Donn Branton, of Branton Farms in Stafford, NY has been working with cover crops on his 1,500 acre farm since the mid-1970’s. Donn 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; a list that currently includes corn, soybeans, some alfalfa, peas, sweet corn, lima beans, dry beans, wheat, oats and rye.
Donn’s son Chad joined the family business in 2013 after graduating from Cornell University, and began helping to move the farm into a more intensive cover cropping program. In the last 3 years, the father and son duo have worked together to experiment with a variety of cover crop seed mixes, and application methods, with a strong focus on learning to interseed effectively. They primarily use multi-species mixes, containing whatever cocktail of cover will best provide for the soil based on prior and future crop for each field.
Upon Chad’s return home in 2013, Donn and Chad jumped right in, experimenting with interseeding radish into their (R3) soybean crop. They used a homemade Gandy air seeder to broadcast 5lbs/acre of radish seed on August 24th on a limited number of acreage. When the soybean was harvested in late October, the radish was well established, giving the duo the confidence to continue experimenting and fine-tuning their process. For Donn, the biggest success of that year’s experiment was the noticeable increase in earthworm activity. The radish winter killed, leaving behind plenty of organic matter and an improved soil to plant into the following spring.
In 2014, the pair decided the expand their interseeding trials with annual ryegrass into corn and soybeans. They also experimented with a mix for the first time, setting aside 100 acres of their soybean crop to be interseeded with an annual ryegrass, radish, and clover mix, which they purchased pre-mixed specifically for broadcasting from Kings Agriseed Mix. Seed was broadcast using a Rogator broadcaster at a rate of 15lbs/acre for the annual ryegrass, and 25 lbs/acre for the 3-way mix. They used Urea fertilizer (0-0-46) as a side dress to their corn crop, and Agrotain for nitrogen stabilization. While the annual ryegrass and 3-way mix germinated well in both corn and soybean, the cover was soon shaded out, killing off most of their cover crop and leaving most of their fields bare following harvest.
Having deemed the 2014 cover crop a “complete failure” Donn and Chad moved into the 2015 season intending to reduce their interseeding acreage, increase their rate of seed application per acre by 5lbs/acre for annual ryegrass, and get their interseeded cover crop on the ground sooner.
They started the 2015 cover crop season by broadcasting annual ryegrass and ESN fertilizer into 100 acres of their corn crop about 6 weeks after the corn first came up, around mid to late June. The fertilizer they used was 90-day residual, slow, temperature and moisture activated released, with 50-75 unit lbs of nitrogen per acre, depending on the nitrogen needs of a particular field. Again, this interseeded cover started strong, with good germination, but was shaded out despite having been planted earlier in the season.
Following a lackluster performance from their initial cover crop, the Brantons opted to aerial broadcast annual ryegrass into corn and soybeans in the fall of 2015. The soybean leaves had started to drop, and the corn was drying down when Triple F flew on about 18lbs/acre of annual ryegrass, a higher-than-normal seeding rate to balance out the seed that was bound to get caught up in the mature corn and soybean canopy. This attempt resulted in good germination, though there were issues with the flight pattern not being tight enough, as is common with aerial broadcasting, leaving strips of uncovered land. Fortunately, the timing on this broadcast was ideal and a shot of steady rain following the broadcast created ideal conditions for a successful cover crop. This cover crop has remained well established and will be chemically killed prior to 2016 planting.
The Branton's mostly rate their cover crop success visually, based primarily on ground cover and visible earthworm activity. They also have their soils tested every 2-3 years, which will ultimately show whether or not their cover cropping efforts have been a success on a soil biology level. Donn is particularly proud of the fact that snow piles surrounding his fields each winter are nice and white, which means the soil that is meant to be on his fields, is actually staying on his fields, not blowing around.
With cover cropping, you’re “never out of options”, says Chad, and there are more benefits to cover cropping than most farmers can imagine, even if it’s a gradual, and sometimes frustrating, process.