October 27, 2013

Going green in winter

Concerns about agricultural impacts on the environment continue to be a hot topic both here and across the lake.

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.

And with the increased consumer interest in agricultural practices and how food is produced, farmers will need to consider new and old practices to meet this challenge.

When an annual crop such as corn or soybeans is harvested, it often leaves the soil exposed and unprotected. While corn harvested for grain often leaves considerable residue, corn silage is made by chopping the entire plant, leaving only stubble and bare soil.

The benefit of plant residue on the surface is that it intercepts precipitation and reduces erosion of the topsoil. This exposed soil problem is compounded by the fact that farmers often spread manure after harvest to empty their storage facilities for the long winter.

While the nutrients are mostly absorbed and stored in the soil, there is the potential for erosion and surface water runoff as well as leaching into the water table. One beneficial conservation practice that has been long known about but slow to gain acceptance in the North Country is the use of cover crops following annual crops such as corn.

This year, however, a program funded by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Services has led to a significant increase in the use of cover crops in Clinton County. In the 2007 Ag Census, Clinton County was estimated to have 24,000 acres planted to corn. With funding from the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative, more than 1,700 acres were covered this year with winter rye, a cereal-grain cover crop that grows late into the fall, goes dormant and then resumes growing in early spring.

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