|Cover crop seedlings emerging just five days after seeding.|
|Sunn hemp cover crop after a few weeks.|
And then, you have to factor in the weather. If you can't prepare an area for planting a cover crop because the field is saturated there's not much you can do. Or, you managed to plant the cover crop but the rain stopped falling. If you can't manage to get to setting up some overhead irrigation (for whatever reason) the seed may not germinate. If they don't germinate in a timely fashion, the schedule that you so carefully figured out so you could have your cash crops and your cover crops gets disrupted. So, now what do you do?
|Sunn hemp at full size. We're letting it 'Winter kill' this time.|
This year, we had poor germination for our clover cover crops. We know part of it was simply a timing with the weather issue. There is always more to it than that, but we have ideas about how to address it in future years. We had fantastic success with buckwheat, but ran out of seed at an inopportune time. We missed on the japanese millet and just never got the area prepped. But, the sunn hemp trial went extremely well. You win some, you lose some. For the most part, we'll admit that most of the failures were probably 'operator' error. We just missed our opportunities. But, the good news is that we didn't give up and we didn't miss ALL of the opportunities. As good as you can do is as good as you can do. You just strive to get better after that.
Structure of the Soil
Without getting too technical here, we are also concerned with the structure of the soil and the soil aggregates. We tend to break down aggregates with any type of tillage or soil disruption, so it is important to limit soil disruption and do things to offset issues we might cause.
|Soil that was compacted when it was wet and broken up when dry|
Another process that aids in the building of aggregate includes the activity of root systems and animals that live in the soil (such as earthworms, etc). So, if we do things to allow plants with good root systems to grow while giving a good environment for soil organisms, we help to rebuild soil structure. Now cover crops seem like an even better idea!
But, the cycle is furthered when you let the residue of a cover crop break down. The microbial activity that breaks down organic matter also helps rebuild soil structure.
Maintaining Untilled Areas
|We'd love to have more delphiniums|
We regularly question whether we are doing things in the best way we possibly can to support untilled areas on our farm. We have perennial flower and vegetable plantings, buffer strips and path areas, pasture areas for our poultry, bush lines, new trees, lawn areas and areas we do very little to nothing. Sometimes our efforts to maintain certain areas fail, sometimes they succeed and most of the time, we're not entirely sure if we're doing the right thing. This is made all the more difficult when you consider that the 'right thing' may differ based on perspective, goals and surrounding environs.
In order to keep things simple for myself, I consider this. If I leave some areas untilled that are adjacent to my tilled areas, that means I have a safe harbor for all of the soil organisms that are important for good soil structure/aggregate and soil health. That means, when I harm the soil structure and organisms in the tilled area, but keep the destruction as low as possible, there is a bank of soil organisms just next door who can move in and help rebuild that structure. If I do things in my tilled fields that help make that area more attractive, they will be more apt to move in and repopulate the area.
And now you know some of our motivations and thinking as we continue to learn how to be good stewards of the soil. As I reflected on these topics, I am amazed by how much we have learned and changed in how we do things on our farm. I am pleased by a significant number of our choices on our farm over the years. I am equally dismayed by some of our earlier choices, but fully realize that we were operating on good faith - we were doing our best with the knowledge and tools we had at that time. We're looking forward to continuing to learn and improve what we do as stewards of the soil.