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
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 (www.newfarm.org/depts/notill/index.shtml).
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,
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.