ATTRA's COVID-19 statement

Spring Update: You can now download any of our technical materials for FREE!


What are some low-input, soil management strategies I can use on my farm?

B.J.TexasAnswer:I am pleased to provide you with information regarding soil management strategies for your new farm. This letter is outlined to provide you with more details on developing a long-term soil fertility plan, preferably with less off-farm inputs.On-Farm Composting:Composting is certainly a way to reduce off farm inputs on your farm, if you have animals. If you do not, there are usually plenty of places willing to get rid of their waste. I have listed below an introductory publication on composting manure. It will provide you with some basic tips on how to get started on this process for your farm, including carbon to nitrogen ratios, materials that compost well, placement, etc. Also listed is the Rodale Institute’s “Making and using compost at The Rodale Institute Farm,” from their web site New Farm. They provide a good on-farm example and recommendations for developing a compost system on your farm, including methods of turning and sources of materials. Some other useful resources to consider are “The On-Farm Composting Handbook” and the “Field Guide to On-Farm Composting.” These are practical handbooks which present a thorough overview of farm-scale composting and explain how to produce and use it. The information on where and how to obtain these books is listed below under “Further Resources.” Cover Crops: Cover cropping is another way to minimize off-farm inputs. 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.North Carolina State University has identified and listed several cover crops for climates such as yours. This list will help to guide your decision on which type of cover crop to use. The University of California, Cooperative Extension, and the USDA have identified cowpea as an ideal summer cover crop for hot-summer areas. Cowpea cover crops are cost effective because they enrich the soil with organic matter, add over 100 lbs per acre of nitrogen, and have other harder to define benefits for crops grown in rotation with them. I have listed sources of Cowpea cover crop below. Refer to the ATTRA publication “Overview of Cover Crops and Green Manures.” This publication will help outline some of the cover crops used for the specific purposes that I outline above. 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 Springfall 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. Listed below is a “real farm” sample of crop rotation sequences for a diversified vegetable farm titled “CEFS Student Farm Upper Field Crop Rotation” from the Center for Environmental Farming Systems at North Carolina State University. They grow several acres of vegetables year-round on their student farm. You mentioned in the phone conversation that you were interested in having a 1/5 of your land in cover crops at any one time. This would be easy to incorporate into the rotation that I describe above. At any one time one block could be planted in cover depending on the season?winter annuals such as oats and peas or rye and vetch, or in the summer, cowpeas or sudan grass. 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 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 sunnhemp. Typical grass cover crops for warm conditions include sudangrass and sorghum (1). Also listed below is an excerpt of the excellent book, Managing Cover Crops Profitably (PDF/2.89MB), by Greg Bowman, Christopher Shirley and Craig Cramer. It describes several rotation and cover crop scenarios for vegetable farms. The Nordell Farm profile is particularly inspiring for many farmers. Timing:It is important to have a sprinkler irrigation system to establish cover crops, but with your climate, it may be possible to time cover crop planting when there is rain forecasted. If you tend to have droughty summers, establish a drought resistant cover crop such as cowpeas with the spring rains. I have listed many resources for you to follow up on below. References:(1) Ingels, et al. 1993. Selecting the Right Cover Crop Gives Multiple Benefits. California Agriculture 43 (5):43-48.Resources:Hopkinson, Tim. 2005. Composting Livestock Manure. Klickitat County Solid Waste Division. Goldendale, WA. Sayre, Laura. 2004. Making and Using Compost at The Rodale Institute Farm. Rodale Institute. The New Farm.Grover, Joel. 2005. CEFS Student Farm Upper Field Crop Rotation. Center for Ecological Farming Systems. North Carolina State University.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.Further Resources:On-farm Composting Resources:Rynk, Robert, ed. 1992. On-Farm Composting Handbook, NRAES-54, is available for $25.00 per copy (plus shipping and handling) from NRAES, Cooperative Extension, PO Box 4557, Ithaca, New York 14852-4557 or Mark Dougherty, ed. 1999. Field Guide to On-Farm Composting. NRAES Publishing. Ithaca, NY. Cover Crops:Greg Bowman, Christopher Shirley, Craig Cramer. 1998. Managing Cover Crops Profitably. 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. Second ed. Sustainable Agriculture Network. Handbook Series 4. Sustainable Agriculture PublicationsHills Building, room 10University of VermontBurlington, VT 05405Call to order: 802-656-0484Cover Crop Seed Suppliers:Try a local feed or field crop seed supplier! They often carry many different cover crops.Fedco SeedsOrganic Growers SupplyPO Box 520, Waterville, ME 04903(207) 873-7333 Call to get a catalogJohnny’s Selected Seeds955 Benton AvenueWinslow, Maine 04901Toll Free: 877-Johnnys (877-564-6697) Valley Farm SupplyP.O. Box 2209Grass Valley, CA 95945To place an order, call toll free at 1-888-784-1722. Seed Co.Source of cowpea cover crop seed.211 County Road 151Breckenridge, TX 76424-8165Toll-Free Tel 800.722.8616Fax Line (254) 559-5024Email: julie@texasisp.comGeneral Farming info:Grubinger, Vern. 1999. Sustainable Vegetable Production from Start-Up to MarketPublication number: NRAES-104 Cost: $38.00 Length: 280 pages ISBN: 0-935817-45-X Date of Publication: August 1999 Available from: NRAES Cooperative ExtensionPhone: (607) 255-7654E-Mail: NRAES@cornell.edu