No-till corn, part 1: Corn and quack grass

Jeff,

Have enjoyed your articles on The New Farm. I was wondering--what positive experiences have you had with covers and no-till corn? Also, if someone was trying to eliminate herbicide use, what methods would you use to clean-up fields with heavy quack grass infestations? Could you give me a list of covers you are trying this year; we are always trying something new. Thanks.

Roger Coulter
Northeast PA


Good morning, Roger,

I sure do have had some positive experiences with organic no-till and cover crops. I’ve also experienced some failures along the way. I’ve been working on systems design and modification for at least 10 years now and have come to some basic conclusions. While I don’t have time here to condense all those years worth of information I’ll give you those conclusions.

  • No-till has a place on an organic farm.
  • In an organic no-till situation, cover crops and their establishment prior to planting the main crop (corn or soybeans) is extremely important.
  • While planting corn or soybeans in a no-till organic system is doable, it is not sustainable in a continuous no-till system. The system must include tillage at some point in the rotation.
  • On an organic farm, eliminating tillage during a single season is easier than reducing tillage. I either plow or no-till. Only disking or chisel plowing creates weed pressure.

As far as cover crops go – we use legume and legume grass mixes for corn ground (usually hairy vetch or hairy vetch and oats). For soybeans we use straight grass like rye, wheat or barley.

I have found that timing of killing the cover, equipment used to kill the cover, and planter modification are all critical components to the success of the operation. (For a more detailed description of my work with cover crops, and the new cover crop roller designed to aid in managing the covers in a no-till system, check out Laura Sayre’s new article.)

As far as quack grass goes, it’s a tough situation. I usually suggest one of two treatments, both based on the idea that quack or thistles are usually the result of mismanagement in the past … and total infestations took time to establish. Therefore the treatment will take time to be effective. The organic treatment would be to fallow the field by rotating successive plantings of buckwheat and grain rye in rapid succession and the necessary tillage for their establishment over an 18 month period. Of course, this means you would have two growing seasons with no marketable crop. The second treatment would not be organic and would require an effective one time herbicide treatment followed by 3 years of non-certified crop rotations geared towards minimizing the quack grass return. This would allow you to market a conventional crop while working towards certification of the field.

Hope this information is helpful. Please feel free to email any time.

Jeff