Cultivating Questions Cultivator Setups and Deer Fencing

Cultivating Questions Concerning the Bio-Extensive Market Garden

Cultivator Set-ups and Deer Fencing

by Anne & Eric Nordell
Illustrations by Ed Ochsner

In the past two issues of the Small Farmer’s Journal we have tried to describe some of the financial and philosophical aspects of our farm system. In this column we get into the nuts and bolts of the cultivator set-up and deer fence we use in the bio-extensive market garden. We also include, at the end, a letter suggesting a mechanical solution to inter-seeding row crops more efficiently.

Dear Eric & Anne,

Haven’t even finished reading the Summer issue of SFJ, matter of fact, I didn’t even make it through “A Farming of Fertile Textures” completely before I had to stop and write you to order your “Controlled Rotational Cover Cropping” video. I will admit that I was a little skeptical when Lynn mentioned the video in the Spring issue. How good could a video of a slide presentation be? After reading Lynn’s first few paragraphs in this article, I had my answer.

I don’t mean I was skeptical of your cropping approaches, far from it. The issues of the SFJ that contain your past articles are the most dog-eared of all past issues. I only hope that I’ll be able to put what you’re teaching into full use. Right now I have to be satisfied with approximately an acre of market garden for which I’ve devised a 5 year, 5 plot rotation, worked with an old Farmall Cub tractor with cultivators, plows, hillers, etc. Also have two teams of oxen, actually working steers, one team is 3-1/2 year old Jerseys and the other only 4 month old Ayreshires. Have not as yet been able to work the steers into the market garden other than harrowing, but hopefully that will develop as time goes on.

One question that I have related to your cropping system is deer control which maybe you would want to use in your new Questions and Answers column in the SFJ. I’ve lost every potato plant in the four 165 foot rows that I planted this year – very frustrating. While obviously not a large potato crop to begin with, my intention this year and probably future years is to sell at local farmers’ markets after saving enough for our own use. Also have onions, beets, pumpkins, and winter squash growing in the same plot, none of which the deer have touched. What do you do? Plant “give away” crops that the deer like better? Row covers? “Harvest” more deer during hunting season? Never have heard of deer eating potato plants before now, but at least I won’t have a problem with potato bugs!

Looking forward to the video, your new column and continued feature articles in SFJ. Thank you. Sincerely, Doug Bunnell Endicott, NY

We know all too well the frustration of putting your heart and soul into a crop only to have the wildlife consume it before you can get it harvested let alone to market. Our farm sits next to several thousand acres of state game lands and is the only produce operation in the area. As you can imagine, deer pressure can be intense. Neighbors have counted herds of 20 or more in our pastures.

What complicates the situation, at least in Pennsylvania, is that hunting is big business and the Game Commission puts a lot of resources into maintaining a healthy deer population. Under law, farmers are compensated for crop damage by being allowed to keep the meat from one deer in their freezer at all times. That may be adequate compensation if you like to shoot and eat venison and the damage is restricted to a couple of acres of corn or alfalfa at the back of the farm, but it can’t begin to recompense farmers for damage to high-value or long-term crops like market garden produce or fruit trees. In these cases, if you can prove the extent of deer damage, the Game Commission offers cost-share for a six-wire, vertical, hi-tensile deer fence.

When the Game Warden came to our farm in the fall of 1987 to assess the damage – the deer had just mowed off the tops of a half acre of carrots – we faced a dilemma: Do we get tied into a government program to erect a permanent fence which we were not convinced was 100% effective?; do we continue with rotating cheap deterrents like deodorant soap, human hair or circus tiger dung which only worked temporarily, if at all?; or do we invest in a sloped 7-wire deer fence like the one we had seen at Sam and Elizabeth Smith’s Caretaker Farm in Williamstown, Ma, which had proven to be effective?


Always hesitant to put in permanent fixtures that might limit flexibility or maneuverability on the farm, we decided to wait and see how the Game Commission fence being erected around an orchard at the other end of the valley held off the deer. In the meantime, we invested in a New Zealand-type, low-impedance energizer (Gallagher Bev III for AC current) which we knew we would eventually need to power either type of hi-tensile deer fence. We used this charger for the horse pasture fence and the temporary deer fence we put up around part of the market garden.


We built this temporary enclosure from readily available pasture fence materials: 4′ step-in metal posts placed every 15 yards with three wires attached using twist-on plastic insulators. We baited the three-foot-high fence with peanut butter and aluminum foil sandwiches paper clipped to the wires. The idea was that when the deer tried to eat the peanut butter they would get a shock on the nose, the only uninsulated part of their body. While we never saw any red-nosed reindeer on the farm the temporary fence proved very effective for four years. The most dramatic evidence showed up the first winter: outside of the fence deer mowed the cover crops shorter than our lawn while inside the fence the same seeding of rye grew six to eight inches tall. This observation confirmed in our minds that deer control is more a question of psychology than physical barriers. We expanded the temporary fence to enclose the whole market garden.


This psychological deterrent, however, was no match for deer hormones. During “the rut” in the fall the bucks would smash through the fence. They did not do any damage to the crops in their state of blind passion, but fixing fence turned into a time-consuming chore.

In the fall of 1991 we erected a second temporary fence outside of the first one using step-in posts and a single strand of polywire (a white plastic string woven with fine filaments of charge-carrying wire). We had found both the deer and the horses respect this polywire much better than regular fence wire since it is so much easier for them to see, both day and night. We hoped the heightened visibility of the polywire would deter the hormonally charged deer from crashing through the temporary fence. Instead, we unwittingly trained them to jump it! So much for our understanding of deer psychology. From that point on the temporary deer fence was completely ineffective year round.

Meanwhile, we had learned that the deer had quickly learned to negotiate the 6-wire vertical game commission fence at the orchard nine miles away. By taking a running start, they could jump through the closely spaced wires without getting much of a shock – even if every other wire was grounded. Neighbors observed bucks tucking back their large racks to dive through the wires.

The 7-wire sloped deer fence seemed like the only option so we contacted the regional representative for Springtight/Gallagher based in Tunbridge, VT. We decided to enclose 10 acres in the fall of ’92 to give us room to expand the 6-acre market garden in the future. As it turned out, the cost was not much greater than enclosing the existing cropland as most of the expense is tied up in the gate construction and corners.

We paid $2,000 for the whole thing, both materials and labor, working alongside the contractor. That seemed like a lot of money compared to the dollar value of our horsedrawn equipment but a small investment compared to the market garden produce worth $5,000 to $10,000/acre it protected, not to mention the peace of mind it provided.

We were also surprised to find out that the sloped deer fence actually required less time and materials for construction than a vertical fence. For example, the swing corners of the sloped fence require only one H-brace bisecting the angle of the corner rather than the two H-braces commonly found at the corners of a vertical fence. Note that it is the stays attached to the outer post of the H-brace shown in the illustration which determine the spacing of the sloped wires.

The line posts used with the sloped fence are just 2×2’s which can be driven in by hand. Lightweight battens take the place of half the line posts ordinarily needed for a vertical fence. The battens are suspended in the air by the tension in the fence and their only purpose is to maintain the proper distance between the wires. The sloped rails are attached to the line posts with a single bolt at the top which makes it possible to lift the low end of the rail off the ground for mowing underneath the fence. As you can see in the illustration, we like to prop up the rails with short pieces of wood ahead of time rather than lifting the rails by hand as we mow our way around the inside of the deer fence with the team.

There are two drawbacks to these sloped deer fence kits:

1. The gate opening assembly requires more labor and materials for construction than a vertical fence. Really, it is the weak link in the fence as the posts-and-rails in the gate construction must resist all the tension in the fence as the spring-loaded wires start and stop with the gate. In fact, the butt posts at the bottom of the rails heaved over the first winter requiring extra reinforcement.

2. The wooden parts of the sloped deer fence are treated with creosote. Not only is the creosote a mess to work with but under NOFA-NY Certification guidelines we are not allowed to grow crops within 10 yards of the fence. That is not such a bad idea anyway as a road around the inside of the fence is handy for mowing and for access to the crops.

Standing only 4-1/2′ tall and made primarily of lightweight lumber, the sloped deer fence is not much of a physical barrier. Again the deterrent it provides is primarily psychological. Deer can jump high and deer can jump far but deer will rarely jump both high and far at the same time. Besides, they are likely to investigate a new obstacle with their feet on the ground and try to crawl through it. Apparently they find the wires overhead unnerving as they approach the sloped fence. And it is very difficult for them to crawl through the electrified wires in this configuration because when they step over one wire they run into the next. Since the electric shock is a big part of the deterrent, it is important to energize the fence as soon as it is erected and to make sure that it is always properly grounded and protected from lightning.

We have seen no evidence of deer or deer damage inside the sloped fence over the past four years. However, we are a little hesitant to make claims in print as it seems every time our articles appear in the SFJ something goes wrong the next year!

Dear Eric & Anne, I’d like to hear more on the actual cultivating with horses. I’m in transition now from the hoe to horses and have a slew of questions. I think I’ll just list them.

– What have you found to be the optimum row spacing? This year I planted all horse cultivated crops at 36 inches. I found this to be too little for some crops and too much for others. What’s your experience?

– I’m constantly changing sweeps, their angles in the soil, their depths, their configuration on the cultivator, etc., etc. What has been your experience with different sweeps and their uses? I find that what works under one condition does not work under another and I dream of the day when I’ll have two or three cultivators set up to go for different conditions.

– Along with the above question, what have you found to be the closest you can set the two inside sweeps?

– What do you use to hill your potatoes? I used two furrow-type hillers this year, but did not like the results.

– There are infinite adjustments on cultivators; wheel width, tongue angle, placement of the single trees, etc. Do you have any helpful suggestions on any of these adjustments which might help me in getting my cultivator just right? Maybe these do not constitute a slew of questions, but that’s all that comes to mind presently. Any other comments that you might have on cultivators and cultivation would be appreciated. I’m starting from scratch and have never seen anyone work horses in a farm setting.

Thanks for your time and sharing, Ken Akopiantz Waldron, WA

Many growers we know have realized your dream of slowly-but-surely accumulating a slew of cultivators permanently set up for specific crops, soil conditions and row spacings. We have taken just the opposite approach. We use one cultivator set-up and one row spacing for all crops and all field conditions. Since our goal is moisture control, we want to be able to cultivate the whole market garden as quickly and easily as possible after each heavy rain in order to preserve soil moisture.

The reason one tool works for all the crops we grow is because we rely on the rotational aspects of our cover cropping system for weed control – not the cultivator. In that light, it is not critical that we cultivate as close to the crop as possible as long as we break the soil crust in the vicinity of the plants to slow evaporation. Likewise, we just stop cultivating once the crops get too big for the riding cultivator set permanently at its narrowest wheel base and gang spacing. By that time the root system of the crop is usually well established, the plant canopy is large enough to shade the soil, and we turn our attention to seeding a living mulch in the pathways. For fast growing crops, like tomatoes or zucchini, that might mean only one cultivation.

Between the video and all the photos in “Trashed Out Onions” in the Summer ’94 SFJ we hope the details of, and reasoning behind, our cultivator set-up will become clear. Probably the most important lesson we learned early on was the simplicity of using the same implement for bed-forming and cultivating to guarantee all the crops would be cultivatable. This sort of built-in compatibility also led to the guidance system which has made cultivating with the horses so much easier and more relaxing.




We do use a second cultivator just for marking rows which saves us a lot of time changing sweeps and shovels. Hopefully, you can see in the top photo how the single tooth is mounted on the McCormick-Deering cultivator to mark a row in the middle of the bed made by the cultivator in the photo below it. The wheels of this “row marker” cultivator track in the pathways made by the outside sweeps on the “bed former” cultivator.

We use the 1″ wide shovel barely visible on the row marker bracket to make a slit in the soil for direct seeding with the walk-behind garden seeder or for transplanting by hand. We replace this narrow tooth with a 2″ wide shovel to open a furrow for large seeds – like peas and beans, and use a wide potato shovel to open the ground for seed potatoes or onion sets.

In the middle photo you can see the old RC cultivator in bed-forming mode. The key to creating the guidance system for future cultivations is setting the single trees, cultivator wheels and outside sweeps so they all line up in the pathways. Using the wide sweeps in “flying geese” formation allows the bed former to handle a lot of surface-tilled cover crop residues without plugging.

To change over to row crop cultivating we simply remove the middle sweep by loosening the two clamps pinning the bracket to the cultivator gangs and adjust the inside sweeps at the bottom of the shanks so they run flat as shown in the bottom photo. In this position the inside sweeps skim just under the soil surface to break the crust without throwing dirt, stones or cover crop residues on the row. When making the change from the initial bed-forming to cultivating sometimes it is also necessary to change the angle of the gangs relative to the tongue using the lever at the front of the cultivator. Keep in mind that the cultivator will be riding a couple of inches lower than the bed surface once the wheels are tracking in the pathways established by the bed former. As for fine-tuning the cultivating to the lay of the land and looseness of the pathways we often find ourselves adjusting the short levers on either side of the cultivator which change the depth of each gang independently.


Details of the set-up: We use five 12″ sweeps on the bed former mounted 8″ apart to create a 32″ bed. In reality, between the slop in the cultivator and our driving ability, these single-row beds probably average closer to 34″ on center. In cultivating mode, the closest the inside sweeps come to the row is 4″. However, the action of the sweeps often breaks the soil much closer to the crop depending on moisture conditions.

One change we have made in the last two years is to replace the outside sweeps with straight shovels to loosen the pathways more thoroughly. In terms of moisture and erosion control the pathways have turned out to be the weak point of our bed system because they receive all the compaction from the narrow cultivator wheels and the horses. The scraping action of the outside sweeps seems to aggravate the situation, eventually turning the pathways into gutters which sometimes run rainwater out of the field rather than into the soil. Mounting one straight shovel in place of each outside sweep and another narrow tooth just behind and toward the outside of the inside sweeps loosens the soil in such a way that noticeably more rain soaks into the pathway.

In the last photo Anne is demonstrating this new set-up with Becky and Buster after a heavy rain in June of 1996. The inside sweeps are shallowly breaking the crust around recently transplanted leeks to preserve precious moisture while the outside teeth are working the pathway deeply so the next rain will soak in. (Sorry about the poor reproduction but the only images we have of this new set-up in action are color prints made from the slides.)

While our cultivation goals and techniques must seem pretty specific to our bio-extensive system, the sweeps themselves can be used effectively for weed control on most cultivator set-ups. When adjusted to skim just under the soil surface, the sweeps undercut small weeds without bringing up new weed seeds from down deep.


In the early years, when our weed control was still out-of-control, we found the shallow preplant cultivation described in “A Few Long Furrows” (Spring 1993 SFJ) to be very helpful. The idea was to kill several generations of weeds before the crop even goes in the ground. Cultipacking or rolling after each preplant cultivation created the seed-to-soil contact necessary to germinate the next batch of weed seeds. On the other hand, dragging a small section of flexible pasture harrow behind the cultivator flipped over larger weeds undercut by the sweeps, shaking dirt off the roots in the process.

We also found the humble walking cultivator made full season cultivation possible those first years because it is so easy to change the width of the cultivator to accommodate the growth of each crop. (We continue to use the walking cultivator for working the pathways between intensively planted beds of culinary herbs or cutting lettuce in the house gardens.) Widely spaced rows and a wider wheel base, such as 38-42″, gives the riding cultivator more flexibility for full season cultivation because this wide open set-up makes it possible to use the lever which works horizontally to its fullest advantage, opening the gangs to correspond to crop growth.

However, the straight teeth or shovels traditionally used on both walking and riding cultivators did not allow us to get close enough to the row for good weed control without occasionally throwing stones or dirt on the crop. We never did figure out how to rig up crop shields so they made much of an improvement on our stony market garden site.

One technique that worked quite well while the crops were still young was to mount the pair of disc-hillers we use for hilling potatoes on the front of the riding cultivator gangs with the discs facing out. We set the disc-hillers at a shallow depth and angle so they threw soil and weeds away from the row without digging a deep furrow. We also discovered we could mount small sweeps right next to the disc-hillers (on the far side from the crop) so that the discs not only cut weeds away from the row but served as rolling shields to protect the small plants from dirt and stones worked up by the sweeps.

We are sure you will come across teamsters with more sophisticated cultivator set-ups or a better understanding of all the adjustments found on this versatile turn-of-the-century horsedrawn equipment. The reason we have kept things simple and have leaned so heavily on the biological aspects of the farm is due to the fact that we are not mechanically inclined. So you can see why we appreciated the following portion of George Krupp’s letter from Punxsutawney, PA, describing how we might improve the one-horse, one-row cultipacker pictured below.


We use this cultipacker to set the cover crop seed broadcasted into row crops with a handcranked spinner. In dry conditions, cultipacking seems to make all the difference in getting a living mulch of clover established in the pathways. George’s suggestion promises to save a few steps as well as some seed.

As I watched your single row cultipacker I wondered if you could seed in front of the narrow machine by cutting down a grass seeding attachment from an old grain drill. My grain drill is an old Ontario but the grass box on most any drill could do especially if made of wood. Mine has a flip-over disk about the size of a quarter to give light or heavy application. There are also cogs for various speeds of the shaft running off the wheel. The wood grass seed box should be easy to shorten – giving you an extra to use after the gangs of your 2-horse cultivator if you should decide to go that route. The seeder could be run by either a light chain or a V-belt. Using pulleys or cog wheels on the square shaft and on the end of the pipe axle. Tack weld the drive pulley or cog to the pipe axle and first packer wheel. I wonder if a push lawn mower would provide a clutch to engage/disengage the seeder as you turn at the end of the rows? They made cultivators with fertilizer attachments. The wheel could be used to run a shortened seed box dropping the seed on freshly cultivated land. Some way you need to put your seeder in and out at the ends or you will be using too much seed on the row ends.

For those of you interested in seeing how the one-row cultipacker, sloped deer fence or cultivator set-up fit into our whole farm system, we still have copies of our video-taped slide presentation available for $10.00 ($15.00 in U.S. funds outside of the country). Please continue to send us your good questions, comments and suggestions. We’ll do our best to cultivate them as deeply as possible.

Anne & Eric Nordell
RD 1, Box 205 Trout Run, PA 17771