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News Release

Partnership Project to Test Integrated Strategy for Addressing Compaction Concerns in Virginia Crop Production

Kristen Evan Hughes, Sustainable Chesapeake / Debbie Bullock, VA NRCS
(804) 544-3457 / (804) 287-1678

  field, John Shepherd, CIG

Farmer John Shepherd and agronomist Tim Woodward of Tellus Agronomics, key partners on the CTF CIG, discuss the importance of wheel alignment and tire width for optimizing traffic patterns.

Richmond, Va., Oct. 22, 2021 - USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is teaming up with Sustainable Chesapeake on a new partnership project to explore an integrated approach for building soil health and productivity while minimizing soil compaction and weed concerns in Virginia grain farming systems.

Funded through a state-level Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG), this collaboration will explore the benefits of controlled traffic farming or CTF as a strategy for reducing negative impacts of increasingly large farm equipment on soil compaction and crop performance. Rarely used in our region, this form of precision agriculture involves two key elements: strictly following a pre-planned traffic pattern and modifying equipment as needed to optimize alignment of operating widths, wheel spacings and tire widths. Typical Virginia grain operations using this strategy can achieve a significant reduction in total area receiving at least one tire pass over the course of the crop rotation (60 to 90 percent vs. 30 percent or less for a CTF system).

NRCS is investing $299,891 in state funding to demonstrate the effectiveness of this strategy in a continuous no-till system and assess the effectiveness of pairing it with two companion practices to further improve soil health, reduce herbicide-resistant weed pressure and increase overall yields:

  1. Tramlining. A low-tech method that involves not planting selected crop rows to establish a pattern for subsequent equipment operators to follow. Despite advances in GPS-linked guidance, this “old-school” approach has many advantages when the goal is to have every implement and operator drive the exact same paths for every pass in every crop in every year.
  2. Chaff lining. A complementary practice aimed at better management of weed seeds, particularly seeds of herbicide-resistant weeds, that pass through the combine harvester. Chaff lining involves modifying the combine to place weed seeds and chaff in traffic tramlines, rather than “sowing” those weeds evenly across the full width of the field.

Sustainable Chesapeake will collaborate with Tellus Agronomics, LLC; EarthOptics and Virginia Tech faculty members David Holshouser, Wade Thomason, Michael Flessner and Brian Badgley to kick off the project this fall at Shepherd Grain Farms, LLC. Owner John Shepherd, a Virginia Tech graduate, operates conventional and organic grain and soybean farms on 2,500 acres in Nottoway, Amelia, Lunenburg, Brunswick and Dinwiddie counties.

Shepherd previously implemented the first phase of a CTF system. Despite investing in GPS guidance systems for many implements, he found that keeping all operators and implements in the same traffic pattern in all crops and seasons remained a major challenge. The best solution for his many far-flung fields seemed to be the lower-tech permanent tramlining. 

This project will allow Shepherd to demonstrate and assess improvements to his existing CTF system with innovations like permanent tramlines in all crops and chaff lining in those tramlines. The ultimate goal is to achieve better production efficiency, soil health and higher yields in Shepherd’s continuous no-till/cover crop operation.

“With tramlines, all equipment operators will be able to clearly see where wheels need to go in order to avoid compaction in the rest of the field” Shepherd said. “Chaff lining will help reduce weed pressure, which is of critical importance to both conventional and organic grain producers. It also helps make the tramlines more visible.”

Flessner, an associate professor and extension specialist in weed science at Tech, said “We think this combination of innovative practices could be a game-changer for grain producers in Virginia and elsewhere in the United States.”

“This collaboration is an outstanding opportunity for us to test techniques that could still be helping improve farmers’ yields and water quality decades down the road,” said Dr. Edwin Martinez Martinez, NRCS’ state conservationist for Virginia. “These management systems not only reduce erosion and chemical runoff but also help sequester carbon and protect against the harmful effects of droughts andother extreme weather events.”

NRCS is a federal agency that works hand-in-hand with the people of Virginia to improve and protect their soil, water and other natural resources. CIGs leverage partner resources to double the agency’s investment in field testing, evaluation and implementation of conservation technologies, practices and systems.

Sustainable Chesapeake, headquartered in Richmond, is a nonprofit founded in 2012 that seeks to connect farmers to the environmental community and works to deliver conservation outcomes that benefit both agricultural producers and water quality in the Chesapeake Bay.