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
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 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
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.
Stay in touch.
From One Farm to Another