On Farm Trial: Branton Harvest 2016

The summer of 2016 will undoubtedly be one to remember. With record-setting drought and high temperatures throughout Western NY, farmers and non-farmers alike will likely spend the next few years lamenting the pain of watching crops, gardens, and lawns fade into varying shades of brown, becoming harder to watch with each passing day of clear blue sky.

While farmers in our area are used to dealing with excessive spring rain and snow melt, temperature fluctuations, and late or early frosts, a complete lack of rain has rarely been a hurdle we’ve needed to cross. Though research elsewhere has shown that biologically healthy soils, cultivated using no-till and cover cropping techniques, are better adapted to dealing with drought, this was a year that really, truly put that theory to the test.

While the 2016 season was certainly a challenge for Donn and Chad Branton of Branton Farms in Stafford, NY, it was not as harsh as it was for others in the area. In the 28 years since Donn Branton gave up conventional tillage practices, his 1,500 acres of reduced and no-till farm land has been slowly and steadily building biological connections and networks that made a big difference in this years crop.

Their soybean crop will be harvested in the coming weeks, and while the plants are short, the internodes are vigorous and should produce a good crop — not bad for being 9 inches down on precipitation for the year. The soybeans were planted using a no-till planter (modified corn planter), at a rate of 145,000 plants/acre. While germination has been great and the plants are doing very well, the dry soil slowed down their planting significantly, at times down to 2 miles per hour. About half of their soybean crop was planted using non-GMO seed, a diversion from the Branton’s typical practices after a nearby dairy approached them looking for non-GMO soybean for their cows. Those non-GMO seeds have done just as well as their standard GMO varieties, and the Branton’s willingness to be flexible and try something new is exactly what has often made them successful.

  The Branton's corn field is partially harvested.

The Branton's corn field is partially harvested.

 Branton's corn has excellent kernel development and will be harvested exclusively for grain.

Branton's corn has excellent kernel development and will be harvested exclusively for grain.

The Branton’s corn crop did much better than many other nearby farms and has provided a successful harvest thus far. Planted using no-till and strip till methods at a rate of 34-36,000 plants/acre, their various corn fields, as well as a few of their neighbors, had nitrogen fertilizer applied using their 5 years average of .73lbs/bushel as a benchmark. At this time, Donn is confident in the success of their harvest, stating “we do expect to harvest all for grain and not sell any for silage”.

When asked what their biggest lesson was from this year, Donn and Chad easily responded “to be ready for change — remember to be flexible.” They take their own advice seriously, and this year took advantage of what is likely to be a competitive forage market by growing a variety of forage crops, some of which will also function as cover crops.

  A close up of Branton's alfalfa seedlings.

 A close up of Branton's alfalfa seedlings.

 Alfalfa keeps the ground covered and provide for multiple cuttings over 3 years.

Alfalfa keeps the ground covered and provide for multiple cuttings over 3 years.

An alfalfa crop, which they have also seeded into three neighboring farms has been doing particularly well in their fields. The alfalfa will have an initial harvest in the spring as forage, but in the meantime also serves as a winter cover crop. For now, the crop looks excellent on all four farms, particularly on a neighbor’s field that was fertilized with liquid manure (5,000 gals/acre) two weeks prior to no-till drilling the alfalfa seed at about 20 lbs/acre. Alfalfa is an excellent crop for keeping the ground covered, as most operations harvest 4, sometimes 5 cuttings over a 3 year period, eliminating bare soils, and reducing the amount of traffic from heavy machinery on fields. Once the alfalfa crop has been exhausted, the Branton’s will use Round-Up or similar to terminate before planting that field to something else. The only challenge with this crop came as a result of a prior winter wheat crop’s residue, as well as excessively dry soils making it challenging to drill the seed into the soil effectively. With the exception of a few heavily straw-covered areas, the alfalfa has germinated wonderfully.

 The Branton's sorghum sudangrass crop is doing well and providing supplementary feed to nearby dairy farms. 

The Branton's sorghum sudangrass crop is doing well and providing supplementary feed to nearby dairy farms. 

Sorghum sudangrass  has been another big success for the Branton’s this year. Planted at a rate of 40lbs/acre, the sorghum, like the alfalfa will provide much needed forage to nearby dairy farms. Of three fields planted with sorghum, one was planted after peas came off and nitrogen fertilizer was added at a rate of 50lbs/acre. That field has already had one sorghum cutting and will be expected to yield another before the season is through, with the addition of 75lbs/acre of nitrogen following its first cutting. A second field, following wheat, had 100lbs/acre nitrogen added prior to planting. That field was simultaneously seeded with medium red clover, which will act as a cover crop following the sorghum harvest and subsequent winter kill. A third field, following cereal rye was given the same treatment, though with a red clover and vetch mix. As with the alfalfa, their only challenge with establishing this sorghum crop was in no-till drilling into excessively dry soils. The red clover and vetch cover crops will be terminated chemically prior to spring planting.

Oats were also a popular fall harvest crop to provide neighbors with emergency feed supplies for their dairy herds. The Branton’s seeded a neighbor’s field with straight oats following a wheat crop. First using their stream bar to apply 65lbs/acre of nitrogen, they then seeded the oats at 120lbs/acre using their no-till drill. In addition to a straight oats planting, the Branton’s airflowed a neighbor's oats/triticale mixture and the neighbor's disc and rolled the seed in. The oats will be harvested in the fall, and the triticale will be harvested in the spring for additional feed, after it has provided a winter’s worth of soil protection and enhancement. The oats and triticale mix was seeded using a no-till drill, at a rate of 100lbs/acre of oats, 120lbs/acre of triticale. Nitrogen was applied at a rate of 65lbs/acre after the crop’s emerged with the stream bar nozzle set up. 

To learn more about Branton Farms cover crop and no-till methods, click here.