At a recent public farm forum, a local conventional farmer
mentioned his concern about livestock enterprises going organic
in the area because the organic hay they purchased was full
of weeds. He felt they would import foreign weeds as well
as increase the weed population since most manure is not composted
before applied to the land. Is this a real concern? How would
you respond to this issue?
Thanks for the question and for reading New Farm. I’ll
start by saying that organic is not, and should not be, an
excuse for poor farm practices. Yes, there may be specific
instances where weeds may get out of hand, but organic farmers
who are doing things right should be able to manage weeds
in a responsible manner. Hay crops are no exception. Our organic
alfalfa/grass hay fields are generally no weedier than our
conventional neighbor’s. They are planted as part of
a sound crop rotation, using high-quality seed, planted into
healthy soil and harvested at the proper time. When it is
time to rotate them out of hay, we do that. Hay, crop rotations,
use of cover crops, applications of compost and cultivation
practices are all part of a weed management strategy that
can work well to prevent weeds from ever getting out of control.
It is true that many farmers, including organic farmers,
don’t compost their manure. Personally I think they
should. Composting can kill weed seeds that might otherwise
pass through the animal’s digestive system still intact.
But keep in mind this is also true for conventional farmers.
Few of them compost, and weed seeds move onto their farms
and can be spread with manure as well.
Thanks for your reply. I'm a dairy planner with the Snohomish
Conservation District in Everett, Washington. I haven't had
experience with organic hay production or completely organic
pastures. We have a few dairies that are starting or looking
into going organic. Your response seems pretty solid to me.
Can you point me to any resource that instructs on how to
manage and produce organic hay?
If your farmers have experience in growing and making hay
conventionally, they should have no problems doing it organically.
The big difference is in how you get the hay established.
Since you cannot use herbicides to help the slow-to-establish
alfalfa or perennial grasses get going, you need to consider
timing and the use of a nurse crop. Frost seeding into a nurse
crop of winter grain works here in the East, as does establishment
into a spring-planted nurse crop of oats or other spring grain.
Once the hay is up and growing, it can out-compete the annual
weeds. Making the hay is not really any different from conventional
to organic. Cut it at the right time and get it into storage
in the best condition possible. Good luck, and let us know
how the transition is going.