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

Can you tell me more about your no till organic roller?

Posted April 13, 2006

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 readers … and we’ll be doing it on a regular basis.

Got a question of your own? Click here to send it to Jeff.

Dear Jeff,

I Googled “no till organic” and got the 2002 New Farm article on the roller. Can you tell me more?

I went organic and no till in the late ’80s. Went back to tillage; now I am going back to no till. I own and rent out seven Haybuster drills.

I understand there is a organic no-till project at Washington State.

Richard Parrott
Twin Falls, Idaho


Dear Richard,

Thanks for the email. We love to talk about biologically based no-till systems. We have been working on cover crop based no-till systems for many years and have had some great success stories along with some failures.

The system we are currently working with involves the use of winter-annual cover crops that are rolled and crimped at the appropriate time to kill them where they form a dead mulch to prevent the germination of weeds in an annual cropping system. We have done this successfully with corn, soybeans and pumpkins using the front-mounted roller you saw in the article. Since that time we have been working on planter modifications to improve the crop stand. We are happy with the way the roller works and in the cover crops’ ability to prevent weed seed germination.

We are also working on adjusting our crop rotations to take advantage of this new no-till system. Our goal is to be able to use no-till to establish three crops out of a 5-year rotation.

If you go to the no-till plus page of the New Farm website, you'll find more information from our work here at The Rodale Institute as well as that of other farmers. We are currently working on setting up research projects in eight states across the country where rollers are now in place to roll the cover crops that were established last fall.



Dear Jeff,

I haven’t gotten to the forum, but I wonder how it could actually kill anything (and weight per foot which could then translate to cost to build). Are plans available? This looks like the Dixon Imprinter used to kill brush in rangeland and create mini reservoirs in places like Arizona.

I met one of the New Farm editors in Washington, DC, last year at the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture annual meeting. I am on the campaign as a director representing the Western Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (, which I chair. Our annual meeting is next Monday in Grand Junction, Colorado, in conjunction with the Southwest Marketing Association (organic, sustainable small farm types) with about 600 attending. Jim Dyer’s the ramrod. I also find myself recently invited to be on the Western SARE administrative council and have had a session reviewing grants (the ones submitted by universities and NGOs).

There is a lot of reinventing the wheel. They best begin surveying farmers to find if the practice is working! A university dry bean breeder has used our farm for four years for his trial grounds. He is now able to evaluate beans which have a tolerance for weeds!

Your outfit has always been straightforward. I have a big box of early ’70s and another of early ’80s Organic Gardening magazine. Is all that research and pamphlets referred to still around?



Dear Richard,

You have asked a lot of questions here. I'll answer what I can and have copied your email to several colleagues.

How does the roller kill anything? It only works on cover crops that are winter annuals or crops that, during their normal life cycle, would die back on their own. For example hairy vetch--it is planted in early fall, grows through the winter, comes on strong through the spring, forms seed pods and dies in the summer. What we do is interrupt this life cycle in late spring when the plant is in full bloom by rolling it down. Physiologically the plant has reproduced even though no seeds were formed. The plant then forms a mulch to prevent weeds from germinating. Hairy vetch also happens to be a legume so all the nitrogen needed to grow a crop of corn can be produced in a single season. This same thing will work on small grains like rye or wheat. They can be rolled down when in bloom, and they will not come back.

This system will not work on perennial crops like hay or weed infestations that already exist. The roller weighs about 12 pounds per foot empty and with water can go to about 20 pounds per foot.

I'm pleased to hear that you hold our past work in high regard. The Rodale Institute has always strived to be a solution-based organization, feeling that pointing out problems is only useful when it can direct you to solutions. While it may seem like reinventing the wheel, what we are often doing is going back to grab what was good in the past and bringing it forward, modernizing it, and putting it to work to the benefit of the system.

I wish you the best of luck in your work with SARE and at your meeting of the Southwest Marketing Association.