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  • PRO-DAIRY
  • Field Crops
  • Dairy
  • Soil

Postdoctoral Research Associate Jasdeep Singh of the Cornell Nutrient Management Spear Program (NMSP) is researching the impacts of soil health practices on corn silage yield, soil health indicators, and greenhouse gas emissions. In Central New York, Singh and the NMSP team are looking at two field treatments at Osterhoudt Farms. Read on to learn more about what he and his colleagues are doing and what they have found so far. 

Exploring new cultivation techniques may be the key to increasing the sustainability of forage crop farming. Jasdeep Singh, a postdoctoral research associate with Cornell’s Nutrient Management Spear Program (NMSP), and his team are investigating these new techniques in hopes of identifying strategies that are more sustainable while keeping yields consistent for farmers.

His work is part of a much larger project called Dairy Soil & Water Regeneration (DSWR), in which researchers around the country are studying soil health and manure management and their effects on greenhouse gas reduction, water quality improvement and agronomic factors such as yield and forage quality on commercial and research farms in major dairy regions. 

DSWR is led by the Dairy Research Institute, a nonprofit affiliated with the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, in collaboration with the Soil Health Institute and researchers from Cornell and seven other research institutions.

The six-year DSWR project is part of the U.S. Dairy Net Zero Initiative, the first phase in a collective effort by dairy organizations to achieve the industry’s 2050 environmental stewardship goals, including greenhouse gas neutrality. 

In New York, the research conducted within DSWR is led by Quirine Ketterings, Cornell professor of nutrient management in the Department of Animal Science and director of NMSP, in close collaboration with Kirsten Workman, nutrient management and environmental sustainability specialist with the Cornell PRO-DAIRY team.

As part of Ketterings’ team, Singh is studying how to improve the sustainability of dairy forage production systems in upstate New York. 

In collaboration with the farm owners (Mark Osterhoudt and his family) and their certified crop adviser and on-farm agronomist, Andy Miller, the NMSP team is comparing two field treatments at Osterhoudt Farms in Central New York. They are investigating how soil health management systems (SHMS) compete with conventional practices when it comes to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, crop yield stability and boosting soil health.

The conventional treatment uses practices intended to foster a hospitable growing environment for the forage crops, including full-width tillage, liquid dairy manure (applied in spring and fall) and a broadcasted wheat cover crop. 

Full-width tillage involves disturbing the soil across the field. It is often done to help prepare the soil for planting and control weed growth. Cover crops are crops that are planted in the off-season, meant to help decrease soil erosion, increase organic matter content in the soil, capture end-of-season nitrate and reduce compaction. 

In contrast, the SHMS includes no-till, dairy compost applied in the spring and a drilled rye cereal cover crop. No-till and cover cropping are two promising carbon sequestration strategies, Singh explained. 

When farmers reduce tillage, they are keeping some carbon that is contained in the soil from being released into the atmosphere. Additionally, cover crops store carbon in the soil, converting it into organic matter. “Drilling the cover crop into the ground instead of broadcasting it across the soil improves establishment of the crop, potentially resulting in greater biomass and ground coverage,” Singh said.

In past years, Osterhoudt Farms has also participated in yield data sharing for all harvested corn fields, meaning that the Osterhoudt family has information about how consistently (or inconsistently) fruitful their different fields are. As a result, the NMSP team has been able to generate yield stability maps for the farm’s forage that show areas with consistently high or low yields, as well as areas that are variable in yield across growing seasons. 

With these maps, the NMSP team can evaluate the impacts of a change in management from conventional to SHMS within these yield stability zones, isolating the effects of the new SHMS on soil health indicators and GHG emission measurements.

“We are still in an early phase when considering soil health responses from regenerative practices. Previous researchers have found that yield gaps often get smaller over time, and we expect to see a similar progression in the future.”

Results so far show that in the first two years of the project, SHMS displayed lower environmental impact over time, but it came at the expense of a yield penalty of 1.5 tons/acre across all zones, Singh said. While yield was impacted in all four stability zones, there was less of a yield difference in high-yield zones than in zones with typically low yield. 

Additionally, soil health indicators that are being measured have been unaffected, but there are still another three years to go in the project. “We are still in an early phase when considering soil health responses from regenerative practices,” Singh said. “Previous researchers have found that yield gaps often get smaller over time, and we expect to see a similar progression in the future.”

To build upon these recent findings, NMSP PhD student Gurpreet Kaur will be evaluating microbiological soil health indicators as well this 2024 growing season. These types of indicators are expected to help researchers and farmers gain a better understanding about the differences in soil biology between SHMS and conventional practices, beyond the typical chemical and physical soil health indicators. 

“When we consider soil health, soil biology is the first to respond to changes in soil management practices,” Singh said. 

Between studying new SHMS and microbiological soil health, NMSP researchers will understand which strategies farmers could use to help maintain their yield while becoming more environmentally sustainable. 

If you’re interested in learning more about similar projects throughout the United States, visit the U.S. Dairy Net Zero Initiative website. Check out the NMSP website to learn more about this projectsoil health indicators, the yield data monitoring project and more.

Madeline Hanscom is a writer for the Nutrient Management Spear Program.

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