Hampshire Conservation District
Fred Hess and his wife Linda purchased their 170-acre farm and woodlot in Amherst, MA in 1978. Today, they own and manage about 60 acres of cropland split between corn silage (40 acres), winter squash (10 acres), and hay (8 acres) and manage their woodlot according to a forest management plan. In 2005, the couple took the step to protect their property through the state’s Agricultural Preservation Restriction Program. Fred runs a large-animal veterinary practice by day and farms in the afternoons and on the weekends. Occasionally, Fred and Linda are able to get away to Idaho and Colorado to visit their two grown sons and grandchildren.
“I have always paid attention to my soil,” Fred told NACD. “I wanted to protect the soil from the wind and rain during the off-season, so I began cover cropping my first year – it just made sense. I also maintain permanent sod on steep areas of the farm to prevent soil erosion and soil sample all of my fields annually and fertilize according to the results.”
Fred moldboard plowed for many years until about six years ago, when he switched to a disk chisel followed by a cultipacker. The change has helped him save fuel and time and to maintain surface residue. In the last two years, he has been experimenting with no-till.
In 2016, NRCS visited the farm to discuss no-till and soil health. “I knew that my wheat cover crop had a good root system on it, but it never occurred to me to leave it on the surface and no-till,” Fred said. “It made sense that if I left the roots in place, the water would infiltrate better in those channels as well as the worm holes. I decided to give it a go on 31 acres of corn and 4 acres of pumpkins and the rest is history.”
Even though 2016 was a very dry year, the wheat residue in the no-till fields held the moisture much better than in his tilled fields, he said. “The no-till corn really shined and I was very impressed with the weed control in my squash from all of the residue. In 2017, we had a very wet spring so no-till enabled me to actually get the crop planted. I really appreciate the speed at which I can get the crops in the ground with substantial fuel savings, compared to tillage.”
The Hess family has encountered setbacks using conservation practices in the past, but they’ve been temporary. At one time “I had a problem with winter rye getting too tall in the spring, but since I switched to using wheat, I haven’t had any issues,” Fred said. Massachusetts’ short window for planting cover crops after harvest has been trying, too, but Fred has remedied it by shortening up his corn maturity.
There’s also been a bit of a learning curve using no-till.
“The things I learned after my first year of no-till is that you have to plant slower and pay close attention to detail. I have a lot of stones and every time I hit one of those stones, the row units would bounce and leave seed on the surface. I don’t think I had enough weight on the planter and down pressure, even at the strongest setting to keep the row units in the ground. I also had trouble with accurate seed placement on my corners. I upgraded my planter in 2017 – and drove at the proper speed – and have improved my seed placement tremendously.”
Just one problem still remains, Fred said: “I am still having trouble seeing my row marker in the wheat residue.”
“Overall though, I am very pleased with no-till and cover crops and have become an advocate for both practices in my veterinary travels. I put a few miles on my planter this year, bringing it around the state to plant no-till for four of my customers.”