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

How do I build fertility on my hayfields without chemicals?

Posted November 9, 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've been making hay for years, and I'm located in a part of the country where there simply aren't any farms left. Most of my hay goes to contractors. The lack of farms means that there aren't sources of manure. I'm loath to use chemical fertilizers on my land, but I want to keep the soil as healthy as possible (from a county soil test I've got to do some liming, but we're in good shape otherwise). I'm concerned that if I keep "withdrawing" hay without adding any other nutrients, my fields will eventually run down. I want to add humus and nitrogen to my soil. I know about crack seeding of clover and alfalfa in the winter, but I'm wondering about overseeding my hayfields with oats or winter rye as well in early fall. In the case of oats, the oats grow some but then die during the winter. Would that help to keep my fields healthy? In the case of hay and no manure, can you make any suggestions as to what I might try?

Philip Wick

Dear Philip,

You bring up a challenging question. You are right on target when you suggest that constant taking without replacing will eventually lead to degenerating soil health and poor-quality hay. All the hay we produce is grown as part of a diverse rotation that includes row crops, small grains and forage. Your idea of interseeding the hay fields is a good one. You might try a no-till drill to re-seed the fields, but be aware that if you have alfalfa already in the field you won't be able to re-seed alfalfa into it. Alfalfa into alfalfa won't work. You might be able to make compost from sources other than animal manures, like leaves or grass clipping from local municipalities, food waste from institutions or some other compostable byproducts from your area. This would potentially put humus and micro nutrients back into the soil. Oats will winter kill, as you say; rye would grow well and make decent hay in the spring.

Good Luck with your enterprise.