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By Fay Benson


Image courtesy of Fay Benson

As the government moves away from disaster payments and programs, New York farmers are increasing their reliance on crop insurance to take some of the risk out of their cropping enterprises. During the period between 2007 and 2017, liabilities covered by New York farmers increased by 46% according to the USDA Risk Management Agency (RMA) Summary of Business Records.

In order for farmers to take advantage of crop insurance, certain records are necessary. To determine insurance coverage, all insurance policies have three main components:

  1. Number of units protected: Acres, Bushels, Tons, etc.
  2. Guaranteed price per unit
  3. Actual Production History (APH) for the crop on your farm

Once these are established a “guaranteed” amount of coverage is determined. The most time consuming record required is the APH, because in order to determine the APH database, a farm needs four years of yield records for that crop on their farm.

Without the four years of acceptable records farmers can still participate with crop insurance, but they will have to use their county’s average yields for their production history. County average yields are almost always lower than a farmer’s actual production. For each year the farmer creates an acceptable record of production, they can replace a year of the county average. RMA uses the term T-Yields for county averages. Your county’s T-Yields can be found by using the Cost Estimator tool on RMA’s website.

Acceptable Third-Party Sales and/or Commercial Storage Records

For all crops, acceptable third-party sales and/or commercial storage records must contain the following: Name and address of the buyer or the commercial storage facility, insured’s name, load or ticket number, crop, gross weight, tare weight, date weighed, and unit and/or field identification from which the production was harvested.

Production Harvested and Stored on the Farm

The producer/farmer (insured) is responsible for providing separate records of production for each unit that is stored and notifying the insurance company for measurement when production from another unit, crop year, or uninsured acreage is to be added to existing production in a single storage structure.

For weights, acceptable scale types are non-portable on-farm scales, commercial elevator scales, or grain carts. Each ticket must provide at least the insured’s name, crop, the gross weight, tare, date weighed, load number, identification and location of farm-storage structure in which the load(s) from each field are stored. The insured must hand-write any of the required information listed if the scale being used is not capable of printing a ticket or the required information.

To help with this last record keeping option, contact your Cornell Cooperative Extension Office for a free “New York Crop Insurance Education Program” – Crop Production Record Book.

For More Information

Fay Benson is an extension specialist with Cornell University’s South Central NY Regional Team, and can be reached at

This blog post originally appeared on the South Central NY Dairy & Field Crops Team blog. Cornell University delivers crop insurance education in New York State in partnership with the USDA, Risk Management Agency. This material is funded in partnership by USDA, Risk Management Agency, under award number RM18RMETS524C018.

cows field organic farm tompkins county ny

An organic farm in Tompkins County, NY.
Photo by Fay Benson

A new web-based tool will help dairy producers evaluate various scenarios using different coverage levels through the new Dairy Margin Coverage (DMC) program.

The DMC is a voluntary risk management program that offers financial protection to dairy producers when the difference between the all milk price and the average feed cost (the margin) falls below a certain dollar amount selected by the producer. It was authorized in the 2018 Farm Bill, and replaces the program previously known as the Margin Protection Program for Dairy. Sign up opens on June 17 for the DMC program of the USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA).

“With sign-up for the DMC program just weeks away, we encourage producers to use this new support tool to help make decisions on participation in the program,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a press release. “Dairy producers have faced tough challenges over the years, but the DMC program should help producers better weather the ups and downs in the industry.”

According to the USDA, the tool was designed to help producers determine the level of coverage that provides them the strongest financial safety net. Producers can use the tool to calculate total premiums costs and administrative fees associated with participation in DMC. The tool also forecasts payments made during the coverage year.

The tool was developed in partnership with the University of Wisconsin.

“The new Dairy Margin Coverage program offers very appealing options for all dairy farmers to reduce their net income risk due to volatility in milk or feed prices,” Dr. Mark Stephenson, Director of Dairy Policy Analysis, University of Wisconsin, Madison, said in the same press release. “Higher coverage levels, monthly payments, and more flexible production coverage options are especially helpful for the sizable majority of farms who can cover much of their milk production with the new five million pound maximum for Tier 1 premiums. This program deserves the careful consideration of all dairy farmers.”

For more information, access the tool at For DMC sign up, eligibility and related program information, visit or contact your local USDA Service Center. To locate your local FSA office, visit

Cooperative Extension Dairy Update

By Timothy Terry

Cornell Cooperative Extension Harvest New York farm planning specialist Tim Terry helped a Wyoming County, N.Y. farm plan an $800,000 multi-year project that will include a new dairy barn with a robotic milking system, bunker silo and earthen ag waste storage pond.
R.J. Anderson / Cornell Cooperative Extension

Despite the economic concerns stemming from several years of low farm gate prices of milk, some New York dairy operations have adopted a proactive approach by investing in farm improvements to increase efficiency, cow comfort, overall animal welfare, and, ultimately, milk quality.

Cornell Cooperative Extension Harvest New York Farm Strategic Planning Specialist, Tim Terry, was instrumental in the planning phases for an $800,000 (estimated) multi-year project in Wyoming County which includes a new dairy barn with a robotic milking system for ~250 Jersey cows, a bunker silo, and an earthen ag waste storage pond. Once populated, the new barn will relieve current overcrowding issues and will contribute to improved cow comfort and overall farm health.

Robotic milking systems remove much of the labor, reducing the potential for human error. Abnormal and/or unsaleable milk from cows undergoing treatment therapies is automatically diverted and sequestered apart from saleable milk, ensuring high bacteria counts or antibiotics will not enter the food stream.

The new bunker silo with a silage leachate collection system and the ag waste storage pond will protect environmental quality through collection and containment of nutrients until they can be properly applied to crops. This recycles the nutrients and significantly decreases the likelihood of runoff and subsequent contamination of water resources.

Tim Terry is a farm strategic planning specialist for CCE’s Harvest NY agricultural economic development team.

A Profit Team Case Study

Tim walking the field at Featherbed Lane Farm.

Featherbed Lane Farm is a diversified vegetable operation offering a full-year CSA to members. The farm is also home to a flock of hens that produces eggs for CSA members, and two draft horses, Bear and Duke, who support production. Sited on 60 acres of mixed woods, wetlands and fields, the farm is located in Ballston Spa, NY. In 2017, it served 45 full-year CSA members, with a goal of scaling up in 2018 to provide for 75 members.

Owner Tim Biello began planning for his farm business in 2010. Like many farmers, it took time to find the right property. Tim searched for about five years before landing in Ballston Spa. During that time, he explored a variety of strategies to secure financing, which led him to work with The Local Farms Fund. The Local Farms Fund would buy a property outright, with a lease-to-own arrangement and an option to purchase the site five years later. After four years of searching while keeping the draft horses on other properties, Tim either needed to find them a permanent home or sell the team. Not wanting to sell, he set a motto: “bringing home the team in 2015.” That same year, Tim found a place that met both the business and personal goals he had set forward, and Featherbed Lane Farm was launched.

Profit Team Project Overview

Bear and Duke moving the Hen House.

With a strong focus on securing land for the business, Tim’s profit team project encompassed two efforts. Tim explained, “One was to help really plan for buying the farm and… for putting together a conservation easement that would be part of protecting that land long term as well as making it more affordable for me in the current time.” He continued to explain that “the second part of the project ended up coming back to one of my original goals which was to work with a consultant to help me update and better understand my numbers to be able to use them more effectively for decision making.”

To apply for a conservation easement, Tim worked with the land trust, Saratoga PLAN, and an attorney to complete the necessary paperwork. This helped him identify language and strategies to ensure long-term preservation of the land, while considering the needs of current and future farmers. In focusing on finances, he collaborated with a business consultant to help evaluate scenarios for finances leading up to the purchase of his property. Developing these financial metrics helped Tim plan for the present and the future of the farm. In reflection, he noted that while he had started this type of analysis on his own, this project provided an opportunity to work with “somebody who had a lot more expertise looking at farm financial numbers to help me streamline how I kept records … to better understand if my business was succeeding or not.”

Unlike many other profit teams, there was little change in the goals of Tim’s project from start to finish. He attributed this to a lot of planning, but also acknowledged that it simply was the logical course forward for operational stability.


As of 2018, Tim is near to closing on an easement and has a much clearer picture of current and future finances. These two efforts have helped Tim position the farm so that he can soon shift his attention towards investments to infrastructure and operations.

The conservation easement will preserve the property in the long term and reduce costs for rent and a future mortgage. This was taken into account when deciding to

acquire the property and will be a component of making the land affordable for Tim to purchase.

In planning ahead for purchase in 2020, Tim also met with a consultant to review and update financial projections. He explained that it can be particularly tough for new farms, stating “we’re getting to a stage where we might move into the black soon, but it’s all thin margins.” He continued to explain that there are a lot of costs with farm start-up and sometimes farm income does not allow for a wide margin of error. Therefore clearly projecting costs and revenues, and establishing strong financial management systems is very important.

A Closer Look at Conservation Easements

Tim and his son, Finnegan, with Tory and Toni, the CSA Manager and Farm Assistant, at a CSA pickup

Through an ongoing search for land, Tim explored many methods to secure funding. Ultimately, he determined that the best approach for his farm was a lease-to-own agreement with the Local Farms Fund, and pursuing a conservation easement on the farmland to make the purchase more affordable.

What, specifically, is a conservation easement? It is a farmland protection tool that prevents farmland from being developed. One of the purposes of the program in New York State (NYS) is to protect viable agricultural lands and conserve the land for agricultural use forever.

In considering protecting one’s land with a conservation easement, the first step is to find a land trust or municipality to work with. The land trust or municipality will hold the easement and ensure that the terms of the easement are carried out. Through his project, Tim worked with his local land trust and briefly with the town, due to some restrictions in the NYS program. In the end, the land trust was able to hold the easement and further work with the town was not pursued.

In exchange for the easement, a land owner is paid for the value of the development rights of the property. The money for this in New York is often provided through a state grant. For a beginning farmer like Tim, the payment for the development rights will make the farm more affordable in the short and long-term. Money received from the payment will be applied to the principle on the Local Farms Fund’s mortgage, reducing rent costs for Tim. When the option to buy is available in 2020, Tim will then have to borrow significantly less money for a mortgage.

Although conservation easements offer a number of benefits, there are some considerations one should keep in mind before pursuing this option. It is important to note that one should make sure the terms of the easement are compatible with your goals for the farm. To navigate this process, and develop language that supports these goals, it is recommended to consult with a knowledgeable attorney. One should also keep in mind that only a few easements are issued per year, and the process can take up to several years. Properties must also be located in an agricultural district to be eligible.

Strategies for Success

Veggies at the Featherbed Lane Farm CSA pickup

Tim’s business planning strategies can be applied at other farm operations.

  • Stay focused. From the project’s initiation, Tim had identified that he wanted to pursue a conservation easement and evaluate financials for future farm planning. His laser-like focus has carried this strategy forward, and Tim is now closer to realizing the success of these efforts.
  • Use supporting data to make clear decisions. In working with a consultant to review finances, Tim was able to enhance existing projections about business goals. Based on this information, he held-off on making large financial investments in infrastructure and focused on securing the property first. He noted that if he had more time and funding, he would also like to work with a consultant to evaluate pricing for the CSA. Similar to his overall farm approach, he has tracked labor hours and builds on past knowledge to set share prices. He pointed out that bringing in an outside perspective might, however, offer a different way to interpret the data that informs his decisions.
  • Follow a phased approach for planning. Since finding the property in 2015, Tim has focused on securing a conservation easement for Featherbed Lane Farm. Once he purchases the property, he indicated that he would like to next focus on enhancing the site’s infrastructure. A new multi-purpose building could provide space for an indoor packing area, a CSA pick-up, and more. While this would improve efficiency and comfort, Tim has recognized the need to follow a step-by-step process, first securing property, and then enhancing infrastructure.

Information for this case study was collected in February 2018. For more information about the Profit Team Project, please visit  This project was a collaboration of the Cornell Small Farms Program, NY Farm Viability Institute, and NY FarmNet, and made possible with funding from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, under award number 2015-70017-22882.

New Events Series for Veterans

Now that the Northeast is beginning to warm from the winter months, the Cornell Small Farms Program team is preparing for an exciting series of events to support veterans in agriculture. Farm OPS, a project of the Cornell Small Farms Program, will be providing series of training workshops for veterans interested in agriculture. Opportunities include two week-long intensives that cover a wide range of agricultural enterprises, single-day focused classes, as well as connecting participating veterans to additional regional training opportunities, print material, and online resources tailored to each individual’s interests.

Specific topics in this series will include: mushroom production, high tunnel growing, soil health, pasture management, greenhouse management, maple syrup production. There will be additional 5-day intensive sessions for those preparing, or beginning, to launch a farm business enterprise. The events will begin this Spring and run through the year. Events will be held at the EquiCenter Farm in Mendon, NY, unless otherwise specified.

Veterans interested in these programs can visit the FarmOPS project page for more information, including eligibility requirements and event registration:


Mushroom Program Expands

Since 2010, the Cornell Small Farms Program has been offering research and extension support to those interested in cultivation specialty mushrooms. While the focus has been primarily on outdoor methods of production, recent funding has opened the door for the program to expand and incorporate indoor growing methods as well.

The project, led by extension educators Steve Gabriel and Yolanda Gonzalez, is working with a number of collaborating organizations including Fungi Ally, Harvest NY, GrowNYC, Just Food, and FarmSchool NYC, to develop resources and training for both rural and urban mushroom growers.

Over the next few years, team members will prototype production systems and develop economic models based on a 40ft shipping container, simulating a small-scale production facility and collecting quantitative and qualitative data to optimize mushroom yields and economic potential, minimize time and energy expenses, and resolve management and labor constraints. In tandem, local market assessments at multiple scales will articulate the market potential through new enterprise budget tools for farmers. Finally, the project aims to develop curriculum and train service providers to grow a network of support for growers as the industry grows.

Updates on the project and suite of resources including guidebooks and videos can be found at


Local and Regional Food Systems Initiative

The Cornell Local and Regional Food System (LRFS), is a complementary initiative lead by staff from SFP that is university wide, given that a vibrant local food system engages individuals beyond agriculture, with interests such as culinary science, rural development, arts, humanities and the law.

LRFS is dedicated to elevating the visibility of research, extension and practice on campus and in New York communities. The initiative also works to support collaboration within this work, with the express goal of increasing the impact of these efforts for individuals and communities.

One recent achievement of LRFS is the launch of a new Farm to School (F2S) Program Work Team. Hosted by Cornell Cooperative Extension, Program Work Teams are “groups of faculty and staff, extension educators, and external stakeholders who collaborate to identify issues, study needs, and create educational materials.” This new F2S work team will help to connect and support those working to advance farm to school in New York through research and education, shared learning, collaboration and peer support. The work team recently made available a list of F2S support service providers, compiled to serve as a public resource to anyone that needs assistance.

An ongoing project of LRFS is the monthly newsletter, which shares the initiative’s work, related news, recent publications, job opportunities, and upcoming events. A feature of this newsletter is profiles of researchers and educators focused on local and regional food systems. The LRFS website features more than 50 profiles, and further highlights existing efforts.

Learn more about the initiative at and subscribe to the newsletter for regular updates.


Farm Management Master Classes

The Cornell Small Farms Program’s “Labor Ready Farmer” project works to ensure that new farmers and advancing employees in our region can access high-quality information, supportive networks and proven tactics essential to effective management of labor. These efforts support new farmers scaling up and Latino agricultural employees to move up the ladder of management on existing farms.

In March, the project hosted two hands-on “Farm Management Master Classes” in Eastern and Western NY. These two-day intensive workshops gave farm owners and managers the skills they need to effectively hire, train and supervise farm employees.

Included in the two-day workshops were sessions on:

  • Moving from Individual Performer to Supervisor, which helped attendees identify the skills needed to be a great supervisor of people, and how to develop and apply those skills on their farm.
  • Overview of Labor Laws Affecting Farm Managers, which covered the key programs and identify resources to help stay in compliance.
  • Onboarding New Employees, where attendees learned to create an employee onboarding program with clearly assigned responsibilities, designed training experiences, full regulatory compliance, and basic evaluation.
  • Performance Management, which covered effective communication, developing training and assessment programs that get employees off to a good start.

The workshops were led by Richard Stup, director of the Cornell University Ag Workforce Development Program. Richard focuses on human resource management, enhancing employee engagement, regulatory compliance, and leadership development at the farm level.


A Discussion of African Diasporic Wisdom for Farming and Food Justice

Recently the Cornell Small Farms Program welcomed Leah Penniman to campus to lead a seminar describing her work, as well as her newly published book, “Farming While Black.”

Farmer, educator, food justice activist, and now writer, Leah is well known in the New York farming community as the co-founding of Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, NY. Soul Fire Farm was established in 2011 with a powerful mission to end racism in the food system and reclaim ancestral connection to the earth. Soul Fire Farm has acted as a hub for learning and farm training, offers sliding cost CSA, and supports youth food justice leadership. Soul Fire Farm works in collaboration with a large-scale movement to take back Afro-Indigenous land stewardship knowledge and promote equality within the food system.

“Farming While Black, extends that work by offering the first comprehensive manual for African-heritage people ready to reclaim our rightful place of dignified agency in the food system,” Leah said of her new book.

During the seminar, Leah talked about her book and the intersectionality between race and food issues. There was also a panel discussion addressing questions about racial inequality in the food system as well as more general food justice topics. The panel was composed of Cornell Small Farms Program director Anu Rangarajan, Development Sociology Professor Scott Peters, Natural Resources Professor Shorna Allred, and local farmer and advocate Raphael Aponte.

This seminar was jointly sponsored by the Cornell Small Farms Program, Minorities in Agriculture Natural Resources, and Related Science, School of Integrative Plant Science, Center for Conservation Social Sciences, and Cornell Community Food Systems Minor.

You can learn more by watching the seminar online at

Cooperative Extension Dairy Update

By Kimberley Morrill

Even through the winter months, cows can deal with the long-term consequences of heat stress.
R.J. Anderson / Cornell Cooperative Extension

Heat stress, heat stress, heat stress. I think that was the hot topic this summer and every dairy farmer had to deal with it, whether it was in the lactating cows, dry cows, calves or people. I had more phone calls this summer about heat stroke in calves, then combined for the past seven years. While we may be enjoying the cooler fall temperatures (the cows are too), we are still overcoming challenges related to this summer’s heat.

As August came to a close and September rolled in, we had one last round of heat. For some cows (and calves), this was too much. I had many farms report that the last bout of heat was the hardest. It was shorter in duration then that in early July, but the cows took a hard hit, and many didn’t recover. This led to phone calls asking what’s going on, why this time? Cows are like humans; they can only handle so much stress before they crash. Heat stress is an additional stressor to the animal. When multiple stressors are present (overcrowding in pens and at the feed-bunk, social changes, routine changes, feed changes…) they lead to compounding negative results. For some cows, the last bout of heat stress was the tipping point. Many farms chose to dry cows off early, while some had to cull cows and others decided the best option was euthanasia. This unplanned change in inventory (both lactating and youngstock) can have longer term implications as it changes the herd makeup. Farmers are now looking at having an overcrowded dry cow pen, decreased overall milk production, and a potential need to purchase animals due to animals that were culled or euthanized. Additionally, many farmers are still dealing with the longer-term consequences of heat stress, especially when it comes to calves.


“Weird bugs” That was the phase a farmer used to describe what was affecting his calves. “It’s like pneumonia, but it’s not and we can’t stay ahead of it”.

While we can plan to be pro-active for next summer, we need to be reactive NOW.

  • Identify calves that were born during the summer, particularly those born during the heat waves.
  • Identify calves that have been treated for pneumonia – this should be done for all calves.
    • This can be as simple as making a notch on the eartag. If you keep records on DC 305 it’s very simple to add pneumonia as an event.
  • Monitor growth rates. Are the calves born during heat stress keeping up?
    • While knowing average daily gains would be great, not all farms routinely weight calves. It’s important to have an estimate as to how big the calves should be at weaning, at different pen moves and ages.
    • If heat stressed calves are not keeping up with cohorts that should be evaluated for potential culling.
  • Identify poor “do-ers”. While there is no definition for “off-calf”, it’s a phrase that is used a lot. And many farmers can think of at least one animal that “looked off” this past summer.
    • Keep track of your “off-calf”. She might not have had pneumonia (or another diagnosable condition) but heat stress both in-utero and after birth can lead to a compromised immune system.
  • Now evaluate your animals and cull some animals. Is that “off-calf” smaller than her cohorts? Has a calf been treated for respiratory issues 2 or 3 times? While no one likes selling heifer calves, if they are compromised and at risk of not going becoming a productive cow, they should be culled earlier rather than later.

Lactating Cows:

  • Heat detection, conception rate and pregnancy all took a hit this summer and many are still recovering. From a re-active standpoint there is not a lot we can do to fix this. We can be more stringent on heat detection, focus on a synch program…but all of these practices will take time to show an effect on heat detection, pregnancy & conception rate and we are potentially left with a hole in our inventory.


  • For some farms, the losses were minimal, and for some they were large. It’s always important to keep a tags on your herd inventory. Not just how many animals you have, but how many animals across stages of lactation, how many cows and heifers are due each month? Are you going to be able to meet your herd goals, or do you need to look at purchasing some animals?  Herd projections can be done on DC 305, and there are many herd inventory calculators available online.

While we are being re-active this fall and winter taking care of animals, and making some hard decisions we can also be pro-active for next year. While working on your 2019 operating budget, have discussions about purchasing more fans, curtains, sprinklers, etc. Look at your inventory projections and determine if any pens will be overcrowded in June through August. Should you depopulate, or can you move animals to a different pen? What group of animals was hardest hit on your farm, and what management changes could be made before next year? Should you make a management decision not to breed cows in November so you don’t have calves born in August? Should you invest in an activity monitoring system? These are all potential topics to review and have some discussion on at a profit team meeting, with your industry consultants or Extension specialists.

Kim Morrill is a dairy management specialist with CCE’s North Country Regional Agriculture Team.

Julie Suarez, associate dean of governmental and community relations in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), joined the podcast to discuss the farm bill’s potential impact on areas such as New York’s dairy industry, urban farming, industrial hemp and research.

By R.J. Anderson

Cornell Cooperative Extension’s new season of the “Extension Out Loud” podcast unpacks the 2018 Farm Bill, which legalized the growth of hemp and made distribution of seeds and products easier for New York growers.
R.J. Anderson / Cornell Cooperative Extension

With the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 – also known as the farm bill – signed into law, the new season of Cornell Cooperative Extension’s (CCE) “Extension Out Loud” podcast series kicks off by unpacking what the $867 billion legislation means for New York state farmers.

In the first episode of season 3, Julie Suarez, associate dean of governmental and community relations in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), joins CCE hosts Katie Baildon and Paul Treadwell to discuss the farm bill’s potential impact on areas such as New York’s dairy industry, urban farming, industrial hemp and research.

For Suarez, the most surprising inclusion in the bill was the creation of a new urban agriculture initiative within the USDA.

“This comes also with the creation of a new research and extension awards program that’s really going to focus on facilitating growth of urban farming and emerging crops,” Suarez said. “Cornell CALS has a lot of ties with urban growers already. Many of our urban growers are in fact Cornell CALS alumni, which is a wonderful thing.”

Another focus is on beginning farmers; funds have been added to the USDA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development program as well as the veterans program. “We need to make sure we’re recruiting new people into the industry,” Suarez said, “and some of those programs will really help us going forward.”

Increased funding for advanced agricultural research and development was also an exciting inclusion, Suarez said: “The goal is to take ag science to the next level – what is the ‘moonshot’ in agricultural technology? It’s really focusing on innovative technology research to solve some of the pressing problems of the day.”

Suarez’s other takeaways include:

  • The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) as well as the SNAP Education program, with which CCE has been very much engaged, remains largely intact.
  • The new farm bill should provide some better risk management options for dairy farmers, particularly medium-sized to larger operations.
  • Legalization of the growth and sale of industrial hemp, which will allow for the sale of products across state lines, makes New York growers poised to meet industry demand and will create opportunities for food entrepreneurs.

Season 3 of “Extension Out Loud” features conversations on urban agriculture in New York City and Buffalo and maple production trends.

“Extension Out Loud” is recorded and produced by CCE administrative staff on Cornell’s Ithaca campus. Full episodes, descriptions and transcripts of each episode can be found online at SoundCloud or on iTunes by searching “Extension Out Loud.”

R.J. Anderson is a communications specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension.

Cooperative Extension Dairy Update

By Mary Kate Wheeler

In her first year with Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE), Mary Kate Wheeler, a farm business management specialist with CCE’s South Central NY Dairy & Field Crops Program, learned a lot – including how to deliver a calf.
R.J. Anderson / Cornell Cooperative Extension

If there is one thing I’ve learned since starting my job, it’s that dairy farms are incredible businesses. Farmers manage people, land, equipment, infrastructure, and, of course, animals. Their complex and dynamic production systems generate milk rich in protein and butterfat, which is hauled to one of several regional plants for processing.

Despite the gloomy economic aura hovering around the dairy industry, the level of production across our six counties remains as impressive as ever. According to numbers from the NYS Department of Agriculture and Markers, dairy farms in our 6-county region managed more than 53,000 cows in 2017. In just one month of 2017, our 310 dairy farms produced 127 million pounds of milk, enough to feed 2.4 million people.

Regardless of their remarkable management and production levels, dairy farmers are facing immense personal and financial stress. After three years of low milk prices, farms are encountering cash flow constraints, even after having implemented cost-cutting measures. September is a time for difficult family conversations if parents are forced to choose between paying bills for the dairy and buying back-to-school clothing and supplies for their children.

Some farm families that I’ve spoken with are questioning their decision to continue milking. I’ve heard families articulate a desire to keep farming, but also improve their quality of life. Some people feel stuck and don’t know how or what to change. Others express feeling isolated and forgotten. One farmer with a 500-cow dairy called me the other day to share his frustration that “it feels like we don’t matter anymore” to political officials or consumers.

If we could find a silver lining in the current context, it would be that many farmers are open to reexamining their goals and values, and considering new ideas. This makes for an exciting time to enter the field of agricultural extension, especially as a farm business management specialist. From my vantage point, I see great value in supporting farmers to use sound financial analysis as a foundation for making decisions and implementing changes, both on their farms and in their lives.

Mary Kate Wheeler is a farm business management specialist with CCE’s South Central NY Dairy & Field Crops Program.

The Cornell-led New York Soil Health Initiative has just released its Soil Health Roadmap, which identifies ways farmers and land managers can adopt better soil health practices.

By Kitty Gifford

Soil at a cover crop demo event co-hosted by the Cornell Soil Health Program and the American Farmland Trust.
Jenn Thomas-Murphy / Cornell Soil Health Program

There is a revolution of sorts going on in farming today, triggered by discoveries in plant and soil ecology, and a recognition that we will need to restore the health of our soils to feed an expanding population.

New York has been a leader in this soil health revolution, but where do we go from here? This is the focus of the recently released New York Soil Health Roadmap, a collaborative effort of the New York Soil Health (NYSH) initiative coordinated by Cornell.

The roadmap identifies key policy, research and education efforts to overcome barriers to adoption of soil health practices by farmers. It also identifies strategies for integrating soil health goals with state priorities focused on environmental issues such as climate change and water quality.
Roadmap contributors developed four goals for advancing soil health. The goals include overcoming barriers to wider adoption of soil health practices, and the integration of climate change adaptation and mitigation in all aspects of soil health programming.
As a resource for policymakers, researchers, farmers and those concerned about healthy food and a healthy environment, the roadmap comprises input from many individuals, organizations and government agencies in New York and nationally. It is intended to help expand soil health policy, research and outreach efforts to reach New York’s underserved.

“This roadmap highlights the linkages between soil, water and air quality,” said David Wolfe, Cornell professor of plant and soil ecology and leader of the project. “It was impressive to see how such a diverse group of stakeholders was able to find consensus on a few key goals that address some of our most urgent environmental challenges while supporting the long term success of our farms.”

It is ultimately farmers and other land managers who must make adjustments – which could be costly and/or risky – in order to rebuild healthy soils, according to Wolfe. The roadmap discusses the results of a 2018 New York farmer survey focused on economic issues, and found that while some benefits can take years to be fully realized, others – such as avoiding soil-erosion losses with cover crops, and reducing fuel and labor costs by reducing tillage – can pay off in the near term for the farmer.

“We need to get in front of soil health or we’ll fall behind, and we’re not going to like the dust that gets kicked up,” said Donn Branton, who farms 1,500 acres of grain crops and vegetables in Stafford, New York. Branton gave up traditional tillage on his farm in 1988, and incorporates other conservation practices, including cover crops and nutrient and drainage management.

Farmers in New York are facing uncertainty about the climate and extreme weather events. Increasing soil organic matter – a key to soil health – improves resilience to both drought and flooding, and stores carbon in the soil that would otherwise be in the air as carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas.

Healthy soils are also less prone to soil erosion and nutrient runoff during heavy rainfall, reducing an economic loss for farmers while protecting the water quality of streams and lakes.

New York Soil Health’s vision is to strengthen the state’s leading role in soil health research, outreach and policy with effective partnerships. In 2018, NYSH hosted a soil health summit in Albany to gather input from stakeholders. The summit brought together experts from 35 organizations to discuss shared agricultural and environmental interests and form solutions.

Attendees considered the unique features of New York agriculture, which is dominated by mixed animal-crop dairy farms as well as economically important fruit and vegetable crops. New York ranks among the biggest producers in the nation for many of these crops.

“After working on this roadmap for over a year, I’m more optimistic than ever about the sustainability of New York’s diverse agriculture,” said Wolfe, a faculty fellow at Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. “We not only have innovative farmers rebuilding their soils, but also a wide range of allies, from consumers to policymakers, who are ready to support them.”

Kitty Gifford provides communications support for the New York Soil Health Project. She can be reached at

This article also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.

Researchers working on reduced tillage take opaque tarps, simple and affordable tools with the potential to reduce tillage, to farms in the Finger Lakes Region and Hudson Valley to test their usability on real farms.

By Haley Rylander and Kelsie Raucher

The Cornell Small Farms Program is working to find effective ways to reduce tillage on small farms throughout New York State through the Reduced Tillage project. Based at the Homer C. Thompson Research Farm in Freeville, NY, Small Farms Program staff Ryan Maher and Brian Caldwell have spearheaded the project for four years.

Tackling reduced tillage means finding alternative strategies to manage weeds. Weeds are problematic for small and large farms alike. Tillage can be an effective strategy for elimination of weeds, but can also damage soil health. Frequent and deep tillage can degrade soil structure over time, decreasing soil organic matter and moisture content and increasing erosion.

A strategy to combat weeds while maintaining soil health is using tarps. Tarping has become increasingly popular among small-scale farmers and can be used for a period of a few weeks in the spring to prepare a seedbed for planting, several months over-winter, or intermittently in the growing season. An article in the Spring 2018 Quarterly synthesized many benefits of tarping after several years of trials in Freeville.

Tarp Trials in Freeville, Local Farms

Over the past two years research trials in Freeville, NY, as well as in Long Island and Maine, have looked into the impact of tarps on the soil, weed pressure, and yield of direct-seeded beets. While crop and weed residue were not degraded by tarps in these experiments, soil nitrate concentrations increased significantly, and there were no living weeds present under tarps of any duration. Tarped plots kept lower weed pressure for two weeks, and at the end of the season, tarped plots had almost no perceptible difference between tillage treatments for beet yield or weed pressure, whereas untarped plots had significant differences between tillage treatments.

These trials with beets show benefits of tarp use, but are these results generalizable to working farms? Cornell University master’s student, Haley Rylander, partnered with small farms throughout New York State to observe the functionality of tarp use.

Haley worked with several farms in the Finger Lakes region, and found positive results and feedback from area farmers. The incorporation of tarping into their farming systems was a learning curve, but the local farmers found weed suppression and better regulated soil moisture as benefits making tarp use worthwhile.

Centurion Farm

Jeff Saeli (Centurion Farm) lays tarps on the soil in the fall to protect the soil and preserve his planting bed over the winter.
Kacey Deamer / Cornell Small Farms Program

Locke, NY is home to Centurion Farm owned by Nina and Jeff Saeli. The Saelis had not used tarps previously, but found increased soil moisture in tarped beds compared with bare soil, and some reduction in weed pressure.

They planted two crops to compare the impact of tarp use: dry beans and onions. The onion beds were prepared the previous fall, tarped for 3-4 weeks in spring, and then planted into (without further bed preparation) as soon as the tarps were removed. Since onions were planted early, the tarps went on early. Therefore, the ground underneath the tarp did not heat up as much as other trials.

Tarps were applied later for the dry beans. The difference in soil moisture between tarped and untarped beds was more noticeable in the bean plots. In addition to soil moisture, Nina and Jeff found that the untarped bean plots had significantly more weeds.

“Even though it hasn’t shown to be successful to help us reduce our tillage because it’s too early, I can tell you that the weed suppression alone makes the tarp worth it,” Nina said. “When I timed myself when I weeded, on the tarped beans, it literally took me more time to walk the beds to look for weeds than it took me to actually weed. And if there was a weed, it was something that just got snapped up easy with a linear hoe.”

Nina and Jeff said they will be using tarps next growing season. They hope to be able to reduce tillage as they create systems with tarp use. A strategy they have for managing the heavy tarps is to cut their 50’x40’ tarps in half to make folding and handling of the tarps easier.

Muddy Fingers Farm

Liz Martin (Muddy Fingers Farm) lifts a tarp to show how tarps preserve moisture in the soil and kill weeds by cutting off light.
Kacey Deamer / Cornell Small Farms Program

Liz Martin and Matthew Glenn own Muddy Fingers Farm in Hector, NY. They tarped their beds 4-5 weeks before planting beets and found that the tarps retained soil moisture better on their farm as well. Their tarped and untarped beds received the same amount of water throughout the season, yet the plants in the tarped beds had much better stand counts.

Tarps were also useful for weed suppression. The beds were tilled before placing the tarps, and the ground had green weeds. When tarps were removed before planting, everything was dead leaving a fresh bed for planting.

Liz and Matthew use cover crops on their farm and have found that tarps can sometimes be used in place of a cover crop, or used to kill a cover crop before planting. They already try to reduce tillage, but have found that these methods help in reducing tillage within their system.

From a soil health standpoint, Liz recommends tarping. She says that tarping opens up options for farmers by bringing up earthworms and nutrients. While suggesting that everyone tries it if even only considering tarping, Liz cautions that planning ahead is crucial. Successfully implementing tarps requires that your planting schedule fits with a 4- to 6-week window of tarps being down.

Plowbreak Farm

Haley Rylander talks to Aaron Munzer (Plowbreak Farm) about his experience using tarps to effectively suppress perennial weeds, such as quackgrass, for a crop of mixed greens. Kacey Deamer / Cornell Small Farms Program

Perennial weed suppression has been a benefit of using tarps for Aaron Munzer and Cara Cusolito of Plowbreak Farm in Hector, NY. In their second year of using tarps, they said it’s better than any other tillage or control methods that they’ve tested for perennial control. For Aaron and Cara, tarping has been especially helpful in establishing a new farm by combatting thistle and quackgrass.

Aaron and Cara prep their seedbeds before laying down the tarps, then plant directly into the beds after tarp removal. Although not a perfect solution, Aaron said tarping “does really wipe out the majority of the seed bank in the top strata of the soil.” Soil moisture was retained under their tarps, and soil life seemed undisturbed. Worms and bugs were able to survive while any living plant material under the tarp was killed.

Similar to Muddy Fingers Farm, Aaron states that tarping doesn’t add to the flexibility of his farm and requires planning. When not in use, tarps are rolled up on the edge of beds. Tarps are no silver bullet, but Aaron said tarping is “a tool in our tool belt of options to keep weeds down and to practice some reduced tillage.”

Rise and Root Farm

Weed pressure was so strong at Rise and Root Farm in the Hudson Valley, they had to weed whack around their beds, but a rolled-back tarp shows bare soil ready to plant in.
Jane Hodge / Rise and Root Farm

Tarps aren’t a new sight on the black dirt of Rise and Root Farm, but Jane Hodge, Karen Washington, and Michaela Hayes continue to reap the benefits of tarps on their Hudson Valley farm. They laid tarps for 3.5 weeks prior to planting dill, cilantro, and Thai basil. The tarped beds required no early-season weeding in comparison to the untarped beds, which required 2 hours of hand-weeding. Jane, Karen, and Michaela tilled before tarp application and used a broadfork after tarp removal to loosen soil due to severe compaction from earlier in the season.

Jane said the contrast between the soil under the tarps and the surrounding ground was striking.

“The bed underneath was weed free and ready to plant,” she said. “We actually had to weed whack around the bed because the surrounding weeds had gotten so out of control.

The trials in Freeville combined with area farms found increased soil moisture, elevated nitrate levels, weed suppression, and the ability to reduce tillage as benefits of adding tarping to your system.

For more information, contact Haley at or visit the project website at


Haley Rylander is a Masters student working on reduced tillage in organic vegetable systems. She was born and raised in Texas but has fallen in love with the beauty and culture of Central New York, and loves working with the vibrant and diverse community of farmers that lives and works there. 

Originally from Missouri, Kelsie is a junior at Cornell University pursuing a double major in Agricultural Sciences and Communication. She interns with the Cornell Small Farms Program where she worked on the Reduced Tillage in Vegetable Systems Project in Summer 2018 and currently enjoys her time in the office working on SFP Communications.

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