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The Kickoff: My experience with the Cornell Sustainable Cropping Systems Lab

My name is Kirby Peters and I am an upcoming junior Agricultural Sciences major. This summer I will be interning with Professor Matt Ryan’s Sustainable Cropping Systems Lab located on Cornell’s campus, however, much of the research is executed off campus at Cornell’s research farm in Aurora, NY and on various farms. Many people have been asking me what the lab is researching and it is hard to answer that simply. Our lab is performing several experiments looking at the potential benefits of different cropping systems. The labs research experiments are broken down into a few different project themes: perennial grain crops, cover crop organic rotational no-till, cover crop interseeding, forage intercropping, and ecological weed management.The lab is composed of a research support specialist, two research technicians, five grad students, and seven undergraduate research assistants.

So far I have mainly worked on Jeff Liebert’s (one of the grad students) experiments. His two experiments are what we call the variety trial forage quality experiment and the variety trial roll plant soy experiment. The forage quality experiment evaluates the relationship of forage quality and yield of different species and cultivars of winter cereals (Rye, Triticale, and Barley) in a double cropping system. New York state is the third largest producer of milk in the United States so that being said the impact of the dairy industry is significant. The winter cereal double cropping system possesses a few advantages: mitigation of soil erosion, nitrate leaching and phosphorus leaching runoff, an increase of homegrown forage, and improvement of farm profitability. The goal of the experiment is to provide farmers with an optimal interval of harvest for specific species and cultivars of winter cereal. By collecting samples throughout the season and analyzing biomass and forage quality Jeff can figure out an interval of time where the relationship of the two is optimized. For example, last year the results showed Triticale produces as much biomass as wheat but with a longer optimal interval of harvest.

The second part of the experiment is analyzing cover crop rolling as a form of weed suppression for organic no-till systems. No-till systems are known for providing great soil benefits but can create weed management challenges because herbicides can not be used in organic systems. The experiment aims to optimize the blocking of light to increase weed suppression. Cover crop rolling is exactly what it sounds like. A large cylinder attachment on the tractor is used to rolled down the cover crop to form a carpet to block out the weeds. Multiple species and cultivar are rolled at different times to see what stage of growth produces the best results.

After rolling

Cover crop rolling


The work I’ve done on Jeff’s experiment is plant sampling. Plant sampling is done by taking a quadrat and placing it in a selected spot of a cover crop plot. Once the quadrat is correctly placed on the ground every plant (excluding weeds) that is growing within the quadrate is cut. Our lab uses electric clippers that make the cutting process very quick. If we have smaller quadrants we will also use regular manual clippers. Everything that is cut is then placed into a labeled paper bag and is then ready to head to the ovens to be dried.

Different species and cultivars in the Variety Trial experiment

Setting up a quadrat


Placing plant biomass into a bag








Carrying biomass samples

After the samples have dried in the oven, they are ready for sample processing. All samples are weighed and recorded. Depending on the experiment the samples are either composted or put into the grinder. A grinder is a machine that takes plant material and grinds it into particle sizes depending on the filter inserted. For all the grinding I have participated in we have been using a 1 millimeter (mm) filter. Grinding is necessary for nutrient analysis which provides us with the forage quality data. Jeff will be taking samples throughout the season so he can find a time where forage quality and yield are optimized.


Grinding plant matter


From Farm to Table: The Hands-on Approach


As my summer went on, I transitioned from working primarily with the animals themselves to primarily selling their products at the markets.  One task that remained constant, however, was the butchery.  In order to sell fresh chickens  every week, we need to kill every week.  And so every Tuesday I pulled on my grimiest pair of jeans and headed out to catch some chickens.


Chickens not quite fat enough for slaughter

The QRS chickens are white Cornish cross breed, and usually are slaughtered at about six weeks of age.  The goal is to have them dress at four pounds, so the exact number of chickens caught and processed every week depended on how effective the chickens were that week at eating and putting on weight. Usually, though, it was about 200 birds.  Rick and Linda prefer the white chickens to the red chickens for meat production because the muscle doesn’t bruise as easily.  They also regularly do custom butchering, either for people with home flocks that can’t bring themselves to butcher their own chickens, or for large orders from restaurants.  Butchering 200 birds with only 4 people in a very small room is an all-day affair that ends with us exhausted and with questionable substances staining our clothing and crusted on our skin.  And it all starts with catching.  I’d never caught a chicken before coming to Quails-R-Us, unless you count picking up a friendly backyard chicken every now and then.  To save my dignity and the time it would have taken me to chase chickens around trying to pick them up, someone somewhere invented a handy chicken hook that you can use to trip a chicken from the back and swiftly turn it upside down, which should, theoretically, calm it.  I say theoretically because I had a lot of chickens that really didn’t like being held upside down in my fist and flapped furiously when they should have been still and stoic.

The plucker

The plucker

The chickens are placed in plastic crates and wheeled over to the kill pit, which is the modified milking parlor from when the farm was a dairy.  QRS uses the typical setup that I’ve used before when I’ve processed chickens: kill cones, a scalder, a plucking machine.  Four or five birds are processed at a time, and cycled through the machines.  Some weeks we also butcher quail and guineafowl for meat, which involve similar processes with some important differences.  For instance, quail feathers require a different sized plucker than the larger birds, and it’s easier usually to just pluck them by hand.  Quail feathers are also prone to melting beneath the skin if they stay in the scalder too long.  The bald, warm, dead birds are taken from the plucker and put on a stainless steel table to be gutted.  QRS cuts the head, neck, and feet off, saving the latter two for sale.  Gutting a chicken may seem simple but it takes a significant amount of force to pull all the entrails out at once without shredding the lungs or tearing the heart from the liver.  I very quickly learned it was more efficient for me to be on salvage duty: taking the entrails and separating the wastes from the marketable organs: the heart, liver, and gizzard.  I observed a lot of variability in the deposits of internal fat, cut my hands on the very sharp bones of quail, popped way too many gallbladders [releasing a dark green fluid which stains the meat] and learned a lot of recipes for these unconventional ingredients.  Chicken liver was actually the product we ran out of most often at the markets – demand far outstripped our supply, and chicken liver is hard to find in your neighborhood grocery.


About to break down a chicken by knife

Dressed birds were put on ice for several hours to chill, giving the workers a chance to clean up from the killing and break for lunch.   Slaughter and gutting usually took about six hours.  From mid-afternoon to early evening we packaged the chickens.  Most are sold whole, with giblets – the neck, heart, liver, and gizzard – included.  We also sold bags of individual pieces, like wings or thighs, bags of organs, feet, and necks, and a variety bag of pieces that was basically a whole chicken cut up already.  Cutting was done with an industrial meatpacking saw I chose to stay far away from.  I did get a chance to break down a chicken with a knife that was very informative for how the muscles are structured around the bones.  The products are dried off, trimmed if needed, bagged, weighed, labelled with the date and weight, bagged again, and sealed, then placed in the walk-in cooler for sale that week.  Anything not sold in that week – a very rare occurrence – is frozen for sale in future weeks. Record keeping during the rush of packaging is a must, to keep track of inventory for the week.

Chicken processing is a tedious and messy business but with good conversation flowing, waterproof boots, and a sturdy apron, it’s manageable.  Helping put so many chickens on the table for our customers to enjoy definitely made me appreciate the effort that goes into my own food.  I look forward to the next time I get to help process, and the next time I get to eat fresh chicken for dinner after a long day of work.

First Days at Casa Caponetti

Hello everyone! I am happy to say I finally made it all the way to Italy! This summer I am doing an internship at Casa Caponetti, an olive orchard and organic farm in a small town called Tuscania, about 60 miles north of Rome.  After spending a night in London due to flight delays, losing my luggage to the chaotic conveyor belts of the Rome airport, two trains, and a cab from Tarquinia to Tuscania, the journey (that is, multiple giorni) seemed to take forever. Apparently there is a store in Alabama that sells lost luggage, and I had pretty much accepted that as the fate of my bag about an hour ago, when someone drove up the dirt road and delivered my missing backpack! So that has made this experience much more enjoyable.

Casa Caponetti is in general a quite enjoyable place to be. My first views upon arriving were of rolling hills dotted with olive trees, horses and sunshine. The heat in the middle of the day is made bearable by a trusty breeze that always seems to pick up in the afternoon. It’s pretty exhausting to work outside under the sun all day, so my day is divided by a long siesta after starting farm tasks between 7 and 8 am. After work in the morning, I make lunch and work for a few more hours around 4 or 5 pm. By 9:30 I’m tired enough to fall asleep before the sun has completely set.

I’ve actually been sleeping in a tent for the week since there is a large group of Butoh dancers staying in the volunteer cabins. They work on excavating the Etruscan necropolis that lies beneath the grounds of the farm, working with inspiration from this experience to culminate in a dance performance at the end of the week. We share a kitchen, and many of them speak English really well, but I am still trying to pick up bits of Italian. I definitely overestimated my capacity for language-learning, and had high hopes that it would be easy since I have a pretty good background in Spanish. It’s also been harder to motivate myself to learn it because everyone I need to talk to speaks English either fluently or well enough to get by. The exception is Stephano, one of the people who works with me in the gardens. He speaks to me in a particular Tuscanian dialect of Italian and I don’t understand a word, but I make a lot of blank expressions and get by using gestures.

So far I’ve been doing a lot of weeding, learning how the irrigation system works, trellising tomatoes, and harvesting zucchini and cucumbers. There is more basil than I can possibly imagine eating, which is also really exciting. Apparently there is another intern from Cornell coming next week, but I don’t know anything about him other than that I think his name is Danny. Anyone out there? Hope to see you soon if you happen to read this! I am looking forward to getting settled in more now that I have my luggage and will soon move into an actual cabin. Tomorrow I plan to check out the excavation site with the dancers. More to come soon!

My new home for the week!

My new home for the week!

Prettier aspects of my new home

Prettier aspects of my new home

Playful kittens

Playful kittens

Actual farming (and much more weeding to be done)

Actual farming (and much more weeding to be done)

Goating the Hang of Caring for the Flock

It’s a great experience to wake up the sounds of sheep and goats moving through your backyard. Except when they start grazing at four thirty in the morning.  Or when the guard geese see an imagined predator and honk loudly for several minutes. Or when a young kid uses your window screen as a scratching post and almost breaks the window in the process.  Yes, I’ve learned that raising small pasture animals is not quite the idyllic experience one might expect.

Knock knock!

Knock knock!

I had a little bit of experience with sheep care going into my internship, thanks to ANSCI 3800. But I learned a lot from solving various problems and getting hands on experience. Quails-R-Us has a mixed breed flock of about thirty ewes and a herd of about ten does. The animals are bred to off the farm rams and bucks once a year, and their offspring are either kept for breeding or sold for meat.  The flock has had excellent breeding success despite minimal culling, and nearly every ewe has two lambs a year.  The goats usually have one kid a year.  Birthing was over by the time I arrived, but it happens in the safety of the barn, using lambing jugs. At night, the sheep and goats seek out the shelter of the barn, and often spend the night inside. Despite often hearing coyotes at night from my room, the farm has minimal predator problems and lambs and kids are more likely to die from becoming tangled in the Electronet.  Ideally, the animals would rotate through the 30 acres of pasture of the farm evenly, grazing everything down before being moved to the next paddock, but the permanent electric fencing on the farm hasn’t worked in years so in reality the animals have free run of the entire farm, from pastures to neighbor’s fields to the flowers planted under the kitchen window.


On the pasture

I helped with a variety of tasks related to goat and sheep care, besides taking daily walks around the farm and untangling babies from the fencing.  I helped feed the animals in the morning for a few weeks.  In the weeks after birthing, Rick and Linda provide a little bit of grain in the morning mixed with vitamins and minerals to keep the animals healthy and to acclimate the babies to humans. One ewe had triplets, and her runt lamb, Mia, was bottlefed several times a day.  She is a very persuasive baby, and often chased after you and insisted on feeding even when it wasn’t feeding time.  My hilarious video of such encounter was too large to upload, but believe me, she was feisty. One of my first major husbandry tasks was shearing.  QRS hires a professional shearer, but he has limited availability, so while usually sheep are sheared before lambing, the QRS sheep were sheared in mid-June.  The sound of grain in a bucket brought them running into the barn in the middle of the day. We meticulously separated out the goats, kids, and lambs, which required a lot of patience and quick reflexes. The isolated ewes then were brought out one by one to be sheared and released. Several of the QRS sheep have Katahdin heritage, meaning they partially shed their wool.  An abundance of burdock and thistle in the pasture combined with this partially shod wool meant that the wool was nearly worthless, even by meat sheep standards.  It wasn’t worth our time to try to dry and sell it, and since wool is naturally fire retardant, we couldn’t burn it, so we left it in the pasture, where birds took fibers for their nests.

Hoof trimming was another fun challenge for me.  I’ve trimmed the hooves of sheep before but when faced with a large goat with a hoof problem, I was a bit lost.  The goat, named Cow for her black and white markings, was almost as strong as I was and much more insistent about what was going to happen. My first attempts, when I managed to pin her in place and lift her hoof, took off far too little of the excess keratin, and I eventually had to admit defeat and hand over responsibility to Ramone, who wasted no time getting to the heart of the issue and swiftly freed Cow from her painful hooves.  I helped disinfect her feet and gave her some grain for her trouble.  I’d like to think she eventually forgave me.

Towards the end of the summer, we did take the growing lambs and kids meant for butchery, now weaned, and isolate them in a side pasture with a permanent fence.  Corralling animals across several acres of pasture is an adventure, but with a team we got it done. When some animals were large enough to be taken to the butcher, we weighed them first, and placed them on the trailer.  And the lamb steaks and goat chorizo we got back were delicious.

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