Innovative Farmers Test ‘Planting Green’ to Further Impacts of Soil Health Practices
American Farmland Trust has been working with a group of farmers in the Genesee River Demonstration Farms Network over the last five years to test soil health practices and share their knowledge with other farmers in their watershed. The network began with two farms and has grown to include 20 farms with expansion outside of the Genesee River Watershed and into the greater Great Lakes region.
Several of these farmers are fine-tuning their practices and making calculated decisions to take them further to benefit their soil health and their bottom line. Cover crops and reduced tillage are beneficial for most operations, provided the producer has a plan to manage fertilization and weeds. Within the larger context of cover cropping and no-till implementation, there is growing interest in ‘planting green,’ or planting a cash crop into the living cover crop, wherein the cover crop is ultimately terminated at cash crop planting. This method allows for better (drier and more stable) soil conditions during planting in a wet spring, an extended growing season for the cover crop to produce more biomass, the potential for increased soil organic matter, additional nitrogen to the cash crop, and mulch to suppress late season weeds. However, “Planting green” is a more advanced practice requiring farmers be dialed in on their climate conditions, cover, and cash crop species, planting rates and timings, cover crop termination timing, and nutrient management.
Partnering with American Farmland Trust, the Demonstration Farmers sought to quantify agronomic impacts and assess the economic viability of planting green compared to their standard cover crop practices and no cover crop. American Farmland Trust has released the results from three farmers who tested planting green as case studies.
Second-generation farmer JD Pankow participated in AFT’s two-year study (2021-2022). Pankow Farm uses a 3½ year crop rotation on 1,500 acres with 400 acres of established hay, 200 acres of alfalfa, 900 acres of silage corn, and occasional sorghum acreage to feed the operation’s 800 dairy cows. They have practiced strip-tillage and no-tillage since 2003 and have cover cropped since 2005. They began planting green in 2020. JD notes that the combination of cover cropping, and reduced tillage has contributed to several improvements, such as increased yield and reduced inputs.
When it comes to planting green, “It’s not for every type of field,” JD said. “But where it worked, it worked well. It’s another useful tool in our arsenal, and if we think we can plant green without suffering with weeds or sacrificing yields, we will use it.”
JD is eager to participate in on-farm trials because they provide first-hand knowledge about how different practices work on his soil. Results from his plots suggest that soil health benefits associated with the cover crop practices were generated while maintaining economic performance.
Donn Branton operates a 1,800-acre grain crop farm with his son Chad in western New York. An early adopter of zone-till practices, Donn read articles about corn farmers in the Midwest experimenting with the zone tillage in his first few years of farming in the mid-80s, and he had to test it out.
Early on, Donn was often called the “messy farmer,” planting into the previous year’s crops and leaving residue on the field. However, improved water infiltration, enhanced soil health, and increased on-farm efficiency kept him sticking with the practices.
“After heavy rain, my fields didn’t pond, while a farm across the road had standing water,” said Donn.
Seeing is believing, and Donn is particularly proud that the snow piles surrounding his fields each winter are nice and white, an indicator that soil remains on his fields rather than blowing around. Improved water infiltration rates allow him to access his fields longer than ever before. Recently, Donn began planting green and observed that he could access his fields earlier in the spring and crops were more resilient to intense rainstorms.
To learn more about planting green and quantifying its effects on his soil and nutrient management, Donn participated in the two year study. Through this practice, Donn realized soil health benefits while improving economic performance compared to no cover crop treatment. Donn sees implementing conservation practices as an investment in the farm to improve the soil, crop yields, the environment, and the farm’s bottom line.
RL Jeffres & Sons, Inc
Brothers Tom and Jim Jeffres are fourth-generation owners of RL Jeffres & Sons, Inc., which they operate with their families in Western New York. The farm spans 11,000 acres planted with a mix of crops, including dairy forages, grains, and processing vegetables. The farm also offers custom tillage, planting, and manure spreading and is one of two custom pea harvesters in the state.
Over the years, Tom and Jim have been on a mission to farm better, to build soil health, and increase on-farm efficiencies and yields. “If there’s something better out there, we want to know about it,” Tom said. In the early 2000s, they transitioned to zone tillage while continuing to evolve the cover crop practices that their father began in the 1980s. Over time, they have observed less soil erosion because of the combined use of cover cropping and zone or strip-tilling.
“Through the use of strip-tilling and cover cropping, our soils are more uniform, and it’s helped build the soil structure,” he added.
Tom reports seeing greater residual nitrogen in the fields, too, which he attributes to the use of cover crops. This, combined with his practice of injecting manure, has enabled him to reduce his need to purchase commercial fertilizers.
Recently, Tom introduced planting green to complement his cover cropping and reduced tillage practices. The results of his planting green trials suggested that, on average, implemented soil health practices were associated with an increase in profit.
Considerations for Farmers Planting Green
We’ve had a mild winter. If this spring is warm and dry, consider avoiding planting green and terminating your cover crops prior to cash crop planting. The additional biomass may take soil moisture away from the cash crop. For this same reason, if we have a cool, wet spring, consider planting green, as the extended growth of the cover crop will dry out soils and facilitate getting on the field earlier. Farmers need to be careful, however, because in an exceptionally wet year, they may not be able to access fields to terminate the cover crop, which can get out of hand. If you do plant green, you may also need to apply additional nitrogen due to the increased carbon from the resulting cover crop residue.
The standard cover cropping practice (termination prior to cash crop planting) had higher yields and subsequently increased net income in most cases when compared to not cover cropping. Planting green generally coincided with a loss of profit in most cases. However, planting green can double the amount of above-ground biomass, which leads to increased organic matter that provides additional nitrogen to the cash crop and mulch to suppress late-season weeds.
Under the right conditions, farmers can achieve soil health and environmental benefits while maintaining economic performance through cover cropping. Interested farmers can actively engage in the demonstration farm network by attending workshops, collaborating with local agricultural extension services, and sharing their expertise to foster a supportive community of sustainable farming practices.