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NRCS and Partners Put a New Spin on Cover Crops

Specialized Seeding Hardware on Helicopter is Loaded for Aerial Seeding Project

The Vermont Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the University of Vermont Extension (UVM) have teamed-up for the second year to support a cover crop program where a helicopter is used to apply cover crop seeds. This year’s efforts were also funded through a grant from the Lake Champlain Basin Program (LCBP) and the Vermont Agency of Agriculture’s Farm Agronomic Practices cost share program (FAP).  Cover crops have traditionally been planted after corn is cut and removed from the field. In northern regions such as Vermont, this means a very short season for cover crops to grow. By spreading seeds aerially while the corn is still standing, farms can develop a denser, more mature crop that will more effectively protect their soil throughout the year.

Cover crops have the potential to provide multiple benefits in a cropping system. They prevent erosion, improve soil’s physical and biological properties, supply nutrients, suppress weeds, improve the availability of soil water, and break pest cycles. Cover crops trap excess nutrients, keeping them from leaching into groundwater or running off into surface water, and release it later to feed growing crops.  It is important to select the species of cover crop, or mix of species, based on the specific goals the system such as soil erosion control or improving soil health.

The aerial seeding program is catching on around the Lake Champlain Valley. In addition to opportunities for payments through the LCBP, FAP and NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP); NRCS recently funded helicopter cover crop applications through the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative in northwest Vermont. Kirsten Workman is an Agronomy Outreach Professional with the University of Vermont Extension and helps facilitate this program with Vermont producers in Chittenden and Addison Counties. She said that under the leadership of Dr. Heather Darby and Jeff Sanders (UVM Extension – St. Albans), over 4,500 acres were signed up for the helicopter seed application in 2013 in Vermont, with 1,500 additional acres on the New York side of Lake Champlain. As the program continues to grow, UVM will likely try different seed mixes on various soil types to identify the best application for specific farm systems.  Conservationists Review Seed Cover from Helicopter Application

The common application of cover crop in Vermont, and the one being tested though this aerial seeing program, is winter rye on annually tilled corn fields. The optimum application of seed is between 110 and 120 pounds per acre. Farmers are finding it makes economic sense to plant cover crops due to the NRCS, FAP & LCPB payments combined with the environmental benefits. The positive effect cover crops have on soil and water quality and ultimately improving and plant and animal health, leads to a healthier system and a better bottom-line.

For more information on the aerial seeding cover crop program, please contact your local UVM Extension office or USDA Service Center.