8:30am to 3:00pm. Held at the Quality Inn & Suites, 85250 Park Rd. Batavia, NY.

Enjoy morning presentations from Dr. Kristine Nichols of KRIS Systems Education & Consulting on how “Regenerative Agriculture Builds Resilience Through Soil Biology”, and John Wallace Assistant Professor from Penn State on “Balancing Tradeoffs Between Weed Management and Soil Health Goals”.

The afternoon will have breakout sessions from all the presenters plus Paul Salon from the USDA-NRCS Plants Materials Center going through the NRCS Cover Crop Calculator and how to develop mixes based on farm specific operations.

DEC & CCA Credits are available

More information about the Workshop and registration can be found on the events page

Slug Management -By James Hoorman


 Controlling Slugs in agricultural crops is difficult because slugs reproduce quite quickly, once a slug population gets out of control, slugs may be difficult to manage.

The first step is understanding slug biology. Second, scout for slugs and take steps to reduce or modify their food and shelter. Third, learn how to utilize and enhance natural predators to reduce slug populations and keep them at acceptable levels. Often this will require reducing the use of neonicotinoid insecticides which are deadly to beneficial slug insect predators. Fourth, when slug populations get out of control, understand how to utilize slug damage. Fifth, utilize all management practices outlines in this fact sheet to successfully control slugs. Normally and integrated approach utilizing multiple strategies will be needed to adequately minimize slug damage to economically acceptable levels. 

For more information and facts about slug management visit the below link. 

Slug Fact Sheet

Cutting Height in Hay Fields: How Low Can You Go?

Source: Penn State Extension  

Corn planted into standing un-rolled cover may show reduced yields due to lower populations and greater plant height variability.

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The practice of planting a cash crop into a living cover crop is still is in its infancy. Fortunately, we’ve had the opportunity to learn from many early adopters of this practice. However, as this practice has become more commonplace some producers have had less than desirable results.

Early research on the practice often utilized a front mounted roller-crimper and more recently planter-mounted roller-crimpers have been used to roll covers ahead of the planting operation. Some of the issues we’ve observed in planting green were with farms that planted corn into a standing small grain cover. The causes for not rolling may include letting a fast growing cover crop get away from someone or overconfidence in planting green without knowing the limitations of the practice. In 2017, Extension educators surveyed fields that were planted green to see what may be the cause of some of these issues and here is a summary of some of our observations:

Planting into un-rolled covers may reduce populations. In the few locations where un-rolled areas could be compared to rolled or bare areas, lower populations were present, which can often correspond to a yield reductions. The loss could be from competition and shading of the emerged seedlings or inconsistent planting conditions due to the cover.

Observation                              Rolled                                 Not rolled

Population (thousands)             32.8                                       28.8

Plant height (in)                         18.0                                       21.6

Plant height deviation (in)          2.8                                          4.1

Data recorded from a site in Somerset County where a portion of the field was rolled with a cultipacker prior to planting and a portion was not. The portion that was rolled had higher populations and lower plant-to-plant height differences. Plants in non-rolled areas exhibited more of a “spindly” appearance with taller plants and smaller stems.

Stands planted into un-rolled cover were more variable. In Somerset County where a rolled portion of a field was compared to an un-rolled portion, plants in the un-rolled area had greater variability in height which may be due to shading from the standing cover crop providing uneven light to emerging plants. This variability can negatively impact yield as taller plants out-compete shorter plants for light and nutrients, reducing the per-plant yield of the shorter plants. Also observed in multiple locations of un-rolled cover were corn plants that were taller but with thinner stems. These spindly plants may have been pushing vertical growth at the cost of developing a thicker stalk in order to get over the standing cover.


Planting green into un-rolled cover may result in less than desired populations and intra-plant competition due to differences in plant heights. For instance, the plants on the right may out-compete the plants on the left to the point where they may not make an ear.

Slugs are still a problem. Although research has been promising for utilizing planting green techniques to reduce slug damage, results are not guaranteed. Planting green is thought to be a means of reducing slug pressure as cereal grain cover crops provide an alternate food source to slugs rather than an emerging corn or soybean cash crop. Rolled cover can also provide protection for natural predators of slugs. In 2017, slug damage was variable in planted green fields with sites in Lancaster and Cambria showing slug feeding, with one requiring replanting and having slug damage to the replanted crop.

Based on observations from 2017 and lessons learned from now veterans to the practice of planting green, I suggest the following when considering adapting planting green on your farm.

Plant corn only if you can roll. Based on the observations of reduced populations, height variability and spindly plants, utilizing a roller-crimper when planting green is likely the best method to guarantee success. Planter-mounted units will likely become the most common method of rolling due to ease of use and limited setup time. However, if you’re looking to dabble in a few acres using a cultitpacker to roll cover is still an option; just be sure to roll in the direction of planting to reduce hairpinning and wrapping of residue around the planter.

At this point in time we do not know at what height rolling is not required. Early observations suggested that competition from standing cover was not an issue when cover crops are less than 16 inches tall. However, there are some indications that 12 inches of standing cover may negatively impact emerging plants. At this time, one is likely better off using a roller-crimper until there is more information on how termination heights affect corn emergence or how legumes or other short-growing cover crops affect corn stands.

If you are unable to roll cover crops, soybeans may be better when planting into un-rolled covers as they can better compensate for reduced populations and inconsistent plant heights. Recent research performed at multiple locations by Penn State showed that there was no difference in soybean yields between stands planted green and those planted into bare or early-terminated, which demonstrates that soybeans are less impacted when planted into more variable conditions.


By exposing the emerging crop to even light from a rolled cover, plants have a greater opportunity to emerge and establish at the same rate, resulting in a more uniform stand. Meanwhile the rolled cover will help to conserve moisture and buffer soil temperatures throughout the growing season.

Start simple. If you’re modifying equipment for planting green, simpler is better. Smooth row cleaners are an excellent start as they reduce wrapping and open a furrow for the seed. Coulters should be removed if possible to eliminate another potential wrapping point and place more weight on row units and rollers. Smooth or shorter spiked closing wheels are a good starting point, especially if guards can be installed to keep residue away from them. Fertilizer applied behind the closing wheels is another practice that has been shown to work well. Once you get a feel for how your equipment behaves under your conditions, refinements can be made based on your needs.

Adjust your cover crop rates. Planting cover crops at rates traditionally used for harvesting small grain are not necessary when planting green. Small grains can produce large amounts of biomass at lower planting rates due to tillering and manure application or early planting can also increase cover crop biomass. However, high levels of biomass can be difficult to deal with come planting (green) time. To ensure that you’re not growing more material than you can handle, start at cover crop seeding rates that are half of typical recommendations. This means that small grains should be planted at 1 bu/ac or less, although one should be aware that seed size can varies greatly which ultimately affects the number of plants per acre.

Select the right hybrids. In general, no-tillers should purchase hybrids that have good seedling vigor and rooting and the advice holds true when planting green. With the right hybrid seeding rates may not need to be increased when planting green. Ideally, one should measure emerged populations and compare to historical numbers or with fields that are not planted green before committing to higher seeding rates. Increased populations for soybeans may also not be necessary as soybeans can tolerate lower populations with no impact to yields.

Be prepared for the nitrogen penalty. As small grain cover crops mature, the amount of carbon relative to nitrogen increases, which means that nitrogen needs to be removed from the soil for the residue to decompose and the timing of this can negatively impact the growing cash crop.

Those planting green have seen success in applying 50 lbs. of nitrogen at planting to promote residue breakdown and provide available nitrogen as the corn begins to grow. Those with frequently manured systems may find that extra nitrogen is not necessary and with legume cover crops additional nitrogen is not typically required at planting.

Although we’re far from having a 100% understanding of planting green, we’re learning how to better refine the process each year through research and observations of the early adopters of this process. If you’re looking to plant green for the first time I suggest that you seek out those early adopters and see what they’ve learned from the practice. Knowing the limitations of planting green will better ensure that you’re using the right tool in the right scenario.

How Plants Balance Defense, Growth

February 7, 2018 | Posted in Seeding & Planting

Source: Michigan State University

When a plant goes into defense mode in order to protect itself against harsh weather or disease, that’s good for the plant, but bad for the farmer growing the plant. Bad because when a plant acts to defend itself, it turns off its growth mechanism.

But now researchers at Michigan State University, as part of an international collaboration, have figured out how plants can make the “decision” between growth and defense, a finding that could help them strike a balance – keep safe from harm while continuing to grow.

Sheng Yang He, a professor of plant biology, and his team found that the two hormones that control growth (called gibberellins) and defense (known as jasmonates) literally come together in a crisis and figure out what to do.

“What we’ve discovered is that some key components of growth and defense programs physically interact with each other,” he says. “Communication between the two is how plants coordinate the two different situations.

“We now know where one of the elusive molecular links is between growth and defense.”

This is important because now that scientists know that this happens, they can work to figure out how to “uncouple” the two, he adds.

“Perhaps at some point we can genetically or chemically engineer the plants so they don’t talk to each other that much,” he says. “This way we may be able to increase yield and defense at the same time.

“Plants, like people, have to learn to prioritize,” he says. “You can use your energy for growth, or use it for defense, but you can’t do them both at maximum level at the same time.”

The work was done on two different plants: rice, a narrow-leafed plant, and Arabidopsis, which has a broader leaf. This was significant because it demonstrated that this phenomenon occurs in a variety of plants.

Communicating with Landlords: How to Gain & Retain Rented Farmland-By, Jessica Ziehm

Jessica Ziehm, Executive director of the NY Animal Agriculture Coalition

Jessica Ziehm, Executive director of the NY Animal Agriculture Coalition

Jessica Ziehm is a dairy farmer and Executive Director of the NY Animal Agriculture Coalition, a group dedicated to enhancing the public’s awareness and understanding of modern animal agriculture.

On Wednesday, December 20, 2017 the WNY Soil Health Alliance held their annual meeting and soil health workshop. Featuring Jessica as one of the main speakers.

In the Morning Session, Jessica Ziehm from NY Animal Ag Coalition and Jeff Ten Eyck from American Farmland Trust shared three main points; communicating, knowing and courting your landlords. These points went over how to start a relationship with your landlords and how to maintain a good relationship. The presentation went over statistics on the amount of rented land in this area as well as how to increase conservation practices on this land.

In the afternoon breakout sessions, Jessica went more into detail about how to gain and retain rented farmland. Jessica discussed the three main plays in working with landowners, transparency, accessibility, and communication. Transparency is when we operate in a way that is easy for others to see our actions and the “why” behind them. The seven elements of Transparency are: motivation, disclosure, stakeholder participation, relevance, clarity, credibility, accuracy, motivation. Accessibility is to operate in a way that is easy for landlords to find you such as; sharing your phone number, be proactive and talk to them first, invite them for a farm walk and being known in your community. Lastly, communication is key. Jessica talked about how to be honest, open and allow for two-way communication to help form a good partnership with your landowners.

The Case for Resilient Soils: Back To Basics-Karl Czymmeck

Karl Czymmek, Cornell Senior Extension Associate

Karl Czymmek, Cornell Senior Extension Associate

Karl Czymmeck is a Cornell Senior Extension Associate, who specializes in the areas of environmental management, nutrient management, soil fertility and CAFO farms. His focus is dairy extension in the area of nutrient management and environmental impact. This work allows him to observe evolving critical questions to address the issues and extend information back to producers, field staff and farm advisors.

On Wednesday, December 20, 2017 the WNY Soil Health Alliance held their annual meeting and soil health workshop.

In the morning session, Karl Czymmek from Cornell PRO-DAIRY shared some of his thoughts about soil health including the importance of saving soil as a way to help maintain soil health and that regardless of the crops grown, there is something every farm can do to work on soil health.

In the afternoon breakout sessions, Karl discussed soil fertility, crop yield and soil health changes over 15 years in a corn silage/hay/corn grain rotation with chisel disk tillage where plots were treated with fertilizer only, 2 rates of separated solids from dairy manure and two rates of liquid dairy manure.  The plots treated with dairy solids and high manure showed increased yields and improvements in soil health tests such as aggregate stability.   The plots are currently in alfalfa-grass hay and when rotated back to corn, will have strip till and cover crops implemented.

WNY SHA Summer Field Day

Tuesday August 22nd, 2017 8:30am to 3:30pm
Orleans County 4-H Fairgrounds
Trolley Building, 12690 Rt. 31 Albion, NY 14411

Mark your calendars — the WNY Soil Health Alliance Summer Field Day is here! Morning lectures from keynote speaker Wendy Taheri of TerraNimbus LLC and John Wallace from Cornell, will be followed by an afternoon at Toussaint Farms in Ridgeway, NY, observing 8 cover crop trials and exploring a soil pit, with on-site discussion led by Wendy Taheri. Cover crop interseeder and herbicide demonstrations will also be included in the workshop.

To register for this event, please download our event flyer and return the included form to Orleans County SWCD at 446 W Ave, Albion NY 14411 with checks made payable to Western New York Soil Health Alliance enclosed. 

You may also register by emailing your name and number of attendees to If registering via email, payment will be due in cash at the start of the workshop. 

Register by August 18th for reduced pricing. $40/pre-registered participant; $50 for walk-ins. Lunch is included in the cost of the workshop. DEC and CCA credits pending.

8:30-9:30 am — Registration & Refreshments

9:30-10:45 am — Wendy Taheri, TerraNimbus, LLC | Arbuscular Mycorrhizal Fungi (AMF) 101

10:45-11:45 am — John Wallace, Cornell Assistant Professor | Best Management Practices and Herbicide choices when Interseeding Cover Crops

12:00-1:30 pm — Lunch and travel to field trial site

1:30-2:30 pm — Station 1: Cover Crop Field walk | Observe 8 trials of cover crop plantings

2:30-3:30 pm — Station 2: Soil pit with Wendy Taheri | Learn what’s going on underground

Wendy Taheri, Ph.D. Photo provided.

Wendy Taheri, Ph.D. Photo provided.

Wendy Taheri, Ph.D. | TerraNimbus LLC

Wendy Taheri is a microbial ecologist who is transforming the world of agriculture by developing microbe-based, sustainable solutions to replace and reduce the plethora of toxic chemicals and environmentally-damaging practices currently used in conventional agriculture.  Because of her background in Environmental Ecology, she understands the synergistic effects that occur in healthy ecosystems and is applying them to broad-scale agriculture.  Her research focuses on harnessing the power of Arbuscular Mycorrhizal Fungi (AMF) and other beneficial microbes; and has broad-ranging, practical applications that are not only more profitable for farmers but also can potentially reduce atmospheric carbon and aquatic dead zones while increasing the sustainability and quality of our food and fiber supply chains.  

Arbuscular Mycorrhizal Fungi (AMF) 101: AMF are keystone species in soil.  These tiny organisms remove carbon from the carbon cycle and use it to binds particles into soil aggregates.  This aggregation reduces erosion and increases the water and nutrient holding capacity of the soil.  As if that wasn't enough, AMF also improve the nutritional value of crops, and make plants more drought, salinity and disease resistant.  Ultimately this can reduce or eliminating the need for many toxic agrochemicals while providing better profit margins for farmers.  When coupled with best management practices and the innovative applications and methods that Dr. Taheri has developed to protect and diversify the microbial community in the soil and on foliage, global crop production systems can be transformed into dynamic systems that are more resilient to climate change, drought, and other environmental stresses.  

John Wallace, Cornell Assistant Professor. Photo provided.

John Wallace, Cornell Assistant Professor. Photo provided.

John Wallace | Cornell Assistant Professor

John Wallace is a post-doctoral research associate at Penn State University. His research broadly focuses on integrated weed management strategies in conventional and organic field crop production systems that utilize conservation tillage practices, with a particular focus on weed management tradeoffs associated with integrating cover crops into annual grain production systems. In September 2017, John will join Cornell’s NYAES in Geneva, NY as an Assistant Professor of Specialty Crop Systems, where he will focus on integrated weed management in vegetable and fruit crops. His presentation will focus on developing best management practices (BMPs) for interseeding cover crops into field corn. The talk will primarily focus on research conducted at Penn State and will include information on cover crop species selection, interseeding timing and compatible herbicide programs.

A cover crop mix in a Toussaint field, 2016. Photo by Jena Buckwell.

A cover crop mix in a Toussaint field, 2016. Photo by Jena Buckwell.

Toussaint Farms | Ridgeway, NY

Toussaint Farms in Ridgeway, NY grows corn, soybeans and wheat on approximately 1,750 acres using a variety of cover crop and reduced/no-till methods.

To learn more about Toussaint Farms interseeding trials and experience with reduced and no-till, follow the links below. 


If you have any questions or concerns, please contact us at

Terminating Cover Crops

Photo source: Mike Stanyard

Photo source: Mike Stanyard

Article by Mike Stanyard - NWNY Dairy, Livestock and Field Crops Extension Team. 

This article was originally published in NWNY Dairy, Livestock and Field Crops Extension Team’s April 2017 Ag Focus and is published here with Mike Stanyard's permission.

So far, it looks like cover crops did well despite the lack of a prolonged blanket of snow this winter.  This makes our cover crops even more valuable as one of their main purposes is to keep our soils from blowing and washing away.  It was cold enough that the species that were supposed to winterkill like tillage radish and oats died. For those that remain alive like cereal rye, triticale, wheat, annual rye and clover species, we will have to come up with a plan on how to manage them.

Some of these overwintering cover crops will be used as a forage crop and therefore will be cut at the appropriate time (Growth Stage 9 for triticale) for optimum feed value.  Others will be mowed/crimped, tilled under, or terminated with herbicides.  Each of these has restrictions depending on what production system you utilize (ie. strictly grain based, no-till, or organic).  If cover crops are not dealt with in an appropriate manner, they can become weeds and compete with our production crops.  We saw that first hand in a drought situation last year. I have put together some advice on herbicide termination from the Midwest states on some of our commonly used cover crops.

Annual ryegrass (Lolium multiflorum), also called Italian ryegrass or common ryegrass, has become a very popular cover crop in NY but has a confusing name.  It is not an annual and survives the winter very well.  Do not confuse annual ryegrass with cereal rye.  Annual ryegrass is a good cover crop because of its ability to rapidly germinate in the fall, grow aggressively in the spring, and add substantial root and forage mass to the soil profile. Here is some advice from University of IL on proper termination with herbicides (

  • Make applications prior to 8″ plant height
  • Glyphosate rates of at least 1.25 lb ae/A are required, although 2.5 lb is preferred for annual ryegrass termination
  • Ryegrass must be actively growing, and it is recommended that applications occur only following three consecutive days when air temperatures have been above 45 F
  • The addition of saflufenacil to glyphosate can improve control of annual ryegrass
  • Combinations of paraquat, metribuzin and 2,4-D or dicamba can control small ryegrass (<6″ in height), but are not recommended for control of larger plants
  • Avoid using PSII herbicides (atrazine & metribuzin) in mixtures with glyphosate, as they can cause antagonism and poor control of annual ryegrass.

Cereal rye. Glyphosate at a rate of 0.75 lb ae/A will effectively control both species up to 18 inches tall. Mixtures of glyphosate plus 2,4-D, chlorimuron, chloransulam, atrazine, or saflufenacil can also be applied for additional control of other cover crop species (specifically broadleaf species) and residual control of summer annual broadleaf weeds. Depends on what crop species is going to be planted.  The nonselective herbicides paraquat and glufosinate are less effective than glyphosate on these species.

Gramoxone SL (paraquat) applied at 3 to 4 pints per acre works well on smaller rye before it reaches the boot stage.  Add a nonionic surfactant to the spray tank to enhance penetration and total kill.  If you will be planting corn and choose to use Gramoxone SL, consider adding 1 quart of atrazine per acre to improve control of the rye.  (personal communication, Mike Hunter, CCE).  In 2009, research by Bill Curran at Penn State University, found that the additional of 1 quart of atrazine per acre, when used with Gramoxone, provided 99% control of 8-10 inch tall rye.  Only 70% control of the rye was achieved when Gramoxone was used alone in this study.

Crimson clover and Austrian winter peas are two popular legume species used as cover crops that typically do not winter kill and require a spring termination.  I have seen control issues with large pea vines with glyphosate.  Information on control of these species with herbicides is limited, but cover crop guides advise that glyphosate and 2,4-D/ dicamba easily control crimson clover and winter peas.

University of Wisconsin has a nice fact sheet with additional cover crops which lists termination methods preferred and herbicide options (

Download a PDF of this article.

On Farm Trial: Har-Go Farms

Sustainable farming is defined as “the production of food, fiber, or other plant and animal products using farming techniques that protect the environment, public health, human communities, and animal welfare”. Dairy and livestock farms in particular have a capacity to create dynamic, holistic systems that manage nutrients on farm cyclically, especially those farms practicing pasture and organic farming strategies, whether they are certified organic or not. In an organic system, the practice of balancing manure, pasture, and feed crop efficiently is absolutely essential, and concern for the well-being of livestock and soils are paramount when preventative practices are your best strategy for maintaining a profitable farm business.

When John and Sue Gould of Har-Go Farms in Pavilion, NY opted to become certified Organic in 2006, they had a different kind of sustainability in mind: financial sustainability. With three college-age, or near college-age children, the Gould’s decided to become certified Organic because they saw it as a way to provide a sustainable future for their farm, the environment and their children, as well as a way to mitigate the economic fluctuations that have burdened the dairy industry for decades. Har-Go Farms sold their first Organic milk in October 2008, and in the years since have brought their son, Stephen on as a partner. Together, the three partners manage 600 acres of pasture and feed crop, 160 head of cattle, and employ 3 full-time, and 1 part-time employee. 

Left to Right:&nbsp;Eric Zinkievich, Ron Rodgers;&nbsp;founders Harold and Rose Gould;&nbsp;current partners John, Sue and Stephen Gould.&nbsp;Not pictured:&nbsp;Tim Bodine and Zak Griffith.&nbsp;Photo provided.

Left to Right: Eric Zinkievich, Ron Rodgers; founders Harold and Rose Gould; current partners John, Sue and Stephen Gould. Not pictured: Tim Bodine and Zak Griffith. Photo provided.

While the farm runs smoothly now, the Gould’s warn that the transition to Organic wasn’t without it’s growing pains. Information on Organic production has become more widely available over the years, but at the time of Har-Go’s transition, that information was limited and the Gould’s faced a very steep learning curve going “cold turkey” into a different system, with much of their progress coming as a result of learning from trial and error. Early on, many of Har-Go’s challenges and management errors were simply the result of lack of experience, which could only be remedied by making mistakes, and learning from them. 

Though Organic standards dictate that cows over 6 months of age have access to pasture during the growing season and that 30% of their dry matter intake be from pasture, the Gould’s aspire to exceed those requirements, maximizing use of their home grown nutrients through holistic management practices to reduce their farm inputs, and therefore, their costs. Stephen Gould, a graduate of Cornell with a Bachelors in Animal Science takes on most of pasture management responsibilities. Stephen manages their dairy herd by rotating them every 12 hours through a series of 3-5 acre paddocks he creates using plastic fencing within a 190 acre fenced in permanent pasture. By rotating the herd every 12 hours through small paddocks, Stephen manages herd grazing and therefore manages the nutrient uptake of the cows, as well as the amount of pasture consumed in each pass, maintaining healthy, evenly grazed pasture with manageable amounts of manure left behind to feed the soils and help the grasses rebound before the herd comes back through anywhere from 14 to 35+ days later. “Maturity of the grass, time of season, species of grass and days of rest (time between grazing) drives intake. In the spring, maturity moves very fast, so days of rest should be low. I shoot for around 14 days. Initially we were not moving through the pastured acres fast enough, grass was getting to mature and we were missing the window of maturity that cows would want to eat. Now we start at 14 days, grazing on a total of 100 acres and work towards 35+days of rest while grazing the total 190 acres. Any pasture we do not get to with the cows is mechanically harvested to keep it in the same cycle as the pasture.” says Stephen.

The Gould’s pasture is currently a orchard grass, ryegrass, red clover and white clover mix, though in the spirit of adaptation and efficiency, they are always looking to improve that mixture. For example, the orchard grass, which is wonderfully abundant in very early spring, doesn’t rebound as well as they would like during other times of the year, is something they are looking to improve upon in years to come.

Har-Go’s dairy herd typically grazes from late April to early November, as long as the grass is growing. Photo provided.

Har-Go’s dairy herd typically grazes from late April to early November, as long as the grass is growing. Photo provided.

While Har-Go Farms initial organic system plan <> did not include specific soil health goals, the Gould’s have been giving more and more attention to improving the soils in their crop fields each year. Though no-till is not an option for many Organic farmers, the Gould’s are strong proponents of other “soil health practices”, such as crop rotations, cover crops, and diversification. With a limited tool kit for managing pests, diseases, and weeds, Organic farmers must focus on preventative methods, and the Gould’s see diversification in particular as the key to adaptive and successful organic farming. In addition to their standard corn, soybean and mix grass hay harvest in 2016, the Gould’s experimented with sorghum sudan-grass, which far outpaced their heavier feeding and less drought/heat tolerant field corn. Har-Go also uses triticale as a cover crop and feed source, particularly as an alternative to grain feed, which Har-Go has not had success with consistently enough to be content with. In the 2017 growing season, millet is at the top of their list of species to try. 

Har-Go also focus heavily on crop rotation, which has been becoming more and more prevalent in the soil health world as an important factor in managing biological soil health. To the Gould’s and other organic farmers, however, crop rotation is just part of their every day farm management as a preventative practice focused on reducing pest populations and mitigating damage to crops.

Triticale Double Crop Harvest in May 2016. Photo provided.

Triticale Double Crop Harvest in May 2016. Photo provided.

Sudan grass single cut in September 2016. Photo provided.

Sudan grass single cut in September 2016. Photo provided.

Despite continued use of their moldboard plow, a practice that is generally considered detrimental to soil health (and for good reason), Har-Go Farms and other organic farms that plow as a chemical-free means of weed control, tend to still score well in terms of soil biology and overall soil health. The Gould’s crop fields in particular scored in the “Good” to “Excellent” range on Cornell’s Soil Health Test, doing especially well in the categories of available water capacity, aggregate stability, and organic matter. Their use of manure and diversity of crop, as well as intense crop rotations are likely the reason for their soil’s biological successes. Har-Go’s fields did however fall short in two very important categories: surface and subsurface compaction, for which they were designated “very poor” or as a “constricting factor”. These results are directly related to plowing and are problems the Har-Go team plans to address in the short and long-term with goals such as planting more with broadcast seeding and no-till drilling, which they currently do with their hay plantings and triticale, managing for year-round ground cover with cover crops, as well as investing in wider machinery with better weight distribution, and creating permanent pathways for machinery to avoid future compaction.  In the immediate, Har-Go experimented with “increasing the length of rotation, adding a cover crop of triticale followed by a summer planted annual like sorghum sudan-grass between the corn to soybean rotation.” The 2016 growing season was the first time Har-Go tried this and they’re looking forward to testing those fields again in 2017 to see if there have been any improvements as a result of their alternative management. 

A cow being milked in Har-Go Farms new high-tech milking barn. Photo provided.

A cow being milked in Har-Go Farms new high-tech milking barn. Photo provided.

While their transition to a pasture system alone is beneficial to herd health, Har-Go’s commitment to organic practices and the necessary focus on preventative practices, led them to build a new barn that makes managing for herd health and well-being more efficient. Their milking parlor includes four milking robots that milk their dairy cows up to eight times per day depending on a particular cows age, calving history, etc. Each cow wears a collar, that is scanned when she enters the milking pen and if she is lucky enough to be up for a milking, the robot drops a portion of feed, which she enjoys while the robot cleans her udders, milks her and transfers her milk to a larger holding tank. The robots are even capable of detecting problems with the milk, such as mastitis. When that happens, an alert is sent directly to Stephen’s phone so he knows which cow needs attention and can handle problems quickly and efficiently. The new barn also includes automatic manure cleanup, keeping the floor neat and tidy for their cows during the times of year that there’s snow on the ground, keeping the herd indoors. The Gould’s see their investment in a new, high-tech barn as an investment in preventative health care, keeping the herd as healthy as possible, and ensuring high production of quality milk. Outside of the barn, the herd enjoys greatly improved hoof health while on pasture, and fewer cases of respiratory illness thanks to fresh air during the growing season. Har-Go’s herd health is also managed by human interaction and inspection. As a result of their smaller herd size, the Gould’s and their employees are able to approach farm management holistically, with everyone involved in every aspect of the farm, giving them a better view of the overall picture, which makes potential or existing problems easier to spot and manage. 

Ultimately, a business decision that was made with financial sustainability and stability in mind has provided a sustainable future for Har-Go Farms and a means of carrying on the family business for their son Stephen. Their transition to Organic and emphasis on holistic management keeps their business competitive and provides plenty of opportunity to learn, adapt, and grow. Stephen sees diversification and experimentation as the key to successful farming — “farms need to be able to adapt”, which he plans to do at Har-Go Farms with more intense rotations, a greater variety and higher quality of feed crops and pasture, and a willingness to change and accommodate to whatever the climate, or the market has to throw his way. 

Har-Go Farms is part of the Upstate Farms cooperative. Their organic milk is primarily sold as fluid milk and yogurt at Wegmans. 

To learn more about Organic Farming and Soil Health, read SARE’s Transitioning to Organic Bulletin here.

On Farm Trial: Toussaint Farms No Till

Jeff Toussaint of Toussaint Farms in Ridgeway, NY transitioned from conventional tillage to zone-till in 1996 in an effort to reduce overhead and make farming less labor and fuel intensive. Four years ago, he eliminated the zone-till coulter from his operation and made the transition to no-till farming. Currently, Toussaint farms approximately 1,200 acres of corn, soybean, and wheat. 

In general, the early years of Toussaint’s transition to reduced and no-till went smoothly. Crop yields were about the same, and the time and money spent to get those yields was down. Like many no-till and min-till farmers in the Northeast, Toussaint struggled early on to air his soils out in WNY’s wet springtime conditions, with one field in particular putting up a good fight. Toussaint experimented over the years using different coulters, disturbing the soil more or less depending on what that particular field needed at the time, but always erring on the side of less disturbance in an effort to keep his reduced tillage goals on track. Toussaint stresses that every field is different, and some soils — like the soils in his problem field — don’t respond as readily as others to changes in management. You have to be patient and treat different soils according to their capabilities and their starting point. Now, after 21 years without conventional tillage, soil moisture issues are greatly reduced, making planting time and fuel efficient under standard WNY spring conditions.

While zone tillage worked well for their operation, Toussaint felt the time was right to switch to no-till in 2013. Technological advances in no-till made Toussaint feel confident that they “wouldn’t be losing anything” as far as yields and flexibility were concerned, but would be able to save more time and further reduce their overhead costs with a more streamlined operation. Though Toussaint does some tillage using his Turbo Till (vertical tillage) when absolutely necessary, all 1,200 acres are managed as no-till as much as possible. “I don’t think you can be 100% no-till all of the time”, says Toussaint, who sees his vertical tillage system as “a good compromise”. As an example, Toussaint will use his Turbo Till during wet years, particularly in fields that have a lot of residue. This mild disturbance chops and incorporates some of the residue and greatly reduces the likelihood of slug issues, as it eliminates the otherwise ideal habitat of a cool, damp space. Toussaint is much more likely to use the Turbo Till ahead of soybeans, which are more likely to be damaged by slugs, a problem he personally experienced in his fields when he first became no-till. 

One of Toussaint's fields in an elaborate multi-species cover crop mix in September 2016. Photo by Jena Buckwell.

One of Toussaint's fields in an elaborate multi-species cover crop mix in September 2016. Photo by Jena Buckwell.

In addition to going no-till, Toussaint began working with cover crops about 5 years ago. He is a big proponent of cover crop mixes, his favorite being a 3-way mix of crimson clover, radish, and annual ryegrass. For Toussaint, it was exciting to reincorporate brassicas, something that used to be grown on their farm many years ago, but has not been in their rotation for some time. He’s glad to be “feeding something in the soil that hasn’t been nurtured in years” and diversifying the biological aspects of his soils. In Fall 2016, Toussaint took it a few steps further and began experimenting with more elaborate mixes — using sunflower, annual ryegrass, crimson clover, turnips, radish, wheat, sun hemp, and sorghum all on one field. Toussaint looks forward to seeing how this mixture impacts his soils and his planting in 2017 and plans to continue working with cover crop mixes with the goal of establishing a variety of root systems, trying to accomplish his soil health goals “with nature instead of steel”. 

Since going no-till, Toussaint has noticed a variety of biological improvements in his soil, including increased earthworm activity and greater ease of planting. Over the years, planting has gotten easier and easier, with seeds going into the ground evenly, and machinery moving over their fields smoothly, causing minimal compaction and increasing the amount of acreage they can plant in a day. “Crusting issues have been nil” and standing water following snow melt and rain storms has been greatly reduced. Toussaint’s wheat, which has been completely no-till drilled for the last 3 years, has stood up to recent snow melt and heavy precipitation particularly well, soaking up the extra moisture and storing it for later, a sign of improved soil structure and health. 

Biological improvements have not been the only contributing factor to Toussaint’s happiness with no-till, the financial aspects of no-till and cover cropping have greatly increased Toussaint Farms’ resilience. As stated previously, Toussaint’s yields have stayed more or less the same they were when he was using conventional tillage — with some years proving to be phenomenal, some being a bit of a disappointment and most being completely average. The big difference has been that their decrease in overhead and labor has increased their profit per acre as well as the amount of acreage they can efficiently manage. Toussaint saves a lot on fuel costs, as he runs his machinery over the field significantly less than a conventional till farm. He has also saved a lot on labor because he has less machinery, which means fewer parts to replace and fewer man hours to operate and maintain machinery. His Nitrogen efficiency has also really improved, allowing for only about 0.9 lbs/bushel of added N for his corn crop. While cover crop seed and no-till machiney certainly cost money, the cost is easily recouped when you consider the money saved in maintaining topsoil by protecting your fields from wind and water erosion, as well as the time and fuel saved when your soils are healthy, well structured and easy to work. 

Planting green into red clover in 2016. Photo provided.

Planting green into red clover in 2016. Photo provided.

On June 2 2016, some of Toussaint's red clover cover crop was still growing.Photo provided.

On June 2 2016, some of Toussaint's red clover cover crop was still growing.Photo provided.

Despite Toussaint’s long-running success with reduced and no-till, 2016 brought Toussaint’s biggest lesson to date. In previous years, Toussaint’s no-till practices have mitigated the negative impacts of dry weather, a testament to the benefits of improved soils with greater moisture holding capacity, but Toussaint unknowingly created the perfect storm this past growing season when he experimented with planting green into red clover. While Toussaint’s previous experiments with planting green worked well, particularly with crimson clover (an annual with a less aggressive root system than red clover) and ryegrass, this years extreme drought and the harder-to-kill red clover cover crop resulted in devastatingly low corn yields on some of his acreage. While most of Toussaint’s corn yield was only slightly below average, the red clover proved too vigorous to be controlled, and the still-established red clover outcompeted the corn for the little moisture we had, resulting in some very sad looking corn fields. Though those fields were a financial loss and very difficult to look at throughout the 2016 season, Toussaint fully intends to plant green in the future. He has vowed to never use red clover for planting green again, but given his previous successes with planting green into other cover crop species, he does not intend to let one bad year deter him. Toussaint’s top lesson learned? “Experiment small and don’t assume you can manage different species the same.” On the upside, 2016 was one of the best years Toussaint has had for soybeans, which had the benefit of some late summer precipitation that seemed to help them bounce right back after a long, hot, and dry summer. 

Jeff Toussaint (left) and his son, Matt (center) at the WNY Soil Health Alliance’s 2015 Annual Meeting and Soil Health Workshop. Photo by Jena Buckwell.

Jeff Toussaint (left) and his son, Matt (center) at the WNY Soil Health Alliance’s 2015 Annual Meeting and Soil Health Workshop. Photo by Jena Buckwell.

While this past growing season brought a low blow, Toussaint states confidently that he has never regretted the switch to no-till and will never go back to conventional tillage. Despite challenges in 2016, Toussaint reminds himself that there were failures with tillage too, and that while difficult, this year’s experiment proved a valuable learning experience for himself as well as other farmers in the area. For farmers considering the transition to no-till, Toussaint advices that they “read, ask questions, and don’t overcomplicate it”. Like with any farm system, Toussaint stresses that you need to find a way to get seed into the soil evenly for good germination, and if you’re just getting started with the hands-on part of no-till farming, he suggests small scale no-till drilling into soybean stubble, which is easy to work through because of minimal residue. As far as cover crops are concerned, Toussaint urges farmers to fully understand the species they’re working with before putting it in the ground. Different varieties of the same cover crop can have different growth habits and will require different management and different methods to eradicate come spring, so make sure you understand what you’re getting yourself into. And don’t give up just because of one bad experience with cover crops — the benefits are there, you just need to understand how to tap into them. Start small and have a plan for eradication before planting. 

To learn more about Toussaint Farms operation, click here.

Resource Spotlight: Soil Health Management Planning Worksheet

Getting started with a soil health management plan can be a daunting task. Even farmer's who are experienced with no- or reduced-till and cover crops may find themselves struggling to make decisions on where to go next in their soil health journey. If you're looking to get your soil health toes wet, or just need help re-establishing your goals, the Soil Health Management Planning Worksheet is a short, simple way to get you headed in the right direction. PDF file available for download here.

On Farm Trial: Hu-Lane Farm LLC's long term No-Till

Most years, driving by Hu-Lane Farm LLC in Albion, NY may seem like driving by any other farm in Western NY. Like a lot of farms in the area, partners Hugh and Eleni Dudley, their son Kurt, and grandson Jesse Farwell, grow corn, soybean, hay, and a handful of other crops on 1,200 acres. 

Hugh Dudley discussing the past growing season at WNY Soil Health Alliance’s Annual Meeting in December 2016.

Hugh Dudley discussing the past growing season at WNY Soil Health Alliance’s Annual Meeting in December 2016.

Though appearances can be deceiving under average weather conditions, this family farm looked noticeably different from other area farms during the 2016 drought, putting out impressive yields despite record low precipitation. What’s the secret to their success? Hugh Dudley attributes the farm’s resilience during less-than-favorable conditions to his 25 years of minimum tillage (min-till), life-long commitment to crop rotations, and extensive drain tiling that covers 100% of Hu-Lane’s acreage. 

While Dudley has always been a strong advocate and user of crop rotations, his transition to min-till was a long, and sometimes bumpy, road. Dudley was interested in min-till (a term commonly used by Canadian farmers) from the early 1960s, when as an Agriculture teacher at Albion High School, he started learning more about the technique through a Canadian farming expo field trip he attended with his Future Farmers of America (FFA) class. During his teaching career, he worked with FFA to experiment with min-till methods in Orleans County primarily for educational purposes. From these experiments, Dudley knew there was still a lot to learn and a lot to be done, but that in general, min-till greatly reduced weed pressure, and was a truly promising alternative to conventional tillage that could save farmers a lot of time and money. 

A few years later, in the early 70s, Dudley decided to take the day off school and head up to London, ON to attend the Innovative Farmers of Canada annual conference. While there, his interest in min-till was further stoked, and he gained insight on how he could convert his planter for min-till. This was during a time that monoculture was becoming increasingly popular in the Northeast, a concept that went against the grain of everything Dudley had always done with his multi-year rotations, making Orleans County look more and more like the Midwest. Despite pressure to do the same, Dudley carried on with his diversified crop rotations and continued to work toward transitioning to min-till. 

For years, Dudley experimented with min-till methods, having breakthroughs and setbacks like any other farmer trying something new. While Dudley has never experienced a complete crop failure, he did struggle with min-till early on. During his trials, Dudley came to the conclusion that his biggest obstacle in min-till was variable drainage, which ultimately led to variable yields. While his soils were generally healthy from years of careful crop rotation and management, each year he struggled to start the season with ideal moisture conditions. To control that variable, Dudley purchased a drain tile plow in 1990, started laying drain tile, and never looked back. Since then, Kurt Dudley has taken over much of the drain tile work and often lays drain tile for other farmers in the area as an additional income source for the farm. 

Hugh and Eleni Dudley’s son and business partner Kurt lays drain tile for other farmers in the area using Hu-Lane’s drain tile plow.

Hugh and Eleni Dudley’s son and business partner Kurt lays drain tile for other farmers in the area using Hu-Lane’s drain tile plow.

“Every year’s going to be different. There’s no such thing as average.”
— Hugh Dudley

Much as Hu-Lane’s success can be attributed to their soil health management, it can also be attributed to their overall willingness to adapt and try new enterprises, such as laying drain tile, or aerial broadcasting cover crops. Over the years, Hu-Lane has seen a handful of enterprises come, and sometimes go. In addition to growing their standard cash crops, Hu-Lane are seed producers, and have in the past had a large beef herd (a small portion of which Kurt continues to manage), a hog operation, and a christmas tree farm. 

Grandson and business partner, Jesse Farwell aerial broadcasts cover crop seed on Hu-Lane’s, as well as other area farmers fields. This method is much in the experimentation phase.

Grandson and business partner, Jesse Farwell aerial broadcasts cover crop seed on Hu-Lane’s, as well as other area farmers fields. This method is much in the experimentation phase.

As for the 2016 growing season, which was plagued by drought that caused crop damage throughout Western NY, Hu-Lane saw small decreases in their yields, but still managed to have a very successful season. Growing corn, soybean, wheat, snap beans, peas, sweet corn, hay, and barley as cash crops, Hu-Lane yielded an average of 190 bushel/acre of corn (average 240 bushel/acre typically) and an impressive 74 bushel/acre on soybean. One 40 acre soybean field even put out 80 bushel/acre with no irrigation. Dudley attributes the successful season to the fact that they were able to plant earlier than many farmers. After years and years of min-till, their fields have excellent structure, and thanks to their subsurface drainage tile, their fields are workable earlier in the season without causing compaction. “We don’t make ruts.” Dudley states, quite plainly. As a direct benefit of getting planted earlier, the crops were able to establish themselves while there was still some spring moisture in the soil, getting their roots pushed down deep into the high quality, water holding soil where moisture and nutrients were more readily available throughout the season.

Looking to the future, Dudley plans to experiment more with cover cropping, a practice he’s only recently gotten on board with in the last few years. The difficulty of establishing cover crops after harvest has always been significant in this region because of our short growing season, but Dudley sees interseeding as a truly viable option. While Dudley concedes that there’s still plenty of logistical concerns that need to be sorted out, Hu-Lane’s success in establishing aerial broadcasted barley into corn and soybeans in 2016 provides a good starting point for future trials on their own farm. Hu-Lane has also recently made changes to their farm to increase their irrigation capacity. While their crops fared well enough with only 120 of their 1,200 acres being irrigated (3”) in 2016, they are looking to increase their resilience to drought by increasing the size of their farm pond, which is pumped by an old windmill purchased at auction, a project that was completed in Fall 2016. Something Dudley would like to improve on in the future is the farm’s use and understanding of irrigation technology to make their water usage as efficient as possible.

Hu-Lane Farm set an excellent example for other local farmers this year, by demonstrating fully the benefits that can come from a long-term commitment to min-till. While Dudley is hesitant to use the fairly new and very popular term “soil health practices”, he is quick to point out that the general concepts have been around for a very long time. He remembers the textbook he used as a young Agriculture teacher in the early ‘60s and how so many of the ideas he hears discussed now at soil health workshops were in there as well, just without any sort of official name or terminology. He's glad to see an increased interest in the methods he’s been practicing for most of his farming career, and despite early warnings that he “doesn’t like to talk much” is often more than happy to talk with younger farmers about all his successes, setbacks, and funny stories that come with a lifetime of farming. 

Hugh Dudley’s Top 5 Tips

1. Drainage is key. If you want to be able to no- or min-till in this area, you need to have your soil moisture under control.

2. Crop rotations are absolutely essential. 

3. Take it easy on your soils — “if it’s too wet, don’t plant.” It’s not worth the compaction.

4. Do your soil testing and make sure to scout crops. Find problems as early as possible and “chase them” until you know what went wrong and how to avoid that problem in the future. 

5. “Always kill clover in the fall.” The vigorous root system makes it too strong by spring and you’ll spend lots of time, money, and herbicides trying to get it under control. 

Resource Spotlight: Adaptation Workbook

The USDA and the US Forest Service Department of Agriculture recently launched a digital Adaptation Workbook for Forestry and Agriculture. “The Adaptation Workbook is a structured process to consider the potential effects of climate change on forest ecosystems and design land management and conservation actions that can help prepare for changing conditions.” 

The workbook has a lot of flexibility to accommodate a wide variety of enterprises and relies on farmers gaining an understanding of their own geologic and climatic conditions, as well as having a strong grasp of their farm’s objectives and management goals. The Workbook was created because “more and more information is becoming available on climate change projections and potential impacts on natural resources and agriculture. Unfortunately, most of this information doesn't seem applicable because many land owners and managers are unsure how climate change might actually apply at the scales that are relevant to their work. The Adaptation Workbook was created to bridge this gap.”

The Workbook consists of 5 basic steps:

  1. Define goals and objectives
  2. Assess climate impacts and vulnerabilities
  3. Evaluate objectives considering climate impacts
  4. Identify adaptation approaches and tactics for implementation
  5. Monitor effectiveness of implemented actions

While the main focus of the workbook is to help create a structure for climate adaptation, there are also elements of mitigation within the process. Though complete mitigation of climate change is likely impossible, there are many adaptation projects that go hand in hand with mitigation strategies, and vice versa. 

The Workbook can be used for Agriculture and Forestry. PDF versions of the workbook are also available at the links below. To use the online version, visit

Adaptation Resources for Agriculture

Forest Adaptation Resources: climate change tools and approaches for land managers, 2nd edition.



Resource Spotlight: NRCS Conservation Webinars

With the weather in Western NY being slightly less than pleasant in recent weeks, the chance to sit down, take a load off, and learn something new is upon us and USDA Natural Resource Conservation Services Conservation Webinars series is a great place to do just that. 

2016 offered a wide variety of webinars, but the following offer soil health specific content. If you’re interested in learning the basics of soil health check out The New Division of Soil Health: Approach and Benefits, Biological Indicators of Soil Health: What they are, how they are measured, and what is on the horizon?, and Soil Erosion: A Historical Perspective

There’s plenty to learn through these webinars about grazing in general, but Integrating Grazing into Cropping Systems, and Grazing Management on CRP Acres to Improve Soil Health will give you a soil health POV. 

Other soil health related topics include Farming Implements in Action: Impacts on the Soil, Erosion Potential of Tillage Systems, and Economics, Managing Soil Quality in Forests, Soil Health Impacts on Pest Management, and Soil Health in High Tunnel Production.

Recordings of all 2016 Conservation webinars are available here and can be viewed at any time.

Upcoming webinars for 2017 are full of promise. There are two webinars scheduled that will feature first hand view and commentary from farmers including Soil Health Economics - A Farmer's Perspective, and Managing Cover Crops in an Arid Region: A Farmer's Perspective

The basics of soil microbes will be covered in Soil Microbes Every Agronomist Should Know, and grazing for soil health will be discussed in Using Adaptive Grazing to Improve Soil Health in Grazing Ecosystems. 

Soil Health impacts on resource concerns, specifically water quality, will be covered in Movement of Nutrients through Soils: Impacts of Land Management (or lack of) on Water Quality, and various operation specific discussions and their relationship to soil health will be covered in Soil Health Challenges of High Disturbance Crops, Improving Soil health in Irrigated Intensive Vegetable Production, and Improving Soil Health on Confinement-based Dairies.

New live presentations will be available throughout 2017. Click here to see a full list of offered webinars and their scheduled dates and times. Recordings of each webinar become available within a few weeks of the live presentation if you are unable to attend day of. 

Orleans Co. Environmental Book Club to discuss Dust Bowl and local Soil Health

Arguably the worst human-caused disaster in American history, the Dust Bowl spanned through the darkest days of the American Depression, costing many farmers and homesteaders their homes, their health, all their money, and often their own lives and those of their family members. 

Understanding the damage that can be done by poor soil management should be an integral part of every farmers self education, making The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan essential reading for anyone interested in how we as farmers and land stewards can work with nature to mitigate our negative impacts and reduce the likelihood of erosion. Whether it be erosion in the form of a massive dust cloud, or a fast moving stream dumping our topsoil and nutrients into a nearby lake, the capacity for that erosion to harm both our farm health and the health of nearby land, water and people is something we are responsible for controlling through better stewardship. 

Throughout 2017, Orleans County SWCD will be hosting an Environmental Book Club at Albion Hoag Library. The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan is our book club selection for February 2017 and we encourage all local farmers and concerned citizens to join our group in discussion on February 7th at 7pm in “The Loft”. Discussion will include both commentary on the book, as well as a proactive discussion on how our community can help mitigate erosion and improve our soils. 

A flyer with further information can be downloaded here.

The Locals: WNY Soil Health Alliance Annual Meeting and Soil Health Workshop

For many farmers, winter is a time for learning new skills and making a plan for the upcoming year. WNY Soil Health Alliance hosts their annual meeting and soil health workshop each year in December to give farmers and soil health professionals the opportunity to become better stewards of their land through educational presentations and discussion with other local farmers. 2016’s meeting was hosted at Elba Firemen’s Hall in Elba, NY on December 21st with an excellent turnout from local farmers.

WNY Soil Health Alliance President Donn Branton, and secretary/treasurer Dennis Kirby welcome workshop attendees.

WNY Soil Health Alliance President Donn Branton, and secretary/treasurer Dennis Kirby welcome workshop attendees.

The first presentation was from Dr. Janice Theis and focused on the basics of the “Soil Food Web” and soil biology. In the past, WNY Soil Health Alliance has received a lot of feedback from farmers that they’re interested in learning more about basic soil biology, and Theis did an excellent job covering that basic information. Additionally, Theis went into greater detail on how interactions in the soil’s lower trophic levels can help or hinder successful crop yields. Bacteria, fungi, protozoa, soil nematodes, and soil fauna (earthworms, arthropods) were all discussed with an emphasis on the benefits that most of these “critters” provide for healthy soils. Theis is a strong proponent of low spray operations and promotes the many ecological services provided by a diverse and healthy array of soil organisms.

Keynote speaker Steve Groff, farmer and owner of Cover Crop Consulting, gave two presentations, “Making Cover Crops Pay” and “Strategies for Terminating Cover Crops”.

Keynote speaker Steve Groff, farmer and owner of Cover Crop Consulting, gave two presentations, “Making Cover Crops Pay” and “Strategies for Terminating Cover Crops”.

Keynote speaker Steve Groff focused his first presentation “Making Cover Crops Pay” on the many ways that a focus on soil health can benefit a farm’s bottomline. He began his discussion by challenging attendees to think of their soils as something they need to nurture and grow. Groff is a strong believer in treating cover crops as you would a cash crop, with carefully considered planting times, preparation and seed selection. Groff views cover crops as “another tool of the trade” that farmers need to take the time to understand and experiment with — more than anything, Groff challenged workshop attendees to be open minded on the possibilities that are available with cover crop systems and to take the time to carefully identify what your goals are in soil building practices, just as you would with a cash crop. Groff stressed timeliness of planting and a strong understanding of the growth habits of the variety you are using. Groff recommends “making your cover crop pay” by focusing on the resulting increased tolerance to weather extremes, erosion control that allows you to keep your precious topsoil where it belongs, and the increased presence of a diverse soil food web. Additionally, there are opportunities in weed suppression, which reduces costs associated with weed control; cover crops can be used as alternative feed and forage sources; and there are financial benefits to improving public perception of farming. The discussion ended with an overview of some of the local cost-share programs available through Natural Resource Conservation Services (NRCS) and Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCD), both from Groff as well as local agency representatives Jim LaGioia (NRCS, Batavia), Maggie Gnann (NRCS, Albion), and Molly Cassatt (Genesee Co. SWCD).

Following lunch, Groff returned for “Strategies for Terminating Cover Crops” in which he focused on understanding the differences between cover crops that will winter kill, cover crops that will easily be killed by herbicides, and cover crops that are often more difficult to kill, all of which require a good understanding of the varieties growth habits and of how to best manage them. Groff expanded on some of the harder-to-kill species, such as annual ryegrass and crimson clover. Additionally, Groff discussed interseeding, which he feels is a real soil health opportunity for NYS to take the lead on given our shorter growing season, the importance of mixing and creating diversity in your cover crops, and “the moisture factor”, which Groff describes as farmers paying attending to the moisture levels and forecasted rainfall in April and adjusting their cover crop plan accordingly to create appropriate moisture conditions for planting.

The annual meeting and soil health workshop had an excellent turnout of about 150 attendees.

The annual meeting and soil health workshop had an excellent turnout of about 150 attendees.

Following Steve Groff, Paul Salon of NRCS gave a brief presentation on a Cover Crop Calculator he’s been working on over the last year. The Cover Crop Calculator will be made available for farmers soon and will help farmers determine what cover crop mixes will best suit their needs based on their soils, goals, budget etc. 

Hugh Dudley of Hu-Lane Farms was one four speakers on the Farmer Panel at the end of the soil health workshop.

Hugh Dudley of Hu-Lane Farms was one four speakers on the Farmer Panel at the end of the soil health workshop.

The workshop ended with brief presentations from 4 speakers. Hugh Dudley of Hu-Lane Farms has been no-till since 1991 and told the workshop attendees that he made that transition after many years of conventional plowing (despite a genuine love of plowing) because he had seen clear deterioration and compaction in his fields and wanted to try to amend those issues. Despite the 2016 drought year, Hu-Lane had excellent yields on nearly all their fields, a fact Hugh attributes to their long term commitment to no-till. 

Brad Macauley from Merrimac Farms provided a brief overview of his farm’s history with soil health building and how they faired in the less than ideal conditions of 2016. Merrimac Farms is a cash crop/dairy farm consisting of 3,000 acres and 350 milking head and young stock.

Jerry Hull of Thornapple Dairy LLC has been doing no-till and cover cropping for many years. His passion for soil health comes from his commitment to his family and his desire to see the farm that has been in their family for 199 years continue to be healthy and successful for many generations to come. His main points of discussion were “stop tilling” and “keep the ground covered 365 days a year”. 

The panel wrapped up with Dave DeGolyer of WNY Crop Management giving an overview of some their cover cropping trials, both successes and failures from the past two years. Like many farmers, Dave and his team at WNY Crop Management really struggled in 2016, but are ready to get back to it in 2017. 

“The Locals” is a WNY SHA blog series focused on sharing what other local farmers are doing throughout the year to help others interested in soil health gain insight into the intricacies of scheduling soil building practices into their farm business.

On Farm Trial: Branton Harvest 2016

Branton Farms Stafford, NY

Like all farmers in Western New York in the 2016 season, Donn and Chad Branton of Branton Farms had to make do with the little bit of precipitation we had. After 28 years of reduced till and no-till practices, and some quick thinking in the present, the Branton's had a good harvest, despite the difficult conditions.

On Farm Trial: Branton Farms, Interseed Trials (2013 to 2015)

Donn Branton of Branton Farms was an early adopter of reduced-till and no-till methods, giving up traditional tillage in 1988. Over the years, the family-run farm has grown a variety of cash crops on their 1,500 acres, and with the recent addition of Donn's son Chad to the family business, the duo have begun seriously exploring their cover cropping potential.

On Farm Trial: Stein Farms Triticale Cover

Stein Farms is a multi-generational, family-run dairy farm is Le Roy, NY where the Stein family works alongside their employees tending to their dairy herd, cultivating about 2,700 acres of feed, and striving to take care of the beautiful landscape that surrounds them.