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Book of the Week: Organic No-Till Farming

Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from an Acres U.S.A. book, Organic No-Till Farming, written by Jeff Moyer. Copyright 2011, softcover, 204 pages. Normal Price: $28.00.

From Chapter 1: No-Till Basics

Organic No-Till Farming book

Organic No-Till Farming by Jeff Moyer

It is the hope and dream of many organic farmers to limit tillage, increase soil organic matter, save money, and improve soil structure on their farms. Organic no-till can fulfill all these goals.

Many organic farmers are accused of overtilling the soil. Tillage is used for pre-plant soil preparation, as a means of managing weeds, and as a method of incorporating fertilizers, crop residue, and soil amendments. Now, armed with new technologies and tools based on sound biological principles, organic producers can begin to reduce or even eliminate tillage from their system.

Organic no-till is both a technique and a tool to achieve farmer’s objectives of reducing tillage and improving soil organic matter. It is also a whole farm system. While there are many ways the system can be implemented, in its simplest form organic no-till includes the following elements:

  • annual or winter annual cover crops that are planted in the fall,
  • overwintered until mature in the spring, and then
  • killed with a special tool called a roller/crimper.

After the death of the cover crop, cash crops can be planted into the residue with a no-till planter, drill or transplanter. Whether you grow agronomic or horticultural crops, this system can work on your farm, and we’ll show you how to get started with this exciting new technology. Continue Reading →

Sunn Hemp: Soil-Building Superhero with Forage Potential

Sunn hemp, a tropical plant primarily grown as a cover crop or green manure, has increased dramatically in popularity over the last decade. Originally from India, it’s easy to understand what makes it so popular among vegetable and row crop farmers in the United States.

Grazing must be timed appropriately or sunn hemp will grow beyond the reach of foraging livestock.

Sunn hemp possesses many soil-building traits, including high rates of biomass production — over 20 percent greater than crimson clover and hairy vetch in research trials. It is not only resistant to plant root nematodes but actively suppresses them. In as little as 60 to 90 days it can produce 120 pounds of nitrogen per acre and can suppress weeds up to 90 percent.

Sunn Hemp is adapted to a wide variety of soil and environmental conditions, thriving through hot, dry summers and continuing to grow until the first frost. But sunn hemp isn’t just a soil builder — it also offers benefits as a forage producer. Recent on-farm grazing trials have yielded an abundance of information on using this crop for grazing. Continue Reading →

Cover Crops Don’t Deplete Moisture

Among the myriad of benefits cover crops provide to a row crop or vegetable operation, Clemson University researchers have found another one: Cover crops do not deplete water stored in the soil profile, thus preserving the precious resource for the cash crop — an all important function, specifically in times of drought.

USDA photo showing a cover crop mixture that includes oat, proso millet, canola, sunflower, dry pea, soybean and pasja turnip.

In the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SSARE) On-Farm Research Grant-funded study (OS16-096), “Cover Crop Influence on Stored Water Availability to Subsequent Crops,” researchers evaluated common fall cover crops grown in the state for water use efficiency and biomass production.

“We need to bring biodiversity to our farming systems to alleviate drought stress, and cover crops are one practice that provides the benefits to achieve that,” said Ricardo St. Aime, a Master’s student and Fulbright Scholar from Haiti who worked on the project. “But many farmers are hesitant to adopt cover crops. One reason is that they fear cover crops might bring water resource competition for the following cash crop. We conducted this study to determine whether or not this is true.” Continue Reading →

Cover Cropping & Green Manures

After 22 years of farming, my farm’s soil is markedly more fertile and productive. It has been a wonderful journey learning what works and how to continue to improve long-term productivity while harvesting bountiful crops.

Flail mowing summer Sudangrass/cowpea green manure at Potomac Vegetable Farms – West in Virginia.

There are several methods that deserve credit for this increase in soil quality: the use of compost, the use of a balanced mineral fertilizer and a serious commitment to cover cropping.

For this article I want to focus on the growing of cover crops and green manures. When I became the farm manager at Potomac Vegetable Farms – West in 1992, I sought advice on how to transition the farm into organic production.

The land had been growing mostly sweet corn, pumpkins and green beans with commercial chemical fertilizers and herbicides. The soil was biologically inactive and nutrients were missing. I can clearly remember the words from a fertility consultant, “I can sell you something in a bag, and I can sell you something in a bucket, but what you really need to do is to make compost and grow cover crops.” And thus began my journey into both compost-making and cover cropping.

Why take on both of those jobs rather than just one? Well, they go hand in hand, each leveraging the benefits of the other to move a soil more quickly toward health and resilience.

Continue Reading →

Cover Crops on the Farm

Cover crops are increasingly being used by farmers across the country to suppress weeds, conserve soil, protect water quality and control pests and diseases.

cover crops on the farm

A mix of rye, clover and vetch. Farmers have steadily increased their use of cover crops over the past five years.

The fourth annual SARE/CTIC Cover Crop Survey collected data from more than 2,000 growers from 48 states and the District of Columbia. The survey provides insight into cover crop usage and benefits and explores what motivates farmers to include cover crops in their farm management and soil health plans.

Respondents reported a steady increase in the number of acres they have cover cropped over the past five years. They said the most important benefits of cover crops include improved soil health, reduced erosion and compaction, and increased soil organic matter. Other reported key benefits of using covers are weed and insect control, nitrogen fixation, attracting pollinators and providing deep taproots.

North Central SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) and CTIC (Conservation Technology Information Center) sought data on how farmers use cover crops to manage their fertilizer inputs. Growers were asked to indicate their level of agreement with a series of fertilizer-related statements using a scale ranging from 1 (strongly agree) to 5 (strongly disagree). The statement that got the highest level of agreement was “Using cover crops has enabled me to reduce application of nitrogen on my cash crop,” with 134 of 1,012 respondents strongly agreeing and 244 checking “agree.” The statement that had the highest level of disagreement was “Using cover crops has required me to use additional crop fertility inputs over time to meet the needs of my cash crop.”

Continue Reading →

The Soil Solution: 10 Keys

Soil health directly affects plant, animal and human health. It also impacts topsoil erosion, water management and ocean pollution. Most importantly, it is now recognized that climate change is directly related to soil mismanagement. I believe a global soil health initiative can help save our planet.

The Soil Solution

We have overtilled our soils, oxidized the humus and often ignored the replacement of
key minerals that determine the health of humus-building microbes.

The Top Five Threats

While in the UK, I met with a professor who shared some deeply concerning findings. He informed me that a recent survey of leading British scientists revealed that as many as one in five of the best thinkers in the country believe that we will be extinct as a species by the end of this century, or perhaps much earlier. This information should serve to spur meaningful action from every one of us. There are five core threats that need to be urgently addressed, and they all relate back to the soil. Continue Reading →