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
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
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
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.