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
Stay in touch.
From One Farm to Another