American Agriculturist Logo

Investment in time, money ensures cover crop success

Vermont’s short growing season has not stopped Larry Gervais from implementing cover crops in his system.

Chris Torres, Editor, American Agriculturist

March 30, 2023

6 Min Read
Larry Gervais of Gervais Family Dairy speaks at recent Northeast Covers Crops Conference
COVER CROPS PAY: Larry Gervais of Gervais Family Farm told visitors to the recent Northeast Covers Crops Conference about his experience using cover crops and planting green on his farm in northern Vermont.Photos by Chris Torres

Last year’s high milk prices led to great margins for Larry Gervais and his Gervais Family Farm in Enosburg Falls, Vt. So, what did he do with the extra money? He invested in his business.

This winter he upgraded his 18-row Great Plains planter by adding hydraulic down pressure, which he believes will result in a machine that is quicker to respond and easier to control. He also added all-electronic seed drives — no more shafts and chains — and an upgraded pump system for liquid nitrogen.

The milk check pays the bills, so taking care of the cows is important. But taking care of his fields is also crucial. He’ll soon be planting corn green into growing rye, and experience has shown him that having a good planter is the first step to success.

“It’s all about your corn planter. You can have all the confidence in your soil biology, but if you don’t have your corn planter set up properly with the proper downforce pressures and the closing wheels,” you won’t have success, Gervais told the audience at the recent Northeast Covers Crops Conference.

Planting green allows the rye cover crop to grow and not delay corn planting. It’s the most recent evolution of his farm’s venture into cover cropping and soil conservation — something that might seem challenging in a place like northern Vermont, but it isn’t impossible.

Reducing runoff

Gervais and his family run Gervais Family Farm, a 3,200-acre operation in and around Enosburg Falls, about 10 miles from the Canadian border.

cows eating feed in barn

The farm includes 2,100 mature dairy cows and 1,500 young stock. Most of the farm’s acres are in grass haylage and corn silage — 2,200 acres of hay and 1,000 acres of silage. Cows are fed a diet of 55% forages, and grain mixtures are bought in through a local feed manufacturer.

The dairy actually consists of two operations that are 6 miles apart.

“We've got a fair amount of river-bottom land that will stay in continuous corn, and I probably rotate about 100 acres of corn land into grassland every year," Gervais said.

Vermont has been pushing growers to plant cover crops to deal with water quality issues associated with Lake Champlain, and 20% of Gervais’ cover crops are cost-shared through a state program. However, he had a different reason to try cover crops: to absorb the watery effluent coming from his farm’s manure digester.

In 2011, the farm started drag-lining and injecting manure, mostly on fields close to the dairy operation. Drag-lining can reduce compaction, one of the main reasons producers incorporate it on fields. However, Gervais said tillage defeats the purpose of it by disturbing the soil too much. So, the farm started no-tilling and soon after incorporated cover crops.

“And that’s why I do it. It makes your soil more active more months of the year,” he said. “We’ve always been a little bit ahead of the curve in trying different things.”

No time to waste

Rye, his cover crop of choice, is planted right after corn silage is chopped – between Sept. 15 and Oct. 10. It can be challenging some years, Gervais said, because of the limited amount of time getting the silage chopped and packed in the bunks, and then having to seed the covers.

“Sometimes if we get too far behind, we’ll broadcast it and just disc it in, just to get a little seed-to-soil contact going,” he said.

Nonetheless, Gervais has done different interseeding trials in summer on a few acres, with the purpose of getting multispecies cover crops in the ground. He’s even tried flying cover crop seed on, but that’s come with limited success.

“The types of forage that we’re growing, the silage, it’s a lot leafier,” he said.

Plus, he grows his corn silage in 20-inch instead of 30-inch rows. It’s a practice he does solely for weed control, but it doesn’t allow much sunlight in let a cover crop to grow.

He’s even tried growing cover crops in wider corn silage rows – 40 inches – by interseeding at the V5 stage, which is around early July in northern Vermont. It did well for the first couple of years, he said, but last year it failed. Weeds were the main issue.

“It was growing pretty good but as the corn got bigger, it just shaded it out, and it just died,” he said.

Ensuring success

Gervais has focused his attention on improving his cropping system to accommodate his rye cover.

First frost usually falls around Oct. 1. If rye is placed after Oct. 15, he said the crop will not get much growth. If it is planted on time, he expects around 4 to 5 inches of growth before winter sets in.

All his corn is planted green, except for a few stony acres where tillage is still utilized. Before planting, manure is injected in April, along with 10 gallons of nitrogen and some pop-up fertilizer in-furrow.

His target planting date for corn is between May 5 and 7, though he points out that May 15 is when the soil is warmest to get corn in. Too much rain made last year’s planting a challenge, and much of his corn was planted in June.

Rye can grow quickly in spring, and some years it’s a challenge getting corn planted, he said. The rye can grow up to 18 inches tall, requiring a roller crimper to go through and mat it down before seed gets planted.

The covers can get so tall, he said, that it’s hard to see the marker arms at the end of the corn planter. So, if the GPS goes out at any time, this can make it difficult to plant, or to at least to see where to start again when going with another pass.

Gervais describes planting green as “driving through a meadow.”

“But if it’s there, we’ll plant it,” he said.

Rye must be terminated before heading out, he said, or termination becomes difficult. Since he does not have his own spray rig this is a challenge because he has to wait for a custom operator to come out and do the job.

Most years he does a pre-sidedress nitrate test and will apply sidedress nitrogen if needed. The fields usually do not need that extra N, but Gervais said he did sidedress last year due to the wet weather.

His biggest challenge with cover crops is fall planting. Chopping and filling bunks, and then making sure the rye is planted is not only time-consuming but also labor-intensive.

“If you wait until you’re [completely] done chopping your corn, you’ve just lost two weeks of growing — of valuable growing and heating degree days,” he said.

As a result, he’s shortened his length-of-day corn, now ranging from 93 to 97 days, with a few 100-day acres. All the corn is staggered so everything matures at different times.

Gervais’ target is 20 to 22 tons of corn silage, which he said is good for the region.

Having been in the business many years, Gervais said the farm has built up a good equity position. Along with his planter improvements, the farm also purchased a new chopper last year, which has higher horsepower and better kernel processors. He’s also invested in new hoses and hose reels for his drag-lining.

Though dairy prices are projected to decline, Gervais insists the farm is in good shape to weather the storm.

“When we have a tough year, we’re able to get through it,” he said.

About the Author(s)

Chris Torres

Editor, American Agriculturist

Chris Torres, editor of American Agriculturist, previously worked at Lancaster Farming, where he started in 2006 as a staff writer and later became regional editor. Torres is a seven-time winner of the Keystone Press Awards, handed out by the Pennsylvania Press Association, and he is a Pennsylvania State University graduate.

Torres says he wants American Agriculturist to be farmers' "go-to product, continuing the legacy and high standard (former American Agriculturist editor) John Vogel has set." Torres succeeds Vogel, who retired after 47 years with Farm Progress and its related publications.

"The news business is a challenging job," Torres says. "It makes you think outside your small box, and you have to formulate what the reader wants to see from the overall product. It's rewarding to see a nice product in the end."

Torres' family is based in Lebanon County, Pa. His wife grew up on a small farm in Berks County, Pa., where they raised corn, soybeans, feeder cattle and more. Torres and his wife are parents to three young boys.

Subscribe to receive top agriculture news
Be informed daily with these free e-newsletters

You May Also Like