Sunday, October 15, 2017

Covering Ground

Every year we do our best to make the current growing season our best growing season in as many senses of the word that we possibly can.  And, every year, as the season progresses, we succumb to the temptation of criticizing ourselves for our recurring failure to succeed.  Since this is our fourteenth year of growing on this land, I am tempted to say that we are being completely unrealistic.  But, I don't think the goal is unrealistic.  What is unrealistic is our interpretation of how well we have done each season to attempt to reach that goal.

The farm is full of complexities and there really is no way for us to do everything we intend to do with perfection.  Part of the challenge is figuring out what 'good enough' is and how to live with that.  Case in point - our struggle every season to incorporate cover crops into our production fields.

For those who do not know, a cover crop is essentially a planted crop that is not intended to be harvested.  Instead, it is meant to be turned back into the ground.  Examples of cover crops we grow on our farm include clovers, buckwheat, millet, sunn hemp, tillage radish and annual ryegrass.

Let's go see what we managed to accomplish in 2017 for cover crops.

Let's go out towards the field just South of Valhalla.
Our plan developed this Winter called for the removal of two fields in our rotation from cash crop production.  The intent was to put the cover crops in and let them mature through the summer.  Some of the crops would be mowed before they went to seed and others might have had poultry on them, depending on the stand and timing of those flocks.
And here's where we are right now with those fields
Our plan was to run sections of different cover crops.  We wanted buckwheat in some of the areas where we have noticed more Canadian Thistle.  It seems to us that buckwheat is a good smother crop.  A smother crop does exactly what it sounds like it does.  It germinates and grows so quickly that any other plants just have trouble competing.  While buckwheat will not remove the thistle, it sure does set it back.

What's with the bare area in the middle?
Of course, the best laid plans were not followed.  We just didn't have enough time in our days to get the cover crops in as early as we wanted.  As a result, we planted some larger seed cover crops during a very dry time of year.  Of course they (and the clover) decided not to germinate well.  So, the center area has more button weed than cover crop.  Guess we'll have to get in there and cut them down before they go to seed.  But, hey!  Even button weed residue is going to help create organic matter in the soil.

The left side of the picture shows millet and sunn hemp.  The millet is doing extremely well this year and we intend on leaving it and letting the cold weather kill it.  This crop will keep the soil covered to prevent erosion and the dense foliage will add nutrients for next year's veggies.  The sunn hemp, on the other hand, got a slow start and hasn't gotten as big as it was intended to get.  In a decent year, it easily gets taller than the farmers.  This year, we'll settle on half its normal height.

The picture does not show the tillage radish back towards the bush line.  These are daikon-like radish that grow strong tap roots that break up the soil.  We felt that some of the area in the East of this field area was compacted, so we put this cover crop, along with clover, in that area. 

The clover is just getting started after all of the rain we have gotten. Better late than never, but it did nothing to keep the weeds from taking off as well.  We may have to mow this area to keep the weeds from going to seed, but the clover is short enough, we should be able to get away with it.  Clover and vetch are great cover crops to add nitrogen to the soil.  We felt that some of the middle areas in these fields could use a nitrogen boost, which is why we made the choice we did.

Guess I have to mow the buckwheat!
Buckwheat is a short season crop that flowers well and then sets seed.  Typically, we want to kill the buckwheat before it forms seed.  The dry weather resulted in smaller plants that went to flower quicker than usual.  We WERE counting on a frost kill.  But, it is October 11 and... no frost!  So, we need to mow it down.  By cutting it and letting it lie, the residue will break down naturally on the soil. 

We have had people ask us if we were going to let our chickens graze the buckwheat.  However, everything we have read suggests that will not be a good idea.  It's one thing for a chicken to find a buckwheat plant here and there.  But, if they eat too much of it, we will not like the results.

Of course, we had plans for cover crops in other parts of our farm as well.  But, such things do not always happen as planned.  For example, we intended to cover crop the field West of Valhalla.  Instead, we still have kale growing there.  And, we have some fallow soil as well.  What happened to our plan for this?  The answer my friend is blowing in the wind.

No, seriously.  It was the wind.  Some of our early storms packed a solid punch.  As a result, some tasks on the farm got pushed out of their slot because we had to address some situations brought about by storms.  Cover crops in this field just got bumped.  It happens.  And, the kale has just continued to do well, so there is no reason to take them out just yet.  We could have cover cropped around them - we just didn't.  Such is life.

The good news about this?  Well, we've identified the labor bottleneck that prevented us from executing some of these plans in a timely fashion.  Now we can explore ways to address the problem.  I consider that part of this season's success.

And, of course, we'll do better next year.

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