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Fourth-generation farmer finds soil success in no-till and cover crops

Fourth-generation Maine farmer Bob Fogler (right) talks with fellow producers, soil scientists and agricultural experts during a Spring Cover Crop Walk on his farm in Exeter, Maine, April 26, 2016. During the event - sponsored by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension and the Natural Resources Conservation Service - Fogler showed how cover crops and no-tilling farming have benefitted the soil on his dairy farm in central Maine. Photo by Thomas Kielbasa


By Thomas Kielbasa
Public Affairs Specialist, NRCS-Maine

EXETER, Maine (May 2, 2016) – When Bob Fogler walked the fields of his dairy farm in central Maine recently, he wasn’t looking ahead; he was looking down and about four inches into the earth.

Shovel in hand, Fogler plodded purposely through a cold, dry cornfield blasted by late winter winds. He stopped often, turned over clods of chocolate-brown soil with the shovel blade, looked for worms, and moved on. Behind him a group of fifteen farmers, soil scientists and agricultural specialists navigated through the rows of broken stalks and followed as the fourth-generation farmer spoke about the unseen life teeming under their feet.

Dairy farmer Bob Fogler digs up a patch rich soil to look for worms during a Spring Cover Crop Walk on his farm in Exeter, Maine, April 26, 2016. Photo by Thomas KielbasaOn April 26 Fogler, owner of Stonyvale Farm in Exeter, led the group on a Spring Cover Crop Walk through fields on the farm where his family has embraced no-till practices and cover crops in order to increase crop productivity. The walk – sponsored by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) – was a chance for Fogler and his son, Travis, to show his neighbors how he experimented with cover crops and other techniques to improve the health of the soil, and ultimately the sustainability of his cropping system.

After completing college in 1974, the Maine native followed in his father’s footsteps and began farming. He, Travis, and several other family members now run one of the largest dairy farms in Maine. Bob said it took a bit for him to realize that the traditional farming methods they had used for the better part of a century were depleting the health of the soil.

“In my lifetime I could see that (because of) what we were doing on this steep ground – as much as we thought we were doing a good job – we were losing the battle,” he explained. “We were losing more ground…it didn’t seem sustainable to me. We had to come up with a better way.”

When he started to slowly incorporate no-till farming into his practices he began to see a difference in soil productivity. He started by planting into old hay fields that had been killed the previous fall in preparation for growing a crop the following year. He noticed the productivity is highest when no-till planting is done in the year following a killed sod crop, and decided to try cover crops in other years to maintain and increase the benefits of no-till. When he started using cover crops like cereal rye and annual ryegrass on portions of his more than 1,400 acres of fields, he said he truly saw a difference in the amount of “life” in the soil.

Fogler remarked that it took about 75 years of those traditional farming methods – including tillage – on the fields to “kill all the worms out of the soil,” but it only took a few years to bring them back.

“We were 100 percent no-tillage last year,” Fogler said proudly, stopping in a field where bright green blades of winter rye were blanketing the ground. 

Most of the cover crop Fogler has used on his fields – and spread through various methods including helicopter and airplane – where purchased in part through cost-sharing programs with NRCS-Maine.

NRCS-Maine Resource Conservation Alice Begin, who joined Fogler during the Spring Cover Crop Walk, lauded the event as a good opportunity for long-time and beginning farmers in the area to see how well Stonyvale Farm has incorporated no-till farming and cover crops into their procedures.

“This is for everyone to see what works and doesn’t work,” Begin explained. “People are still experimenting with this here. (Stonyvale) has tried different mixes and timing – they tried seeding from airplanes – to see what they get the best response from. And they are still experimenting with that.”

Rye used as a cover crop helps increase the living matter in the soil on Bob Fogler's farm in Exeter, Maine. Photo by Thomas KielbasaImplementation of soil-health management practices – like no-till farming and cover crops – can help increase organic matter in the soil, reduce soil compaction, and even improve nutrient storage in the soil.

“The cover crop adds living matter – living roots – to the soil,” Begin said, pointing to deep alfalfa roots penetrating the fields on Fogler’s farm. “It gives a place for the microbes and worms to exist. When there aren’t living roots the microbiology isn’t as active in the soil. The roots also penetrate the soil and makes the soil more porous. If you have a really hard and compacted soil in the middle of the summer and it is dry, water will just run right off. If you have porosity because of the root penetration, you get to capture more water. You get better moisture utilization.”

While Stonyvale Farm is using mostly rye and ryegrass as cover crops that work well in their system, other plants that can be used include barley, oats, clovers, turnips and radishes. A mixture of species can have an even greater impact on the soil. Mixtures present more of a challenge, depending upon the species. Depending upon the purpose for each chosen species, some may need a longer growing time to achieve desired results. In northern New England, establishing a cover crop late in the season after silage corn has been harvested can mean too short a growing window for certain species. While mixtures of multiple species are thought to be a positive thing, a producer needs to find the right one or ones that are compatible with their climate and the timing of their cropping system.

Fogler is also the Chair of the Penobscot County Soil and Water Conservation District, so he already works closely with NRCS as a proponent of conserving natural resources for landowners in the central-Maine area.

“I think everyone should be focusing on soil health,” he affirmed.

To a farmer who is considering adding no-till practices and cover crops, Fogler offered the following advice: “Start slow. With anything it is easiest to start slow…I think there are a million ways to accomplish that depending on what your farming system is. For us it is no-till and cover crops.”

The Spring Cover Crop Walk was the result of a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grant provided to the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.  Rick Kersbergen and John Jemison from the Cooperative Extension, and Alice Begin from NRCS, planned the event as part of ongoing soil health and cover cropping outreach efforts to agricultural producers in Maine.

For more information on no-till practices and incorporating cover crops into your farming practices, contact an NRCS conservationist at your local USDA service center.