UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Seeking to be a role model for farmers in the state and across the Northeast, Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences will undertake aerial seeding of a cover crop in late September.
Cover crops, such as the winter wheat Penn State will be planting, offer great benefits because their roots prevent soil particles from being washed away by late fall, winter and spring runoff, they lock up carbon and they take up nutrients such as nitrogen.
Problems. The problem in Pennsylvania and the Northeast is that crops such as soybeans and corn often remain in the field until late November and farmers can’t get a cover crop planted before cold weather sets in and the growing season ends.
Aerial seeding is a solution to that problem, points out Glen Cauffman, manager of Penn State farm operations.
“Aerial seeding allows a cover crop to be planted before an existing crop is harvested,” he explains. “That way, when the corn or soybeans are cut and removed and the sunlight gets to the ground, the cover crop already has a start. Aerial seeding is a very ‘green’ thing to do, and if it were widely practiced in Pennsylvania, it could have major environmental benefits.”
Rare in Pa. Although aerial agricultural applications such as crop dusting are widely practiced in the Midwest and South, according to Cauffman, they are relatively rare in Pennsylvania.
With the exception of spraying compounds to kill gypsy moth caterpillars, Keystone State residents rarely see airplanes involved in crop work.
“There are just a few farms in central Pennsylvania using aerial seeding of cover crops,” said Gwendolyn Crews, a soil conservationist with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service based in Mill Hall.
“We do have some programs that promote planting cover crops in general, but not aerial seeding. Planting cover crops offers an environmental benefit by preventing erosion through the winter and spring, thus reducing the amount of sediment and nutrients, such as phosphorous, that reach local streams. Aerial seeding is just a unique way of accomplishing the benefit.”
Winter wheat. This fall, Penn State will be aerial seeding winter wheat on 100 acres of corn and soybeans about two miles northeast of the University Park campus in Centre County.
Pilot Rudy Vrbanic of Vrbanic Aerial Seeding, based in Indiana, Pa. – flying a specially designed 1966 Piper Pawnee aircraft – is handling the job for the university. He has been doing aerial seeding for 27 years, with the same airplane built in Lock Haven.
He also does aerial fertilization (especially top dressing of wheat) and gypsy moth caterpillar spraying.
Vrbanic is aware that his work is often viewed as entertainment by Pennsylvanians who usually don’t get to see aerial agricultural applications.
“I am only making money when I am seeding, so every move – every turn – the plane makes has a purpose,” he said with a chuckle. “I realize some folks enjoy watching what they believe are low-level aerobatics, but it’s just part of the job.”
No-brainer. From an ecological point of view, cover crops are a no-brainer, according to Sjoerd Duiker, associate professor of soil management.
The more farmers can keep living plant roots in the soils, he believes, the better. Cover crops fill a hole in the crop rotation.
“We try to remedy having bare soil from November to May,” he says. “Growing roots help to improve soil structure and stimulate microbial activity. So the soil improves and there is less erosion.”
Cover crops are especially needed, Duiker points out, on dairy farm fields, where farmers periodically apply liquid manure over the winter months.
“It is much better to apply manure on living vegetation than on bare soil,” he said. Cover crops actively take up nutrients, prevent nitrates and other nutrients from leeching into ground water and reduce the runoff of excess nutrients.” Duiker would like to see more aerial seeding of cover crops in Pennsylvania.
“It’s not done on a large scale here, and there are not many service providers around because there’s not a great demand,” he said. “Penn State is trying to set an ecological example in this case.”
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