8:30 a.m. Feb 25 and I was full up on organic oatmeal, organic raisins and organic milk, leaning forward in my seat at the first of two day’s worth of workshops at the Midwest Organic Farming Conference in La Crosse. I was learning about “Soil Building through Cover Cropping and Composting” by Jeff Moyer, Director of Farm Operations at Rodale Farm.
He started out by asking how many of us raise livestock. A few hands went up.
“Wrong,” he said.
He told us we are all raising livestock. Every acre has over 2,500 pounds of livestock living in it, and we need to feed and care for these critters. Tilling is NOT the way to do that. Tilling breaks up complex relationships between life forms in the soil, dries it out and exposes it to the sun. He uses cover crops to keep every field filled with something green and growing every month of the year.
Moyer urged us to shift our perspective.
These cover crops are not just the filler between the crops you really want to grow. They are the main focus. If cover crops do well, everything else will too. “Treat them like a cash crop,” he said.
COVER CROPS CAN:
- Suppress weeds
- Sequester CO2 in the soil
- Support mycorrhizal fungi http://mycorrhizas.info/ (I’ll be posting about this soon.)
- Provide a natural mulch.
- Protect soil from the increasingly frequent drought and heavy rain events we are seeing here in the Upper Midwest.
Here’s a good website for a cover crop overview.
I have read enough and seen enough to believe I want to farm no-till, but when you take over fallow, feral land, as Doug and I have done – how do you get there from here?
I asked Moyer in a follow-up email how you do that. He said:
There really is no other way to reclaim your land than by using tillage and some hard work. Tillage is not always the enemy, we just need to think about when we use it, why we use it, and think through what other choices we have. In your case there are no alternatives (except herbicides, and I don’t recommend that route).
So we were on the right track last fall when we prepared some land next to the barn by rototilling up the grasses and invasives then planting a cover crop of winter rye. Our question since then has been, how do we handle that rye?
I came out of Moyer’s class with the answer. Instead of tilling the rye before planting something else, we need to use a roller/crimper.
I came out of that class practically jumping for joy, found Doug coming out of his talk on growing elderberries (the subject of another future post, no doubt) and told him that even if I didn’t learn another thing all weekend, the conference was worth the cost and time. It makes my scalp tingle just to think about it now.
Instead of mowing down plants, leaving stubble that may well say, “Thanks, I needed that!” and then sprout a revitalized top, the roller/crimper bends them over and then breaks their stalk repeatedly. So instead, crimped plants say, “I’ll just lay here and be mulch that doesn’t blow away.”
As we transition to our land, there are a many pieces of farming equipment that are new to Doug and me, and though I had heard the term roller/crimper before, I had mentally filed it away as something to look into at a later date.
Learning what a roller/crimper actually is a revelation!
If roller/crimper doesn’t conjure up an image for you, check this Roller/Crimper Gallery .
Most of the photos in the gallery are massive pieces of equipment that get pushed by a tractor. You can roller/crimp on the front end of your tractor while planting into your new mulch with equipment pulled on the back. The whole process is complete in one pass – no more extra trips that just compact the soil and burn up more oil.
For Doug and me, who are thinking small and starting with as little gas guzzling as possible, the real take home was a way to make a hand operated crimper for small-scale use that we can take into our winter rye this spring!
TO MAKE YOUR OWN MANUAL CRIMPER
Start with a 2×4 ,which is neither 2” or 4” on a side – if you want to learn more about how the 2×4 came to be and came to not be 2×4 –, check out Della Hansmann’s Feb 17 post at Dwelling Places
Anyhow, a 30” piece of 2×4. Bolt a piece of angle iron to the 4-inch side. Attach a piece of rope to each end of the board long enough to hold in your hands with the board lying on the ground in front of you. Put your foot on the board, raise your foot and the crimper using the ropes, step forward about six inches, put your weight on it and crunch some plant stems with the angle iron. Lift it up, and repeat.
This is the kind of work I love. A steady, aerobic workout that you can pitch to your own personal and ever-changing pace while doing something so useful, simple and right.
My homemade crimper is going to be my new best friend! Mine and my underground livestock.
PLEASE SHARE YOUR FAVORITE FARM/GARDEN IMPLEMENT!