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Home  > Question of the Week

Question of the Week



Permalink What can you tell me about soil nutrition for high tunnel tree fruit production?

Answer: Without rain or overhead irrigation, some bulky organic fertilizers—e.g., compost—will not readily break down and move into the soil. And because the fruit crops we’re discussing are perennials, cover crops cannot be relied upon for nutrition after the initial planting. This emphasizes the need for pre-plant consideration of nutritional needs of the plants, beginning with a soil test. For instance, adjusting soil pH with lime or sulfur should occur before the tunnel’s cover goes on.

Likewise, if soil organic matter needs improvement, cover crops or applications of manures or composts should happen before the high tunnel is covered. Allow time for breakdown and mechanical or natural incorporation of these into the soil.

Post-planting nutritional needs are going to be met with fertigation (running liquid fertilizers in the irrigation system), by precision hand-application of compost or pelletized organic fertilizers, or by hand-application of liquid organic fertilizers via watering buckets or hoses with fertilizer attachments. Regarding fertigation, liquid organic fertilizers, like fish emulsion or compost tea, have a reputation for clogging or gumming up the drip emitters (manufacturers of some of these products are now touting some formulations as "fertigation friendly" in order to address this problem). In such cases, proper filtration is the first line of defense. If clogging still occurs, there is an organically acceptable cleaner called Cleardrip-O.

Fertigation in Organic Vegetable Production Systems is an excellent primer on organic fertigation, as relevant to perennial fruits as it is to vegetables. It discusses the necessary equipment, fertigation products, how to calculate rates, and more. If you’re going to apply dry fertilizer materials, they will have to be placed where the soil is wet from the irrigation; otherwise, the nutrients from such materials will not move into the root zone to be available to plant roots.

Lastly, its advisable to remove the plastic cover every winter in order to ensure that the trees meet their chill requirement but also to allow rain to rinse out excess salts from the fertilizers. This is also a time when manure or compost could be applied with some confidence that it will be "washed" into the soil by rain and melting snow. Compost, especially compost made from plant matter and not animal manure, contains less salt and so should be considered a superior organic fertilizer material for most high tunnel applications.

Learn much more on this topic in the ATTRA publication High Tunnel Tree Fruit and Grape Production for Eastern Growers. It identifies fruits that hold the most potential for profitable high tunnel culture, as well as several limitations and potential pitfalls growers must recognize if such a venture is to be profitable.

Note: The mention of specific brand names or companies is for informational purposes only and does not constitute an endorsement by NCAT, ATTRA, or the USDA.

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Permalink Where can I find funding for a sustainable agriculture project?

Answer: An excellent place to start is the USDA Small Farm Funding Resources http://ric.nal.usda.gov/small-farm-funding. This guide contains information about funding sources for beginning farmers, training, technical assistance contacts, organizations with resources and programs for beginning and experienced farmers, and more.

USDA's Alternative Farming Systems Information Center has compiled a list of useful resources and contacts that you should explore.

Building Sustainable Farms, Ranches and Communities and NSAC's Grassroots Guide to Federal Farm and Food Programs both offer information on federal grants and programs. These two guides can help you find programs that may fit your project. The FSA Microloan Program is a newer program that is typically easier to qualify for and access than some of the other grant and loan programs.

Also useful are the ATTRA publications Financing Your Farm: Guidance for Beginning Farmers and Federal Conservation Resources for Sustainable Farming and Ranching.

Here are some additional resources that you should investigate:

Government Grants

Value Added Producer Grants

Small Business Innovation Research Grants

Start-Up Funds

Cultivate Ventures

Ag Funder

InvestEco

Crowdsourcing

Crowdsourcing is a relatively new type of fundraising that raises money online through a large number of small donations. Some crowdsourcing websites include:

GoFundMe

Kickstarter

IndieGoGo

Barnraiser

Finally, ATTRA posts funding opportunities daily on its website, which can help you identify potential funding sources.

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Permalink Will rotating crops help reduce weeds?

Answer: Crop rotations limit the buildup of weed populations and prevent major weed-species shifts. Weeds tend to prosper in crops that have requirements similar to their own. Fields of annual crops favor short-lived annual weeds, whereas maintaining land in perennial crops favors perennial weed species. In a crop rotation, the timing of cultivation, mowing, fertilization, herbicide application, and harvesting changes from year to year. Rotation thus changes the growing conditions from year to year—a situation to which few weed species easily adapt. Rotations that include clean-cultivated annual crops, tightly spaced grain crops, and mowed or grazed perennial sod crops create an unstable environment for weeds. Additional weed control may be obtained by including short-season, weed-smothering cover crops such as sorghum-sudan or buckwheat. Crop rotation has long been recognized for its ability to prevent weeds from developing to serious levels.

Incorporating crops with allelopathic effects into the rotation adds another element of control. Such crops include sunflowers, sorghum, and rapeseed. Allelopathic plants are those that inhibit or slow the growth of other nearby plants by releasing natural toxins, or "allelochemicals." Weed control ability varies among varieties and management practices. Sweet potatoes have been shown to inhibit the growth of yellow nutsedge, velvetleaf, and pigweed. Field trials showed a 90% reduction of yellow nutsedge over two years following sweet potatoes.

There are other beneficial approaches to weed management, as well, such as mulching, competition, crop rotations, and low-toxicity control alternatives. You can learn more about these in the ATTRA publication Sustainable Weed Management for Small and Medium-Scale Farms, which discusses several strategies, both proactive and reactive, as alternatives to conventional tillage systems.

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Permalink How can I control blossom blast in pears?

Answer: A bacterial disease, blossom blast (causal organism: Pseudomonas syringae), may afflict pears, usually as a blossom blight resulting in reduced fruit set. It can also cause twig dieback and bark cankers and may lead to severe wood damage of Asian-pear cultivars in particular. Because the presence of blossom-blast bacteria allows ice crystals to form at higher-than-normal temperatures, the disease increases the incidence of freeze damage during cold, wet weather. Asian pears are especially affected because their early bloom makes them more susceptible to frost injury. Among Asian-pear cultivars, Shinko and Ya Li are moderately resistant to P. syringae.

Controlling this disease is difficult because its occurrence is widespread on many plant species and not easily predicted; once symptoms appear, control efforts are too late. Protecting orchards from frost damage can limit injury. An early application of BlightBan A506 can help reduce frost-damage potential by excluding the ice-nucleating bacteria. In California, the application of fixed copper at the green-tip stage followed by streptomycin at early bloom has provided reasonable control. This treatment has also been used in Oregon and Washington, where cool, wet weather makes blossom blast a particular problem in pear production. Streptomycin or terramycin applied at early bloom to control fire blight also helps to control blossom blast, but sprays timed for fire blight control cannot be assumed to control blossom blast because P. syringae is favored by cool, wet conditions while E. amylovora proliferates in warm, wet conditions. In other words, predictive models for fire blight could easily miss an infection period for blossom blast. There are no predictive models for blossom blast, so the prudent grower with a history of blossom blast in the orchard will apply copper at green tip and follow up with BlightBan or streptomycin at early bloom regardless of what fire blight predictive models might indicate.

For more information, consult the ATTRA publication Pears: Organic Production. It covers pear diseases, disease-resistant cultivars, rootstocks, insect and mite pests, and their treatment, Asian pears, and marketing. Two profiles of organic pear growers are included. Electronic and print resources are provided for further research.

In addition, ATTRA's Pear Diseases Identification Sheet is a handy guide that helps identify pear diseases and offers low-spray and organic solutions.

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Permalink What are the treatment options for coccidiosis in goats?

Answer: It is necessary to consult with your veterinarian is necessary to devise a coccidiosis treatment program, which may include the feeding of ionophores, treatment with sulfa drugs or amprolium, and/or using alternative treatments. Note that livestock that are treated with ionophores or other medications that are not approved for use in organic production systems cannot be certified organic. If it becomes necessary to use these medicines on a certified-organic animal to achieve effective treatment, that individual animal will lose its organic certification.

Note also that most medications are not labeled for sheep or goats and, therefore, consulting your veterinarian is essential. Be sure to follow instructions carefully when not be labeled for sheep or goats (work with your veterinarian for off-label use) and are not allowed in certified organic production.

Alternative Treatment Options

Organic producers may not use any of the treatments listed above on organic animals. Those wishing to avoid using medications have some intriguing possibilities to explore. These include the following alternatives:

• Sericea lespedeza and other condensed tannin-containing plants, such as birdsfoot trefoil, acacia, sainfoin, panicled tick clover, pine bark, and quebracho

• Oregano oil

Use of these natural compounds offers organic producers some options to mitigate the effects of coccidia. Conventional producers may also want to consider these natural alternatives because overuse of conventional compounds may lead to resistance.

Sericea lespedeza has been shown to be effective in managing the barber pole worm and coccidia. Grazing standing lespedeza works, but if baby animals are born early in the year, sericea is not growing yet. In that case, sericea pellets (similar to alfalfa pellets) can be an effective tool. Unfortunately, these pellets are not widely available yet. The manufacturer, Sims Brothers, does not have the capacity yet to fill all orders for the pellets. Sericea hay is also effective and may be more available. See the ATTRA publication Tools for Managing Internal Parasites in Sheep and Goats: Sericea Lespedeza for more information. One difference in using sericea to control cocci rather than barber pole worm is that the effects of the sericea are long-lasting for controlling coccidiosis, while the barber pole worm “recovers” after the host animal no longer has access to the sericea. Feeding of sericea lespedeza should occur approximately two weeks before weaning to four weeks post-weaning to maximize the positive effects and minimize the negative long-term effects, such as a potential mineral deficiency.

Pine bark has been ground up and added to feed supplement at the rate of 30% of the diet and fed to goats. The result was not only lowered numbers of gastrointestinal parasites and coccidia, but also increased gains and improved feed efficiency. Using pine bark in combination with sericea seems to be even more effective.

A caution for those using condensed tannin (CT)-containing plants: researchers have observed that the use of tannins may bind minerals, causing deficiencies. Dr. Joan Burke (ARS) has documented reductions in the trace minerals molybdenum, selenium, copper, zinc, and manganese. Also, perhaps because of mineral problems or lower intake or some other factor, lambs and kids do not gain as rapidly after six to eight weeks of the sericea diet. To overcome these problems, you may wish to increase mineral supplementation (being mindful, however, of possible toxicity) and offer a more diverse diet. Providing pastures that include a variety of plants will improve animal intake. However, if the amount of sericea eaten is not high enough, then anthelmintic benefits may not be realized. As with all nutrition, it is important to strike a balance.

Oregano oil may be helpful in controlling coccidiosis in some instances. Producers in Maine conducted an on-farm research project (ONE08-088) using Regano (oregano oil) on sheep and goats on four different farms. Oregano oil works by the same mechanism as ionophores, like monensin. The Maine project used young stock, beginning at four weeks of age, and fed test groups Regano with their normal ration at the rate of 2 grams/100 pounds daily. A total of 26 goats and 56 lambs were on the study. Coccidia were reduced in treated animals by 39% (sheep) and 51% (goats).

Two of the producers who participated in this study were pleased with results and planned to use the product again. The other two producers did not have such a positive experience. Note: Even though this treatment reduced coccidia in test groups, the reductions were not anywhere near the 95% level considered effective for dewormers. The report of this study is online here.

To learn more, and to access the references and studies mentioned here, consult the ATTRA publication Coccidiosis: Symptoms, Prevention, and Treatment in Sheep, Goats, and Calves.

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Permalink What type of soil is best for organic tomato production?

Answer: A wide variety of soil textures can be used for tomato production. Ideal soil textures range from sandy to fine-textured clays as long as the soil is well drained (tomato roots will not tolerate being waterlogged), has good structure, and is well aerated. Planting dates can be determined by the type of soil a grower has. For example, sandy soils are preferred for early plantings in California due to adequate drainage during wet weather and rapid increase in soil temperature in the spring, which, in turn, can lead to early growth. However, loam and clay loam soils are the most productive soils for production. A mixture of one-quarter to one-half sand, one-quarter to one-half silt, and no more than 27% clay gives loam soils the best possible properties for plant growth. These mixtures supply adequate drainage and good soil structure. Conversely, heavier clays can be a serious problem due to poor soil drainage and excess soil moisture for extended periods, making tomatoes more prone to disease.

One of the foundations of organic farming is maintaining and building a microbial-active soil enriched with organic matter and a balanced mineral diet. Humus-building practices and addition of minerals not only supply plant nutrients but also increase tolerance to insects and diseases, help control weeds, retain soil moisture, and ensure produce quality.

A typical organic fertility system revolves around a combination of practices such as using crop rotation, forage legumes, cover crops, green manures, composted livestock manures, and lime, rock phosphate, and other rock minerals, as well as supplemental organic fertilizers. Depending on the soil type, soils with no history of organic management will probably need additional fertilization to be incorporated during field preparation and bedding operations or banded to the side of the row at planting.

Soil tests provide a baseline for your soil. Most state Extension services provide tests for a nominal fee. For information that is specific to organic production, see the ATTRA database Alternative Soil Testing Laboratories. In general, tomato plants have a high requirement for the macro elements potassium (K) and calcium (Ca) and the micronutrients iron (Fe), manganese (Mn), and zinc (Zn). Without a good supply of both K and Ca for plant uptake and utilization, the fruits will lack the recommended soluble solids content (sugars) and will be more susceptible to physiological disorders such as blossom end rot. Smaller requirements of the elements nitrogen (N), magnesium (Mg), phosphorus (P), boron (B), and copper (Cu) also are needed for proper plant development.

Tomatoes need moderate to high levels of P and K. On deficient soils, most needs can be met by applying rock powders such as rock phosphate, colloidal phosphate, untreated (mined) potassium sulfate, and sulfate of potash-magnesia in advance of planting. Supplementary P and K may be added as indicated by the soil test results. Always conduct a soil test to determine the proper amount of nutrients to apply.

Depending on the soil type, fresh market tomatoes also require about 75 to 100 pounds per acre of N. Most, if not all, can be supplied by legumes in rotation; composts or manures can also fill in the balance. If manure is chosen as the supplemental fertilizer, the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) regulations require that the manure be incorporated into the soil at least 120 days prior to harvest [NOP standard 205.203 (c)1]. Some farmers provide additional supplemental N at transplanting; a mixture of animal meal by-products, rock phosphate, and kelp meal is commonly used. If reliance is based primarily on supplemental fertilizers, about 50 pounds of actual N should be applied pre-plant and the remainder side-dressed when fruits are about nickel-size.

Tomato plants grow best when the soil pH is between 6.0 and 6.5. Liming to this range improves plant growth and optimizes fertilizer efficiency. If the pH is less than 5.5, Mg availability decreases significantly. Consequently, this increases the level of available Mn and aluminum (Al). Unless a deficiency of magnesium is noted, application of high-calcium (nondolomitic without magnesium) lime is advised. In addition, when a low pH is coupled with low Ca, blossom end rot is likely to occur. However, when soil tests are high in both P and pH levels, Zn will become insoluble, resulting in deficiency symptoms such as cupped leaves and splotchy chlorosis.

The ATTRA publication Organic Tomato Production will serve as a useful resource to learn much more on this topic. This publication addresses practical questions on organic tomato production. It focuses on the specific production challenges, including site selection (soil and climate), variety selection, sources of organic seeds and organic annual transplants, organic grafting, planting and training/staking arrangements, soil fertility and fertilization, crop rotation, and pest (insect, disease, and weed) management. Harvest and yield/productivity are closely related to marketing possibilities. While market conditions are extremely region-specific, this publication also addresses a few general principles on marketing and economics of organic tomatoes.

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Permalink What are the benefits of using draft animals on the farm?

Answer: Draft animals can offer farmers the advantage of a low initial investment in farm motive power compared to the purchase of even a relatively small tractor. A prospective horse farmer can spend a great deal of money on registered stock, harness and equipment. But it's also possible to obtain perfectly serviceable trained animals, used harness and functional equipment at reasonable prices. If saving money by using draft animals is your motivation, you may be able to do so. Just don't cut corners on safety in the interest of cutting cost. For a novice operator, a well-trained animal is well worth the cost. Sturdy, complete harness is vital.

One advantage of using draft animals as farm power is that their fuel can all be generated on-farm. Opinions vary on whether working horses should be fed grass or alfalfa hay and supplemented with oats or corn. The point is that all of these feeds can be produced locally, if not on the farm itself. Unlike a tractor, draft animals fit in to the nutrient cycle of a farm, utilizing local inputs and providing an output of power with a fertilizer byproduct.

Draft animals can be exceptionally flexible in application. For example, the same team of horses can plow and plant in spring, cultivate in summer, haul in the fall harvest of crops and firewood and feed livestock and offer sleigh rides in winter. Once the team is in harness, it's as efficient to use them for a little task as a big one since they're not burning any more fuel. Maneuverable horses can turn within their own length and they’re a power unit that easily moves from one task to another and one place to another.

In the long view, some draft animals are even capable of producing their own replacements in the form of offspring, something no piece of machinery can do. However, even an enthusiast does well to consider that breeding and training animals are entirely different propositions from working with already trained stock.

The chief benefit of working with draft animals may be their sheer appeal. Some farmers find it especially fulfilling to work daily with a human-scale, living and breathing partner rather than a machine. And draft animals at work have a traffic-stopping appeal for the public that can build farm brand recognition and consumer loyalty more effectively than any paid advertising.

The ATTRA publication Draft Animal Power for Farming provides much more information on this topic, including considerations and benefits involved in using animal power, safety, equipment, and more.

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Permalink What problems can result from methionine deficiency in organic poultry production?

Answer: The protein and amino acid concentrations presented as a requirement by the NRC are to support maximum growth and production in fast-growing meat birds. Achieving maximum growth and production may not always ensure maximum economic returns, particularly when prices of protein sources are high (NRC, 1994). And maximum economic returns may not be the only goal. For some producers, product quality (flavor and nutrition) may be as significant as quantity produced. According to Sundrum (2005), there are no effects on animal health from feeding a suboptimal diet or low-nutrient diet, but the birds may not be fully realizing their genetic potential. In fact, breeding companies that sell specialty birds usually show expected growth performance on a high-nutrient diet as well as a low-nutrient diet designed for conventional and specialty production, respectively.

Low-nutrient diets or feed restrictions are often used in the starter phase to slow the growth of fast-growing birds in order to reduce metabolic disorders and lameness. Feed restrictions have also been implemented to reduce feed spillage and better document feed efficiency. Feed density can be increased later for compensatory gain (Sundrum, 2005). A bird’s ability to adapt to variations in feed supply still exists (Sundrum, 2005). However, fast-growing, high-yielding animals are more sensitive to suboptimal feed rations than slower-growing or low-yielding animals. Stress levels may increase due to sudden changes in a feed ration, leading to depressed levels of growth. U.S. organic poultry companies are concerned that fast-growing birds with reduced MET levels in their diet will not only perform poorly, but will also suffer impaired immune function, resulting in poor feathering, feather pecking, cannibalism, and mortality. The antioxidant mechanisms of sulfur amino acids and their compounds are important. Normally, cells are equipped with antioxidant mechanisms to deal with free radicals. If antioxidants are out of balance, problems can occur that cause decreased animal performance. Sulfur-containing compounds such as MET and CYS are powerful antioxidants that can prevent damage in cells (Anon, 2009). Elwinger and Tausen (2009) found that reduced MET levels reduce feather cover and egg weight, although the production of eggs was not affected. They also found that feed intake increased as feather cover deteriorated, thus reducing feed efficiency.

Ambrosen and Petersen (1997) studied the impact of protein levels in feed (11% vs. 19% crude protein) on cannibalism and plumage quality. The plumage improved with increased protein. Chickens supplemented with MET had better plumage quality and reduced feather pecking compared to the MET-deficient birds. However, Biedermann et al. (1993) did not show poor feathering with low protein levels. There are many factors involved in feather pecking beside the nutrient level, such as stress derived from living conditions. Feather pecking may occur even on farms with high levels of MET in the diet, for unrelated reasons.

To learn more, consult the ATTRA publication Organic Poultry Production: Providing Adequate Methionine, which discusses organic husbandry including living conditions, health, genetics and origin, feed and processing as specified under the livestock requirements of the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Organic Program.

References:

Ambrosen, T. and V.E. Petersen. 1997. The influence of protein level in the diets on cannibalism and quality of plumage of layers. Poultry Science. Vol. 76, No. 4. p. 559-563.

Biedermann, G. von, N. Schmiemann, and K. Lange. 1993. Investigations of the effects of plumage condition at different ages in laying hens. Archiv fur Gefl ugelkunde. Vol. 57, No. 6. p. 280-285.

Elwinger, K. and R. Tausen. 2009. Low-methionine diets are a potential health risk in organic egg production. European Symposium on Poultry Nutrition, Edinburgh, Scotland, August 23-27, 2009.

Sundrum, A. 2005. Possibilities and limitation of protein supply in organic poultry and pig production. Organic Revision: Research to support revision of the EU regulation on organic agriculture.

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Permalink How do I determine whether I'm ready to scale up my operation?

Answer: Local foods purchasing has moved beyond farmers markets to mainstream grocery stores. As consumers become more interested in purchasing local foods, chain grocery stores from Walmart to Safeway tout their support of local farmers. At the same time, many established farmers want to move out of time-consuming farmers markets into wholesale markets.

A University of Wisconsin study pointed out that with the interest in local foods, "local food systems have the potential to borrow some of the economic and logistical efficiencies of the industrial food system while retaining social and environmental priorities."

It is important to plan for the expansion of your farm. Every time you increase the scale of your operation, you will experience growing pains. Planning for improvements and growth within your operation can help alleviate these. Questions you might ask when you consider increasing your production:

• Do you have the ability to move more product through your washing and packing facility?
• Do you have enough space in your cooler, delivery truck, etc.?
• How many more people will you have to hire, and do you have the management skills to handle a larger crew?
• Do you have a good farm administration system? As your farm increases in size, this will likely become more complex, including more taxes and stricter insurance requirements.

When economic prosperity is measured in economic growth, it is hard to question the expansion your farm. However, before considering expanding your farm, it is important to ask yourself why you want to do it. What are your farm and lifestyle goals? Is it going to significantly affect your quality of life—for better or for worse?

Consider revisiting your goals. If you have not developed goals for your farm or written your goals down, see the ATTRA publication Evaluating a Farming Enterprise for help.

The question of whether to scale up is not an easy one to answer, and doing so requires a lot of thoughtful consideration and assessment of your specific situation. The ATTRA publication Scaling Up Your Vegetable Farm for Regional Markets can help you decide if you are ready to expand your operations to serve wholesale markets or produce more for direct markets. It describes how organization and planning can help a producer meet the challenges involved in scaling up. This publication addresses important considerations such as land, labor, food safety, marketing, and insurance.

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Permalink How can I control a Caseaous lymphadenitis outbreak in my sheep flock?

Answer: Caseous lymphadenitis (CL) is somewhat uncommon, but very contagious. It is caused by the bacterium, Corynebacterium pseudotuberculosis. The incidence seems to vary by region to an extent. It can lead to eventual death, and economic loss in condemned carcasses, fleece and pelts, loss of purebred stock sales, and shortened productive life. The disease has no known cure.

CL is characterized by external and internal abscesses. The disease is spread by actively draining external abscesses, and by coughing and nasal discharges. A break in the skin is prerequisite to subsequent infection. However, it can also be transmitted through pulmonary and oral mucous membranes. The incubation period varies from one to three months, and it has been known to exist in the environment for up to eight months, according to the Merck Veterinary Manual. External abscesses can be bio-assayed to determine if the disease agent is in fact C. pseudotuberculosis. Internal forms of the disease are much harder to diagnose and more open to interpretation.

Management of CL most often takes the form of culling all infected animals, which is a difficult reality. The Merck Veterinary Manual mentions the use of tulathromycin either subcutaneously or by injection into the abscesses. It noted a positive effect, at least for the short term in drying up the abscesses. However, it also noted that abscesses would normally re-occur. It’s a good idea to ask your vet about this antibiotic therapy, or any others that he might know of.

Your vet is a good source of professional advice. If she is not very familiar with CL, ask for additional help from some of her colleagues in regions of the United States where CL is common. Some additional questions for your vet include:

1. Is culling of the entire flock necessary?
2. What are appropriate treatment regimens?
3. What is an appropriate isolation and biosecurity protocol?
4. Is there a good diagnostic lab test available with few false positives or false negatives? What is the cost?
5. Can the animals be run through the sale barn if external abscesses are not present? If treated with an antibiotic, how long will it be before the abscesses involute? Since the antibiotic regimen will be with prescription and off label, what is the withholding time for slaughter?
6. How long must you wait before repopulating your farm with more sheep?
7. When purchasing sheep, are "CL-free flocks" to be trusted?

You can find much more information on topics related to sheep production in the Livestock section of the ATTRA website.

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Permalink What can you tell me about living mulches for blueberries?

Answer: There are numerous benefits to incorporating flowering cover crops into fruit production, including increased pollination, erosion control, and improved soil health. When it comes to your blueberries, I would recommend that you plant your living mulch in the 6-foot walkways between your rows. Research has shown that living mulch cover crops can actually compete with the fruit crop for water and nutrients if planted within the row. Even though legume cover crops will not demand much N from the soil system, they will still compete with the crop plant for water and other nutrients like P and K.

In order to ensure that your blueberries have all the water and nutrient resources they need to thrive, I would recommend mulching the row with pine bark or hardwood mulch and planting your living mulch between the rows in the walkways, 18 to 24 inches from the center of the row. Having flowering cover crops within the walkway would still attract pollinators to improve the pollination of your blueberries, in addition to keeping the soil in place and feeding the soil foodweb. If you mow your living mulch, you could try to direct the clippings toward the blueberry row to add to the mulch and provide some organic N through the breakdown of the clippings. This “mow-and-blow” system can help build organic matter and provide N to the crop row without directly growing the cover crops there.

When selecting cover crop species, I would recommend that you consider white clover, either Dutch White or New Zealand White. These white clovers can handle foot traffic and mowing and will bloom early in the spring, providing bee forage early on in the season. There is actually a great case study from SARE on a blueberry farmer in Michigan incorporating white clovers into his production system. You may want to select several varieties of clover and sow a cocktail to see which varieties perform best in your system. I would avoid any of the taller white clovers like Ladino, though.

You can also find information on managing living mulches on our ATTRA website in a previous Question of the Week. There are some additional sources cited there, which you may find useful.

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Permalink What can you tell me about roller-crimpers for cover crops?

Answer: The mechanical roller-crimper is a tool that "rolls down" and "crimps" the stalks of cover crops for no-till weed suppression. Mechanical suppression of cover crops for no-till production can be accomplished through various kinds of mow-down and rolling/slicing/crimping techniques. These non-chemical methods of killing cover crops are appealing as an alternative to chemical-kill methods which rely on the use of synthetic herbicides.

The roller-crimper is a water-filled, heavy, round drum with protruding blunt metal blades arranged in horizontal, angled, or spiral patterns. Roller-crimpers are most commonly rear-mounted and pulled behind a tractor or team of draft animals, but they can also be front-mounted on a tractor. When the roller-crimper is pulled or pushed through a high biomass cover crop—such as wheat, rye, oats or oilseed radish—the cover crop is flattened and “crimped” by the heavy drum with metal strips. The purpose of the metal strips is to crimp or crush the stems of the cover crop rather than cutting or chopping the stems; this simultaneously prevents re-sprouting and slows down decomposition of the no-till mulch. No-till crops are seeded or transplanted in the same direction of the flattened and crimped cover crop, which slowly senesces and dies out over the course of several weeks, leaving high residue no-till mulch.

However, weeds that emerge in the no-till mulch can be a problem. In conventional no-till production herbicides can be used as a post-emerge treatment so weed control is fairly straightforward. In organic farming special attention needs to be paid to a clean field, excellent establishment of a winter annual cover crop, and high biomass cover crop production. Spot treatment of weeds is feasible with a hand-held flame weeder or with the use of organically approved natural herbicides on small acreages, but these labor-intensive treatments aren’t practical in broadscale crop production.

The drums are designed to be filled with water for added weight. The amount of water added varies depending on the size of the roller as well as the field conditions it will be used on. In other words, different field conditions will require different amounts of added weight.

The timing of the roller-crimper field operation is critical to gain effective kill of the cover crop. Cereal-based cover crops should rolled at the “anthesis” (flowering) stage of growth or later—in the milk or soft dough stages of growth, a period which corresponds to the mid-spring planting season shortly after the last frost-free day. Growers can refer to charts published by the Extension Service on the Feekes or Zadoks scale of crop growth to gain a clear understanding when anthesis, milk, and soft dough stages occurs.

The Rodale Institute in Kutztown, PA, has spearheaded research on roller-crimper equipment designs and on-farm trials using roll-down, no-till organic production systems. Research at the Rodale Institute finds that the best results are achieved by placing the roller on the front end of the tractor while a no-till seeder is simultaneously located on the back of the tractor. This enables a “one pass” roll-down/no-till planting system. They have found that in an organic no-till system, they do actually have to till once every five to six years to reduce weed populations.

The Rodale Research Institute has published several noteworthy articles and updates on their roller-crimper research project, including photos which are all located on their website. This site also contains AutoCAD drawings of their design.

The following resources can provide additional information on this topic.

Rodale Organic No-Till Website

Michigan State University Roller/Crimper Research website

The Knife Roller (Crimper): An Alternative Kill Method for Cover Crops

New Roller Crimper Concepts for Mechanical Termination of Cover Crops in Conservation Agriculture

Roller/Crimper Guidance

Cover Crop Rollers for Northeastern Grain Production

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Permalink How should I go about preparing soil for organic fruit plantings?

Answer: Important considerations in preparing a site for an organic orchard include alleviating soil compaction, enhancing fertility, adjusting soil pH, and managing weeds, pests, and diseases. Attention to the details of site preparation can help reduce weed and disease problems and assure a vital planting through soil improvement. What needs to be done depends on the previous use of the land, including crops grown, current vegetation, and the presence of pests and diseases. Many growers rip or chisel the soil to loosen layers of compaction before they plant a new orchard or vineyard because deep tillage will be disruptive once the trees are established.

Before establishing an orchard or vineyard, it is important to adjust the soil pH to best suit the crop you’ve selected. Soil tests can assess current soil conditions, including pH, mineral levels, and their relative proportions. Traditionally, pH has been adjusted through applications of lime (to raise the pH) or sulfur (to lower pH). Most fruit plants perform best around pH 6.5, although they tolerate a pH range between 5.5 and 7.2. Blueberries are an exception. They require an acid soil—ideally pH 4.8 to 5.2. Soil test results help guide applications of soil amendments, such as compost, lime, gypsum, or other rock powders, to provide good soil conditions that meet the nutritional needs of the orchard.

In general, fruit crops do not require highly fertile soils for good production, though this varies with the species. Highly fertile soils, rich in nitrogen, can promote too much vegetative growth at the expense of fruiting in trees such as apples. A nutritionally balanced soil, proper soil pH, and plentiful organic matter are the fundamentals of an organic fertility-management plan for fruits. Pre-plant soil improvement for organic fruit plantings usually involves some combination of cover cropping and applications of compost, natural minerals, or other organic fertilizers.

The ATTRA publication Soils and Sites for Organic Orchards and Vineyards provides much more information on this topic. It discusses site selection and soil preparation for fruit plantings. It also describes cover crop and mulching options for orchards and vineyard floors, and discusses fertilization and the role of mycorrhizae in maintaining healthy fruit plants.

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Permalink What specialty crops can I grow in a cold climate without season-extension tools?

Answer: Farmers market customers, restaurants, institutions, and even grocery stores want to buy local foods. In northern latitudes and higher elevations, however, producing food locally for these kinds of markets has its challenges.

Here are a few ideas:

Specialty Vegetables
Specialty vegetables can be considered any variation from the typical market fare. This could be baby, heirloom, or ethnic products. Producing specialty vegetables is a way to set yourself apart in local markets and often command a higher price. Many upscale restaurants are also very interested in unusual and gourmet fruits and vegetables and are willing to pay a good price for these products.

Ethnic Vegetables
Ethnic vegetables are a way to set yourself apart at farmers markets, but it is important to research a market beforehand. What ethnic populations shop there? If you are already selling at a farmers market, ask your ethnic customers what kind of vegetable they would like you to produce. Many specialty ethnic vegetables happen to be warm-season crops, such as chili peppers, bitter melons, and eggplants; however, there are a host of Asian greens, ethnic herbs, and Italian vegetables that grow well without season-extension tools in cold climates.

Baby Vegetables
The baby vegetable craze began in Europe about 20 years ago. Many high-end restaurants in the United States have adopted the trend and look to local farmers to supply them. Baby vegetables are also very popular at higher-end farmers markets. The critical production strategy with baby vegetables is succession planting and timing of harvest. For lettuce and greens, you can use your hand as a measurement tool. A common measurement is to harvest baby lettuce greens smaller than your hand. Plant your produce every two to three weeks to ensure that the products stay young and succulent and the optimum size for harvest. For more information, see the ATTRA publication Scheduling Vegetable Plantings for Continuous Harvest.

You can learn much more by consulting the ATTRA publication Specialty Crops for Cold Climates. It discusses the challenges of growing specialty crops in cold climates, crops that grow well, and season-extension techniques to help mitigate the challenges of this type of production.

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Permalink How can I lease my land and retain some control of the grazing?

Answer: One way to do this is through contract grazing, which involves grazing a customer's livestock on your land for a fee. This approach allows you to control the stocking rate, recovery period, stocking density, and grazing residual.

There are different ways to charge for your service. Some graziers charge on the basis of animal gain. This is a good approach if the grazier knows the animals involved and what their potential rate of gain is. However, it can be a bad deal if the livestock don't have the genetics to gain well or if they have not been set up for compensatory gain. Other graziers charge by the day with the value of the forage, the animal's weight, and their dry matter intake being known.

To learn more, consult the ATTRA publication Grazing Contracts for Livestock. It discusses some of the issues involved with contract grazing, including pasture and grazing, the various classes of livestock, equipment, a sample contract, some of the economics to consider, and other resources available on the subject.

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Permalink How can I remediate soils contaminated with acephate?

Answer: Acephate is a pesticide in the organophosphate family that is registered for use in the United States by the EPA. It has moderate persistence and has residual activity for approximately 15 days. It is used to control insect pests in agricultural and nursery crops by direct contact or ingestion.

Acephate has a half-life of three to six days and breaks down through microbial metabolism in the soil forming mostly CO2. However, another degradate is methamidophos, an organophosphate pesticide. Methamidophos is more toxic to mammals than is acephate, and breaks down to immobile compounds in about 20 days.

Both acephate and methamidophos are taken up and translocated in plants, from leaves to roots. Half-life disappearance in tobacco leaves, citrus fruit, greenhouse tomatoes, celery, and lettuce can range from 1 to 15 days. Produce sampled for residues has historically yielded 0.85 to 5.7% of samples having acephate residues, and 1.5 to 4.5% of samples having methamidophos residues. According to the Federal Registry, the acephate residue tolerance for most produce is between 0.1 to 0.3 ppm.

Studies by Chevron have shown that 14 to 18% of acephate remained in the soil after 20 days, and 0.27% was found in the soil during the whole 46-day test period. Leaching was seen to be the primary way acephate and methamidophos were removed from soil, with degradation happening 3 times faster in soils wetted to field capacity. These pesticides are very weakly adsorbed to soil particles, and has high mobility when the soils are subjected to heavy rainfall events.

Soil testing and testing labs

Two testing labs in California were identified from the ATTRA Alternative Soil Testing Laboratories database. Both of these labs have protocols for testing for pesticides:

Control Laboratories, Inc.
42 Hangar Way
Watsonville, CA 95076
Contact: Frank Shields, Mike Galloway
Phone: 831-724-5422
Control Laboratory, accumulated five decades of experience in analyzing and solving a wide spectrum of complex soil, soil-related, compost, and waterborne or effluent problems. Equipped with the finest state-of-the-art instrumentation and laboratory facilities, the company provides analytical services across the nation. These range anywhere from measurement and test of farm amendments and wastes to analysis of potential toxic substances.

AGQ Labs USA
2451 Eastman Ave. Suite 1
Oxnard, CA 93030
Contact: Jose Antonio Gomez
805-981-2972
AGQ Labs USA is located in Oxnard California and specializes in two core sectors Agronomy and Food Safety. The lab is ISO/IEC 17025 accredited and provide following services Agronomy Services Soil Analysis Water Analysis Plant Tissue Analysis Agronomist/CCA Nutritional Monitoring GIS Mapping Golf Course Nutritional Management Food Safety Services Pesticide Residue Analysis MRL Compliance Mycotoxin Testing Heavy Metal Testing FDA Detentions Regulatory Assistance

Remediation strategies

Soils can be remediated by removing soil or adding clean soil and mixing it in with contaminated soil. This is often done on residential and industrial areas. However, for an agricultural field this is often neither feasible nor cost-effective. I recommend using an ecological method to remediate contaminated soils. Once you have a soil test and know the levels of acephate, you can plan a remediation method and monitor over time.

Bioremediation is a process of sequestering, destroying, or removing contaminants in soil using biological organisms. This can be done with plants (phytoremediation) or with microbes, or often a combination of both.

Most of the studies that have been done on specific plants and the fate of contaminants deal with heavy metals. However, some of the plants that are commonly used in phytoremediation of pesticides include annual mustards, brassicas, canola, willows, poplars, and warm season native grasses such as indiangrass. The ultimate fate of plant biomass grown on contaminated soil will depend on the mode of action (whether the contaminant is degraded or extracted into plant tissue). For instance, if contaminants are extracted, the plant biomass will need to be removed from the site.

The publication Phytoremediation: Protecting the Environment with Plants is one of the best treatments of the topic of all the resources available (see resources below). It provides information on phytoremediation and includes the various USDA-NRCS practice standards that can be used, with EQIP financial assistance, to establish plants for conservation purposes while also remediating contaminated soils. If you choose to plant a conservation cover crop or critical area planting (two of the many practice standards available), I recommend getting in contact with the NRCS conservationist in your area.
Resources for additional information

Phytoremediation: Protecting the Environment with Plants
Kansas State University

Acephate: Technical Fact Sheet
National Pesticide Information Center

Environmental Fate of Acetate
By Elizabeth Downing

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Permalink What is the environmental impact of a micro-hydro system?

Answer: The environmental impact of micro-hydro systems is usually small but by no means absent altogether. When water is diverted or dammed, or when structures installed in the stream channel interfere with the natural flow of the water, there is an environmental impact. However, compared to large hydropower dams, micro-hydro systems have a smaller footprint and generally lower environmental impacts. Even so, there are several local, state, and federal agencies that may want environmental impacts to be assessed for a micro-hydro project.

There are a number of environmental considerations for micro-hydro systems, including the following:

• Water-quality issues such as turbidity and sediment from the system’s construction and operation
• Diversion of streamflow creating lower flow conditions in the main stream channel
• Wildlife and migratory-fish impacts
• Historical significance and aesthetics
• Changes in and impacts on stream ecology (e.g., algal communities, changes in food chains, stranding of benthic invertebrates living on the bottom and banks of the stream, and loss of aquatic habitat)
• Changes in nutrient transport and cycling
• Changes in water temperature due to lower flow
• Changes in dissolved-oxygen levels

Micro-hydro systems that are nonconsumptive and "run of river"—meaning that the natural water flow and elevation drop is used to generate power and the water is directed back into the stream—generally have a small environmental impact. This is an important point to remember and communicate when local regulators ask about environmental impacts. However, diverting water out of the steam, even temporarily, affects the stream’s ecosystem. For example, diverting too much of the water for even a short distance can prevent the natural migration of aquatic organisms and raise the water temperature enough to kill aquatic life.

These effects can be compounded if other ecosystem changes also occur, such as the removal of streamside brush or timber that was providing stream shading and other ecological benefits. Not only will the immediate stream ecology be affected, but the downstream ecology is likely to change as well. This, of course, depends on your particular case—are you using a run-of-the-river system or stored pondage? Maybe your system is on a high-head stream and will have limited or no impact on fi sh or other aquatic organisms. Always carefully plan your system to prevent salamanders, snakes, crawdads, and other aquatic creatures from entering the pipeline and turbine or being otherwise harmed.

Projects should be designed to divert the minimum amount of water required. In many areas, streamflow fluctuates with drier and wetter periods of the season. Many sites will not always have a sufficient streamflow to both provide water to the turbine and maintain a low environmental impact. Therefore, the volume of water diverted to the turbine must be managed. In many areas of the U.S., including the Ozark Mountains and Appalachian Mountains, this may require that diversions and penstocks be shut off during dry periods of the year. Of course, this would affect your hydropower system's "design flow."

There are simple design considerations that can help mitigate a hydropower system’s environmental impacts. For example, an intake placed in the water channel should be located where it takes on characteristics of its environment.

To learn more about how your project will affect the environment, visit the biology department at your local university or talk to an aquatic biologist at your local fish-and-game department office. By doing such research in advance, you will be prepared to answer questions as you prepare to permit the project.

The relatively small environmental impact of a well-designed micro-hydro system means it can be a sustainable solution to energy needs. However, if your project is near public areas or a neighbor’s property, what it looks like can significantly affect the public’s opinion of that impact. In fact, thoughtfully integrating micro-hydro equipment into the natural landscape may help reduce its environmental impact. Remember, micro-hydro projects that produce renewable power and avoid visually disturbing the natural environment with the intake, pipe, cables, and other equipment demonstrate how to produce energy in a more sustainable manner.

You can learn much more about micro-hydro technology in these ATTRA publications:

Micro-Hydro Power: A Beginners Guide to Design and Installation

Micro-Hydro Power: Is It Right for My Farm?

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Permalink What herbicides are appropriate for organic small grains?

Answer: Biological and allowed synthetic substances can be used for weed control, but there must be evidence that the first- and second-tier strategies are already in place, as defined by the National Organic Program. Currently, most organic small grains producers do not use organic herbicides for field-scale weed control. However, these substances may have some application for weed control in localized areas such as along fence lines, on ditch banks, or in limited weed patches. As with any new purchased input, check with your certifier prior to using the substance.

All organic herbicides are very limited in their effectiveness. These substances are non-selective and kill only the portion of the plant they contact directly. Because they do not kill the entire plant, repeated treatments will be necessary to use up the energy reserves in the roots as the weeds re-sprout. Because they are non-selective and will also injure the cash crop, organic herbicides should not be used as a method of in-crop weed control.

Low-toxicity herbicides are available from several suppliers. Scythe, produced by Dow AgroSciences, is made from fatty acids. Scythe acts fast as a broad-spectrum herbicide, and results can often be seen in as little as five minutes. It is used as a post-emergent herbicide sprayed directly on the foliage. It has no residual activity and is not effective on non-green, woody portions of plants.

Vinegar is an ingredient in several organic herbicides. One example, Burnout II, is a post-emergent herbicide that is sprayed onto the plant to burn off top growth, but is not guaranteed to kill the entire plant. The label on Burnout II states that perennials may regenerate after a single application and require additional treatment. Burnout II is 23% acetic acid. In contrast, household vinegar is about 5% acetic acid. Vinegar is corrosive to metal sprayer parts—the higher the acidity, the more corrosive. Plastic equipment is recommended for applying vinegar.

AllDown is another organic herbicide containing acetic acid. It also contains citric acid, garlic, and yucca extract. One brief California study compared the effectiveness of several organic herbicides to Roundup Pro. In this instance, AllDown provided the best control of broadleaf weeds after Roundup. While Roundup controlled 100% of the broadleaf weeds, AllDown had about an 80% control rate. However, this same study estimated the cost of Roundup Pro at $81 per acre, while the cost of AllDown was $1,733 per acre. Regardless of its effectiveness, the cost of AllDown would be prohibitive except on the most difficult weed patches.

Learn more in the ATTRA publication Weed Management in Organic Small Grains. This publication introduces the multifaceted, comprehensive strategy of weed management used for organic small grain production, combining techniques including crop rotation, sanitation, cultural practices, variety and seed selection and planting, cover crops, tillage, use of organic herbicides, and others.

Mention of specific products is for educational purposes only and does not constitute endorsement by NCAT, ATTRA, or USDA.

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Permalink What are some strategies for building healthy soils?

Answer: Let's consider the agricultural practices that help build healthy soil. In essence, we want to increase aggregation, contribute soil organic matter, increase biodiversity, buffer soil temperature, and minimize soil compaction and disturbance. Sounds like a lot, right?

Well, not really, if we break them down into six basic principles. Let's take a quick look at the principles that will define our soil management practices:

1. Minimizing tillage preserves soil structure, encourages aggregation, and keeps soil carbon in the soil profile where it belongs. Tillage brings a flush of oxygen into the soil that spurs microbes into a feeding frenzy on carbon molecules, resulting in CO2 release. We reduce tillage through the use of perennial pasture and minimum or no-till of cover crops.

2. Maintaining living roots in the soil for as much of the year as possible feeds soil microorganisms all year.

3. Also, by maintaining living roots and leaving grazing residual, we are covering the soil all year, forming an "armor" to protect it from loss of moisture and nutrients.

4. Maintaining species diversity is achieved with cover crop mixes and the use of diverse perennial-pasture mixes. Try to incorporate warm-season and cool-season plants, both grasses and broadleaf plants, in the same fields.

5. Managing grazing is accomplished by planning for an appropriate grazing-recovery period on your paddocks, keeping in mind that plants need various recovery periods depending on the species, the time of year, and the soil moisture content. Overgrazing (not allowing adequate recovery) reduces root mass, photosynthesis, and the amount of carbon sequestered into the soil, decreasing soil life. Proper grazing builds soil.

6. Finally, utilizing animal impact and grazing impact provides nutrient cycling in pastures, and contributes to soil organic matter. Additionally, the grazing action on forage plants encourages root growth and root exudation of plant sugars that feed soil microorganisms.

For livestock producers, this boils down to a combination of perennial pasture, cover crops in rotation on annual fields, and good grazing management. These simple concepts are described by ranchers Allen Williams, Gabe Brown, and Neil Dennis in a short video on how grazing management and cover crops can regenerate soils. View the video Soil Carbon Cowboys to get their take on soil health practices.

Learn more in the ATTRA publication Building Healthy Pasture Soils. It introduces properties of soil, discusses evaluation and monitoring of soil quality, and introduces grazing management principles and techniques that promote healthy soil.

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Permalink What criteria should I use to evaluate tools and equipment on the farm?

Answer: It is easy to start with simple/low cost/ non-mechanized tools, but depending on your goals, efficiency and scale of production should be evaluated. This includes understanding where the weak links are in a current system, as well as how much you are willing to invest in tools and equipment, which is often related to becoming mechanized and/or scaling up in equipment in order to increase sales.

It is important to keep in mind that the goal of a tool or equipment investment is to get a return on the investment, which may require some significant investments up-front. Farmers take a lot of pride in owning equipment, but we have to be honest with ourselves in making sure that our tool and equipment choices relate to being more efficient in our operations in order to be more profitable.

Some key considerations include:
• Does the investment fit within the context of your whole-farm plan?
• Is the investment scale appropriate; both in terms of current scales of production as well as future growth?
• How does a new tool or piece of equipment impact labor costs on your farm?
• What does it cost to own and operate? Think about costs beyond just the purchasing price, such as taxes, costs related to storing equipment, and maintenance costs.
• How durable is the tool/equipment?
• Is it easy to find parts, maintain and repair?
• Is the tool ergonomically designed to fit the body or is the machinery safe to operate?
• Who will be using it and how comfortable are you or your staff using it?
• Is the tool or equipment designed for your soils and terrain?
• What are your other options?

Doing research and talking with other farmers, especially if a farmer is using a tool or implement that you are considering, is important. Be specific in learning about how well a tool works in the field and its limitations. Think about how often you will be using the tool and whether or not you need to own it. Some tools are very specialized and are used on a limited basis. Have you looked in to what tools are available to rent through local organizations or county conservation districts? If you do decide to purchase a tool, tractor, or implement, consider adding a contingency line item to the budget to cover not only routine maintenance, but especially those unexpected costs. Finally, keep in mind that if you make a purchase and are not satisfied with it, you can always sell it.

To learn more, consult the ATTRA publication Equipment & Tools for Small-Scale Intensive Crop Production. This publication details equipment and hand tools for soil preparation, planting, and weed management. The use of appropriate equipment and tools, both in terms of size and practicality, can increase production efficiency and profits while minimizing the disturbance to soil and to plant health.

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Permalink What can you tell me about aquaculture species compatibility?

Answer: Polyculture is growing two or more species together to take advantage of inherent trophic characteristics and increase marketing opportunities. Some species will grow well together, especially if they have similar (i.e., vegetarian) or different (i.e., fed species vs. filter feeders) feeding habits. Other characteristics to consider are optimum water temperature, methods of harvest, and marketing options. A good example of compatible species are catfish and bluegill, where catfish are bottom feeders and bluegill forage in the water column.

Fed species (i.e., finfish) combined with extractive species (i.e., shellfish) utilize different trophic levels and where wastes of one species becomes food for another. An example of this would be raising salmon with shellfish. For information on shellfish aquaculture, visit the ATTRA’s Ecological Seafood and Aquatic Plant Farming section of the ATTRA website.

Raising two fed species together can be done if there is little chance of depredation of one species on another, particularly during the fingerling stage. An example of this would be raising catfish with carp and tilapia. Carp and tilapia are plankton eaters, but will also eat catfish pellets. Another option is raising tilapia together with freshwater shrimp, if the tilapia are grown in cages.

It is usually not advised to raise tilapia with bass, as tilapia are a major prey of bass. However, they can be grown in a polyculture if the correct ratio of bass to tilapia is achieved. Stocking ponds with tilapia broodfish can supply some forage for bass, while allowing for a harvest of both bass and tilapia. A good paper to review on this topic is Polyculture of Largemouth Bass with Blue Tilapia: Using Blue Tilapia as Forage.

It’s best as a beginner to start small and with the tried and true species combinations, as discussed above. For more detailed information on specific species in your area, I recommend contacting a SeaGrant Educator, who will have experience with aquaculture methods, species, and markets in your area. Contact Virginia SeaGrant for more information.

To learn more about aquaculture, consult the following resources:

Southern Regional Aquaculture Center publications
See especially the publications on beginning aquaculture

Alabama Education in Aquatic Sciences, Aquaculture, Recreational Fisheries and Natural Resource Conservation

Northeastern Aquaculture Management Guide

The Purdue Sea Grant Aquaculture Small Business Startup Kit

Small Scale Aquaculture Marketing

Budget spreadsheets for recirculating, pond, and cage culture

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Permalink What are some potential markets for maple sugar?

Answer: Maple sugar producers should identify markets for their sap, syrup, and value-added products and develop a cohesive marketing plan even before they tap their first maple tree.

Marketing options available to producers include selling the raw sap to another producer, making the sap into syrup for wholesale or retail sales, using the syrup to create value-added products to sell, or bottling the raw sap to sell as a tonic. Each option has specific considerations:

• Selling the sap raw to another sugarmaker reduces the initial investment of production equipment, but will yield significantly lower revenue, since most of the profit is in the finished syrup. It does provide a new producer with some revenue during the process of establishing a sugarbush, offering the opportunity for learning proper tapping techniques, setting up collection lines (which can be somewhat complex to design properly), and assessing yield potential so the producer can more accurately develop data-informed business and financial plans.

• Wholesale sales of syrup and value-added maple products often reduce risks associated with retail sales by offering assured sales through established customers. Wholesale sales can help ensure that producers do not carry excess inventory. However, wholesale will yield lower revenues than retail sales, which offer more favorable margins.

• Retail markets that sell direct to consumers carry a higher return on investment through higher per-unit revenues. Selling retail requires additional time, eff ort, and added costs for items such as bottling equipment, bottles, labels, advertising, and promotion. Retail channels to explore include sugarhouse storefronts, direct-to-consumer Internet sales, farm stands, farmers markets, fairs, restaurants, health food stores, and others. Think outside the box to identify untapped markets, such as selling syrup to a business that sells specialty gift baskets, or maple treats as wedding favors. Open houses provide an excellent opportunity to introduce new customers to your maple sugar operation, entice people to try value-added confections, and increase sales of both syrup and other maple products.

• Pure, unprocessed maple sap is also gaining in popularity as a tonic that cleanses the body, and it offers another viable market option.

You can learn much more on this topic by consulting the ATTRA publication Maple Sugaring: An Introduction to Small-Scale Commercial Production. It provides an overview of maple sugaring, including business planning, financial considerations, marketing, equipment and supplies, value-added products, organic certification, regulations, and quality control. It also includes resources for acquiring more knowledge on maple syrup production and determining if maple sugaring is a viable addition to a farming operation.

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Permalink How can I organically control Net Blotch in barley?

Answer: The blotch diseases are fungal leaf diseases similar to Tan Spot and Septoria, but they affect only barley. There are three blotch diseases to be aware of: Net Blotch, Spot Blotch, and the Spot Form of Net Blotch. Temperatures of 68° to 77°F and 100% relative humidity are ideal for spore production.

Spores are spread by wind and rain, with barley residue serving as the main source of infection for subsequent crops.
Organic control practices to prevent Net Blotch include the following:

• Use resistant cultivars.
• Bury crop residue and destroy volunteers.
• Use balanced applications of nitrogen and phosphorus. Heavy nitrogen applications create conditions favorable to outbreaks of this disease.
• Follow a crop rotation that includes at least two years of non-susceptible hosts. Barley should not follow barley, particularly if disease levels were high the previous year.
• If barley must be grown in two successive years, use a susceptible cultivar the first year and a resistant type the second.
• Use pathogen-free seed if possible.

You can learn much more in the ATTRA publication Disease and Insect Management in Organic Small Grains. It outlines various strategies that make up a good organic disease and insect management plan, and describes some specific diseases and insects that affect small grain crops. Although this publication pertains to various regions of the country, the main focus is on the Plains states—where most organic small grains are grown.

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Permalink How can I manage a large grasshopper population in my buffer strip?

Answer: Grasshoppers are pests all over the world. They are voracious feeders that chew on just about anything. Some reach massive numbers if conditions are right, and they can strip fields of all vegetation in minutes. Grasshoppers leave large holes in many different crops. These holes not only make produce unsightly, but also rob the plant of surface area and resources that would otherwise be used for photosynthesis, thus reducing its growth potential.

Grasshoppers lay eggs in the fall in non-crop landscapes such as ditches, fencerows, and weedy areas and their eggs hatch in spring-summer. A grasshopper will only go through one lifecycle per year, but different species will hatch at different times during the year, which leads to a prolonged hatch period.

Because of this prolonged hatch period, I think it is best for you to repeat an application of Entrust within the next week or so to take care of the young grasshoppers you are seeing. By preventing these young grasshoppers (instars) from maturing and mating, you will reduce the number of eggs deposited in the ground this fall. I would spray at least once more and then monitor to see how many instars are present a week or so after the spray.

When it comes to tilling in the eggs, grasshoppers tend to lay eggs in undisturbed soil so most of the eggs will be deposited in untilled locations, such as you buffer strip. I am not sure you would want to till that grassy strip. The corn field itself is not an ideal location for a grasshopper to deposit eggs, so there are probably not many eggs in the field where you would be tilling (unless this is no-till production). Because of this I do not see cultivation as a very effective means of control for you.

I would focus efforts on spraying the grasshoppers in your buffer strip while they are in their instar stages and less than ½ inch long. This will reduce the number of eggs deposited this fall and reduce the hatch next year. You can then keep the buffer strip mowed in the spring so that when the new generation of grasshoppers hatch you can easily see them and begin to spray. Keeping your buffer strip mowed in the spring will also allow predators like birds to easily see the young grasshoppers and help you with the control.

ATTRA has produced a tip sheet titled Grasshoppers – Botanical Control Fomulations that should interest you. It discusses the use of neem, garlic, mint, and eucalyptus in managing grasshoppers.

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Permalink Where can I find funding for a project on my farm?

Answer: An excellent place to start is the USDA's Small Farm Funding Resources. This guide contains information about funding sources for beginning farmers, training, technical assistance contacts, organizations with resources and programs for beginning and experienced farmers, and more.

Additionally, USDA's Alternative Farming Systems Information Center has compiled a list of useful resources and contacts that you should explore.

Building Sustainable Farms, Ranches and Communities and NSAC's Grassroots Guide to Federal Farm and Food Programs both offer information on Federal grants and programs. These guides can help you find programs that may fit your project. The USDA FSA Microloans Program is a newer program that is typically easier to qualify for and access than some of the other grant and loan programs.

Two ATTRA publications should be especially helpful, as well. Financing Your Farm: Guidance for Beginning Farmers lays out several financing options available to beginning farmers to start a farm, and illuminates the step-by-step process of applying for a loan. Small- and medium-scale sustainable farmers and those new to the world of finance are the target audience for this publication. The intention is to help these readers consider a range of options for raising capital and reducing expenses involved in starting a farm, with a bank or government loan as just one tool, albeit an important one, in a whole toolkit of creative possibilities.

Federal Conservation Resources for Sustainable Farming and Ranching offers an overview of the major Federal conservation programs that provide resources for farmers and ranchers to enhance and maintain sustainable farming and ranching practices.

Finally, ATTRA posts funding opportunities daily on its website.

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Permalink Should I plant pawpaw seedlings or grafted trees?

Answer: There are a number of cultivars that produce superior fruit. An unbiased description of most of these cultivars is available at Kentucky State University’s pawpaw website. Grafted trees of these named cultivars can be relatively expensive—up to $35 for a single potted tree; wholesale quantities would presumably cost less per tree—so prospective growers might be tempted to plant ungrafted seedlings. Although seedlings are much cheaper than grafted trees, there is enough genetic variability in the pawpaw that commercial-scale growers will be taking a significant gamble if they plant ungrafted seedlings, and they will not know the outcome of their bet for around five to seven years because it can take that long for seedlings to begin bearing (grafted trees usually start bearing in three to four years).

If you live in an area where pawpaws grow wild, you might be tempted to transplant from the wild, but wild pawpaws have long taproots, which are very easily damaged. Often, pawpaw trees in wild patches are rootsuckers from a single original tree. With poorly developed root systems per individual shoot, these rootsuckers do not transplant well. Even nursery-grown pawpaws can be difficult to transplant. They have fleshy, brittle roots with very few fine root hairs, which inevitably get damaged when transplanting. Experimentation has shown that, to be successful, transplantation should be done in the spring, at the time when new growth commences or soon after. If many roots are lost, it may be desirable to prune the top to bring it into balance with the remaining roots.

To learn much more about pawpaw production, consult the ATTRA publication Pawpaw - A "Tropical" Fruit for Temperate Climates. It provides a good overview of pawpaw production, including overall culture, pests, harvest, postharvest handling, marketing, and research that seeks to advance the pawpaw’s potential for commercial development.

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Permalink I am new to pastured poultry egg production. Should I choose day-old chicks or started pullets?

Answer: In addition to traditional day-old chicks, many hatcheries are now selling started pullets. These are birds that have been raised at the hatchery up to 17 to 22 weeks of age, or the onset of lay. Since these birds spent more time at the hatchery, the price is higher to cover feed, housing, and shipping costs. A chick can cost anywhere from $1 to $3, but a pullet can cost $17 to $20. Buying day-old chicks and raising them until they start producing eggs provides several advantages: lower start-up costs, reduced financial risk, and greater adaptability.

Although every farm situation is different, raising chicks up to lay will usually be more cost-effective than buying started pullets. Feed costs at the hatchery will usually exceed farm feed costs, depending on the source. Furthermore, the added expense of a started pullet causes higher economic risk for a producer trying to make eggs a viable agricultural enterprise. Predator attacks and disease can become even more costly when the starting cost of stock is so high.

Furthermore, although some hatcheries start their pullets on pasture, most do not. The transition to a new, pastured environment is more difficult for an older bird whose habits have already formed. When birds are introduced to pasture at a young age, they can get comfortable with the conditions they will be living in for the long term. USDA's NOP organic regulations require that "Poultry or edible poultry products must be from poultry that has been under continuous organic management beginning no later than the second day of life." If a farm is looking to become certified, it must maintain organic conditions for new chicks, or buy from a pullet producer who maintains organic certification.

You can learn much more in the ATTRA publication Pastured Poultry: Egg Production. This publication examines many of the risk factors that beginning poultry farmers should consider before acquiring a pastured laying flock. It addresses animal-management issues including breed selection, housing, nutrition, predator control, and natural-resource management. It also discusses processing and marketing of the end product, table eggs.

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Permalink What soap is safe to use on organic food crops for insect control?

Answer: Organic farming requires any pest management materials used be in compliance with USDA's National Organic Program regulations and must be used in the context of organic principles for farming and handling practices.

The Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) provides an independent review of products intended for use in certified organic production. After review, if substances are determined safe for organic use they are OMRI Listed.

Safer Soap is OMRI Listed and can be found at most farm supply stores. It can be mixed into solution with chili peppers and sprayed on plants to safely control insects on food crops.

ATTRA's Biorationals: Ecological Pest Management Database is a searchable tool that lists materials by brand name, distributor, and whether it is OMRI Listed. Because OMRI listings are frequently updated, organic growers should always check with their certifiers prior to applying any materials to their crops or livestock.

For more information on organic pest management, check out some of the resources on the Pest Management section of the ATTRA website.

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Permalink What rabbit breeds are best for meat production?

Answer: Two medium-size breeds, the New Zealand White (NZW) and the Californian, are the most important for meat production. They have white fur that is difficult to see if a few pieces are stuck to the carcass, and they have higher meat-to-bone ratios. The NZW is considered the best breed overall, considering mothering ability and carcass characteristics. However, crossing male Californians to female NZWs and then breeding the female from this cross back to male Californians results in larger litter sizes and heavier fryers than using straight NZWs.

Other meat breeds include Californian, Champagne d’ Argent, English Spot, and Flemish Giant, but these may not receive a premium price because of the colored fur. A relatively new hybrid breed developed from crosses of Flemish Giant, Champagne d’Argent, and Californian named the Altex (a combination of Alabama and Texas, as the breed was developed between Alabama and Texas A&M), has been bred for commercial viability. This breed is more heat-tolerant and gains more weight quicker than other breeds—reaching up to 10 to 20 pounds. For more information, visit The Rabbit Breeding & Teaching Program at TAMUK.

Breeds developed for fur include American Chinchilla, Checkered Giant, Silver Marten, and Rex. The Angora was developed for wool and meat. Laboratory breeds include Dutch, English Spot, Himalayan, and Polish. Pet breeds include Holland Lop, Polish, Dutch, and Mini Lop.

There are many other breeds of domestic rabbit that are raised for meat, show, laboratory use, and fur and wool production.
To learn more, consult the ATTRA publication Small-Scale Sustainable Rabbit Production. This publication provides an introduction to small-scale rabbit production, focusing on meat rabbits and sustainable rabbit management.

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Permalink What recommendations do you have for forage diversity in a grass-finished beef operation?

Answer: Forage diversity is key to productive pastures from a soil perspective as well as from an animal productivity perspective. Select forages that are high in sugar content, including perennial grasses and legumes and annual forages such as sorghum-sudan and annual ryegrass. Brassicas and field peas are an excellent addition and are high in energy. Provide dry hay with brassicas and succulent pastures to give enough fiber to prevent acidosis and to increase rumen function. Select forages with a relative feed value of 150 and with low NDF (less than 45%). Forages that are vegetative, and not mature, have highest energy with lowest fiber. A good rule of thumb is to graze grasses before they get to the boot stage (prior to seed head emergence).

Consider developing a grazing plan to help partition the forage resource adequately to animal needs. A grazing system is just an organized, planned way of using the pasture resource to ensure that the animals receive the right amount of high quality forage while maintaining the productivity and vigor of the pasture and soil. A grazing system should result in the highest forage production and use per acre, have variable stocking rates based on the pasture plants’ need for recovery, provide an even distribution of manure, control weeds through grazing or trampling, and provide more grazing options while reducing the need for mechanically harvested forages for most of the year.

The best way to ensure this is to develop a grazing plan and schedule that rotates animals from paddock to paddock and allows adequate time for plant recovery. Consider the following principles in planning a grazing system:

• Managing recovery and grazing periods
• Using animal impact to benefit the pasture and soil
• Setting up the right size and number of paddocks
• Lengthening the grazing season for more time on pasture

Recovery period is all about plant regrowth and is fundamental to developing a grazing schedule. It is important to plan for increasing recovery time when grass growth slows down. Grazing period is the length of time animals are exposed to a paddock and is important in maintaining post-grazing residual. Be sure to allow adequate stubble height and enough leaf area for plant regrowth or you’ll slow the process down. Recovery periods should be from 15 to 20 days in the spring, from 30 to 60 days in the summer, and 20 to 30 days in the fall, depending on climate, plant species, and rainfall. Some things you can do to help you manage recovery and grazing periods are:

• Graze early-spring pasture to remove top growth and allow grasses to tiller and get more dense
• Machine-harvest excess early-spring growth to capture dry matter and allow grass to regrow for the next grazing cycle
• Follow high producing cows with dry cows, but make sure they don’t stay in the paddock too long
• Provide supplemental pastures when pasture growth is slow and decrease grazing period when growth is rapid, leaving some grass behind
• Reduce stocking rate by selling young stock or culling as needed; do not allow too many animals to degrade forage and soil resources
• Feed stored forages when necessary to protect resources, such as during drought
• Quicker paddock moves give animals fresh un-fouled (manured) ground, meaning better intake

The next principle to consider is paddock size and number. How big should they be, and how many should you have to ensure animals get enough dry matter intake and the forage base stays healthy? This is likely the most important, most fundamental question a grazer can ask. Everything else stems from this. Some recommended maximum grazing periods are one to two days for dairy and three to four days for all other classes of livestock.

Animals must remain in a paddock long enough for them to get their fill, but not so long that they begin to graze plant re-growth. Plants may have grazable re-growth after two to three days, and the shorter the period in the paddock, the better the plant and animal production per acre. Short grazing durations also foster increased animal intake and provide higher quality forages than if the animals are in the paddock for longer periods of time. In fact, as animals remain in a paddock (for more than a few days) their intake of protein decreases, as does availability of high quality digestible dry matter (energy). This is one reason dairy producers who graze high-producing cows will move animals to a new paddock daily, or even a few times a day.

The following ATTRA publications will help you get a handle on planning and matching animal demand to forage resources:

ATTRA Managed Grazing Tutorial

Grazing Calculator: Extended Cow Calf Pair

Irrigated Pastures: Setting Up an Intensive Grazing System That Works

Pasture, Rangeland, and Grazing Management

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