Cumberland County’s cover crop incentive program has become a model for other Pennsylvania counties and farmers looking to improve soil health and reduce polluted agricultural runoff.
The Cumberland County Conservation District’s (CCCD) cover crops program is 15 years old and provides some funding and technical assistance for the planting of cover crops to roughly 66 farmers in the county. The district has helped farmers plant 8,500 acres of cover crops and estimates there may be at least that many more that are not enlisted in its program.
“This year was our largest signup with the greatest number of farmers,” said Charles Heberlig III, conservation district Chesapeake Bay Technician. “Whether they are taking it off for grain or silage, or they just have it there overwinter, there’s definitely a lot more cover crops being planted now.”
“The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) respects the district’s leadership and commitment of allocating funding and human resources to establish this successful cover crop program,” said Bill Chain, CBF Interim Director and Agriculture Program Manager in Pennsylvania. “District board and staff recognize farmers’ needs and created ‘win-win’ programs promoting farm economic viability, while helping to keep valuable crop nutrients and topsoil on the farm. As a former farmer, I’m proud to call Cumberland County my home.”
Five or six other counties looking to add their own cover crop incentive program have called the CCCD, for tips and how to get started. Cover crops are among pollution reduction practices included in some countywide plans as part of Pennsylvania’s Phase 3 Watershed Implementation Plan.
Benefits of cover crops include reducing erosion and polluted runoff due to wind and rain, suppressing weeds, and improving soil infiltration. Cover crops also help fields retain nutrients until the next year’s crop, increase soil organic matter, and can add nitrogen to the soil if a legume crop is grown.
“It’s a topnotch program,” Carlisle farmer and CCCD board member Dennis Garman said. “I think we try to tweak it every year. We’re spending more money and the acres are growing. It seems like everything works well with cover crops.”
Garman farms about 1,500 acres. He recently sold his dairy herd and now farms crops and beef cattle. His 300 acres of cover crops help to protect nearby Conodoguinet Creek. “Very little water gets to the creek without going through some type of filtering system of something growing,” he said.
Cumberland’s incentive program offers a cost share $20 per acre for limited, conservation tillage and $30 per acre for no-till planting for up to 50 aces, as long it follows corn, soybeans, or sorghum crops. Types of cover crops include barley, wheat, rye, the hybrid wheat and rye called Triticale, and others.
The average cost to plant cover crops is about $80 per acre.
To participate in the CCCD’s incentive program, farmers sign a contract, and agree to have a Chesapeake Bay agricultural farm inspection. They must have the required erosion and sediment, and manure management plans.
In the past, grant funding through Cumberland’s program has come from Marcellus Shale funding, a Sunoco pipeline grant, and the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation.
Like other farmers, Shippensburg dairy farmer Zane Garber reaps economic benefits from his cover crops. “We need it for forage, for feed for the cows,” he said. Garber planted rye and wheat as cover crops in October and harvested it in late April and early May.
Garber, who has been planting cover crops for years, knows the benefits to soil health. “It’s very good for the soil, keeps the nutrients intact so we are not sending them downstream,” Garber said. The conservation district encouraged him to plant multiple species with the rye, “because the more root mass, the healthier the soil,” Garber added.
Cumberland County farmers interested in planting cover crops can contact Heberlig at [email protected]. For farmers elsewhere, CCCD Manager Carl Goshorn suggests they contact the local conservation district and USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.
“Most farmers want to do the right thing and keep their soil in place and nutrients on the farm. That’s an economical way to do things, especially with the prices of fertilizer these days,” Goshorn said. “Most farmers are doing a very good job and are concerned about the environment. They know that what they do affects local water quality, the Susquehanna River, and in the end affects the Chesapeake Bay.”
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