Cropping strategies optimize acreage, manage costs

Jayne Sebright and Emily Barge

29 May 2022

Innovative planting and cropping strategies are helping Pennsylvania dairy producer Ben Peckman weather the storm of high fertilizer and other input costs.

Peckman, along with his wife, Sharon, and two children, own and operate Slate Ridge Dairy, a 150-cow diversified farming operation located near St. Thomas, in Pennsylvania’s Franklin County. All the farm’s labor is supplied by the family; there are no hired employees. Ben serves as general manager with an emphasis on cropping and equipment and feeding. Sharon, raised on a family dairy farm, takes charge of daily herd management, including milking.

The family raises all of their calves: the females as dairy replacement heifers and the males as steers, fed a high-energy ration. As a side enterprise, they graze a group of native beef steers on some of their cover crops. They also sell grains and some forages to local farms and feed mills.

Interviewed in a recent Pennsylvania Center for Dairy Excellence (CDE) Cow-Side Conversations podcast, Peckman said his cropping strategies include highly diverse cover crop mixes, a “green planting” approach, a seed-buying group with neighboring farms and more. Through those innovative methods, he’s not only able to keep costs low but also boost soil fertility and make the best use of his acreage.

Soil type and weather have an obvious impact on Peckman’s cropping timeline. Located in south-central Pennsylvania, 20 miles from the Maryland border, the soil on the home farm is predominantly shale-based, very shallow and consistently “two weeks away from a drought,” he said. Other fields – approximately 5 miles away – are limestone-based and less drought-prone, yet the ground is rockier.

Growing season typically begins in early March, with top-dressing small grains. Peckman then begins planting the main crops, including corn and soybean, the last week of April, with the aim of harvesting corn silage in late August or September. His goal is to finish the fall harvest by Thanksgiving of each year.

With about 1,000 acres total, Peckman follows a no-till approach with his crops. “I try to focus on soil health, and no-till is just the beginning of that. Keeping the ground covered with a cover crop and keeping those living roots in the soil is important to me,” he said. “Limiting soil disturbance with no-till is also important to protect the soil there. I like to have a diverse mix of species in my cover crops and in my general crop rotation. The more diverse the rotation can be, the better the soil health.”

Diverse cover crop mix

Peckman relies on a highly diverse cover cropping mix to help enhance soil health and fertility. He purchases some pre-mix blends but favors purchasing individual varieties to manage costs, blending his own cover cropping mix on-farm.

His favorite mix is of approximately 12 to 13 species of plants, which includes grasses like rye, triticale, sorghum and oats. He also mixes in several legumes such as crimson, clover or peas and usually includes radishes or turnips. He also likes to add buckwheat or sunflowers, which flower quickly and attract insects that can help boost soil health.

“I found that if you add legumes in, you can actually grow nitrogen,” he said. “For a year like this [with high nitrogen prices], that’s huge. But you have to be really flexible and go with what time of year it is, what crop you’re following and what crop you’re intending to plant the next time. It’s a moving target.”

Peckman offers advice for other producers looking at implementing a more diverse cover cropping mix.

“Don’t be afraid to start on a small scale, not only acre-wise but with the number of species in your mix,” he said. “You probably don’t want to start with 13 species, but I would encourage you to plant more than just rye, for instance. In this type of system, one plus one often equals three. Put a rye and a clover out just to get your feet wet with mixing things together and to start to see some of those benefits.”

Other benefits

Peckman identified several other benefits resulting from his cover crops and no-till program. Among those benefits, the soil armor protects the fields from heavy wind and rain, helping eliminate erosion.

The cover crops provide less weed pressure and help keep the soil cooler during hot days, and also store carbon in the ground, protecting the atmosphere.

“The cover crop will scavenge the nutrients that are applied and hold them there until the next crop needs them,” Peckman said. “Particularly in the fall, dairies harvest a lot of corn silage. Following the corn silage, you have a good time of year to plant cover crops, and they have ample time to grow and flourish before winter comes. To me, dairies and cover crops go hand in hand pretty well.”

With high nitrogen and fertilizer costs this year, many dairy producers fear that cover crops could take in nitrogen and prevent it from being released into the ground. By getting about half of his nitrogen needs from his dairy manure and soil, and the other half from commercial nitrogen, Peckman navigates the nitrogen tie-up issue.

“It’s a legitimate concern,” Peckman said. “Anything growing is going to be taking in nitrogen and possibly tying it up. I feel, though, if your soil is healthy and working properly, any nitrogen that is tied up should be mineralized and released later in the growing season when the crop can use it. Having a legume in that cover crop can also offset any nitrogen tie-up because you’re producing nitrogen at the same time it’s growing. That’s why I like mixes.”

‘Green planting’ system

Peckman uses an innovative “green planting” approach to help manage nitrogen needs and soil health. Instead of killing the cover crop off weeks before planting grain, he keeps the field green throughout the planting process. “There are a lot of benefits in my mind to the green planting method,” Peckman said.

“It allows the cover crop to continue to grow and get that root mass there for soil health,” he explained. “In the case of legumes, it allows the legume to produce more nitrogen the longer you let it grow.”

The system is not without its challenges, including competition with emerging corn plants and tall cover that might block the sun from the newly planted crops. One tool to overcome that challenge is use of a one-pass, planter-mounted crop roller that parts, crimps and crushes cover crops immediately in front of the planter.

“When you have biomass above the ground to plant through, it needs to be managed somehow,” he explained. “That’s why the cover crop roller was a major breakthrough for me. It’s almost like planting on carpet. It’s really nice.”

Seed-buying group

In addition to controlling high fertilizer expenses, Peckman spearheaded a seed-buying group with six neighboring farms to manage the rising costs for seed. Initially, the neighbors had a monthly discussion group brought together by their common veterinarian, and one conversation centered on seed purchases.

Today, as a group, they’re committed to well over 1,000 bags of corn annually. Even with a variety of hybrids – including traited and conventional – across the group of farms, and several different forms of payment such as cash versus financing, the seed company they work with allows for flexibility and provides seed and services at a lower price.

Other practices

Peckman highlighted other practices he experiments with:

Manure application and cover crops. The Peckmans have about a year’s on-farm manure storage capacity, with application scheduled in spring and fall. “I don’t want the manure out there in adverse conditions that it could be lost to the nitrogen. I aim [to apply it] a month before planting time. I like to spread on top of growing cover crops whenever possible. It’s all surface application, so having a plant there to intake the nutrients and store them is a good practice for me.”

Nitrogen stabilizers. “With the higher cost this year, I’m being more cautious and applying [nitrogen] on the lower side of my comfort zone to save costs. I started using a nitrogen stabilizer this year, hoping to cut my rate by 10 to 20 percent.”

Yield maps to help manage population goals. “I’ve been doing this for almost 10 years, so all my fields are divided into zones. Over time, it has saved me a lot of seed because I lower the populations in zones that just aren’t productive. That act of lowering population will actually increase yields sometimes. On good years, the spots I’ve put more plants in can also have the potential to yield a little better. I think it’s worth my time looking over those maps and tweaking them every year. I’m able to take that history and apply it to what I’m doing now.”

Relay cropping, growing two crops on the same acreage at the same time. “I like to experiment with a lot of different things. I have a current goal of trying to make relay cropping work here. Relay cropping is growing more or less two crops at one time. There are a lot of challenges with that, and there’s not a lot of it done here in Pennsylvania. One of my goals is to play with that in small acres and make that work here.” end mark

PHOTO 1: Instead of killing cover crops prior to planting, Peckman’s “green planting” system utilizes a one-pass, planter-mounted crop roller that parts, crimps and crushes cover crops immediately in front of the planter.

PHOTO 2: Peckman relies on a highly diverse cover cropping mix to help enhance soil health and fertility. Courtesy photos.