Delmarva Farmer Columnists


Family dairies have long histories, outsized impact (Aug. 31, 2016)

Field Notes

By Ed Kee, Secretary of Agriculture, Delaware

Dairying has long had an important role in Delaware’s farming and agribusiness tradition, and there is no other part of farming that has shown more improvement and relative growth than dairy farms.
In 2015, our 40 dairy farms took in $17 million from milk sales from 5,000 cows.
Our family dairy farms are varied and diverse, including one farm milking 500 cows, many farms with two or three hundred cows, and some smaller farms with fewer than 40 cows.
In 1945, at the end of World War II, there were 25 million dairy cows in the United States; today there are nine million.
Yet those nine million cows are producing more 60 percent more milk than the 25 million cows were producing in 1945, due to improved breeding, technology and farm management.
Back in that era, dairying was pervasive on our farms.
The 1950 Census of Agriculture reported that 3,857 of Delaware’s 7,448 farms, or 51 percent, had milk cows. (In the same year in Maryland, 61 percent of the Free State’s farms had milk cows, for a total of 21,415 dairy farms.)
Some farms milked just a few cows for family use, but most milked more and sold the milk to commercial dairies.
Many farms of that era actually bottled their own milk for local delivery to nearby towns, in the City of Wilmington, and in the emerging suburbs in New Castle County.
New Castle County was a dairy county in 1950.
It may be hard to fathom today, but dairy farms spread across the land throughout Brandywine Hundred, on either side of Concord Pike, on out to White Clay Creek country, and up into Hockessin, representing the major land use in the county. At that time, 822 of the county’s 1,382 farms, or 59 percent, were dairy farms, from Talleyville down to the Kent County line.
Dairy farming was important in Kent and Sussex County as well, but not as concentrated as New Castle County.
However, with the explosion of the suburbs in northern New Castle County during the 1950s and ’60s, it was hard for farmers to turn down the lucrative offers from developers for their farms.
As development encroached, it also became difficult to farm in the middle of suburbia.
Some farmers retired, some bought farms in other parts of the state and region to continue farming, and a very few held out into the 1970s and beyond.
Today, there are just four dairy farmers in New Castle County.
One cannot consider the dairying tradition in Delaware, and especially in New Castle County, without recognizing the role of Henry Francis duPont and his estate, Winterthur.
Long famous for its museum and gardens, Winterthur was first and always a farm.
Situated in the rolling Piedmont hills along the Brandywine River just north of Wilmington, its combinations of soils, terrain and climate provide an ideal environment for the production of pasture and crops to support cattle.
Indeed, for 160 years, when E.I. duPont purchased Winterthur’s original 450 acres from 1810 to 1817, until after great-grandson Henry Francis died in 1969, Winterthur was a working farm in the midst of the great museum and gardens.
Under H.F. duPont’s leadership, Winterthur Farms achieved world renown as the home of America’s foremost herd of Holstein-Friesian dairy cattle.
Currently, over 90 percent of our nation’s milk comes from the Holstein breed, and Mr. duPont’s pledge to his father to improve the breed as part of his life’s work resulted in a major contribution to their genetic enhancement.
He purchased a prize herd from Minnesota in1916, improved it by introducing bulls and cows whose offspring had strong production records, and launched a breeding program that by the 1930s resulted in some animals milking over 18,000 pounds per year in an era when the average cow produced just over 4,000 pounds.
Winterthur genes and progeny still contribute to the Holstein-Friesian genetic improvement.
While the dairying tradition and business in Delaware has decreased, we are part of a tremendous milk-producing region.
Dairy farmers in Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia together produce over 1.5 billion gallons of milk each year.
At an average consumption of 20.6 gallons per year, this is enough milk for 77 million Americans.
This represents 24 percent of our population, or 19 million American families of four.
In Delaware, we also have great entrepreneurial farmers who are turning their milk into ice cream products at farm creameries, to be enjoyed all summer and all year long by our families and visitors.
It all begins with the cow and with the dedicated dairy families who are succeeding and thriving in the art and science of dairy husbandry so we can all enjoy this incredible powerhouse of nutrition and flavor.


Cover Crops: A time to kill (Aug. 31, 2016)

Keeping the Farm

By Sally Kepfer, State Resource Conservationist, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Delaware

Farmers that have made the smart choice to utilize cover crops to improve and protect their soil health have one more decision to make regarding the beneficial conservation practice.
When is the best time to kill it and how?
There are a few things to consider before making a decision.
• What is your primary goal or need for the use of cover crops? Is it fixing nitrogen from legumes, nutrient scavenging, soil health, erosion control, forage?
• What are your constraints, if any? Planting dates, equipment limitations, nutrient applications?
The timing of cover crop termination affects soil temperature, soil moisture, nutrient cycling, tillage and planting operations, along with the growth, survival, and reproduction rates on the subsequent cash crop.
Because of the many factors involved, decisions about when to kill the cover crop must be site and situation specific.
There are a number of tradeoffs when considering how to kill a cover crop.
Early killing:
• Increases the rate of soil warming
• Produces less biomass
• Reduces phytotoxic effects of residue on cash crops
• Speeds up decomposition of residues, decreasing potential interference with planter operation
• Allows more time for nitrogen mineralization
Late Killing:
• Increases residue available for soil and water conservation
• Increases weed control by releasing allelopathic substances which chemically interfere with weed growth
• Increases residue on the soil surface
• Increases nitrogen contribution from legumes
• Improves soil health
Killing methods
• Herbicide: Killing cover crops with a non-selective herbicide is the standard method used by conservation tillage growers.
A farmer can cover more acres quickly, it’s relatively inexpensive, and can be applied at any time or during any growth stage.
• Roller-Crimper: a mechanical roller that kills the cover crop by breaking and crimping the stems.
The cover crop is rolled down parallel to the direction of planting to form a dense mat, facilitating planting operation and aiding in early weed control.
When using a roller alone for termination of the cover crop, results are better when rolling is delayed until the flowering stage or later.
This method works best with tall growing cover corps.
Avoid future weed problems by ensuring that cover crops are terminated prior to seed set.
For more information, see Managing Cover Crops Profitably, third edition. Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE), Handbook 9.
The book can be purchased from the SARE at
NRCS conservationists are available to help you determine which method of cover crop termination is right for you.
For more information, contact your local USDA Service Center by visiting and then clicking on the map to find the closest office in your state.