September 1, 2013

Conservation needed in the basin

Peter Hagar, Agriculture Educator

— A recent report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that farmers in the lower Mississippi River basin have been reducing erosion and nutrient losses from farmland by the adoption of voluntary conservation measures. 

The findings by the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) demonstrate that efforts to control erosion and manage nutrients have led to significant reductions in edge-of-field losses. One of the measures recognized as a significant contributor to these reductions is the use of cover crops.

By controlling runoff of surface water, holding soil in place during the winter and absorbing nutrients that might otherwise leach into the water table, cover crops have the potential to have a significant impact on water quality. 

Concerns about agricultural impacts on the environment have been a hot topic here in the Lake Champlain basin. Like any human activity, agriculture does indeed have effects on the environment; some good, some bad. With modern farms getting bigger, there are both concerns and opportunities to be addressed with respect to environmental impacts.

Over the next few decades, farmers will need to produce more food while at the same time reducing the impact of their farming practices. With the increased consumer interest in agricultural practices and how food is produced, farmers are trying new techniques.

Because of our proximity to Lake Champlain and the many farms along its shores, Cornell Cooperative Extension, in collaboration with the Lake Champlain Basin Program and the Clinton County Soil & Water District, held a series of on-farm meetings over the course of the growing season to highlight lake-friendly farming practices and best-management practices for the reduction of non-point-source pollution. With the cooperation of local farms and other agencies, we sought to raise awareness and increase acceptance of practices that will be of benefit to us all.

Cover crops have been long known about but slow to gain acceptance in the North Country. Because our growing season is short and winter comes quickly following corn harvest, it is often difficult to plant a crop that will grow quickly, establish and survive the winter. This year, however, there seems to be increasing interest in their use.

Several innovative ideas have recently been discussed. Our local NRCS office has enrolled several farms in a program involving aerial seeding of winter rye into more than 1,500 acres of standing corn.

Establishing the rye before the corn is harvested will allow it to sprout and begin to develop a few weeks early. Once the corn is harvested, the farmer will be able to spread manure and the rye will grow rapidly until winter arrives. Once established, winter rye becomes dormant over the winter and begins to grow again in early spring.

Most farms will simply plow the cover crop under to add nutrients and organic matter to the soil. If planted early enough and onto prepared fields, winter rye can be harvested as a spring forage crop.

Over the next few weeks, a helicopter and ground crew will begin travel across Clinton County to fly in the seed. Residents near farms participating in the aerial seeding may notice a helicopter flying very low. For the safety of all, dogs or spectators should remain at a safe distance. The seed being spread is certified cereal rye seed with no pesticides or fertilizers added.

Another option that is available this fall will be the Soil & Water District’s new no-till drill. With the ability to plant directly into corn stubble right after harvest without additional tillage, a winter rye cover crop can be established up until about Oct. 15. Farmers interested in using the no-till drill are encouraged to contact the Clinton County Soil & Water District as soon as possible to get on the list.

Farmers along with local, regional and federal agencies are all collaborating to reduce agricultural non-point-source pollution in the Champlain Valley. With more and more farmers interested in the soil-holding benefits of cover crops, they also contribute to improving soil health, reducing soil compaction and improving nutrient management.

As more farmers adopt this conservation measure, we hope to see the payoff in healthy soil, higher yields and cleaner water. For more information about cover crops, contact Peter Hagar, CCE Clinton County, at 561-7450 or

Peter Hagar, agriculture educator, Cornell Cooperative Extension Clinton County, 6064 Route 22, Suite 5, Plattsburgh, 12901. Phone 561-7450 or email