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Shenandoah Valley Farmers Learn Benefits of Cover Crop Mixes
Several dozen people attended a cover crops field day in northern Rockingham County last week to learn more about the latest ideas for cover crops and other management techniques shown to improve crop yields and quality in the Shenandoah Valley.
Sponsored by the NRCS, Virginia Cooperative Extension and the Shenandoah Valley Soil and Water Conservation District, the event included a series of presentations and test plot tours led by NRCS, Extension and Virginia Tech experts.
One lesson emphasized by NRCS agronomist Richard Fitzgerald was the benefit of cover crop mixtures rather than monocultures.
“The soil biologists are telling us diversity is the key to improving what’s going on beneath the ground,” said Fitzgerald, who showed participants the results of yield trials he conducted this year on Mike Phillips’ farm (Phillips is also an NRCS technician).
Forum Brings Conservation Nonprofits to Valley
After the visit to Garber’s farm, the field trip made a second stop to discuss nutrient management at North Point Farm in New Hope, Va. There, Kevin Phillips, one of four brothers that owns and operates the farm, and NRCS agronomist Richard Fitzgerald discussed the value of maximizing yield to allow for high rates of nutrient application and nutrient removal.
Fitzgerald reviewed Phillips’ nutrient management plan with the group, and noted the importance of thinking about whole-farm nutrient cycling rather than simply looking at nutrient application rates.
As an example, Fitzgerald pointed out that the relatively high rate of total nitrogen application for corn on one of Phillips’ farms — 228 pounds per acre, including dairy slurry, starter and sidedress fertilizer — was offset by a yield of 35 tons of corn silage per acre that removed 333 pounds of nitrogen.
Fitzgerald emphasized that when taken alone, Phillips’ rate of nutrient application could raise red flags, but when considered in context of nutrient cycling on the whole farm, it represents one component of a profitable and environmentally conscious management program.
Managing Cleaner Streams
Richard Fitzgerald, an NRCS agronomist, said, “Alfalfa has as much value below ground as above,” due to the plant’s ability to fix nitrogen in its roots. He also noted that alfalfa makes economic sense due to the increase in seed corn cost. “I never thought I’d live long enough to see the annual cost of corn seed exceed the annual cost of alfalfa seed,” Fitzgerald said.
Another tool farmers were encouraged to use as a part of raising corn is the Pre-sidedress Soil Nitrate Test (PSNT). The test begins with a 12-inch-deep soil sample taken when corn is knee high, just before the plant’s peak uptake of nitrogen.
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Richard L. Fitzgerald, Agronomist
Richard Fitzgerald is a certified nutrient management planner who has worked for twenty-one years in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia to assist farmers with compliance issues and permit requirements for confined livestock. He supervised a team of planners with the Department of Conservation & Recreation (DCR) to develop and keep nutrient management plans current on more than 1300 regulated and voluntary operations in a thirteen county area. These farms vary greatly in size, complexity and their environmental footprint. He also worked as the coordinator for Virginia’s Litter Transport Program to move surplus nutrients out of concentrated counties to farms needing fertilizer.
He spent the last four years working as Area Cropland Agronomist for NRCS covering the Shenandoah Valley and northern Piedmont regions of Virginia working on a contract with USDA to develop and implement Virginia’s 590 Nutrient Management Cost-Share Program. 590 is a three tiered payment program that requires farmers to have a NMP written for their farm, provide records indicating plan implementation and requires adoption of at least two “new” practices to their cropping systems. Contracts grew over this period in Virginia to more than $2.4 Million on 110 contracts. He has working knowledge of State and Federal programs for soil health, soil conservation, nutrient cycling, stream exclusion and grazing management.
Mr. Fitzgerald also has approximately four decades of experience running significant agricultural enterprises including a liquid fertilizer business, a 150-cow dairy and 1,200 acre crop operation, a 250-head cow/calf herd, and a retail pumpkin and specialty crops farm. He currently resides with his wife Debbie on a small equine estate in McKinley, Virginia. They have a son who is working on a PhD in molecular genetics from Purdue University and a daughter who is on the faculty at Virginia Tech.
He received a B.S. in Agronomy from Va. Tech in 1979 and is certified by the American Society of Agronomy as a Certified Professional Agronomist.
Cover crops: Conservation “without a carrot or a stick” for dairy farmers
Planting cover crops enhances the soil’s ability to function as a nutrient recycler. In this season’s final episode of The Science of Soil Health, Penn State University’s Dr. Sjoerd Dulker talks with researcher and film maker Buz Kloot about how dairy farmers in Pennsylvania are using cover crops to improve their businesses without regulations or subsidies. Watch the two-minute video.
Buz Kloot filming with a fly over drone at Kevin Craun’s dairy in Rockingham County with Chris Lawrence, Cropland Agronomist with USDA-NRCS and Richard Fitzgerald, CPag Agronomist with Equity Ag, pictured.