Before all your mornings turn to mud...
...get out early to frost-seed covers, hay.

By Jeff Moyer, The Rodale Institute® Farm Manager
Posted March 9, 2006

photo by Greg Bowman

Jeff Moyer is the farm manager at the 333-acre Rodale Institute research farm, and has been here for over 26 years, refining the farm's cover cropping and crop rotation systems. The farm has over 1,000 organic apple trees, a 3-acre CSA, 270 acres in a rotation of corn, small grains, hay, and edible soy beans for a Japanese market, and 25 acres of experimental research plots that have been used to test and compare the yield, soil health and environmental impact of organic and conventional systems for the last 22 years.

"It's been extremely rewarding to work at The Rodale Institute," says Jeff. "Working on projects and with people who are having a positive impact on family farm practices, economics, and environmental stewardship is very fulfilling. The positive changes I've seen on our own farm over the years—and farms around the world— convinces me that we're on the right road."

How to contact Jeff

Click here

611 Siegfriedale Rd.
Kutztown, PA 19530

It’s the bare soil full of little heaving cracks that make frost seeding work. Wheat roots and plants help keep soil in place. Broadcasting the hay seeds (legumes or grasses) leaves them on the surface (or in the cracks), where freezing, thawing and rainfall work them into good seed-soil contact.
March already. Where has the winter gone?

Maybe once upon a time winter was a time of rest for the land and for the farmer. Well, not anymore. Now winter is a time for repairing equipment, ordering seeds and supplies, gaining new knowledge, attending meetings—lots of meetings—and for planning spring activities. And March is the time to begin to put those plans and fresh knowledge to work.

Even though the last snow has really just melted it’s time to plant here in the Northeast. The Midwest for that matter too. “Plant what?” you might ask. Well, now is the perfect season to get cover crops and hay crops started in an organic system.

Lots of conventional farmers start their alfalfa in early fall by straight seeding it into well-prepared soil. This works great for them since they have herbicides in their weed-management arsenal. But, for those of us who have chosen to rely on biological and cultural system, fall-seeding is not our best option. I like to start these crops in late winter by frost-seeding them into established small grain crops.

Grain plants protect slow-growing perennials

Here's the concept behind frost-seeding: Many of the seeds we plant as perennial hay germinate and establish themselves very slowly. This makes sense since they are putting much of their energy into root growth. It also makes them very susceptible to competition from annual weeds which will germinate and grow rather rapidly in the well prepared seed bed of early fall. But, with fall-planted small grains like wheat serving as a nurse crop, we can keep weeds out of the picture.

Here is how our system works. I think most of us recognize that fall-planted small grains generally are weed-free coming out of the winter season and into early spring. It is this weed-free period of time that allows us to establish those slow-growing hays like alfalfa or orchard grass.

The operation itself is quite simple. We use a broadcast seeder (either hand-operated or mechanically driven, depending on the acreage we are seeding) to throw the seed over and into the young wheat. We try to time this activity to coincide with the freezing and thawing periods of the soil. March is usually perfect since we have cold nights in the 20s and slightly warmer days. This change in temperature actually causes small crevices to open and close in the soil surface between the small wheat plants. The seeds fall into these openings in the soil and actually get pulled beneath the surface. Sort of a self-planting process that we only start.

The wheat, or other small grain, acts as a nurse crop by protecting the young alfalfa from weed pressure. This system allows us to establish these perennial crops without the use of herbicide. Today we were planting alfalfa (12 lbs per acre) and orchard grass (6 lbs per acre). We were using a small motorized seeder mounted to a garden tractor. We were out in the fields early in the morning when the ground was still frozen to avoid any damage to the young wheat plants. We could just as easily used a hand-crank seeder and walked the seed onto the fields and expect to get the same results. Many folks use 4-wheelers (one bumpy ride) or tractor-mounted spinner seeders to do the same thing. The method of distributing the seed is not as critical as the timing.

Frozen soil, still air

You’ll want to get out there on the frozen ground early in the morning to avoid creating ruts in the new hay field. Keep in mind any tracks or ruts you put in the field here will be bouncing you around later in the year when you’re trying to make hay. You’ll want to choose a day when the air is calm and still, which is often the case early in the morning. It doesn’t take much of a wind to give you uneven strips in the field. You won’t notice this until you go to cut the first hay crop. That’s when you’ll find strips of good hay alternating with strips of weeds. So, pick a nice day, get out there and start those hay fields by simply frost seeding your small grains.

If you're thinking of transitioning a field from a conventional farming system to one that can be certified as organic this is a great way to get started. Chances are you seeded your small grain without any fertilizer or herbicide since much of that work is typically done in the spring. And hay is a great transition crop.

Diligent work in lowering perennial weed pressure in your crop fields really pays off when you want to frost-seed into small grains. You want bare soil between the grain rows and as few weeds as possible. We use about the same seeding rates as for drilling the hay or cover crops.

We get establishment 100 percent of the time with this process, with survival through the summer of about 80 percent, usually because of extended droughts before the plants get their roots down deep. March in this part of Pennsylvania is wet enough to allow germination and never hot enough to burn things up.

This won’t work on established pasture, except where there are bare spots. Real pasture renovation, starting a new species from seed, takes some kind of light tillage or a no-till drill that will firmly stick the seeds into the soil and cover them.

Whatever your farm plan, look for gaps in your system where legume or grass cover crops can be established. This can be an economical way to start perennial crops without tillage, keeping the ground covered with green vegetation is good for the soil and good for your bottom line.

The real planting season is just around the corner and it’s great to get out there on these early frosty mornings and get started.

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