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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 →

True Soil Health: Create the Capacity to Function Without Intervention

My philosophy is that whatever you do on your farm should improve soil health. But how do you know what that is? The USDA defines soil health as, “The continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals and humans.” I would add to that definition and say that soil health isn’t just the capacity to function, it’s the capacity of soils to function without intervention.

The same field pictured below, three months later. This is the result of managing the field to promote healthy soil life and maximize biological nutrient cycling: a beautiful organic seed corn crop, just after detasseling.

What counts as “intervention?” Does intervention mean biotechnology, insecticides, fungicides and tillage? Is fertilizer an intervention? Do these interventions make your farm better for future years? I believe money spent on interventions needs to be shifted to inputs that yield soil health.

Appropriate intervention when absolutely needed is wise, but the goal is minimum intervention — in other words do everything you can to get the soils healthy and mineralized. Mineralize your soils using exchangeable nutrient sources that come from the carbon biological system. You have to create an ideal home for soil life and feed them in order to build soil health.

Remove the negatives, which include monoculture crops and excessive tillage. Reduce the use of other possible negatives added through harsh soluble fertilizers and excessive nitrogen, not to mention chemicals and biotechnology.

Farming for soil health means treating your farm like a system. For years we have been promoting the “rules” of biological farming (Six Principles of Biological Farming). Following these rules will lead to healthy soils that produce good yields. The soil health guidelines you now see published in many places focus on minimum disturbance with an emphasis on no-till. In my opinion not all soils are capable of being farmed no-till. 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 →

Soil Restoration: 5 Core Principles

Soil restoration is the process of improving the structure, microbial life, nutrient density, and overall carbon levels of soil. Many human endeavors – conventional farming chief among them – have depleted the Earth to the extent that nutrient levels in almost every kind of food have fallen by between 10 and 100 percent in the past 70 years. Soil quality can improve dramatically, though, when farmers and gardeners maintain constant ground cover, increase microbe populations, encourage biological diversity, reduce the use of agricultural chemicals, and avoid tillage.

Soil restoration begins with photosynthesis.

Continue Reading →

Soil Conservation Yields Economic Gains

Soil conservation practices such as growing cover crops and going no-till can result in an economic return of over $100 per acre, according to a set of case studies jointly released by the National Association of Conservation Districts and Datu Research, LLC.

Cover crops, like tillage radish, can improve soil health and structure.

Cover crops and no-till can limit soil loss, reduce run-off, enhance biodiversity and provide other benefits. Naturally, farmers who are considering adopting these soil conservation practices are keen to know how they will affect their farm’s bottom line.

“These case studies quantify for producers, policy-makers and researchers alike what the economic advantages of using no-till and cover crops are, and why it makes good sense for farmers to try them and for organizations like NACD to support and even incentivize their use,” said Jeremy Peters, NACD CEO. “We have loads of anecdotal data that says conservation practices benefit the land and producers’ pocketbooks, but now we have run the numbers and know how much.”

During the three-year study period, corn-soybean farmers experimented with cover crops and/or no-till, and quantified the year-by-year changes in income they attributed to these practices compared to a pre-adoption baseline. They found that while planting costs increased by up to $38 per acre: Fertilizer costs decreased by up to $50 per acre; erosion repair costs decreased by up to $16 per acre; and yields increased by up to $76 per acre.

The studies also found that with adoption of these soil conservation practices, net farm income increased by up to $110 per acre. Included in the farmers’ calculations was the considerable time they spent attending workshops or searching the internet to learn about no-till or cover crop practices.

“That time turns out to be an excellent investment, when bottom lines start improving,” said Marcy Lowe, CEO of Datu Research, which conducted the case studies in partnership with NACD. “Farmers who switch to these practices can see losses at first. But thanks to these case study farmers who are generously sharing what they’ve learned, that learning curve will speed up for other farmers.” Continue Reading →