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Cover Crops Benefit Water Quality in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed

Web link image: A before photo of a field adjacent to the Chenango River, after the harvest of corn  for silage. Click image for full screen view
A before photo of a field adjacent to the
Chenango River, after the harvest of corn
for silage

Full screen view
Web image: A photo of the same field above, with a no-till rye cover crop applied shortly after the harvest of corn for silage. Click image for full screen view
A photo of the same field above, with a no-till
rye cover crop planted shortly after the harvest
of corn for silage

Full screen view

Chenango County, New York

The Chenango River, a major tributary of the Susquehanna River, has been identified by the Chesapeake Bay Program and the Upper Susquehanna Coalition as having an extremely high concentration of nitrogen (ammonia and nitrate) resulting in the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service designating it as a “Priority Watershed”. These high concentrations of ammonia and nitrate have been traced to nonpoint source (NPS) nitrogen polluted runoff and groundwater flows originating from fields planted to corn silage on the well drained fertile floodplain soils adjacent to the river. The nitrogen comes to the fields in two forms, manure from the many dairy farms located throughout the valley and from the corn starter fertilizer. In downstream waters these nitrogen species accelerate the growth of algae and other submerged vegetation causing blooms and fouling of waterways. And when these plants die and settle to the bottom oxygen is removed from the water during their decomposition creating “dead zones” devoid of fish and other valuable aquatic species.

Acknowledging this major local water quality concern, the Chenango County Local Working Group (CCLWG) at its 2011 program development meeting recommended that the best management practice (BMP) of cover cropping be given special emphasis in the 2011 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative (CBWI) Program. At the meeting Lance Lockwood District Manager of the Chenango County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) and a member of the CCLWG offered an insight into the potential of cover cropping with his estimate of more than 3000 acres of silage corn grown annually in Chenango County’s downstream reach of Chenango River valley, and an additional 2000 acres in Madison County’s upstream reach. With this recommendation and similar ones from the other New York State Susquehanna River Basin Local Working Groups, cover cropping was included with the highest incentive payments directed specifically at corn silage fields located within the river valley bottomlands.

Traditionally, cover cropping in Chenango County and other New York State - Susquehanna River Basin Counties has been used for erosion control on highly erodible land (HEL) planted to row crops. Transitioning from hillside fields to typically level non-HEL here valley fields has required a refocusing of targeting producers and planting recommendations. With this in mind, the Chenango County SWCD and the local NRCS field office actively promoted the sign-up of “water quality” cover cropping on corn silage valley fields through media releases and mailings. According to Lauren Johnson District Conservationist, “Our target audience was valley dairy farmers and custom operators that grew corn silage for personal forage needs and /or sold corn silage as a cash crop to other local dairy farms”.

Cheshire Valley Farms LLC, owned and operated by brothers Robert and John Hofmann of Oxford, grows corn silage for both their 65 dairy cow operation and as a cash crop to local dairy farmers. Of their annual corn silage acreage of 750 acres nearly 80 percent is located adjacent to the Chenango River between Norwich and Greene, on Teel and Hamlin silt loam, and Chenango gravelly silt loam soils. After experimenting with cover cropping in 2010 on rented ground with a newly purchased no-till seeder with “good success”, the Hofmann brothers were ready to drastically expand their acreage of cover cropping and signed a 2011 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative (CBWI) application for 200 acres which was later approved as a three year contract.

The Hofmann Brother’s 2011 corn silage harvesting started later than usual in mid-September following deluges from Tropical Storm Lee and Hurricane Irene. Certified cereal rye was no-tilled into the corn silage stubble within a few days after harvest. Now approximately a month later the rye is two to four inches high and filling in nicely. With perhaps another month of seasonal weather the rye should grow another two to four inches. With spring tillage usually taking place in mid-May, the rye should reach a height of 12-18 inches before being plowed down as green manure for the 2012 corn silage crop. Building on the Hofmann brothers’ success, the CCLWG hopes to expand the 2012 CBWI program cover cropping sign-up by encouraging Hofmann brothers to enroll more acreage and to use them as a custom operator of planting no-till rye cover cropping for neighboring producers that lack equipment or the time to implement cover cropping.

With offices in nearly every county in the United States, NRCS works with landowners and communities to improve our soil, water, air, plants, wildlife, and energy use. If you are interested in how you can protect natural resources on your farm or forestland, please contact your county NRCS office.

Media Contact: Public Affairs 315-477-6524