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Home  > Question of the Week

Question of the Week

Permalink What information can you give me on business and farm planning for an organic beef cattle operation?


Answer: Thank you for your recent request for information from ATTRA, the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service. I am pleased to provide you with information on getting started in organic hay and beef cattle production.

Beginning an organic farming and ranching operation requires attention to many details, as the nature of organic hay and beef cattle production is quite complex. In addition to managing livestock health and reproduction, you need to be mindful of hayfield, pasture, and grazing management, marketing, recordkeeping, as well as organic transition requirements. Of particular importance, in my view, is forage management, which is the foundation of a sustainable operation. Pastures and hayfields need to provide high amounts of nutrients to growing and lactating cattle, and the best way to ensure this is with a grazing and haying management plan.

Business Planning

The publication Building a Sustainable Business: A Guide to Developing a Business Plan for Farms and Rural Businesses brings the business planning process alive to help alternative and sustainable agriculture entrepreneurs transform farm-grown inspiration into profitable enterprises. Sample worksheets lend a practical perspective and illustrate how real farm families set goals, researched processing alternatives, determined potential markets, and evaluated financing options. Blank worksheets help the reader develop a detailed, lender-ready business plan or map out strategies to take advantage of new opportunities. The publication can be ordered for $17 from Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education at SARE Outreach Publications, PO Box 753, Waldorf, MD 20604-0753, or downloaded from their website at

Organic Certification

Please refer to the ATTRA publications on organic certification. These publications go into detail on all aspects of developing an organic system plan and maintaining organic integrity. Of particular notice is Organic System Plans: Livestock Production. This guide will assist you in completing the organic system plan and application by explaining just what information certifiers want and why it is required.

The first thing you will need to do is to contact an organic certifier. The certifier will provide you with an application packet, which is your Organic System Plan. The plan details the practices you will use to ensure and document organic integrity and compliance on your farm or ranch. Your certifier’s organic system plan application packet will look a lot like the ATTRA publication Organic System Plans: Livestock Production.

The NOP Organic Pasture Standard (Access to Pasture Rule)

The National Organic Program (NOP) Access to Pasture Rule became law on June 17, 2010. Existing operations will have to be in compliance by June 17, 2011, and new operations certified after June 17, 2010 must be in compliance before certification.

Some of the important components of the Rule are that ruminant animals must graze pasture during the grazing season, which must be at least 120 days per year and obtain a minimum of an average of 30 percent dry matter intake over the course of the grazing season. Animals must have year-round access to pasture, roughages used for bedding must be organic, and confinement for some management and healthcare procedures and special events like a 4H fair are allowed. In addition, producers must have a pasture management plan and manage pasture as a crop to meet the feed requirements for the grazing animals and to protect soil and water quality (NODPA, 2010).

Recordkeeping is necessary for organic producers, and the ATTRA publication Organic Livestock Documentation Forms is a good resource for this purpose. Due to the new Access to Pasture Rule, organic producers also need to provide documentation of a pasture management plan with their organic system plan which addresses the following (USDA, 2010):

• Types of pasture provided to ensure that the feed requirements of the rule are being met,
• The cultural and management practices to be used to ensure pasture of a sufficient quality and quantity is available to graze throughout the grazing season and to provide all ruminants under the organic system plan with an average of not less than 30 percent of their dry matter intake from grazing throughout the grazing season,
• The grazing season for the livestock operation's regional location,
• The location and size of pastures, including maps giving each pasture its own identification,
• The types of grazing methods to be used in the pasture system,
• The location and types of fences, except for temporary fences, and the location and source of shade and the location and source of water,
• Soil fertility and seeding systems, and
• Erosion control and protection of natural wetlands and riparian areas practices.

Refer to the publication Pasture for Organic Ruminant Livestock: Understanding and Implementing the NOP Pasture Rule for more information on this requirement, including calculation worksheets.


NODPA. 2010. Let Them Eat Grass! NODPA's Pasture Rule Resource Page.

USDA. 2010. National Organic Program Final Rule. (select NOP Regulations from the menu on the right side of the page, then select Electronic Code of Federal Regulations (eCFR) (Standards) from the list in the center of the page)

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Permalink What information can you give me on stocking densities for weeder geese?


Answer: Thank you for your ATTRA request on the stocking densities for weeder geese.

According to Dave Holderread in 'The Book of Geese', "The number of weeders needed depends on factors such as time of year, climate, crop, volume of noxious vegetation that is present when the birds are put to work and whether or not the middles of rows are mechanically tilled. In most cultivated crops, if geese are placed in the field before there is a heavy growth of unwanted grass and broad leaf plants, two to four birds per acre are normally sufficient. In uncultivated fields, approximately twice as many geese will be required."

Metzer Farms, a hatchery of duck and geese, gives the following example "an acre of strawberries in the Northwest, that is cultivated between rows, will require a minimum of 6 geese." They suggest that since the numbers of geese necessary vary from site to site, it is best to estimate and then adjust through observation and experience. Surplus geese can always be sold off. More information on weeder geese from Metzer Farms can be found at:

The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE)program funded a project which studied the 'Effects of Cover Crops on Weed and Insect Management in Blackberries'. In this project they also experimented with weeder geese, specifically White Chinese, within the blackberries. A summary of the project can be found by going to and searching the project code FS99-085. A full report on the project is available through your SARE region. The Northeast Region SARE can be contacted by phone at 802-656-0471, and by email at

Since each system is different in a variety of ways, the answer is not real cut and dry. I hope this information will help give you an idea of the numbers needed for your operation.

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Permalink What information can you give me on cover crops and crop rotations for organic vegetable production?


Answer: Thank you for your recent request for information from ATTRA, the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service. I am pleased to provide you with information on cover crops and crop rotations for organic vegetable production.

Cover Crops:
Cover cropping is another way to minimize off-farm inputs (1). Cover crops are soil-building crops that are not harvested, but are composted or tilled back into the soil. They can be part of a crop rotation, or can be used to prevent soil erosion and improve fertility. When choosing a cover crop you need to make several considerations. There are many ways to use cover crops in a production cycle:

• as a main crop during the primary growing season. Used as a rotational crop, the cover will exclude production of a cash crop.
• as a companion crop, or living mulch, the cover is planted between the rows of the cash crop—for example pumpkins interplanted with white clover.
• as a 'catch' crop for nutrients, planted after harvest of the main crop or between the rows of the cash crop to reduce leaching of nutrients.
• as an off-season crop grown to protect the soil, usually during the winter when there is no main crop—this is not the case in your farm, of course. This is the most common practice in temperate areas.

Crop Rotations:
A rotation plan used in conjunction with cover cropping and compost is an ideal way for a vegetable farmer to increase fertility and organic matter, while minimizing off farm inputs.

In general, many farmers use the season in which the cash crop is produced as a rotation tool. E.g. Spring/ fall crops, winter crops, short season cucurbits, solanaceous crops, etc. Farmers will often plant these “types” of crops in blocks and rotate the entire block each year. E.g. The winter crops of radishes, arugula, lettuce, and beets are planted in block one and rotated to block two next year. This “block” system meshes well with cover cropping, as you can simply have one block in cover crops at any one time.

The best way to illustrate this is with some examples. Referenced below is a publication of crop rotation sequences from several diversified vegetable farms titled Managing Crop Rotation Systems. This publication was developed by the New England Small Farm Institute in 2002 as a DACUM from several experienced farmers in the Northeast. As a result of this work, a new book has been published titled Crop Rotations on Organic Farms: A Planning Manual. Information on this book is provided in the Resource section of this letter.

Cover Crops in Annual Rotations
In annual cropping systems, cover crops are often chosen to maximize benefits such as biomass and nitrogen production. However, other factors must also be considered. For example, fitting a cover crop into the sequence of a crop rotation can be difficult. Therefore, fast-growing, drought-tolerant cover crops that require minimal management are preferred. Cover crops with fast germination and good seedling vigor are usually chosen because of their ability to compete with weeds. Also, species with the potential to reduce pest populations should be chosen, while those that harbor diseases or arthropod pests of the cash crops should be avoided.

Common cool-season legumes used as cover crops in annual rotations include vetches, winter pea and bell bean. Because clovers and medics grow slower and compete poorly with weeds and require more management (e.g., mowing), they are used less commonly used in annual rotations. For similar reasons, cereal grains are usually preferred over other grass species, such as bromes, in annual rotations. Sometimes, however, the annual cereal grains can be used as a “nurse crop” for clovers and medics. They are seeded at the same time and the cereal grains are mowed once or twice. This system gives some shelter to the clovers and helps distribute the seed evenly.

In choosing warm- season cover crops, the ability to perform well with minimal irrigation is often of primary consideration. Legume species in this category include cowpea, hyacinth bean and sunn hemp. Typical grass cover crops for warm conditions include sudangrass and sorghum (2).


(1) Hinman, Tammy. 2007. ATTRA Case letter on cover crops and crop rotations. Butte, MT: ATTRA.

(2) Ingels, et al. 1993. Selecting the Right Cover Crop Gives Multiple Benefits. California Agriculture 43 (5):43-48.


Sullivan, Preston. 2003. Overview of Cover Crops and Green Manures. ATTRA Publication # IP024.

Bowman, et al. 1998. Managing Cover Crops Profitably. Sustainable Agriculture Network. Handbook Series 3. Pages 36-39.

NESFI. 2002. Guide to the Expert Farmers’ DACUM Chart for “Managing Crop Rotation Systems.” Belchertown, MA: NESFI.

Grubinger, Vern. 2010. Cover Crops and Green Manures. Brattleboro, VT: University of Vermont Extension.

Further Resources:

Greg Bowman, Christopher Shirley, Craig Cramer. 2007. Managing Cover Crops Profitably, 3rd Ed.. Sustainable Agriculture Network.
This book distills findings from published studies and on-farm experience into a user-friendly reference tool for farmers and agricultural educators. You will find detailed information on how to select cover crops to fit your farm, and how to manage them to reap multiple benefits.

Magdoff and van Es. 2000. Building Soils for Better Crops. 3rd Ed.. Sustainable Agriculture Network.
This book provides step-by-step information on soil-improving practices.

Mohler, Charles and Sue Ellen Johnson. 2009. Crop Rotation on Organic Farms. NRAES.
This Planning Manual provides an in-depth review of the applications of crop rotation-including improving soil quality and health, and managing pests, diseases, and weeds.

The above three books are available for purchase through SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education):
SARE Outreach Publications
PO Box 753
Waldorf, MD 20604-0753
Telephone: (301) 374-9696
Fax: (301) 843-0159
Web site:

Kroeck, Seth. 2004. Soil Resiliency and Health: Crop Rotation and Cover Cropping. Northeast Organic farming Association.
This book renders the tool of crop rotation and its close relative, cover cropping, understandable and available for reducing crop pests and disease and building soil's nutrient level, balance and general health.

Cover Crop Seed Suppliers:
Local feed or field crop seed suppliers often carry many different cover crops. The ATTRA web site also contains a database of organic seed suppliers that includes cover crops:

Fedco Seeds
Organic Growers Supply
PO Box 520, Waterville, ME 04903
(207) 873-7333
Call to get a catalog
Johnny's Selected Seeds
955 Benton Avenue
Winslow, Maine 04901
Toll Free: 877-Johnnys (877-564-6697)

Peaceful Valley Farm Supply
P.O. Box 2209
Grass Valley, CA 95945
To place an order, call toll free at 1-888-784-1722.

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Permalink What information can you give me on using high tunnels in warm season climates?



Answer: Thank you for your recent request for information from ATTRA, the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service. I am pleased to provide you with information on using high tunnels for vegetable production in warm season climates.

High tunnels are used in southern climates to protect crops from pests, extreme solar radiation, and inclement weather. These high tunnels, which are commonly used throughout the Middle East, South America, and the southern U.S., differ in their primary use for season extension. This is opposed to the use of high tunnels in temperate regions where high tunnels provide warmer growing environments so that the growing season can be extended earlier in the spring, later in the fall, and possibly throughout the winter.

Due to the difference in use from temperate climates, high tunnels in more tropical weather conditions require somewhat different designs and construction. As with any high tunnel, the underlying factor in the design is ventilation. For a passively ventilated roof, it is suggested that the area of the roof vent be 20% of the floor area and located on the leeward side of the high tunnel. In addition, ventilation can be achieved through roll-up or roll-down sides. In fact, in many tropical areas, insect netting is used for the sides of the structure which allows for better ventilation.

One option to consider for reducing the amount of light and heat in a high tunnel is to use shade cloth rather than a plastic film. Shade cloth is a strong polyethylene fabric that can be purchased in different densities, usually between 30% to 80%. Shade cloth provides ventilation, improves light diffusion, and reflects heat, all of which help keep the high tunnel cool. A 30% density shade cloth can reduce the air temperature by 4 degrees Fahrenheit. The reduction in light intensity is beneficial to crops such as lettuce and greens. A further reduction in temperature can be achieved with the shade cloth by using sprinkler irrigation or mist.

Several growers have been able to reduce temperatures even more than with a shade cloth by using an aluminum reflective shade. These fabrics contain an anti-oxidation coating that cools the high tunnel. Some growers claim they can achieve a temperature reduction of 15 degrees Fahrenheit by using an aluminum-based shade cloth.

The web site high ( is a great resource for high tunnel growers. It provides information on growing in a high tunnel, resources and suppliers, as well as a list serve. You may be able to find information on using a high tunnel in your region and can also post any questions you may have to the group. In addition, the resource section contains several suppliers of shade cloth and aluminum fabrics, such as FarmTek ( One supplier you may want to investigate is Haygrove ( These unique three season high tunnels are becoming very popular amongst fruit and vegetable growers and may be of interest to you. Although based out of the UK, Haygrove does have a dealer and warehouse located in Pennsylvania ( Finally, I’d like to pass along the link to greenhouse consulting company that specializes in tropical vegetable production: This site contains information on constructing and growing in high tunnels located in tropical areas.


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