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Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT

Cultivating Questions Winterkilled Cover Crops for a Mild Climate

Cultivating Questions Concerning the Bioextensive Market Garden

by Anne and Eric Nordell of Trout Run, PA

I bought your video several years ago at a Washington Tilth conference; and I’ve changed my farming for the better because of it. Thank you. While I hope to transition to horses in the future, I currently farm using a Farmall Super A tractor. My hope is that I’m approximating horsedrawn tillage with this small tractor – it’s something like a motorized (and very heavy) riding cultivator. Alas, I can’t keep it from producing all that noise and noxious gas. Its single bottom plow even allows me to skim plow (albeit a little sloppily).

As Anne well knows, our mild climate makes it too easy to overwinter cover crops. Then the typically wet springs (and, on our farm, wet soils) let the cover put on loads of topgrowth before getting on the soil (the Super A is no help here). Buckwheat is the only crop that I can be certain will winterkill. Field peas, oats, annual rye and crimson clover have all overwintered here. Any suggestions?

My wife and I have just purchased a farm (I use the word “purchase” lightly as it is not paid for – Western Washington farmland is fast going the way of estates and golf courses and is priced accordingly). We’ll be working out rotational cover cropping for these new soils – silt loam and peat muck. At times they’re good and wet, and the weed pressures will be new to us also. It seems that a three mile move has us learning from the beginning again.

Best wishes for the coming year, and thank you for your fine work. Your articles are among my important resources.

Jeff Canaan

Lynden, Washington

Winterkilled Cover Crops For A Mild Climate

We feel a little bit more prepared to answer Jeff’s question about selecting winterkilled cover crops for a mild climate now that we have been in touch with several growers located in the coastal Northwest and the warmer parts of the central Midwest. All of these growers rely on cover crops that die back overwinter.

Each one agreed that buckwheat is the most dependable winterkilled cover for their area because it is so susceptible to a light frost. However, they warned, the timing for planting this frost-sensitive green manure can be tricky. Establishing buckwheat early enough to maximize biomass runs the risk of this quick-maturing cover setting viable seed before the first killing frost. These farmers also noted that the succulent buckwheat residues breakdown very quickly in the spring: a real advantage for early planting, but a drawback if a lot of winterkilled mulch is desired to hold in soil moisture and suppress weed germination.

Another favorite of these mild climate market gardeners is sorghum-sudangrass. They claimed this warm season grass is almost as frost-sensitive as buckwheat but produces a lot more coarse biomass. For this reason, we have trailed sorghum-sudangrass mixed with forage soybeans the last two years, comparing it with our usual winterkilled mix of oats and Canadian field peas.

We were pleased that the sorghum-sudangrass (“sudex” for short) could be planted a month earlier than the oats and peas without any danger of it going to seed before it died with the first fall frost. The sudex also produced significantly more topgrowth. However, the slow-to-decompose bamboo like stalks did not blanket the ground as completely as the mat of winterkilled oat-and-pea residues the next spring, allowing weeds to germinate in the patches of exposed soil which were also susceptible to the drying effects of the sun and wind. Several participants at our small group tours last year mentioned that they prefer Japanese Millet because its finer, leafier stalks produce a denser stand than the coarse sudex, resulting in much better weed suppression and moisture preservation.

If the seeds for these warm season annual grasses are not available in your area, both the sudex and Japanese Millet can be ordered from the Albert Lea Seed House in Albert Lea, Minnesota (1-800- 352-5247). Also, Seedway of Hall, New York (1-800-836-3710) offers several lines of sorghum-sudangrass as well as a new forage soybean. (Make sure to specify you want untreated seeds if your farm is certified organic. Also, be forewarned that shipping charges may double the costs of these reasonably priced cover crops.)

Seedway’s Donegal forage soybean variety grew 3-4’ tall in our trials and is supposed to get even taller where the summers are hot. Mixed with the sudex, or planted alone, this warm season legume should add some nitrogen to the soil system before it dies back with the first hard frost of the fall. It might also serve as a more manageable alternative to buckwheat or sudex where the winters are mild.

In addition to selecting cover crops with the appropriate degree of frost sensitivity for the area, the maturity of the plants at the onset of winter can make a big difference in their winter hardiness. Even in our relatively cold climate, we have noticed that the short and succulent topgrowth of late planted oats does not start dying back until the soil is frozen deeply and then thaws again. On the other hand, oats planted early enough to begin making seedheads before the first hard frosts will begin yellowing as soon as the ground starts to freeze. This principle may also hold true for more frost-sensitive covers, like sudex and soybeans, in milder climates.

Likewise, if the winter freezes are not strong enough to kill even the least winterhardy cover crops, then mowing the plants just before they reach maturity may do the job. We often use this mowkilled method for cover crops that we expect to overwinter in our area. For example, the old sicklebar mower is very effective at killing rye once this winterhardy cover has formed seedheads. We are guessing that oats and peas planted early enough to initiate seedheads by late winter in the Pacific Northwest could be successfully mowkilled before spring planted cash crops.

If none of these cover crop options prove dependable, then possibly the techniques we have developed for shallowly tilling winterhardy covers in northern Pennsylvania could be adapted to overwintering cover crops where the off-season is milder. The following photo essay documents two of the cover crop-tillage combinations we now use before LATE planted cash crops in the bio-extensive market garden. Maybe they would also work for earlier planted cash crops in coastal Washington. Mechanically speaking, we feel pretty certain that the horsedrawn tools shown in the photos would make a good match for the old Super A tractor.

We must end with one warning. The combination of winter cover crops and minimum tillage creates a wonderful habitat for slugs. Mulch-tilled cover crop residues provide both shelter and sustenance for these slimy critters, especially during the long periods of wet, cool conditions so common to the west side of the Cascades.

If slugs are already a problem, we suggest starting out with the most slug-resistant crops – such as garlic, potatoes, dill, cilantro, and transplanted tomatoes – for your first experiments with mulch-tilled cover crops. In the next column we plan on highlighting a couple of the makeshift ways we have tried to keep the slugs at bay, hoping this will encourage others to send us by snail mail their strategies for outsmarting these slow moving bugs for us to share in these pages.


Cover Crop-Tillage Combinations – 2002 Field Notes

Field 1 – Oats surface tilled before late May, zukes, cukes, lettuce, peas and spinach interseeded with buckwheat followed by a cover crop of rye late September; peppers and carrots on north side interseeded with string beans (for slug control), the pathways mulched with old hay after picking the beans

Field 2 – Rye surface tilled before summer cover of buckwheat and sudex followed by oats planted on ridges second week of September

Field 3 – Rye on ridges in middle of field surface tilled before late June and July, zukes, cukes, lettuce, peas and beans interseeded with buckwheat followed by cover crop of rye and spelt late October; surface tilled sudex, forage soybeans and field peas before May, spinach and peas interseeded with buckwheat followed by rye mid-September on north side of field; surface tilled sudex, beans and peas before April planting of strawberries interseeded with vetch on south side of field, berries mulched with wheat straw in December

Field 4 – Rye surface tilled/chicken tilled late June followed by cover crop of sudex and field peas seeded late July on south side of field and sudex, peas and oats mid-August in middle of field; rye on north side surface tilled before July broccoli, kale, pak choy, carrots and beets interseeded with rye

Field 5 – No-till garlic, onions, strawberries, leeks and radicchio early April on oat and pea ridges, surface tilled/chicken tilled late August followed by rye late September; ridge-tilled oats on north half of field seeded to April carrots, spinach, larkspur, beets and peas interseeded with buckwheat or hairy vetch, followed by rye mid-September

Field 6 – Rye surface tilled before June cover crop of oats and peas surface tilled before planting oats and peas on ridges late August

Field 7 – Rye and vetch surface tilled in June before July and August plantings of carrots, broccoli, kale, collards, lettuce, spinach beets and salad turnips interseeded with rye

Field 8 – Rye surface tilled late June replanted to rye and vetch early August; strawberries on south side surface tilled/chicken tilled after harvest before planting rye on ridges early September

XP (Experimental Patch) – Surface tilled sudex, peas and beans before planting alternating rows of tomatoes, onions and cut flowers interseeded with vetch followed by rye and spelt late October

Field 9 – Surface tilled oats and peas before May plantings of onions, leeks, winter squash, lettuce and peas; north half interseeded with vetch; south half interseeded buckwheat followed by rye and spelt mid-October

Field 10 – Rye and Italian ryegrass cover crop clipped repeatedly all summer, providing chicken pasture in October

Field 11 – Skim plowed Italian ryegrass clover mix before May planted potatoes interseeded with rye and vetch and followed by rye cover crop mid-September

Field 12 – Rye plowed early June replanted to vetch and clover mix early July

CS (Contour Strip) – Deep plowed bare ground on north side before April, carrots, beets, spinach and lettuce followed by rye late September; surface tilled oats and peas before early potatoes followed by oats and peas late August

Cultivating Questions Winterkilled Cover Crops for a Mild Climate

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Spotlight On: Livestock

Horseshoeing Part 3B

Horseshoeing Part 3B

Besides good, tough iron for the shoe, we need an anvil with a round horn and a small hole at one end, a round-headed turning-hammer, a round sledge, a stamping hammer, a pritchel of good steel, and, if a fullered shoe is to be made, a round fuller. Bodily activity and, above all else, a good eye for measurement are not only desirable, but necessary. A shoe should be made thoughtfully, but yet quickly enough to make the most of the heat.

Calves that Don't Breathe at Birth

Calves that Don’t Breathe at Birth

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Heart rate is one way to tell if the calf is in respiratory distress, since it drops as the body is deprived of oxygen. Normal heart rate in a newborn calf is 100 to 120 beats per minute. Place your hand over the lower left side of the ribcage, just behind and above the elbow of his front leg. If heart rate has dropped as low as 40, the calf ’s condition is critical; he needs to start breathing immediately.

Livestock and Predators No Easy Answers

Livestock and Predators: No Easy Answers

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Since we’ve raised sheep commercially, we’ve been committed to trying to live with the predators in our environment. Over the years, we’ve lost just a handful of sheep — several to coyotes, at least one each to mountain lions and rattlesnakes, and four in one night to a neighbor’s dog. Mostly, though, our commitment to nonlethal predator protection tools has worked. A combination of electric fencing, livestock guardian dogs, sheep selection and grazing management has allowed us to co-exist with the predators in our environment.

Sheep A Logical Choice

Sheep: A Logical Choice

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Sheep have numerous uses on a smallholding. They are excellent grazers and are ideal at revitalizing old pastures as well as an excellent follower of the cows in a rotational grazing system. Cropping the grass at 2-3 inches that the cows have left at 8 inches encourages new growth in the spring. Their manure is usually in pellet form and is spread throughout a pasture as they graze. A sheep shares a ton a year of fertilizer with the earth.

Raising Free Range Turkeys is a Joy!

Raising Free Range Turkeys is a Joy!

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“Don’t let them out in the rain, they’ll stare up into it and drown…” Our experience with turkeys has been completely the opposite. While most poultry species aren’t exactly bright, we find that turkeys are lovely, personable, and most important for the self sufficient homesteader — extremely efficient converters of grain and forage into delicious meat. In 5 months, a turkey can grow from a few ounces to 20-30+ lbs.

Icelandic Sheep

Icelandic Sheep

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I came to sheep farming from a background in the arts – with a passion for spinning and weaving. When we were able to leave our house in town to buy our small farm, a former dairy operation, I had no idea that the desire to have a couple of fiber animals would turn into full time shepherding. I had discovered Icelandic sheep, and was completely enamored of their beauty, their hardiness and their intelligence.

Step Ahead Horse Progress Days 2016

Step Ahead: 23rd Annual Horse Progress Days 2016

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I had only been to Horse Progress Days once before, at Mount Hope, Ohio in 2008. It had been an eye-opener, showing how strong and in touch with sustainable farming values the Amish are, and how innovative and sensible their efforts could be. So at the 23rd annual event in Howe, Indiana, I was there partly looking for signs of continuity, and partly for signs of change. Right off I spotted an Amish man with a Blue Tooth in his ear, talking as he walked along.

Ask A Teamster Horse Don't Won't Can't Turn

Ask A Teamster: Horse Don’t, Won’t, Can’t Turn

After moving the drop ring on the other side down we went out to the round pen for a test drive. The difference in how she ground drove and turned was amazing – not perfect, but real sweet. With the lines at that level a right turn cue on the line obviously meant go right to her, and a left turn cue meant left. After we drove around for a while with me smiling I couldn’t resist moving the drop rings back up to the line rings – Bam, back to the old confusion.

The Mule Part 1

The Mule – Part 1

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There is no more useful or willing animal than the Mule. And perhaps there is no other animal so much abused, or so little cared for. Popular opinion of his nature has not been favorable; and he has had to plod and work through life against the prejudices of the ignorant. Still, he has been the great friend of man, in war and in peace serving him well and faithfully. If he could tell man what he most needed it would be kind treatment.

Lineback Cattle

Lineback Cattle

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Cattle with lineback color patterns have occurred throughout the world in many breeds. In some cases this is a matter of random selection. In others, the markings are a distinct characteristic of the breed; while in some it is one of a number of patterns common to a local type. Considering that livestock of all classes have been imported to the United States, it is not surprising that we have our own Lineback breed.

Finnsheep Sheep for all Economic Seasons

Finnsheep: Sheep for all Economic Seasons

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Another consideration for the Trimburs was health and ease of care. Heidi says, “Finnsheep, as a breed, won this one without contest! They are smaller, super-friendly, have no horns to worry about and no tails to dock. They are hardy, thrive on good nutrition and grow a gorgeous fleece. I love to walk out in the pastures with them. They all come running over to say hello and some of our rams love to jump on our golf cart and “go for a ride” – it is hilarious!

Harnessing the Future

Harnessing the Future

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En route to a remote pasture where the Belgian draft horses, Prince and Tom, are grazing, we survey the vast green landscape, a fine mist hovering in distant low lying areas. We are enveloped in a profusion of sweet, earthy balance. Interns and other workers start their chores; one pauses to check his smart phone. Scattered about are many animal-powered rustic implements. This rich and agriculturally diverse, peaceful place is steeped in contrasts: modern and ancient.

My First Team of Workhorses

My First Team of Workhorses

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In A Greenhorn Tries Draft Horses, a greenhorn (myself) tried a single work horse named Lady for farm and woods work. It was probably natural that, having acquired some experience with one horse, I should want to see what it was like to use two. Perhaps it is more exciting to see a good team pull together, and there is the added challenge to the teamster of making certain that the horses pull smoothly rather than seesaw.

Fjordworks Horse Powered Potatoes Part 2

Fjordworks: Horse Powered Potatoes Part Two

These types of team implements for digging potatoes were the first big innovation in horse powered potato harvesting in the mid-19th century. Prior to the horse drawn digger the limitation on how many potatoes a farmer could plant was how many the farm crew could dig by hand. The basic design of these early diggers works so well that new models of this type of digger are once again being manufactured by contemporary horse drawn equipment suppliers.

The Anatomy of Thrift: Harvest Day

On the Anatomy of Thrift Part 2: Harvest Day

On the Anatomy of Thrift is an instructional series Farmrun created with Farmstead Meatsmith. Their principal intention is instruction in the matters of traditional pork processing. In a broader and more honest context, OAT is a deeply philosophical manifesto on the subject of eating animals. Harvest Day is the second in the series, which explores the ‘cheer’ that is prepared on the day of slaughter, and dives deep into the philosophy and psychology of our relationship to animals.

The Best Kept Secret, Revisited

The Best Kept Secret, Revisited

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At the same time that U.S. commercial beekeeping is circling down in a death spiral, hobby beekeeping is booming and almost every beekeeping club in the country has at least twice as many members as it did twenty years ago. What this means is that if you are fortunate enough to live in a place with relatively clean and varied sources of pollen and nectar, the potential for a successful family-sized commercial apiary is better now than it has been for many decades.

Working Steers and Oxen on the Small Farm

Working Steers and Oxen on the Small Farm

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For centuries, the skills of training steers for work and the craft of building yokes and related equipment was passed down from generation to generation. It was common for a young boy or girl to be responsible for the care and training of a team from calves to the age of working capability. Many farms trained a team each year, either for sale or for future replacement in their own draft program.

Living With Dairy Goats

Living With Dairy Goats

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Dairy goats are different than other types of livestock, even Angora goats. They are independent, unimpressed by efforts to thwart their supremacy of the barnyard (or your garden), and like to survey the world from an elevated perch. Though creatures of habit, they will usually pull off some quite unexpected performance the minute you “expect” them to do their usual routine. For the herdsperson who can keep one step ahead of them, they are one of the most enjoyable species of livestock to raise and ideal to small farms.

Small Farmer's Journal

Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT