Valley Farmers Slow To Embrace ‘Old’ Ag Technique
Officials: Mixed-Species Cover Crop Use Dates Back To At Least 1916
Posted: February 5, 2013
Anthony Berry, a Mount Crawford dairy and poultry producer, looks over pastures planted with mixed-species cover crops on Thursday at Berry Farms. (Photos by Nikki Fox / DN-R)
Anthony Berry, a Mount Crawford dairy and poultry producer, has planted a mixed crop of radishes, hairy vetch and triticale in one of his pastures at Berry Farms.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, through its Natural Resources Conservation Service, is pushing local farmers to use mixed-species cover crops instead of the typical single-species crops most have been planting for years.
Farmers plant cover crops to enrich the soil, keep runoff to a minimum and, for many local growers, to grow hay for their livestock.
Most area farmers who plant cover crops use only one species — a small grain, such as rye or barley.
The base cover-crop mixture includes three species: one grass, one legume and one forb — a type of flowering plant. Across the nation, farmers are experimenting with that combination to plant as many as three varieties of each of the three species together.
“All three of those groups of plants start working synergistically; that’s something we never thought of 30 years ago,” said Richard Fitzgerald, an agronomist with the Verona NRCS office.
“Generally, when you start mixing plant species, they start competing with one another,” he said. “[Cover crop mixtures go] against agronomic thinking. … Thirty years ago, I’d be telling you it wouldn’t work.”
The combination of species helps to trap nutrients, such as nitrogen, in the soil, thereby increasing the organic matter content. An added bonus is that cover crops in general, and especially mixed-species cover crops, help reduce nutrient runoff into the Chesapeake Bay.
“Over time, I’m going to see nutrients that would possibly have been lost to the environment captured and turned to higher-quality soil,” said Anthony Beery, a Mount Crawford dairy and poultry producer who plants cover-crop mixtures on almost all the 450 acres he farms.
Although it costs him about $20 to $25 more per acre to use the mixed-species versus single-species cover crops, he believes he’ll ultimately save money by cutting down on the need for fertilizer and increasing his yield.
According to Fitzgerald, local plots result in up to 25 percent yield increases for the main crop produced on the soil — in many cases, corn.
Despite recent emphasis, the idea is nothing new. Cory Guilliams of the Harrisonburg NRCS branch said he read an annual Virginia Cooperative Extension report issued in 1916 that encouraged cover crop mixtures.
After World War II left thousands of weapon plants out of commission, those facilities started cranking out fertilizer and other synthetic chemicals.
“We kind of got away from the stuff it took us … years to learn,” Guilliams said. “We’re gradually going back to it.”
But in the central Valley, the key word is gradual.
Of all cropland in Rockingham County, cover crops are planted on about 65 to 70 percent of it, extension agent Matt Yancey estimated. Farmers are using mixed-species cover crops on only about 15 percent of those acres, he said.
Still, that number is rising, thanks to financial assistance and education.
NRCS issued the Rockingham County Extension Office a nearly $40,000, three-year grant last year to work with local growers on the practice. Agents have started test plots on about eight farms so far, but they’re looking for additional interested producers for next planting season, Yancey said.
NRCS offers additional federal assistance for plots using cover-crop mixtures versus single-species cover crops. According to Guilliams, the single-species crops only garner $30 per acre, while the mixes earn $50 per acre.
As of now, the Shenandoah Valley Soil and Water Conservation Service does not have a difference in price for the practice compared to the traditional route, although upcoming changes to the Chesapeake Bay model could mean more funding for the practice.
For more information, call the Harrisonburg NRCS office at 433-9126 or the local extension office at 564-3080.
Contact Candace Sipos at 574-6275 or email@example.com