By Katrina Vaitkus
On Tuesday, Aug. 20, Delaware’s Sussex Conservation District held its annual Soil Health Field Day. This year, the theme was ‘Planting Green’. Hosted at NACD Soil Health Champion Chip Baker’s farm, approximately 100 people gathered to learn about how to manage fields to boost organic matter and weed suppression.
The day began with a short presentation from Chris Brosch, the Nutrient Management Plan Program Administrator for the Delaware Department of Agriculture. Brosch spoke about the three parts of Delaware’s upcoming version of the Phase III Chesapeake Bay Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP) – increasing conservation tillage to 90 percent, more than doubling cover crop acres, and enhancing nutrient management. Speaking about cover crops, he said, “Not only are they good for improving the water quality of the Chesapeake Bay, but they also give farmers a great return on investment.”
Mark VanGessel, University of Delaware Extension Weed Specialist, and Jarrod Miller, University of Delaware Extension Agronomy Specialist, shared updates on cover crop research currently underway at the University of Delaware and the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center (BARC). One study out of the University of Delaware is looking at the impacts of rye grass mixtures on nitrogen cycling. The other, at BARC, is examining the effect of different termination dates for rye grass. Attendees asked challenging questions to the presenters and learned about the potential future of farming.
The day’s main event, the Planting Green Farmer Panel, had farmers learning about planting green from three Delaware farmers who have been utilizing the practice for many years. Panelists included Blaine Hitchens and Jay Baxter, two of the state’s NACD Soil Health Champions, as well as Cory Atkins.
Planting green, a growing management technique for cover crops, means farmers let cover crops grow in the spring and plant their main crop into it while the covers are still alive. All the panelists attested to the benefits of planting green, highlighting improved soil health and the ability to decrease nitrogen fertilizer applications. Hitchens shared that his family has been able to cut back on nitrogen applications in his corn by about 80 pounds per acre. “For us, it’s a money-making event with cover crops,” he said.
Baxter shared some challenges and mistakes he’s made along the way, as well as how those have helped him learn and perfect his technique. “If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not doing anything,” he said.
All three farmers encouraged others to try the practice. “Start small when you’re trying something new,” Atkins said. “Try it, and don’t take no for an answer.”
Attendees were also able to look at different equipment utilized by farmers who were planting green. Hitchens showed off his 16-row kinze planter (pictured right), which allowed him to plant his corn a half-inch deeper by maximizing the machine’s down pressure. “You don’t need the latest and greatest to plant green,” he said, helping to prove that anyone can do it.
A common theme discussed throughout the day was farming for the future, using the planting green technique to do so. “I’m farming for 20 years from now,” Atkins said.