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.