Fort Hill Farms – Thompson, CT
The Orr family of Thompson, Conn. is one of a growing number of farm families that are successfully making improvements without spending a lot of money.
A main focus has been to improve soil health on their farm, with the use of diversified cover crops and manure management to maximize forages to feed their herd of Holstein and Guernsey cattle.The Orr family is using every cost-effective measure to make their farm more #sustainable. #FarmerFriday @cabotcheese Click To Tweet
The farmland has supported farmers since the 17th century. Under the care of Peter and Kristin Orr, the farm is now locally famous for its lavender gardens, corn maze, and ice cream, in addition to its cover crop cocktail that feeds their 350 acres of corn.
The Orr family feels that economic, social and environmental gains come with these practices, the basic principles of sustainability.
What started the “Green” Approach?
Several years ago Peter attended a presentation offered by his local NRCS office on diversified cover cropping. Upon hearing about the concept of a soil microbiome benefitting from symbiotic relationships with different plant species, Peter adopted the concept of planting a cover crop cocktail. Different plant species support different organisms so you’re able to capture nutrients and recycle organics back into the soil, adding a biomass of nutrients for the corn crop.
Is cover cropping new to farming?
Peter explains that “Cover crops are not new, in fact, George Washington used cover crops on his plantation in Virginia. The new twist on the old story is to now make available nutrients that are unlocked due to each plant’s own unique relationship with micro flora and fauna in the soil.” Learn more about cover cropping with this video from the UVM Extension program that features Marie Audet from Blue Spruce Farm.
What are the results?
Peter notes that there are four obvious benefits:
- We have reduced the purchase of fertilizer (less external inputs) but maintained crop yields.
- By locking up nutrients in the field with a cover crop, we are less likely to see nutrients move or run off the field and the soil is also less likely to run off the field as well.
- We are producing high quality corn (forage and corn concentrate) and producing high quality milk
- We use our tillage equipment a lot less as approximately 50% of our 350 acres of corn are no-till rocky acres: big savings on time, wear and tear on people and equipment.
“As dairy farmers we not only feed our cows, but we feed their rumen (aka their digestive system) as well to maximize the growth of beneficial organisms in the rumen which translates into efficient milk production. By using this diversified cover crop approach, we are doing the same thing to the land. We are planting diverse cover crops that will help recycle nutrients from many soil sources and feed our corn crop. The corn crop is used for both silage and concentrate feeding (earlage) on the farm. Nearly 100% of the energy needs of the diets for the total herd of 500, with 250 mature cows come from our corn crop.”
How do you plant your cover crop cocktail?
“In the fall, after the corn is harvested, we plant a four-way mix of seeds – triticale, winter rye, tillage radishes, and red clover. This mix is our “green manure.” We then top dress the fields with manure from our herd and either incorporate the green biomass into the fields in the spring or no till directly into the green manure and use the appropriate weed control measures”.
Why is cover cropping important to you?
“We are cycling and recycling the nutrients on our farm; that is important to us. Nutrient recycling is one of the most important sustainable practices a farm can do, as it serves to steward the land. These practices save money, therefore creating short and long real value to the farm and at the same time are good for the environment and water quality.”
How have you been able to continue family farming over the generations?
“Commitment to core values by the farm stakeholders passed on and continued with the future in mind.”
Peter’s daughter, Kies participates in Agri-Mark’s Young Co-operator Program and feels that it is very important that Agri-Mark has such a program to help foster the next generation of farmers.
“The Agri-Mark’s YC Program is tremendous,” says Kies. “I learn a lot from the program and from interacting with other young farmers my age.”
Kies enjoys working on the family farm and embraces the responsibilities that go along with being a dairy farmer. If the farm is to be sustainable, the next generation, if there is one, must find a way to continue to take care of the cows and the land. Kies is proud to be the next generation on Fort Hill Farms.
What do you think is your greatest accomplishment on the farm?
“Contributing to a sustainable farming platform proportional to our resources.”
What prompted you to prioritize sustainability?
“Being able to achieve efficiencies with little expenditure.”
What advice would you give to other farmers who want to start cover cropping?
“Do it, and use a cocktail! Also ask around, there could be funding available to reward new sustainable practice adoption or recognition. The best place to start is by contacting your local soil health expert at USDA.”
What drives your passion for sustainability?
“Survival but also common sense.”
How do you see your own sustainability initiatives helping to inspire your fellow farmers?
“Better bottom line, with impacts across milk price cycles. And the public will like our dairy story even better!
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