No till corn, part 3: A reader shares the results of his own experiments

Hi Jeff,

I recently started reading your article each month on the New Farm website and came across an archived article where you talk about your experiences with no-till organic corn. Did you plant any fields/plots this year with organic no-till methods? I have been experimenting with rolling cover crops this growing season and wanted to share my research with you. I set-up 3 research plots this growing season to evaluate the effectiveness of rolling cover crops on my parents’ organic farm.

I purchased a 4 row (12.5 ft.) rolling stalk chopper made by JBM this spring. It has two rows of choppers and each row had 4 separate units (30” wide) with a 10” space in between each unit. There are 5 chopping/rolling blades per revolution that make contact with the ground every 11 inches. Due to the spaces in between each unit, I had to roll each plot twice to cover the entire area which was not ideal. However, for the price of the used rolling stalk chopper I couldn’t complain, since this was just research.

My goal was to set-up a no-till organic system for our 6 year rotation; small grain, hay, hay, row crop, row crop, row crop. The challenge that I am facing now is killing/suppressing the hay so the row crop plant of interest does not have to compete.

Plot 1
Plant of interest grown in 2002 = soybean
Cover crop = Winter Rye @ 2 bu/ac planted on 11/18/2002
First Rolling = 06/05/2003, once the rye reached pollination (Feeke’s scale 10.54)
Second Rolling = 06/11/2003
Drilled = 06/14/2003 with 10’ Tye No-Till drill
Plant of interest grown in 2003 = corn (16” rows)

I was able to achieve a 100% kill rate of the rye cover crop. Because of rye’s high C:N ratio and slow breakdown, I had excellent suppression of weed seed germination. This field is much cleaner than our conventionally tilled organic corn field, which are next to each other. The corn within plot 1 was planted a month late, due to the late pollination of the rye, and we did not receive any moisture for 10 days after it was drilled. In light of this, it is growing very well and should make it to harvest if we don’t have an early frost. It was pretty sparse on the clay hillsides. I want to add hairy vetch to the rye cover crop mix for next year…I’m sure the corn will appreciate the nitrogen.

Plot 2
Plant of interest grown in 2002 = oats under seeded with hay mix (alfalfa, red clover, and timothy)
Cover crop = Under seeded hay mix
First Rolling = 06/01/2003, 90% of the alfalfa and clover were blooming
Second Rolling = 06/11/2003
Drilled = 06/14/2003 with 10’ Tye No-Till drill
Plant of interest grown in 2003 = soybean (8” rows)

I didn’t expect to kill the hay by rolling; however, I was hoping that the rolling would chop/stunt the hay’s growth while the soybeans germinated and out-completed the hay. The 10 day dry spell threw this idea out the window as the hay came back strong and the soybeans had a slow/delayed germination. We eventually cut and baled most of plot 2 but left a 10’ wide strip. Where the hay was not as thick, the beans had the upper hand and are looking good. It will be interesting to see the difference in yield. An idea for killing the hay crop without tilling for next year was to have the cows forage on the plot in late October. Once the cows had the hay eaten down to less than 1”, drill a cool season cover crop like rye that would potentially out-compete the hay and smother it??? Or, sacrifice the no-till concept for one year in the rotation to kill the hay crop effectively by moldboard plowing in the fall as shallow as possible, only 1 ½” – 2 ½” deep, and then following immediately with harrowgator and no-till drill of fall rye or just no-till drill by its self. Any ideas??

Plot 3
Plant of interest grown in 2002 = Hay mix (alfalfa, red clover, and timothy)
Tillage = Hay was chisel plowed on 01/17/2003 and disked twice
Cover crop = Winter Rye @ 2 bu/ac planted on 02/01/2003
First Rolling = 06/01/2003
Second Rolling = 06/11/2003
Drilled = 06/14/2003 with 10’ Tye No-Till drill
Plant of interest grown in 2003 = soybean (8” rows)

I was initially planning to evaluate this plot as a living mulch with spring planted fall rye. However, I didn’t chisel deep enough and the alfalfa took hold again along with the spring planted rye. I ended up rolling this plot more so as to chop/stunt the growth of the alfalfa. Again, with the 10 day dry spell after planting, the alfalfa and rye had plenty of growth before the soybeans took hold. However, the rye eventually grew to about 16 - 24” and began to die out. The alfalfa was quite sparse so it did not complete with the soybeans too much. Overall, this plot looks pretty good today.

I have collected data (initial population of cover crop and weeds prior to rolling, kill rate of cover crop after first and second rolling, germination rate of seed of interest, and weed population during growing season) and taken pictures throughout the growing season, which will eventually comprise a nice Power Point Presentation and sustainable ag grants in the next year. Let me know if you have any ideas. I am planning to continue the research into next year as well.

Best regards,
Dan Smith
Manager of Technology Transfer and Support
Genetic ID NA, Inc. (a GMO testing service)

Hi Dan,

Thanks for the email. I’m printing it off and sharing it with my colleagues here at the Institute. Our no-till was a mixed bag this year in terms of success. My goal for 2003 was to try out a new roller we designed and built and a new no-till planter. This part of my work was a great success. We built a roller to mount on a front 3pt hitch. It is 10 feet 6 inches wide to cover the 10 foot 4 row planter. This allows us to roll and plant in one operation. When working legumesin this system, it worked great (corn was the target crop). We also used this planting system to plant soybeans into rolled covers of wheat, barley and rye. This worked great to establish the beans, but the long season weed pressure was more than anticipated due to the constant rain, and now the bean fields look weedy.

The problem we had with the corn was not weed pressure but black birds and crows. They pulled out and ate 4 acres of plots in 2 days. Nothing left. So you can see it was a mixed bag. We will be carrying on this work in 2004. Cover crops will be established this fall for spring planting. Thanks again for the email and for reading my articles. I look forward to hearing more about your work. (For photos of the no-till plots, and the roller, check out Laura Sayre’s new article.)