To improve the health of farm soils and help protect water quality, University of Vermont (UVM) Extension was awarded a two-year grant to work with farmers to reduce fall tillage in fields located in the St. Albans Bay of Lake Champlain.

The $102,154 grant is part of the Vermont Ecosystem Restoration Program, a competitive grant program administered by the state Agency of Natural Resources’ Department of Environmental Conservation. The project will be led by Dr. Heather Darby, a UVM Extension agronomist based in St. Albans.

Fall tillage has been a common farming practice throughout the U.S., especially in fields with clay soils that are slow to dry and are, therefore, difficult to work in the spring. However, fall tilling leaves the ground bare during the winter months, exposing these fields to erosion as well as to potential nutrient and sediment runoff that may end up in waterways.

Darby and her Northwest Crops and Soils Team have worked closely with farmers in the St. Albans Bay Watershed to discover strategies to reduce potential runoff from fields. Together they have identified a combination of cover cropping and reduced tillage that are effective practices that can improve the overall health of the soil and protect the surrounding watershed.

As part of this grant, the team will introduce and demonstrate new, low soil-disturbance equipment that farmers can use on clay soils to reduce fall tillage and protect soils. This practice will reduce soil compaction, a very common problem in high clay-content soils, with minimal disturbance to the soil surface.

They also will combine new tillage techniques with cover cropping, which is used to improve soil health by increasing soil organic matter. The latter also helps suppress weeds and may even serve as an extra source of livestock feed.

During the two-year project, Darby and her team plan to implement these practices on at least 1,000 acres in the St. Albans Bay Watershed. Through direct farm applications and demonstrations at field day events, it is expected that more than 200 farmers and others across the state will learn about these conservation practices.