ASK Jeff: The Rodale Institute’s farm manager, Jeff Moyer, answers your hardcore farming questions

Going undercover on the shores of Lake Michigan

Posted January 27, 2005

What Jeff brings to the table

Jeff Moyer, who’s been the farm manager here at the 333-acre Rodale Institute research farm for more than a quarter of a century, receives lots of mail from farmers just like you asking for advice. Jeff’s hands-in-the-dirt experience over the past 26 years has run the gamut from refining the farm's cover cropping and crop rotation systems (including managing 270 acres in a rotation of corn, small grains, hay, and edible soy beans for a Japanese market) to overseeing The Rodale Institue Farming Systems Trial®, the world’s longest running side-by-side comparison of organic and conventional agriculture. We thought it would be fun and informative to share some of these farmer-to-farmer exchanges, and Jeff’s practical wisdom, with our NewFarm.org readers … and we’ll be doing it on a regular basis.

Got a question of your own? Send it to Jeff at:
jeff.moyer@rodaleinst.org

Dear Jeff,

I attended the Michigan Organic Food and Farm Alliance [MOFFA] conference January 8 and found it informative and encouraging. I am a certified organic vegetable grower on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. I would like to add soybeans and grain to my rotation schedule and to do it no-till. What is the best preparation for a no-till crop, and when is the best time to plant? I have two fields that were cover cropped last year, disked in early summer and then left. They have grass and some weeds in them now. I was going to try burning them to reduce weed pressure.

Do you use compost on all your fields? I want to reduce use of chicken manure. I currently use some crab-shell waste mixed with chicken manure.

Any thoughts or suggestions would be appreciated.

Elizabeth Thornton


Dear Elizabeth,

Thanks for the email and the questions on organic no-till. When considering organic no-till, the first thing to keep in mind is that we are talking about a cover crop manipulation system. The reason I point this out is that a heavy, dense cover is critical to the success of the system, since this is the main method of managing the weeds. Without this biomass, the system falls apart. Therefore we need to plan at least a year in advance before we can consider no-tilling organically.

The first step is to consider what the cash crop will be, in your case soybeans. Then pair that crop up to a suitable cover crop. For soybeans I like to use rye; for corn I prefer hairy vetch. Then do whatever is necessary to establish the cover crop at the optimum time of the year. For us to establish rye, we plant it in mid to late October. Then, when it is time to plant the soybeans, you will need to time the planting date to coincide with the maturation of the cover crop so you can kill it without the use of herbicides. For rye, that means the grain should be headed out.

Fields that had cover crops last year and now have some weeds will not be suitable for no-tilling this year since any of those weeds that are there now will continue to grow, and any weeds that germinate in the spring will not have enough biomass to prevent them from taking over.

While this all sounds very complex, it isn’t. In conventional agriculture as we reduce tillage we typically increase herbicide use. Something has to be there to manage the weeds. In organic no-till as we reduce tillage we increase cover crops to help us manage the weeds.

Good luck,
Jeff

 

Have some questions to Ask Jeff? E-mail him directly at jeff.moyer@rodaleinst.org.