Scrambling to find Plan B after a nasty winter for vetch
In my mind, I saw deep vetch and timely no-tillage. In my fields, I’ve got dead vetch, bare ground and problems.

By Jeff Moyer, The Rodale Institute farm manager

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

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611 Siegfriedale Rd.
Kutztown, PA 19530

May 11, 2007: I saw a bumper sticker awhile back. I remember it often when reality interrupts the future I have all mapped out. It said: “If you want to make God laugh…tell him your plan.”

Well, he must be laughing, because I had a plan. We’ll call it Plan A.

Plan A was to plant my cover crops on time last fall…check; have good weather to get the cover crop germinated and growing…check; get the crop through the winter in preparation for rolling and no-till planting…uh oh. No check.

Reality is that most of our vetch cover crop didn’t survive the winter. And that means Plan B, and in some cases Plan C, needs to materialize—and fast.

What happened? I can’t say for sure, but it may have been a “perfect storm” scenario. First we had a long, mild fall. This was great weather for harvesting and for growing cover crops, but it never really cooled off. We had a few days of cold weather early in December, then it warmed right up. January saw many folks outside in just a T-shirt. Then, in early February, the bottom fell out and the temperature plummeted.

We had no snow-cover for the first few days, then snow well into March. Spring never wanted to get here until early April, then—wham!—summer.

When you couple this weather pattern with the traits of some vetch varieties we used, it spells disaster. Why? Some varieties, those grown in more-temperate climates, can’t seem to adjust to unusual weather cycles.

I believe one of the varieties we planted “interpreted” the warm spell after that first cold snap as a sign spring was here. It began to grow, then couldn’t stop when the weather got cold again and it froze out. Other varieties stayed dormant through the early warm snaps, revived later with no problem and now look great.

This really points out the need to source your cover crop seed appropriately. (For details on vetch variety winterhardiness, in our experience, see Dave Wilson’s article from last month.) From my experience here in southeastern Pennsylvania, seed grown in northern climates works best.

Now what?

So back to Plan B. What are my choices for substitute fertility and weed management? While we get loads of benefits from legume cover crops, the benefit we need most going into corn is nitrogen.

Manure and compost: If you have access to animal manure, your N problem may be solved. Figure on adding enough manure to cover your nitrogen needs, and you’re off and running. Compost can work even better if you had the foresight to make some last year. Luckily, we have some of both. We make a fair amount of compost, and almost always have some on hand to use. I also had some leftover poultry manure to apply (which I did).

Emergency cover crops: I thought a lot about the option of using a short-season cover crop planted earlier in spring. Leading contenders were field peas or Austrian Winter Pea. We actually tried both in one field. I’m waiting to see how much nitrogen that will supply.

I was part of my problem, too. I waited too long to make my ultimate decision to abandon our vetch crop. I was hoping it might recover, but my hope was misplaced. The idea of rescuing a failed winter-legume planting in spring with a quick legume planting is a good one. It’s especially important for organic rotation systems but needs more research on dates, rates and fates before we’ll really know what’s possible in different situations.

“Buy” the bag: We always have the option of going out and purchasing nitrogen in several different forms that our organic certifier approves. Corn gluten, peanut meal, Chilean nitrate and many other sources are commercially available and can help to meet the nitrogen needs of any crop.

Incorporation and weeds: No matter what course of action we choose to take at this point, it looks like plow tillage will be in the picture to control weeds. No-tilling into sparse cover crops or bare ground in an organic situation just won’t be an option.

So maybe your Plan A didn’t work either. With a crop rotation and a network of resourceful farmer problem solvers to consult, you still have options to figure out your Plan B. Or Plan C.

I still wish we could go back to Plan A and do organic no-till in waist-deep hairy vetch at 75-percent bloom, but then God wouldn’t get his laugh on me. Hope all is well on your farm.

From One Farm to Another.


PS: If you’re willing to share some of your creative work-arounds at a time when your big Plan A fell through, drop me a note. I’ll feel better, and maybe God will smile again at what we’ve learned.