Farmers gear up cover-killing rollers for spring no-till planting season
Interest in chemical-free crop systems lead more farmers to seek high-value alternatives.

By Laura Sayre and Greg Bowman

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Posted February 16, 2006: Cover crops are growing or hibernating in eight bioregions—from California to Virginia, and Mississippi to North Dakota—in fields of cooperators in The Rodale Institute’s organic no-till research. Farmer-researcher teams are assembling their one-pass, kill-plant equipment for this spring, with each using a roller based on the tool designed at The Rodale Institute® several years ago.

The ambitious research project expands the number of on-farm test fields for the concept, which holds great promise to reduce seasonal weed pressure in organic and non-organic systems without using herbicides. It is based on rolling down a winter cover crop (a winter grain, legume or a species mix) and planting a cash crop in the same pass—without herbicides and without tilling. When successful as designed, the early season mulch from the rolled cover crop provides weed suppression, nitrogen and preserves soil moisture, as well as organic matter for the soil and habitat for beneficial insects—all the while cutting out additional field passes to save fuel, time and soil compaction.

Research goals are to better understand how variables of cover crop species, best maturity stage for rolling, soil conditions at rolling, planter foot/trash handling refinements and cash crop selection all work together in each bioregion under real farm conditions. Cash crops to be seeded by cooperating farmers range from corn and soybeans to cotton to vegetables. In Virginia, vegetable transplants will be going in.

Jeff Moyer, farm manager at The Rodale Institute, reports strong interest in the innovative no-till system wherever he goes to speak before farmers’ groups. “It’s perfect for organic farmers, who can’t spray—and everybody else, too. Nobody wants to till and spray more than they have to.”

Read about roller innovations and the integrated cropping systems they support on our “No-till Plus” page (

Covers boost no-till benefits

The combination of no-till technology with a cover crop that delivers multiple benefits gives conventional no-tillers raising commodity grains extra reasons to diversify their rotations. The change holds big benefits they could never attain without the covers.

“Especially in humid tropical and temperate environments, no-till alone may reduce erosion, but by itself the practice is ineffective in building soil carbon and improving soil quality,” says Dr. Wayne Reeves, research leader at the USDA-ARS J. Phil Campbell Sr. Natural Resource Conservation Center at Watkinsville, Georgia. “Cover crops and crop rotations with high-residue crops are the other key components of a conservation system that have the potential to do more than maintain soil carbon.” Reeves has many years of research experience with cover crops, tillage and sustainable crop systems research.

The Rodale Institute (TRI) no-till project cooperators in California and Mississippi will probably begin experimenting in March, using rollers built from The Institute’s technical drawings. A local fabricator has crafted two variations on the original roller design: a 10 ft. 6 in. model (like the TRI prototype), suitable for use with a four-row planter set for 30-inch rows; and a 15 ft. 6 in. model, suitable for use with a six-row planter on 30-inch rows but also workable for a four-row planter on 38-inch rows.

Building the first models is Jacob Blank of I&J Manufacturing, Gap, Pennsylvania. Being in Lancaster County puts him within an extensive network of specialized steel suppliers, engineers with ag experience and machinists who provide laser cutting, he says.

By adding the Institute's cover crop roller to his equipment inventory, Blank is making a strategic move toward no-till, as are many of his former tillage tool customers—many of whom farm with horse-drawn equipment. An earlier innovation several years ago was a draw-behind roller/hooded sprayer unit, designed to knock down mulches or weeds in the rows between plastic-covered raised beds for vegetable production.

Roller system offers transition to organic

The Rodale Institute cover crop roller is in a similar vein, but because of its ability to succeed without chemical herbicides, it also fits in with a parallel trend toward organic management among area farmers. Lancaster County boasts the highest density of organic farms in Pennsylvania and one of the highest in the country. This phenomena is a product, in part, of the powerful combination of stewardship and enterprise in a time of dynamic agricultural change that characterizes the county’s “Plain” (Amish and conservative Mennonite) communities.

Organic farming can be a good fit for "plainer farmers," Blank adds, because it's often more labor intensive. It provides a way to keep farming with higher-value crops and products when land values rise but commodity prices don’t.

Moyer noted that while front-mounting the roller on a tractor improves cover-crop kill (because it hits the plants before they are pressed down into tire tracks), Amish operators could pull the roller with horses without losing effectiveness. To accommodate push or pull options, Blank re-tooled the roller mounting design to allow roller movement in either direction by changing several bolts.