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Environmental Trifecta: Cover Crops, No-Till, & Planting Green
On a sunny day in late March when the neighbors are prepping their planters, you can find Trey Hill planting corn into a foot of green clover, cereal rye, and a mix of other cover crops.
The Rock Hall, Maryland, farmer uses cover crops on all of his 13,000 acres and he plants green into the majority of them. And he does it without sacrificing yields. (At the right, Harborview Farms is planting corn into a rape and clover cover crop mix.)
“We’ve run strip trials the last three years comparing green vs. brown planting for soybeans. The beans are yielding about 10 bushels higher in green,” says Hill, whose beans average 60 to 70 bushels per acre.
Hill’s success comes from starting small, experimenting, and then adopting practices across the entire operation at Harborview Farms, named for the farm's proximity to the Chesapeake Bay. Hill and his father, Herman, along with their 10 full-time employees, focus on environmental practices that make agronomic and business sense.
These efforts have not gone unnoticed. Harborview Farms will be the first Bayer ForwardFarm location in the U.S.
ForwardFarms are independent operations that are leading the way in sustainable agriculture practices. The network includes farmers in Europe and Latin America. Most are strategically located next to urban centers, so government officials and leaders from the private sector have an opportunity to see farming operations first hand. Harborview Farms is just two hours from Washington, D.C., making it a prime location.
“With the expansion of our ForwardFarming network into the U.S., we are providing a new forum where we can connect farmers, society, industry, and public institutions. With this we aim to further develop and demonstrate responsible farming practices and opportunities to increase and sustain agricultural productivity, all while protecting farmland and the environment,” said Bernd Naaf, Head of Business Affairs & Communications at Crop Science, a division of Bayer. “We strongly believe, engaging in an open dialogue with various stakeholders is key to understand different views, addressing concerns, and identifying opportunities to work together on sustainable solutions.”
“We are proud to show people what we are doing and why we are doing it,” adds Hill.
An Accidental Discovery
Harborview Farm’s first foray into planting green was, as Hill describes it, “by accident” and a “hot mess.” Only the headlands were sprayed in a field with a thriving cover crop before a rainstorm moved in. When it was time to plant the field, the headlands were brown and the rest of the field was a bright green. “We didn’t want to spray it then, because we’d have to wait a week or two to plant and then work up the field,” says Hill. “So, we decided to plant unconventionally – we just planted it and sprayed it afterward.”
What they found impressed everyone, even George Wilson, who has worked at Harborview for more than 36 seasons. “This is planting beautifully,” he told Hill while he was planting that field almost 10 years ago. “Don’t kill more cover crops. This is the best no-till field I’ve ever planted.”
While the brown headlands were too wet, resulting in sidewall compaction and an open trench, the green, as Wilson said, planted beautifully. This revelation not only changed Harborview’s planting strategy, it also changed the farm’s approach to tillage.
No-Till + Early Planting
In 2005, half the farm was no-till and the other half was conventional tillage. With 5,000 acres of corn, Hill prefers to plant some acres early in case a drought hits later in the season. Before planting green, some tillage was necessary to warm up fields.
“Planting green is what took us over the hump to make sure we could get corn in early,” he says, allowing them to switch almost completely to no-till.
The farm’s early planting date keeps getting moved up. For the past two years, about 10% of corn was planted in late March. This year, wet and cold temperatures kept planters out until early April. “If we plant green, we can plant before conventional farmers,” explains Hill, adding that they’ve had great yields.
That approach demonstrates how Hill tests new practices, including different cover crop mixes. “For three or four years, we’ll try a 10- to 12-way mix on 100 acres to make sure we can plant in it before we do a full implementation,” he says. “We don’t want to end up with a 1,000-acre mess that we can’t plant.”
Not all experiments go well, but they all result in new lessons. For example, Hill and the farm’s employees no longer plant corn into cover crops that are over 18 inches.
“If the cover crop is over that, it can hurt yield,” explains Hill, adding that this is only true for corn. “For beans, I’ll plant into anything. If it’s as high as me, I’ll plant into it and the beans will still yield well.
Managing Cover Crops
To terminate cover crops, sprayers follow planters to the field. At the beginning of the season, cornfields are sprayed with an atrazine product mixed with glyphosate for a slow kill. A taller cover crop is hit with Callisto and Gramoxone for a quicker termination that “helps alleviate issues with shading,” says Hill. Soybeans are treated with a residual herbicide and dicamba.
In the fall, cover crop seeding varies depending on the preceding crop. Harborview’s rotation includes wheat followed by double-crop beans, which means corn is generally picked before beans are cut. In September, cover crops are drilled behind the combine.
“As we start to harvest beans in late September, the drill falls behind. That’s when we start to fly on cover crops,” says Hill.
Ideally the aerial seeding is done two weeks before harvest. “We’ve had good success with germination at this point,” says Hill. “We also don’t want the cover crop to get too tall in the beans, so we have to cut through green stuff.”
When Harborview first started using cover crops more than 15 years ago, the farm mainly used barley as it’s easy to kill, has a low carbon-to-nitrogen ration, and is inexpensive. Now, Hill prefers to use a mix with legumes to improve overall soil health.
In Maryland, farmers receive cover crop funding through the Maryland Agricultural Water Quality Cost-Share Program. The base payment starts at $45 per acre and can go up to $75 per acre.
This level of funding is available because environmentalists and farmers, including Hill, came together to advocate for using cover crops to keep the Chesapeake Bay clean. In 2002, Hill testified to the Maryland State Senate about the benefits of using cover crops.
A few years before this, Hill was introduced to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and it was this meeting that made him realize “we could collaborate with environmental groups to come up with practical solutions to make water cleaner.”
Now, Hill is a self-proclaimed environmentalist and is on the board of multiple environmental groups, including the Sassafras River Association. While Hill realizes this is at odds with how many farmers feel about environmentalists given the friction that can exist between the two groups, he encourages other farmers to join him.
“Before you complain about environmentalists, have you truly engaged them? Have you heard their side of the story?” asks Hill. “For the most part, I find environmentalists to be nice people who are passionate and want to see change for their children.
“Environmentalists really want to hear what farmers have to say and what farmers are doing as long as it’s positive and moving in the right direction,” he adds. “You have to be aware, you will have to make changes to make good on what you say.”
Beyond production methods, Hill practices what he preaches in a variety of ways. In 2012, he installed a 200-kilowatt solar array and then added an additional 100 kilowatts four years later. The combined system powers three irrigation systems, three houses, and the farm’s 1-million-bushel grain storage facility. A pollinator plot will be planted by the arrays in the summer of 2018 and, to improve air quality, the farm is making the switch to all Tier 4B equipment.
“The environment has become a priority that factors into most of our decisions,” says Hill.