Best Management Practices – Cropping (and Harvesting)

“A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself. Forests  are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people.” ~ President Franklin D. Roosevelt

For most of us, we have only heard stories or seen pictures of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s so President Roosevelt’s quote may seem dated and not applicable. Many people today are a generation or two removed from farming and the day-to-day production of food and care of the soil. Therefore, many people have a limited understanding of farming and common practices used on farms to conserve and protect water, soil, and other natural resources.

At the same time, people who are deeply involved in farming or actively working to conserve and protect water and soil resources may not take the time to teach neighbors who do not farm about common farming and conservation practices and why it is important to care for the health and future of the soil.

The practices outlined in this post, however, are very much applicable to the care of soils and water quality as well as the strength and future of our nation.

These farming and conservation practices are used and considered best management practices (BMPs) today for keeping soil in place, nourishing crops and plants, and preventing nutrients (like nitrogen and phosphorus) from entering local streams and adversely affecting watersheds like the Chesapeake Bay.

For more information about common farming and conservation practices and how specific best management practices might apply to your farm or situation, please contact your nearest USDA Service Center, local Virginia Cooperative Extension office, or Soil and Water Conservation District.

Cover Crops, Harvestable

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Photo from pecva.org

These crops provide soil cover to reduce nutrient loss, nitrogen leaching, and erosion caused by rain and wind.These cover crops are harvestable, and if a farmer is participating in a cost-share program can be harvested after March 15th in the cost-share program. (The harvest date can vary, but the objective is to keep the ground covered as long as possible.) The cost-share assistance is not meant to financially back the production of winter crops, but to encourage greater adoption and implementation of cover cropping.

“Virginia Best Management Practice: Harvestable Cover Crop (SL-8H).” Piedmont Environmental Council. 2014. Web. 14 July 2014.

Cover Crops, Legume

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Planting legumes such as clover, vetch, and field peas improves water quality and provides various amounts of nitrogen to the following crop, while controlling weeds and erosion. They also encourage populations of beneficial insects and soil microbes to grow. These legume cover crops provide good residue for ground cover, and can be used as mulch for no-till systems.

Clark, Andy. “Overview of Legume Cover Crops.” mccc.msu.edu. 2007. Web. 14 July 2014.

“Virginia Best Management Practice: Legume Cover Crop (WQ-4).” Piedmont Environmental Council. 2014. Web. 14 July 2014.

Cover Crops, Small Grain for Nutrient Management

Small Grain-Barley Cover Crop

Wheat, barley, rye, and oat are common small grain cover crops, which can decrease weeds, nutrient loss, and erosion, while increasing the nitrogen in the soil. They are inexpensive and rapidly produce biomass. Farmers participating who are participating in a cost-share program are generally required to roll down or kill these small grains once they reach at least sixty percent cover, which is usually close to or on March 15.

Mitchell, Jeff, Van horn, Mark, Munier, Doug, and Jackson, Lee. “Small Grain Cover Crops.” anrcatalog.ucdavis.edu. 2006. Web. 14 July 2014.

“Virginia Best Management Practice: Small Grain Cover Crop for Nutrient Management and Residue Management (SL-8B).” Piedmont Environmental Council. 2014. Web. 14 July 2014.

Cover, Permanent Vegetation Establishment on Cropland

Planting grass and legumes on crop or fallow land improves water quality and reduces erosion.

“Permanent Vegetative Cover Establishment on Cropland SL-1.” fauquiercounty.gov. n.d. Web. 14 July 2014.

Cover, Permanent Vegetation on Critical Areas

Grading and shaping land while establishing grasses, tress, and shrubs increase soil stability and decrease the movement of sediments and nutrients.

“Virginia Best Management Practice: Permanent Vegetative Cover on Critical Areas (SL-11).” Piedmont Environmental Council. 2014. Web. 14 July 2014.

(Protective) Cover for Specialty Crops

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This cover protects cropland used for vegetables and tobacco from wind and water erosion in the colder part of the year. After it is left on for ninety or more days, the cover should be turned under.

“Protective Cover for Specialty Cropland SL-8.” fauquiercounty.gov. n.d. Web. 14 July 2014.

 “Virginia Best Management Practice: Protective Cover for Specialty Cropland (SL-8).” Piedmont Environmental Council. 2014. Web. 14 July 2014.

(Continuous) No-till Forage Production System

These systems provide food for livestock, while strengthening soil quality and stability.

“Virginia Best Management Practice: Continuous No-till Forage Production System (SL-15B).” Piedmont Environmental Council. 2014. Web. 14 July 2014.

 No-till Planting Systems

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These systems increase soil moisture, organic matter, workability, and firmness, while decreasing tractor power, need for tillage equipment, labor, days needed for planting, fuel inputs, soil temperatures, and erosion. Farmers select fields with herbicide-controlled weeds, good drainage, and slopes, and then build up the fertility of the field through lime and fertilizer. They use high quality seeds and rotate crops such as corn and soybeans. The crop residue left over helps prevent erosion and control the temperatures of the undisturbed soil.

Buchholz, Daryl D., Palm, Einar, Thomas, George, and Pfost, Donald L. “No-Till Planting Systems.” MU Extension. Oct. 1993. Web. 14 July 2014.

“Virginia Best Management Practice: Continuous No-Till System (SL-15A).” Piedmont Environmental Council. 2014. Web. 14 July 2014.

Reforestation of Erodible Crop and Pastureland

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Replanting trees and permanent vegetation on eroded land controls the soil, prevents nutrient loss, and lessens surface runoff. These erodible lands should be protected from fire and grazing.

“Reforestation of Erodible Crop and Pastureland FR-1.” fauquiercounty.gov. n.d. Web. 11 July 2014.

Side-dress Application of Nitrogen on Corn

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Injecting the soil with nitrogen or dribbling it between the rows when the corn is rapidly growing (ten to sixteen inches tall) improves productivity, while minimizing leaching and runoff. When the corn is first growing, it takes very little nitrogen—if nitrogen is applied then, most of it will be lost. When corn is nitrogen deficient, it turns yellow and does not yield as much.

Allen, Carrie J. “Sidedressing Nitrogen in Corn Makes Sense.” fluidfertilizer.com. 2002. Web. 14 July 2014.

“Applying Fertilizers.” Penn State Extension. 2014. Web. 14 July 2014.

“3 Tips for Sidedressing Nitrogen on Your Corn Crop.” cornandsoybeandigest.com. 16 June 2011. Web. 14 July 2014.

Late Winter Split Application of Nitrogen on Small Grain

Applying nitrogen in two increments positively impacts water quality and production efficiency, while counteracting the nitrogen loss through leaching and runoff.

“Guidance for Implementing NM-4: Late Winter Split Application of Nitrogen on Small Grains.” jamesriverswcd.squarespace.com. n.d. Web. 14 July 2014.

Strip-cropping, Buffer

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Photo from http://www.dubuqueswcd.org

Alternating narrow strips of sod with broader strips of close growing crops decreases erosion and runoff, while increasing surface water quality. These systems may be used on critical slope areas.

“Buffer Strip Cropping SL-3B.” fauquiercounty.gov. n.d. Web. 14 July 2014.

Strip-cropping Systems

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Photo from http://www.bae.uky.edu

Farmers grow crops in equal strips and bands across the slopes of their fields to reduce water and wind erosion, nutrient loss, sediment movement, and dust emissions, while improving visual charactistics of the field, wildlife habitats, soil moisture, water and soil quality, and crop growth. Strip-cropping is one of the least costly conservation practices, and is most effective when grasses and legumes can be rotated with intensely cultivated crops.

Carman, Dennis. “Strip Cropping.” sera17.ext.vt.edu. n.d. Web. 14 July 2014.

“Virginia Best Management Practice: Strip Cropping Systems (SL-3).” Piedmont Environmental Council. 2014. Web. 14 July 2014.

Woodland Erosion Stabilization

Planting grasses and legumes, prohibiting livestock grazing, shaping the land, and establishing permanent vegetation in farm areas used for forest harvesting stabilize the soil and slows the movement of sediments and nutrients.

“Woodland Erosion Stabilization FR-4.” fauquiercounty.gov. n.d. Web. 14 July 2014.

Most of the photos were provided courtesy of the USDA – Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

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