Cover Crop Trials for Soil Health and Farm Profits

Four exciting cover crop field demonstrations are being conducted this season around New Jersey to improve Coastal Plain soil quality and increase long-term farm profits. Let us know if you would like to get involved and help with any of these projects, or just stay aware of their progress and results.

  • Using a roller-crimper on rye cover crop followed winter squash
  • Biomass accumulation of five Summer cover crops
  • Forage radish as Fall cover crop
  • Using a roller-crimper on processing tomatoes

Using a roller-crimper on rye cover crop followed winter squash

Farmers might be more interested in adopting summer cover crops if they can cash crop, not fallow their land, and if there are economic benefits observed on those current crops. Dave Lee and Jack Rabin will be using the USDA-NRCS-NJ roller-crimper on rye cover crop, followed by planting no-till butternut squash. A comparison for late season fruit rot symptoms between the roller-crimped field and an adjacent clean tilled field will be made. Long-season pumpkin or squash crops present a tough test for whether rolled cover crops suppress late season splash disseminated fruit rot diseases.

We’re not yet sure how we will treat foliar diseases in these Certified Organic fields. Last year, Ray Samulis and RC&D conducted work on pumpkin, but more fruit disease data is needed. This demonstration will be conducted at the Rutgers Agricultural Research and Extension Center at our 10.4-acre Sustainable Organic Alternatives Research demonstration fields supported by USDA NE-SARE.

Biomass accumulation of five Summer cover crops

SorghumSudangrass_2NJ growers who double and triple crop high value short season vegetables on Coastal Plain soils need cover crop alternatives to avoid compaction, maintain organic matter, and improve soil structure. Michelle Infante-Casella and Wes Kline will be testing five summer cover crops on two vegetable farms in the Vineland area. They will work with our standard recommended Sudex sorghum-Sudan grass hybrid plus sun hemp, pearl millet, cowpea, and buckwheat. They will be testing biomass accumulation and effects on subsequent cash crops.

forage radish

Forage radish as Fall cover crop

Ray Samulis and Bill Bamka will be testing forage radish as a Fall cover crop across three planting dates at the Winner Farm in Burlington County.


Using a roller-crimper on processing tomatoes

In partnership with new farmers Terri and Patrick of first field™, and well-established Katona Farms in Chesterfield, we are testing using a roller crimper on conventionally grown processing tomatoes. Will the roller-crimped cover cropped mat present an effective barrier to the spread of splash disseminated fruit and foliar diseases and yet not interfere with mechanical harvest by end of the season? This project is supported by NE-SARE.

Background

Cover crop demonstrations and research are certainly not new. However, we are testing new ways of incorporating cover crop rotations within existing vegetable cropping systems on New Jersey Coastal Plain soils. For example, using forage radish for soil structure improvement is a relatively new concept. There has been previous work with cruciferous crops fumigation properties for reduction of soil borne diseases with limited success and this research continues.

Growers are under pressure to “Show me practices that make money?” before considering adoption. The benefits of improving soil health typically remain too long-term and too abstract. Near-term costs and returns incentives must be demonstrated. Like Atlantic County grower Rich Marolda, Jr. says,
“If you get the economics right, you get sustainability right.”

Our projects are based on the premise commercial growers will adopt cover cropping practices if we demonstrate reducing soil-borne fruit and foliar diseases which require repeated spray applications. Longer-term cover crop soil health benefits include reducing risks for more stable yields and farm income, decreasing resource input costs, and erosion reduction.

There is information suggesting that increasing soil health and soil organic matter contributes to reductions in the incidence and losses from destructive soil-borne diseases along with reductions in costly fungicide applications needed for their suppression. On Coastal Plain soils, reduction in disease incidence likely has more immediate return on investment value than reduction in fertilizer costs or other well-established longer term benefits from improved soil quality.

We know that cover crops work, and we know conservation tillage yields soil quality and erosion reduction benefits. However, conservation tillage can not be performed without tight integration with herbicides. The roller-crimper is simply a low cost “steel-in-the-field” implement enabling no-till farming practices without the use of herbicides.

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