Question of the Week
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 grain production for livestock feed.
When transitioning from a fallow field to cultivated system of crops, the pattern may differ slightly from moving from a conventional to organic cropping system. In either case, weeds that were previously suppressed—either by herbicides or by the continuous cover of sod or pasture, and the weeds may become problems again as conditions favor their growth—sometimes emerging with greater vigor in the second year. In either scenario, different weeds will germinate and grow at different times of year. By planting a series of different cover crops with different seasons and growth patterns and working them in sequentially, one can allow different types of weed seeds to germinate and die, eliminating large numbers of different kinds of seeds from the soil seed bank. Crops such as buckwheat, rye and other cereal grains have allelopathic qualities, the best cover crop is often a mixture of different species. Legumes such as vetch or clover not only add organic matter and nitrogen from biological fixation, they also help suppress weeds that germinate in the gaps in plantings between other crops such as buckwheat or rye. Grasses and other vigorous cover crops can effectively suppress weed growth. And, crops that are densely planted, and/or skillfully cultivated can also suppress weeds.
Good implements for effective mechanical cultivation weed control are needed. In order to achieve close cultivation without damaging plants, one also needs good land preparation, including straight rows and accurate seeding or transplant lines in the beds. The resources below review cultivating tools and implements, guidance systems, and flame weeding equipment, and may help you choose appropriate strategies and implements:
Steel in the Field; A Farmer’s Guide to Weed Management Tools
Edited by Greg Bowman. 1997. Sustainable Agriculture Network, National Agricultural Library, Beltsville, MD http://www.sare.org/publications/steel/steel.pdf
The September-October 2006 issue of the ATTRA newsletter was dedicated to weed management. If you do not read that already, the link to it is: https://attra.ncat.org/newsletter/attranews_0906.html
Another useful website is: European Weed Research Society, Physical and Cultural Weed Controls http://www.ewrs.org/pwc/glossary.htm. This multi-lingual site has photos as well as a description of the use and application of each tool.
Options: When beginning, I suggest spring plowing or tilling of some sort to control your current weed population. Establish a warm-season cover crop that will give you lots of organic matter and compete with weeds and prepare you for a perennial or annual cover crop that you can incorporate into a no-till system. Legumes such as cowpeas, soybeans, annual sweetclover, sesbania, guar, crotalaria, or velvet beans may be grown as summer green manure crops to add nitrogen along with organic matter. Non-legumes such as sorghum-sudangrass, millet, forage sorghum, or buckwheat are grown to provide biomass, smother weeds, and improve soil tilth. Sorghum-sudan grass is very effective at smothering weeds and producing a lot of organic matter in a short period of time and might be a good selection for your particular situation.
In the fall, this cover crop should be mowed with a rotary mower (or “brush hog”) and incorporated with a tillage implement, or if you have access to some type of reduced tillage implement, you can direct seed into the Sudan grass residue. At this point, it would be possible to plant a perennial cover crop mix. Perennials more regenerative than annuals, given their rooting depth and growth habits. A perennial legume will help provide some nitrogen, such as alfalfa or white clover planted with a grass, such as orchardgrass. Another option would be to plant another cool-season annual that will over-winter such as a rye/vetch combination. This will establish in the fall and go dormant through the winter. In the spring the crops will begin growing again. When they begin to flower, rotary mow or flail chop the cover crop and either plant directly into the dead standing plants or till in and plant your desired cash crop.
For additional information on Reduced/ no-till systems see the ATTRA publication Resources for Reduced Tillage on Your Organic Farm available from http://attra.ncat.org/new_pubs/attra-pub/reduced_tillagerl.html or by calling the toll free number referenced at the end of this letter.
The New Farm web site also has a lot of great information on no-till farming. The direct link to this section is http://www.newfarm.org/depts/notill/index.shtml.
Some other options: Consider utilizing forages as cover crops for two or more years during the transition. Organic alfalfa/grass hay is well sought after in many regions of the Northeast and can be a great boost to farm income. Also, spring oats followed by alfalfa hay might be a great way to reduce weed pressure while building soil fertility during organic transition. Other crops to consider that are generally high value include organic flax or annual rye. Organic oats and peas can make a great hay or silage for cattle while building soils for growing annual cash crops later in the rotation.
Details on Cover Cropping Prior to Planting Cash Crops: A vigorous summer annual crop followed by a winter perennial cover crop would help combat perennial weed problems and improve soil organic matter at the same time. Buckwheat is an aggressively growing cover crop that has large cotyledons that shade and often out-compete other weeds. It put on a lot of biomass in a very short period of time. Mow the buckwheat shortly after it begins to flower (before it begins to seed) with a rotary mower. After this has sit and broken down for a few weeks to a month, you can plant a fall cover crop of annual (cereal) rye (this cover crop has shown to have allelopathic [suppresses plant growth] properties and could help prevent weed seed germination) and hairy vetch. Rye and vetch begin to grow in the fall (if planted before September 15th) and go dormant through the winter. In spring the rye and vetch will begin to grow again. Rotary mow the rye and vetch once in June after is begins to grow and put on a lot of biomass and then plow or rotovate it into the soil. At this point you should have a better handle on your weeds and may begin cropping whatever it is you decide to plant.
Logsdon, Gene. 1977. Small-Scale Grain Raising. 320 pages. Rodale Books.
Sustainable small-scale grain raising. WSARE Project Report FW01-081.
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