Conservation Cover Crops Gain A Bigger Foothold On NY Dairy Farms

Dairy on-farm trials find success with growing conservation cover crops, even in northern New York.

Published on: Jun 12, 2013

Farmer interest in using conservation cover crops in New York is on the rise. One huge reason is that dairy farmers have been hard-pressed to raise enough forage crops for their herds. Aside of the soil protection benefits, earlier, warmer springs are opening the door to crop diversity offered by cover crops.

That's why farmers in northern New York and a Cornell University research team are evaluating fall-planted winter cereal crops, such as triticale, wheat and cereal rye. They're planted as cover crops for spring harvest as a forage for dairy cows.

It's not just a northern New York phenomenon. Steve Groff, Pennsylvania's guru of cover cropping based at Holtwood, Pa., believes triticale will replace rye as a cover crop, particularly on dairy farms. The reason, adds this Master Farmer, is that it's a higher-quality forage with greater biomass, and may do a better job of holding nitrogen. His one concern is that triticale may be more vulnerable to winterkill damage.

MORE BIOMASS, BETTER FEED? Triticale (top) can produce more forage biomass than rye (bottom).
MORE BIOMASS, BETTER FEED? Triticale (top) can produce more forage biomass than rye (bottom).

North Country farm experience
Eleven dairy farms in northern New York are amid two-year cover crop trials. And eight are participating in 2013 trials to learn how much nitrogen is needed at crop green-up to grow the winter cereal crops as cover crops for harvest in May as forage for dairy cows.

When cereal grains are grown as cover crops that are also harvested for forage, they can increase annual per-acre crop yields. They also help protect water quality, reduce soil erosion, conserve plant nutrients, and improve soil quality.
At McKnight's River Breeze Farm in Waddington, N.Y., Travis McKnight successfully harvested triticale planted as late as early October in northern New York. He plants in well-drained or tiled fields that are in second- to fourth-year corn.
Yields at Mapleview Dairy in Madrid, N.Y., were excellent in 2011 and 2012. But the trial this past winter showed that without snow cover, triticale can winterkill with prolonged periods of exposure to low temperatures.

Trials on these St. Lawrence County farms show the potential for cover crops to provide excellent yields of high-quality forage. The trials also demonstrate that attention to recommended crop management practices, such as seed bed preparation, is critical to success.

More on this cover crop research, go to the Cornell Nutrient Management Spear website.

Detailed results for this "Cover Crops in Corn Silage Systems in Northern New York: Can Farms Conserve Nitrogen Fertilizer and Safe Money by Using Cover Crops?" project and other crop research are posted online.

Watch for July's American Agriculturist cover story on cover crop guidelines.