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Cultivating Questions Diary of a Minimum-Till Horse Farmer
Cultivating Questions Diary of a Minimum-Till Horse Farmer
No-tilling and ridge-tilling the cover cropped ridges made it possible to get our first plantings of peas, spinach, onions and potatoes in the ground on schedule after just two days of drying weather on our well drained soil.

Cultivating Questions Concerning the Bioextensive Market Garden

Diary of a Minimum-Till Horse Farmer

by Anne and Eric Nordell of Trout Run, PA

Thursday, April 17 – low 30’s, light rain, and ice on the doorsteps, ending the first five days of real drying weather for the 2003 growing season. This time last week we still had snow on the ground. Needless to say, we were chomping on the bit to get into the fields when the skies finally cleared on Saturday. By Monday, the soil was marginally fit to work with the horses.

According to the radio forecast, we had only three days of warm, windy weather before precipitation returned to our area. We needed to prioritize the fieldwork carefully. Not only were we a couple of weeks behind schedule on spring tillage, but it was high time to get our first plantings of onion, spinach, peas and potatoes in the ground. We also had to take into account that our horses had not been worked this long, cold winter other than plowing snow out of our driveway. Somehow we needed to squeeze as much as we could into the next three days while easing the horses into the fieldwork as slowly as possible.

Monday, April 14 – Begin skimplowing the italian ryegrass in field 10 this morning to prevent this dense sod from using up the winter store of soil moisture. Tried the two-way riding plow for the first time as we did not want to leave a dead furrow in the middle of this flat field. We thought the two-way did a good job of shallowly undercutting the sod and flipping it over. Skimplowing with the two-way riding plow also turned out to be nice, easy work to limber up Becky and Buster now 24 and 22-years-old, and really showing their age.

After lunch, we began no-tilling Stuttgart onion sets into the cover cropped ridges in field 6. Other than opening up the no-till planting furrow with the cultivator, the horses got to watch us work all afternoon. On the south side of this field we experimented with no-tilling double-rows of onions on the extra-wide ridges we built last August when seeding the cover crop mix of oats, peas and sudex. If the double-rows grow well, we will definitely try more of these no-till mini-raised beds in the future to economize on space and the expense of mulching the pathways.

Cultivating Questions Diary of a Minimum-Till Horse Farmer
The combination of cover cropped ridges and minimum tillage may also improve early spring planting conditions on clay soils by providing better soil aeration and drainage, by preserving the soil structure created by the cover crop’s root system, and by fiberizing and protecting the soil surface with the winterkilled residues.

Tuesday, April 15 – Finish skimplowing the italian ryegrass, this time substituting our young horse, Frank, for Becky. Still somewhat anxious about new implements or a heavy pull, Frank seemed to find skimplowing relaxing and had no fear of walking down the shallow skimplowed furrow.

This afternoon we no-tilled the rest of the 50-pound bag of onion sets, including the small ones sorted out for scallions. Then we ridge-tilled our first plantings of peas and spinach of the season. For the large seeded peas, we knocked the top off the cover cropped ridges with the extra-wide ridge-till sweep as usual, then used a potato shovel mounted in the middle of the cultivator to open up a wide, shallow planting furrow in the middle of the ridge-tilled strip of clean soil. After scattering the peas in the furrow, along with enough oats to serve as a living trellis, we lightly covered the planting furrows using dischillers on the front of the cultivator. For this step, we also attached our miniature, three-roller cultipacker to the back of the cultivator to settle the hilled soil over the seed. In the process of planting the crop, we ended up lightly tilling the ridge-tilled planting zone, in effect, adding “strip tillage” to ridge-tillage.

For direct seeded crops, like the ridge-tilled spinach, we followed the exact same procedure except we planted the crop after ridge-tilling and strip-tilling. (If the ridge-tilled soil is too damp for direct seeding, we simply allow it to dry for an hour or two between opening up the furrow with the potato shovel and covering the furrow again with the dischillers and the mini-packer. The center roller on the mini-cultipacker makes a nice groove in the middle of the planting zone for our walk-behind seeder.) Yes, strip-tilling adds a couple of extra steps to the ridge-till process, but we think it makes all the difference for trouble-free direct seeding of fine-seeded crops in this minimum-tillage system.

Wednesday, April 16 – With the help from a friend who made the mistake of volunteering to help out this morning, we cut up 350 lbs. of seed potatoes and then handplanted the early crop of Dark Red Norlands, Kennebecs and Carolas in seven rows along the north side of field 6. This was the first time we had tried ridge-tilling potatoes and it worked slick, using basically the same procedure as we used for ridge-tilling the peas except making the planting furrow deeper.

Three passes with the cultivator and the potato patch is tilled and planted! What a time and soil saver over conventional tillage, especially now that we have a fleet of four horsedrawn riding cultivators, each setup for a different minimum-tillage task, such as ridge-tilling, strip-tilling and ridge-till cultivating. With four cultivators on hand, we don’t have to spend precious field time retooling for each step in the ridge-till/strip-till process.

Cultivated all the ridge-tilled crops after lunch to loosen the pathways packed during planting. Then we anchored wide sheets of floating row cover over the potatoes to get this early crop off to a fast start.

Switch horses again, using Buster and Frank to try out the new Residue Cutter on the heavy mat of winterkilled cover crop residues in field 4 and the Contour Strip. Custom-built for us by the Groffdale Machine Shop featured in the Winter issue, the ten coulters on the residue cutter sliced the oat and pea residues into 6” pieces with hardly any effort on the part of the horses. However, both of us had to ride this rig (equipped with platform and guardrail) for it to cut through the coarse sorghum-sudangrass stalks on the south side of field 4. We then followed with the disc to lightly incorporate the winterkilled cover crop residues and to loosen the top 2-3” of soil in these flattilled fields in order to prevent further loss of moisture.


In three days’ time we had accomplished our highest priorities for planting and preserving moisture while conditioning the horses with just an hour or two each day of minimum tillage. One reason this was possible is we had taken care of all the field preparation work (including weed control, heavy cover crop incorporation and fertility applications) when fallowing these fields last year. Consequently, only light tillage was necessary this spring to get the earliest crops in the ground and lock in moisture for the cash crops to be planted later in the growing season.

The other reason we could make a good bit of progress in just five drying days was simply due to the very well-drained silt loam soil in the market garden. On the heavy and poorly drained parts of the farm, the soil was still squishy wet underfoot at this time, which is one reason why we keep these areas in pasture and hay. If we were to expand vegetable production into these clay areas, we would probably shift the focus of our cover crop-tillage management from moisture conservation to improving soil aeration and drainage.

However, we do not have much firsthand experience with growing vegetables on clay soils. To answer the question raised by Paul Conway in the last column about the best crop rotations and management practices for clay soils, we spent some time in the old textbooks we have on hand and asked other growers for their recommendations on this topic. The following collection of quotes is the result of this casual – and, no doubt, incomplete – survey on Managing Clay Soils.

We also received an article from Lou Johns of Blue Heron Farm describing Lou and Robin’s innovative approach to minimizing compaction and erosion on their sloping, clay soils in Lodi, NY. We include Lou’s entire piece on Pioneering a Permanent Bed System in this installment of Cultivating Questions because it illustrates so well how the mechanical and biological aspects of a holistic cropping system work together for the benefit of the soil, the crops, and the farmers.

We hope that Lou’s article, and the other contributions to this column, will encourage SFJ readers to send in their experiences with handling challenging soils. For the same reason, we conclude the Summer CQ with the NEON Enterprise Budgets on mulch-tilled carrots and no-till garlic in hopes that readers will send in their comments and suggestions on how to adapt this sort of financial analysis for sustainable farm systems. Our first experience with putting together crop budgets, we definitely see them as works-in-progress. We would really appreciate any ideas on how to make the numbers more meaningful!