Delmarva Farmer Columnists


Are you growing cover or crops? (Oct. 13, 2015)

Shepherd’s Notebook

By Gordon C. Johnson, Extension Vegetable and Fruit Specialist, University of Delaware

Cover crop acreage has been growing in the region, largely due to nutrient management efforts and cost share programs.
In the last year, there has been an emphasis on growing cover crops for soil health benefits and programs are underway from NRCS and conservation districts to increase cover crop plantings for soil improvement.
Nutrient management goals and soil health goals are not necessarily the same.
You can think about this with the question are you growing cover or crops?
In nutrient management-based cover crop programs, the goals are to have crops that can take up residual nitrogen and also provide cover to reduce erosion losses.
Non-legumes predominate, with most of the acres planted in small grains such as rye with some recent use of radishes (Maryland programs are non-legume based while Delaware conservation district programs allow for the use of legumes).
No fertilizer can be used with these cover crops. In this case the answer to the question above is that a cover is being grown.
While there will be soil health benefits, they are not maximized.
In contrast, when soil improvement is the primary goal, the cover crops are grown as crops.
You are growing plants to maximize the benefits they provide.
To increase organic matter and improve soil health the main goal is to produce maximum biomass above ground and below ground.
A second goal would be to provide different types of organic matter with cover crop mixtures to support a diverse soil microbial environment.
Cover crop species are commonly grouped into six major categories: 1) cool season grasses; 2) cool season legumes; 3) cool season broadleaves 4) warm season grasses; 4) warm season legumes; and 6) warm season broadleaves.
The goal for a successful mixture is to combine species from as many categories as practical based on the planting season to achieve maximum soil health benefits.
Each species in the mix should thrive when planted with no one species dominating. In other cases the goals will be different.
With leguminous cover crops a goal may be to maximize the amount of nitrogen fixed.
With soil compaction reducing crops such as radishes, the goal is to maximize the amount of “biodrilling” — the amount of tap roots being produced.
With biofumigant crops, the goal is to maximize the production of fumigant-like chemicals the crops produce. With mulch based systems, the goal is to maximize above ground biomass.
What these soil improvement and specific use goals have in common is the need to treat the cover crop as a crop to optimize plant growth.
This would include seeding at the proper rate to achieve optimal stands, planting at the right time, using seeding methods to get maximum seed germination and plant survival, having sufficient fertility to support good plant growth, providing water during dry periods, managing pests (insects, diseases, weeds), and inoculating legumes.
If cover crop mixtures are being used, the ratios of seeds being planted must be considered to have the best balance of plants in the final stand. The best cover crop stands are obtained with a drill or seeder that places the seed at the proper depth, at the proper seeding rate, with good soil to seed contact.
Fertilization and liming programs should be used to support season-long growth — fertilizers and other soil amendments will be necessary in most cases. Nitrogen will need to be added for non-legumes.
When the crop is terminated is also key. The cover crops should be allowed to grow to the stage that maximizes the benefits they have to offer before killing the crops.
Allowing a winter cover to grow for an extra week in the spring can make a large difference in the amount of biomass produced.
Again, consider the question are you growing a cover or a crop?
The answer is important to achieve your cover crop goals.

After the storm, check with your local FSA office (Oct. 13, 2015)

Keeping the Farm

By Emily Horsley, Agricultural Program Specialist, Virginia Farm Service Agency

(Editor’s note: Virginia Farm Service Agency staffers Allison Wash, Dan Mertz and Brent Whitlock also contributed to this column.)

In the words of country music singer Luke Bryan, “Rain is a good thing!”
However, over the past week, excessive rainfall has led to severe flooding and damage to land and property.
Dr. Jewel E. Hairston, state executive director for the Virginia Farm Service Agency, reminded producers and landowners that FSA offers several programs that could provide support and assist agricultural landowners and farm operators who suffers losses as a result of extreme weather conditions.
The Emergency Conservation Program provides rehabilitation and restoration assistance, both financial and technical, for damage caused by floods and hurricanes.
If your land is adversely impacted, please contact a local FSA office to report damage and see if ECP funding is available.
Some examples of activities eligible for ECP assistance include:
• Removing debris from farmland;
• Grading, shaping, releveling or other similar measures;
• Restoring permanent fences; and
• Restoring conservation structures.
FSA County Committees may request ECP funding for all or parts of a county impacted by severe weather and disaster conditions.
FSA also offers other program programs that help you.
If you are currently participating in the Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program, then you may qualify for benefits.
Be sure to timely file your Notice of Loss with your county office.
Notices of Loss must be filed within 15 days of the loss occurrence. For hand-harvested fruits and vegetables, FSA requires that you notify your County Office within 72 hours of the loss occurring.
This 72-hour notification can be done in person, by fax, e-mail or phone.
The Livestock Indemnity Program and the Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honeybees and Farm-Raised Fish Program also provide benefits to eligible producers who have losses due to natural disasters.
Qualifying losses include, but are not limited to, the loss of:
• Livestock;
• Honeybee colonies and/or hives;
• Farm-raised fish losses, if not for human consumption; and
• Lost feed.
Please notify your local FSA County Office immediately of any losses as there are various filing requirements for Notice of Losses for these programs.
FSA encourages producers and landowners to take appropriate precautions in consideration of the forecast.
Contact a local FSA office now if you have already experienced losses and need to request federal assistance.
For more information on FSA disaster assistance programs, please visit
The USDA announced on Oct. 1 that in a first round of funding, USDA will commit $4 million to several states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed to help agricultural landowners with accelerating stream and riverbank tree plantings that can reduce soil sedimentation, field and animal waste runoff, improving water quality.
The states of Delaware, New York, Virginia, and West Virginia have each been approved for an additional $1 million under the USDA Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program to increase or maintain acres enrolled in Chesapeake Bay Riparian Forest Buffer conservation.
USDA challenged the states to craft a proposal during a Chesapeake Bay summit in Washington, D.C. last summer.
In addition to the increased incentives for landowners, Farm Service Agency offices in Maryland and Pennsylvania will receive support to partner with stakeholders for improved outreach and technical assistance.
“By joining federal funds with state resources, the Obama administration continues its partnership with the Chesapeake Bay stakeholders who are working to make the health of the watershed better than ever,” said Michael Scuse, USDA under secretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services.
“The 2014 Farm Bill has enabled USDA to support expanded conservation practices on crop, pasture and private forestland in the bay,” said Robert Bonnie, USDA under-secretary for Natural Resources and Environment. “Working with our partners, including farmers, nonprofit and private organizations, local and state governments, and individuals, we are leveraging federal dollars to reduce nutrient and sediment losses.
“This would not be possible without the voluntary efforts of land owners and widespread public support.”
State awardees will combine the federal funds with a state match of 20 percent to conduct more environmental studies to expand eligible counties, improve outreach and educational efforts, and provide higher financial incentives to encourage more agricultural landowners to participate in the tree restoration efforts.
Since 1996, USDA has worked with the six Bay states (Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia) to establish more than 7,000 miles of stream and riverside trees, known as riparian forest buffers.
To date, about $500 million in USDA funds have been provided to farmers enrolling land in CREP projects.
In 2013, the CREP projects prevented an estimated eight million tons of sediment, 16 million pounds of nitrogen, and four million pounds of phosphorus from entering the waters of the watershed.
This year marks the 30th year of USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program, a federally-funded voluntary program that contracts with agricultural producers so that environmentally sensitive agricultural land is not farmed or ranched, but instead used for conservation benefits.
Program participants establish long-term, resource-conserving plant species, such as approved grasses or trees (known as “covers”) to control soil erosion, improve water quality and develop wildlife habitat.
In return, USDA provides participants with cost-share assistance for establishing the covers with annual payments for land in the conservation contract.
With CREP, high-priority regional conservation goals are identified by local, state, or tribal governments or non-governmental organizations, and the federal funds and resources of the Conservation Reserve Program are supplemented with the non-federal funds and resources to achieve those goals.
To learn more about the 30th anniversary of the Conservation Reserve Program, visit or follow on Twitter using #CRPis30.
To learn more about participating in CREP, visit or consult with the local Farm Service Agency county office.
To locate a nearby Farm Service Agency office, visit
Today’s announcement was made possible by the 2014 Farm Bill, which builds on historic investments made in rural America over the past six years, while achieving meaningful reform and billions of dollars in savings for the taxpayer. Since enactment, the USDA has progressively implemented each provision of this critical legislation, including providing disaster relief to farmers and ranchers; strengthening risk management tools; expanding access to rural credit; funding critical research; establishing innovative public-private conservation partnerships; developing new markets for rural-made products; and investing in infrastructure, housing and community facilities to help improve quality of life in rural America.
For more information, visit