Cultivating your cultivation techniques
Keeping your weeds in check means keeping your tools honed, your eye on the fields and some new tricks up your sleeve.

By Jeff Moyer, The Rodale Institute® Farm Manager
Posted June 8, 2006

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

By now most of you, like us here at the Institute farm, have your crops pretty well planted, first-cutting hay is almost done, and it’s time to get back to the dreaded task of managing weeds.

Our corn is up, and everything is lookin’ good. But for how long? We’ve used both a rotary hoe and a tine weeder on our crops for “blind cultivation,” and that seems to have done a decent job. There are some small weeds poking through that are already too large for the hoe or weeder to get. That’s where the cultivator comes in.

You really need to be out there checking your crops and monitoring the weed pressure on a daily basis. Things change quickly this time of year. A quick look over the fence at my garden at home clearly points that out. It seems like I went from no weeds one day to a real mess a few days later. Fortunately that’s at home, not here at the Institute.

Generally speaking, if you wait until you see weeds, the first flush has already “beaten you to the punch.” Rotary hoes and tine weeders work on weeds that are in the white root stage. This is when you can lightly dig around in the soil with a pen knife and see those white hair like seedlings of weeds but before they are well rooted with green tops.

We are just beginning our cultivation of row crops as this article is being written, so it is far too early to tell you how it is all going to turn out. But there are some basic things to keep in mind as you begin your weed management strategy. First is to realize that cultivating weeds is more art than science. You can’t just set up the equipment and go from field to field or crop to crop. Fine tuning the equipment is very important. Keep in mind that any weeds that escape each pass have a better and better chance to be there at the end of the season.

As the season progresses, spend some time assessing the successes and failures of your strategy, your timing and your equipment setup. Make some notes for next year—write-‘em down or you’ll forget. This way, each year you’ll improve upon the success rate as you gain experience.

Don’t expect perfection but work toward it. You’re bound to make mistakes. You’ll miss some weeds, tear out some crop, work in soil that’s too wet or too dry or maybe invent a mistake I haven’t even thought of yet. That’s all part of the process of learning. The goal should be to strive toward perfect weed control but to be realistic in what we can do.

Replace worn parts. Yes, those shovels that are worn down to the shank, those spoons on the old rotary hoe, or the discs that are only 8 inches around instead of 12 inches. You can’t expect worn-out tools to do a proper job. That’s not to say that older equipment won’t work, just that you need to replace those worn parts of the tool that work in the soil. Sweeps need to be the right width to cover the surface area or work to the proper depth. This will be money well spent. I had a fellow tell me that rotary hoes don’t work on his farm, and when we took a look at what he was using it was shot. All the spoons were worn down to posts. There was no way this tool could properly remove weeds. Once the hoe was rebuilt, he said he didn’t know it could work so well.

And last but not least, don’t be afraid to innovate. Change your tools. Try different sweeps, switch to a curved knife, or try a spider wheel where a disc once was used. The folks I know who are the best cultivators are the ones who are always trying to improve the equipment and time things just a little bit better. If the new changes aren’t working, go back to what did or try another improvement. Check on what other folks are doing but keep in mind what works for them may not be the best tool for you. You may have different soil, different crops, different weeds or even just different likes. The thing is to be creative and open to trying something new. But don’t throw out what works in the process.

If you’re like me you’ll end up with more weeds than you’d like but fewer than you or the crop can tolerate. June or July is the best time of the year to evaluate your weed management strategies. Determine what worked and why or why not, make those notes on paper and file them away for reading next winter. I hate to make promises I can’t keep, but I will promise you that, no matter how well you did this year, next year the weeds will come again.

From One Farm to Another