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

Any advice for restoring my old hay fields?

Posted July 12, 2007

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,

Anything on restoring 15- to 20-year-old fields to produce horse and sheep hay? I need some advice!



Dear Kim,

I can't tell much about the current condition of your fields from the email you sent, so I'll just give you some general information on bringing fields back into production. Then, if you have specific questions, drop me another email with more details.

First, assess exactly what you've got. That means starting with a simple soil test from your Extension office or private laboratory. While this won’t give you a complete picture, it will at least give you a snapshot of where your soil is from a chemical perspective. Then take a look at the crops and weeds, or any brush currently on the surface. Will standard tillage be able to handle what’s growing there, or are more drastic measures needed?

You can't plow heavy brush or small trees with a farm tractor and a standard plow. If the fields are large and need to be tilled, think about bringing them back in small sections to prevent soil disturbance, since large sections are more prone to erosion. Any soil amendments you need should be put down before tilling. For some fields, a disking and re-seeding might be enough. In any event be sure the soil surface is relatively flat and smooth to make your cutting, raking and baling operations easier.

Timing for the establishment of the hay crop will be critical, since weed competition can be a serious issue in organic systems. This is due to the slow germination of the perennial hay species needing to compete with fast-germinating annual weed species. To overcome this effect, many organic growers start hay under a nurse crop of wheat or oats. These nurse crops can be harvested as grain in mid-summer or mowed down late in spring and used as hay or haylage—or they can be left on the ground if they aren't thick enough to smother the young hay seedlings.

You will need access to machinery and the labor to operate it, and you may already have what you need. If not, consider hiring a neighbor to help prepare the soil and get the seed planted. Anything you can do up front in terms of good soil preparation and good planning will pay off in the quality of your hay and the ease with which you can make it.