Organic Grower Network Tours Milton Grain Farm

Posted: September 1, 2011

Organic milk, meat, poultry and eggs represent some of the fastest growing sectors of the organic market. Because agricultural feed ingredients in the diets of certified livestock must be organically produced, growth in the retail organic market has resulted in increasing demand for organic feed grains and forages, creating opportunities for Pennsylvania growers. Typically, there is a price premium for organic feed grains. In the past, prices for organic feed grains have reached 50 to 150% above conventional prices.
Recently planted alfalfa at the Jeremy Erb farm near Milton, PA.

Recently planted alfalfa at the Jeremy Erb farm near Milton, PA.

In late August, 2011, the Central Susquehanna Valley Organic Crop Growers Network toured the Jeremy Erb Farm near Milton, PA. The meeting was co-hosted by Columbia Co. Cooperative Extension Educator Dave Hartman. The Erb farm produces organic agronomic crops following a rotation of 2 to 3 years of alfalfa/grass, followed by corn, soybeans and fall-planted small grains, then back into fall-planted alfalfa/grass after small grain harvest on a total of 210 acres. The farm was certified organic in 2008.

From the alfalfa/grass mix, Erb produces large round wrapped bales for high quality forage mostly to support local (within 50 miles) organic dairy farms, with some going to Lancaster.  Jeremy prefers to plant hay in the fall, without oats, which compete with newly planted hay for moisture. He likes to plant in the fall because he has fewer weed problems than when he plants alfalfa in the spring. If conditions cause him to plant alfalfa in the spring, he uses a nurse crop of oats to compete with weeds. He finds that a couple of years of alfalfa/grass in the rotation, with its frequent cutting, provides weed control for the following row crops.

To establish his hay crop, Jeremy plants 18 – 20 lbs. of alfalfa plus 3 lbs. of grass. He experiments with the type of grass, and has used orchard grass, fescue, and timothy in the past. This year he tried festolium (also called festulolium;  a cross between meadow fescue/tall fescue and Italian/Annual ryegrass), but did not like it because it heads too quickly between cuttings and he prefers not to have seed heads in his hay. He uses some leafhopper resistant alfalfa varieties but finds that they do not consistently result in less leafhopper damage than non-tolerant varieties when insect pressure is high.  He manages leafhoppers and alfalfa weevil by cutting, typically 5 – 6 times per year. If he sees insect damage starting to occur, he cuts.

Hay making is usually a 2-day process for high quality. On the first day he mows wide and lets the hay lie flat and bales the next day. He finds that making hay over two days, as opposed to one day, results in higher sugar content.  The leaves need some moisture in them to pack tight for baleage, so Jeremy bales at night if the hay seems dry. He uses Silo-King® Special as a forage fermentation aid and preservative. Fermentation aids are designed to enhance the fermentation process, improve dry matter recovery, increase nutrient retention and improve bunk life while improving digestibility and palatability of forages and grains. 

Jeremy sells wrapped, round-baled hay off the farm along with the nutrients contained in the hay, so he pays close attention to soil fertility and plant nutrient tests. His fertility program includes a mineral amendment (Super Basic, 300 lbs./ac) and poultry manure (4 tons/ac). He watches potassium levels in his forage tests as an indicator of the need for potassium application. He also applies Photo Mag™ Plant Health Therapy (Advancing Eco-Agriculture, LLC), a foliar fertility amendment that contains magnesium, sulfur, boron, cobalt, and molybdenum.

Corn follows alfalfa in the rotation and is planted into tilled ground. Jeremy is currently growing 101- and 102-day organic varieties, which typically yield 170 bu/acre. For early season weed control, he uses an s-tine cultivator three times plus a cultipacker to conserve moisture.  He sells ear corn to grazing and organic dairies, mostly in Centre Co., and excess shell corn to Kreamer Seed. To estimate the price of ear corn, he figures that it is worth $30/ton for every $1/bu shell corn. For example, if shell corn is $10/bu, ear corn is $300/ton.

Soybean production is similar to corn, except if soil crusts early in the season, Jeremy will use a rotary hoe to break up the crust. He then cultivates every 10 days after planting until lay-by to reduce the weed population. Most of Jeremy’s soybeans were virtually weed-free. So clean that one farmer on the tour asked if Jeremy sends his kids out to pull weeds! Jeremy’s soybeans typically yield 50 – 55 bu/acre.

After the group had toured the field, Jeremy was asked to explain his reasons for and challenges associated with transition to organic. His main challenges include weed and leafhopper control, and not enough hours in the day during haymaking! Jeremy credits his neighbor and fellow organic crops network member, Bucky Ziegler, in helping him to decide to transition to organic. Jeremy’s father, who previously farmed the land, also influenced him because his tendency was to farm with practices consistent with organic production. Economics also influenced Jeremy’s decision to transition. He used conventional tillage to produce crops before transitioning to organic, and the price of inputs and tillage were continuously rising. Jeremy decided he needed to find a way to offset the rising costs of production associated with tillage. He tried no-till, but it wasn’t for him, so decided to try organic. He started by transitioning his home farm, followed by his rented ground.  One landowner, a beekeeper, requested that Jeremy transition the land he was renting from him to organic. Jeremy also enjoys being able to have his three young sons involved in more aspects of farming. He felt that when he was farming conventionally, and was working with chemicals or sprayers, that he had to tell his children to stay away, and he didn’t like the message that he was sending.

By Mary Barbercheck, Department of Entomology, Penn State