No-till Farm Integrates Animals, Wise Use Of Technology

An aerial photo of Red Shirt Farms.


Red Shirt Farm is a no-till operation on 13 acres of hilly land that is realizing its mission of revitalizing the health of its soil. Located in the western Massachusetts foothills of the Berkshire Mountains near the New York border, this diversified micro-farm is a successful enterprise producing quality crops and livestock.

It’s been over a decade since the farm began its transition to no-till, a few beds at a time. For farmer Jim Schultz, the merits of no-till are pragmatic.

“We saw for ourselves how bad tillage was for the soil and how much better it was where we didn’t till,” he said.
Switching to no-till has brought dramatic improvements in the health of their calcareous, silty loam soil and the quality of the plants they grow. They now experience less insect pest and weed pressure, and earthworm populations have increased dramatically.

Besides not plowing or turning the soil and using only minimal, shallow tillage, Red Shirt Farm uses a number of regenerative practices, such as mulching and cover cropping. Jim doesn’t like to leave bare ground, even between beds. To prevent weeds from establishing and soil quality from deteriorating, walkways get heavily mulched with old hay or composted wood chips.

Raising healthy food is a central goal at the farm. Jim strives to produce nutrient-dense vegetables and the farm abstains from the use of all biocides (insecticides, fungicides and herbicides) and synthetic fertilizers. He follows the re-mineralization program developed by Dan Kittredge of the Bionutrient Food Association and works with Advancing Eco-Agriculture, John Kempf’s company. And although the farm follows organic principles and practices, Jim has chosen not to get it certified.

A Farmer on the Bench

When he retired at age 53 in early 2015, Jim and his wife, Annie Smith, who works full-time as a registered nurse, started Red Shirt Farm. This summer marks their sixth year of commercial production.

Although Jim is a second-career farmer, he is not new to agriculture. As a young man, Jim had immersed himself in organic agriculture before turning his attention to making a living and raising his family. The farm’s name is a somewhat obscure reference to his long hiatus from farming as his primary occupation. “To redshirt” is a verb that refers to the sidelining of an athlete with lots of potential so that he can learn the system and make a bigger impact when he returns to the field, explained Jim, who has background in sports and coaching. “We redshirted for 20 years. The kids were growing. We were paying off the land, and reading and learning.”

Jim became interested in farming after high school, but he chose a pre-med course of study at Williams College instead. When he answered an ad to housesit and care for livestock for Caretaker Farm owners Sam and Elizabeth Smith while they led a college study trip to Sri Lanka, he met their daughter and his future wife Annie Smith, who was home on winter break. Romance ensued.

Inspired by the experience, Jim took a leave from college to learn to farm. At Sterling College in Vermont he studied sustainable agriculture and worked with draft horses. He also did apprenticeships on several small farms in New England and enrolled in the New Alchemy Institute on Cape Cod to study renewable energy systems, sustainable agriculture, and bioshelter technologies. Jim and Annie then travelled west to complete their undergraduate degrees at The Evergreen State College in Washington, where he managed the student organic farm and double-majored in Ecological Agriculture and Education.

The couple returned to Massachusetts for graduate school. After earning a master’s degree in education at UMass Amherst, Jim worked for 26 years as a public school teacher, coach and administrator. In 2000, the couple purchased the open land on which they would build their home and later farm. Jim continued his agricultural education, attending two or three organic and eco-agriculture conferences annually and reading voraciously, keeping alive his dream of farming.

In the early 2010s, Jim and Annie started a very small CSA to test the waters. Interest was strong and initially their CSA doubled in size every year. In the years leading up to launching Red Shirt Farm, Jim had been slowly renovating the land and opening up more and more garden beds. “We were farming before work and after work and on weekends,” Jim recounted.

“I retired early because I wanted to farm before it was too late,” explained Jim. He decided it was worth sacrificing his pension. “This is what I really wanted to do all my life.”

While Jim is the principal farmer, Annie fills various roles on the farm. As the face of the CSA, she greets CSA members on Tuesdays and Saturdays when they come for their vegetables and she orients new members. She also does the farm’s bookkeeping, runs the family household, and comes up with the annual growing plan for herbs and flowers, which Jim implements.

Pandemic Pushes Production

Most of Red Shirt Farm produce goes directly to customers through its CSA program, currently 100 households strong, and two farmers’ markets. As it has for many small farmers, the pandemic has opened up opportunities for the farm. This year it was able to retail a much larger proportion of its production than in 2019.

Red Shirt Farm is located in a region known for upscale vacation homes and famed arts venues such as Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and Jacob’s Pillow, a summer-long dance festival. However despite the appealing image that Berkshire County, Massachusetts, presents to the outside world, many county residents live in small rustbelt cities distinguished by shuttered factories and large pockets of poverty. Most notable is Pittsfield, where General Electric left behind a toxic legacy of PCB contamination.

Wealth and income disparities not withstanding, a strong demand for locally grown food emerged several decades ago in Berkshire County. For more than 25 years, the community organization Berkshire Grown has helped sustain this demand and pride in local agriculture.

Until this year, Jim was reluctant to add a second farmers’ market. The best area markets take place on Saturday afternoons so the farm would have needed another truck, more canopies, and additional employees to participate in an additional farmers’ market. But during the pandemic, with farmers’ market customers carrying out transactions online, those sticking points disappeared and Red Shirt Farm easily added another market.

“You don’t have to stand there for four hours. Nothing’s wasted because everything is pre-ordered,” Jim explained. With this increased market access, the farm doubled its farmers’ market sales.

Jim and Annie Schultz.

Making Their Beds

As a no-till farm, Red Shirt Farm shies away from disturbing the soil, except when there is no alternative, such as for harvesting root vegetables. This raises the obvious question of how they manage crop succession.

When a crop is done, Jim and his crew make a single pass of the flail mower, which is lightweight and maneuverable, to cut down plant materials and chop them into mulch. Often they can plant directly into this mulch. Otherwise, they re-prep the bed with hand tools.

For a crop like kale or Brussels sprouts with stout stalks, they cut the tops off at ground level in November, leaving the roots in the ground for the microbes, and mulch the bed with hay. Occasionally, crop residues are so thick that they have to rake them into the wheel track. Later they will add those residues back into the bed.

Red Shirt Farm also has other ways to deal with crop residues. During the growing season, they sometimes solarize with a clear plastic tarp. At 75°F, it only takes 24 to 48 hours to kill nascent weeds and accelerate the breakdown of the residue.

Another option is using a black silage tarp to block the sun and cook living and dead plant material and seeds. Tarping this way allows the residues of a chopped crop or cover crop to break down and kills any weed seeds that germinate in the moist, warm conditions. In the winter this process takes months, but in warmer periods it can be completed more quickly.

The main tool Jim uses to make “a nice, fine seed bed” for mechanical seeding is the power harrow. Jim sets it to go down to a depth no greater than 2”. It can even be adjusted to only disturb the top half-inch of the soil, he notes. The power harrow “stirs” the soil but does not invert it like a tiller.

No-till methods encourage leaving roots in the ground and more organic debris on the surface. “We’d like to incorporate more of these techniques, but we’ve had a harder time getting good germination when we direct-seed into a rough bed,” he said.

A number of no-till or low-till organic vegetable growers are averse to cover cropping because they lack a good way to kill them without tillage. Not so at Red Shirt Farm, where they seed some beds in winter rye in order to grow their own mulch straw. The walking tractor and its implements give Jim a good system for turning cover crops into mulch that he can use elsewhere on the farm.

However, winter rye is particularly difficult to solarize due to its extremely vigorous root system. In May, the solarization process for winter rye can take three days or longer, three times as long as for many other crops.

Usually, however, Jim favors winterkilled cover crops for fall planting. Timing is always a big factor in determining the most appropriate cover crop for a given situation.

Shifting Irrigation Strategies

Red Shirt Farm mainly relies on drip irrigation, along with some overhead irrigation for germinating direct seeded crops. Until a couple years ago the farm got its water from the house well, which produces 5 gallons a minute. This prevented the farm from watering as few as three beds at a time. Now that the farm has its own drilled well, which produces 26 gallons a minute, it’s possible to irrigate all the vegetable beds in a single day. And in a half hour the farm can irrigate six 100’ beds with three drip tapes each.

Most drip tape has emitters spaced 8 or 12” apart. Red Shirt Farm favors 4” emitters. That choice is a carryover from when they had to depend on drip irrigation to water newly seeded crops before they germinated.

Drip irrigation also provides the means for fertigation on the farm. Jim uses a Dosatron, a water-driven non-electric injector that meters out the nutrient solution into the irrigation water at the desired rate. He mixes up a 5-gallon bucket with the quantities of different nutrients needed for the area being irrigated.

Over the course of a growing season, fertigation will clog up the emitters on drip tape. “We used to get medium-grade drip tape and save it as long as possible,” he said. But after they began fertigating, they switched to cheap-grade drip tape, which they discard after a single growing season. They donate their old drip tape to a start-up nonprofit organization that collects feed sacks and used drip tape to be made into shopping bags.

Integrating Animals

Relatively few vegetable growers integrate livestock into their operations. Despite its small land base, Red Shirt Farm raises animals on pasture. They are central to the farm’s mission.

“We have a regenerative farm, in that we incorporate animals into our operations,” Jim said. “One of our main goals is animal welfare. We breed and hatch our own birds and process them here.”

They also raise feeder pigs, which are likewise slaughtered on the farm.

For the last six years, Red Shirt Farm has also been doing its part to preserve several heritage poultry breeds. Instead of ordering newly hatched chicks as replacements for their layers and for the next round of meat birds, Red Shirt Farm maintains year-round populations of two breeds of chicken and one turkey breed.

Their laying hens are Black Australorps, and for meat they raise Buckeyes, which the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy considers an endangered breed. They also breed Standard Bronze turkeys. Jim said that they are selecting the birds for their breeds’ desired characteristics to help bring these them back to their Standards of Perfection.

In a given year they raise about 100 turkeys and keep another 15 or 20 turkeys as breeding stock. They also typically raise 700 or 800 meat chickens and keep a flock of 100 to 200 laying hens. The numbers fluctuate as they raise their own replacement stock and cull birds as needed.

Their farmers’ market customers and CSA members count on being able to get their eggs from Red Shirt Farm so Jim and Annie keep laying hens, though eggs are not one of their “main profit centers.”

“In the winter we bring the birds up closer to the house where we have electricity. The chickens have a day-run in the caterpillars. We compost their manure,” Jim said. Two caterpillar tunnels provide winter poultry housing. Red Shirt Farm has experimented with the Rolling Thunder mobile high tunnel, but they don’t have enough flat land to make it worthwhile.

This year, during the pandemic, several curious conventional farmers stopped to talk when they saw chickens out on pasture. Earlier in the season, those farmers were having trouble getting Cornish Cross chickens and wondered about Red Shirt Farm’s source. Jim explained that they keep several flocks of heritage breed birds. They agreed that makes sense in times like these, Jim recalled.

While Red Shirt Farm has no intention of becoming a hatchery, they have sold small batches of 20 chicks to homesteaders that want heritage breed birds.

Red Shirt Farm also raises about seven feeder pigs a year, which they buy from a local farmer who prefers heritage breeds. These pigs, which are part Duroc, part Old Spot and part Berkshire, do very well on pasture.

Red Shirt Farm is licensed by the state to slaughter poultry on the farm. They work with a custom butcher to get their pigs killed and processed. They sell their homegrown pork by the half and whole pig.

Grazing livestock and mowing have transformed the lower fields at Red Shirt Farm from weedy brambles into decent pasture. It works well for them to take an early cutting and use that hay as mulch because poultry do better on 8” pasture than on taller grass.

The Hunt for Good Compost

Red Shirt Farm buys about 45 yards of commercial compost annually from area farms. Delivered in bulk, compost goes for $35 to $40 per yard. The compost available for purchase is usually made from municipal leaves, wastes from commercial landscapers, and other plant materials, as well as food waste, smaller amounts of animal manure and sometimes offal from on-farm poultry processing.

Jim is not fully satisfied with the quality of locally available compost. It tends to be sold before it’s fully finished — at a stage where it’s hydrophobic and too coarse to successfully seed into. And when Red Shirt Farm experiences low germination rates, Jim worries that the compost might contain persistent herbicides, which he is anxious to avoid. “It’s hard to find good compost,” he lamented.

Jim gets around the shortcomings of his purchased compost by reserving it for certain situations, such as mulching, where “it’s less important that it’s coarse and unfinished. In our no-till system, we’ll leave lettuce roots in and put a 2-inch layer of compost on the bed before the next planting.” He also uses purchased compost “to get the biology going and raise the organic matter levels when we open up new beds” on previously uncultivated ground.

Long term, Jim would like to put in an aerated static pile composting system. Such a system uses a fan and perforated pipes to blow air throughout compost windrows in lieu of mechanical turning. At present, Jim makes some compost from a mixture of animal bedding and vegetable scraps laid down in a large windrow, with new materials always added at one end. Jim restricts the width and height of the windrows to keep them from going anaerobic. He refrains from turning his compost because “we don’t want to disrupt the fungal hyphae.”

After a year, he considers his compost to be sufficiently finished for perennial plantings like orchard trees and berry bushes, as well as for flower gardens and opening up new ground, places where the presence of weed seeds would not be a problem.

Another Kind of Compost

In 2018, Red Shirt Farm assembled its first Johnson-Su bioreactor. It appealed to Jim because of all the benefits it offers. It produces fungal dominant compost with a much wider diversity of microorganisms than conventional, quick-turnaround compost. It also requires far less labor and is odor-free. Turning compost piles to expose them to oxygen destroys fungal organisms.

The materials needed to build a Johnson-Su bioreactor include re-mesh and six 4”-diameter perforated drainage pipes, which are used to create channels for airflow within the bioreactor. These pipes are positioned so that inside the bioreactor, no material is further than one foot from the flow of oxygen. The bioreactor sits on a pallet with circular holes cut for the perforated PVC pipes. The whole bioreactor is wrapped in inexpensive landscape fabric. Once assembled, fungal hyphae rapidly colonize the compost feedstock. Within a day or two, their growth lines the perforated pipes sufficiently to hold air channels in place, and the pipes are removed.

The bioreactor is a temporary structure that produces finished compost in one year’s time. Part of the assembly process involves filling the bioreactor with whatever feedstock is to be composted, which at Red Shirt Farm consisted of raw dairy manure from an organic farm, wood chips and leaves. The materials are layered alternately every 6 inches, finishing with a layer of wood chips on top to act as a cap.

In the desert Southwest, where David Johnson and his wife Hui-Chu Su designed and tested the bioreactor, regular irrigation is required to support fungal activity. Jim took a chance that rainfall in the temperate Northeast would be adequate. The 12-month period in which Red Shirt Farm tried out his first Johnson-Su bioreactor was wet, with at least weekly precipitation, and when he opened up the bioreactor after a year of incubation, the material was moist.

David Johnson has a detailed YouTube video and other instructional resources online, but as far as “how to use the end product, I haven’t found as much information,” Jim said. The Johnson-Su bioreactor produces two types of material. Most of the compost is a very fine, pasty material that turns into slurry when mixed with water. Jim makes it into a spray that serves as a soil inoculant. He scoops out the other type of material from along the bioreactor walls and wherever there are wood chips that haven’t fully decomposed. That material is full of fungal hyphae. They sprinkled that onto new beds, also as an inoculant. While they did not do any controlled studies, “Anecdotally, it performed well,” Jim said.

Jim has also been experimenting with indigenous microorganisms (IMO) in his high tunnels. However, with so many variables, it’s hard to say whether the IMO has had any impact.

Once an Educator …

Jim spent half his life teaching and coaching students in the public schools. As a farmer, he has been able to continue to educate young people.

Every year Red Shirt Farm selects four apprentices, who normally start in April and stay on through November. They generally live on the farm unless they are from the local area. Few are currently in college because college calendars tend not to be compatible with the farm’s needs.

Apprentices receive room and board plus $900 per month and access to food grown on the farm. The Red Shirt Farm apprenticeship program focuses on their apprentices’ education. They learn much more than how to do the tasks of daily farm work.

Jim strives to expose his apprentices to the knowledge and skills they would need to start their own farm or work as a farm manager or in other non-entry-level positions. Apprentices also have access to a full library at Red Shirt Farm.

2020 was Red Shirt Farm’s sixth year working with apprentices. Asked if any have become farmers, Jim mentioned one former apprentice, a chef without prior farming experience who spent two years on the farm, who is now running a farm on Martha’s Vineyard.

Working with Roots Rising is another aspect of the farm’s educational work. This local nonprofit organization works to empower youth and build community through food and farming. Its programs engage high school-age students from Pittsfield. Many participants are high-risk kids. Because of its great reputation, it has become very competitive to get into. The organization employs kids in its farm crews and running the Pittsfield farmers’ market, and next year it will launch a youth-run food truck program.

Red Shirt Farm is one of the farms that benefits from a Roots Rising farm crew of a dozen kids. They visit the farm one day per week in the summer and one afternoon per week after school during the spring and fall. “It’s nice for us to have twelve willing hands for big weeding, composting and tarping projects,” said Jim. For example, they tarped the ground for the new vegetable beds between the hugelkultur orchard rows on an extremely windy day. “They were being lifted up by the tarp,” Jim recalled.

Roots Rising pays an hourly wage to the young people it employs. They spend a half-day working on a farm and the rest of the day take part in programming that emphasizes self-development, group development and interpersonal and life skills. The curriculum includes educational workshops and culinary and financial literacy.

Jim is excited about the culture that Roots Rising is building. He told me that the organization has an educator that teaches the youth traditional and indigenous songs and that they also create their own songs. Roots Rising has feedback circles called group talk where the youth participants receive feedback from their peers and adult mentors, and also evaluate the adults.

“This is how I wanted school to be when I was a teacher,” Jim commented. As a biology teacher, he said he would have loved to have a farm as a learning lab.

Besides apprentices and the Roots Rising crew, the farm employs four to six part-time hourly workers. They work on pick/wash days and one other day of the week. Two of these workers are Roots Rising graduates so they were familiar with the farm and its practices. That’s been a significant advantage.

“Regenerative agriculture holds the key to resolving our health crisis and our planetary crisis,” Jim said. “To share this is so rewarding and essential, for there are so few resources to train young people.”

Tracy Frisch lives in New York State.

Tillage for Healthy Soil

By Donald L. Schriefer

As a beginning, we understand that to effectively manage the below-ground environment we must attend to four essential areas. These are:

  1. soil aeration,
  2. soil water,
  3. soil life, and
  4. soil fertility

These are the four cornerstones of our entire farm operation. Our farming success will be in direct proportion to our understanding and ability to manage each of these important areas.

Soil aeration

We must be as attentive to soil aeration as we are to assur­ing an adequate air supply to the cylinders of our tractor engines. Soil life, root growth, water and nutrient uptake are all oxygen-demanding processes.

The importance of nutrient uptake by the roots can be compared to a vacuum cleaner and its filters. A vacuum cleaner cannot gather things if its filters are plugged. Sufficient mois­ture and oxygen around the roots turns them into efficient vacuum cleaners in the gathering of soil nutrients and water.

Gas diffusion is a law of gasses which states: “Gasses diffuse from an area of higher concentration to an area of lower con­centration until pressure equalizes in all areas.”

Since oxygen is much higher in the atmosphere than in the soil, it makes every effort to diffuse into the soil. As more oxy­gen is used in the soil by roots and soil life, more carbon dioxide is released into the soil air. The high concentration of carbon dioxide within the soil then diffuses into the atmosphere, where the process of photosynthesis turns it into sugar to be used by the plants. This all happens during the growing season, when plants need all of the carbon dioxide they can get.

Crops such as corn need this additional supply of carbon dioxide since there is not enough in the atmosphere alone to produce the high yields desired. The gas diffusion process is dependent upon the loosening effect of the soil through correct use of tillage and the actions of soil life.

Soil water

Correct management of soil water involves three major principles. These are:

  • Under normal circumstances, rainfall and irrigation water must be able to penetrate into the soil where it falls.
  • The penetrating water must also be able to move downward into the subsoil.
  • In addition to water, the roots of crops must also have unrestricted access into the subsoil.

We must face two major problems in our search for ways to manage water, with the first being a recognition that almost all soils have a natural barrier of compacted soil particles that restrict roots and water from freely entering into the subsoil. Because of this natural barrier, we can make only limited use of the subsoil and are basically forced to farm with both roots and water in the “up” position.

Second, our cultivation practices impart massive compac­tion, mismanage residue, and severely limit the activities of soil life. As a result, soil seals over to become very dense and allow the water to run off. This promotes excessive erosion and pol­lution of waterways.

The soil decay system

Our third critical area of management is taking care of crop residue and its decomposition.

Figure 24 (below) illustrates how an untreated fence post decomposes from the soil surface downward 3 to 5 inches. In untilled soil, this is the most biologically active zone. However, deep, penetrating roots can carry biological activity all the way into the subsoil.

Decay zone for a fence post at soil line

Positioning residue on and near the surface ensures its decomposition, which releases nutrients and carbon dioxide, improves soil tilth, and imparts many other benefits to the soil-plant system.

On our list of “cornerstones” which include soil aeration, soil water, soil life and fertility, we have placed soil fertility last. This is not to diminish it in importance, but rather, to empha­size that pouring on fertilizer is not a guarantee of high yields.

We must judge a soil’s fertility based upon how well our crops respond to that fertility rather than by soil test results alone. Certain things must be addressed in the area of fertility management:

  • All essential nutrients need to be in balance within the soil system.
  • These essential nutrients must be accessible in ade­quate concentration to the plants.
  • Crops must be able to efficiently recover these avail­able nutrients.

Nutrient balance and concentration is the simplest part of managing soil fertility. Assuring nutrient recovery is consider­ably more complex. The first three areas of management — soil aeration, soil water and soil decay — are keys to guaranteeing nutrient recovery.

Root growth and the uptake of nutrients are oxygen-con­suming processes. Soil aeration guarantees these two functions if water is in adequate supply. Air and water are also necessary to the release of nutrients through the decaying of crop residue.

These first three areas of management are controlled primar­ily through tillage and the activities of soil life. Tillage and soil life are both important and must complement each other. The permanence of soil structure or tilth can be maintained only through the continuous activity of soil life. When soil becomes biologically inactive, gravity begins to rule and tightens the soil.

In effect, the soil life serves as a dispersion machine by floc­culating the soil particles with the glues of microbial exudates to prevent gravity from pulling individual soil colloids together into massive structures.

Figure 25 (below) shows massive structures formed in biologically inactive soils. These structures are not friendly to plant or soil life.

clods of soil

Figure 26, on the other hand, shows the beautiful crumb-like structure which only active soil life can form.

good top soil structure

We emphasize that most tillage operations are in some degree detrimental to the soil system. Excessive tillage can over-aerate the soil, cause too much oxidation of humus and residue, disturb soil life activity, and give way to compaction and clod problems, all of which can become very yield limiting.

On the other hand, tillage can encourage soil life if it improves soil aeration, water and residue management. Most tillage programs do not complement these three areas, and the result is that biological activity is not sufficient to maintain good soil tilth on many farms.

Let us review the effect standard preplant spring tillage systems have on soil microbial activity. In spring, we can usu­ally observe our soil starting to develop a crumb-like structure, which starts at the surface. This structure is the result of micro­bial activity releasing exudates that structure the soil by group­ing the soil particles into crumb-like aggregates.

This granulation or crumbing of soil particles will continue its downward mellowing effect until something interferes with the soil life. A heavy, beating rain on unprotected soil can seal the surface, causing soil aeration problems that slow or even stop the microbial soil-mellowing action.

Standard tillage is the major culprit in stopping this desir­able biological process. Preplant spring tillage works soil to a depth of 4 to 6 inches. This mixes the upper, biologically active layer of soil with the lower, cold, wet and biologically inactive soil. This loosening and mixing almost certainly stops biologi­cal activity dead in its tracks.

Soil mixing also causes smearing, drying and the formation of clods that break the continuity of the soil biology, sending it into dormancy. Unless conditions turn favorable, the biological activity may not reestablish itself for the rest of the season, with the result being tight, dense soil that can only be aided by extensive tillage to loosen the soil or crush the clods.

Clods such as those shown in Figure 25 (above) are primarily topsoil material, the most productive soil on the farm. They can represent 2 to 4 inches of the topsoil, and as such, they are totally out of production.

Biological activity within the soil is the only way to main­tain permanence in the soil structure. Destroying the biological environment leads to permanently nonstructured, compacted soil. This situation will not be tolerated by those who under­stand gas diffusion and the importance of soil aeration. When done correctly, practices such as zone-tilling to eliminate preplant spring tillage will enhance the biological process.

It is essential that the reader recognize that the primary purpose of a well-planned tillage system is to complement soil aeration, soil water and soil life in such a way that we guarantee optimal crop response to soil fertility. This is a radically new way to view the purpose of tillage and add new meaning to our term, “tillage in transition.” The term implies a change of direction. We must know exactly where we are going, and our changes must be based upon knowledge, rather than trial and error or hearsay.

Want more? Buy this book from Acres U.S.A. here.

About Donald Schriefer

Donald Schriefer

Donald L. Schriefer passed from this life on July 30, 1998. He had spent more than five years battling acute leukemia, but he did not lie down and wait for death to come. He left this manuscript as a legacy to his lifelong friends — the farmers — knowing that those left behind would have it published.

One of America’s first “environmental agronomists,” he is best known for his consulting work on behalf of many of the country’s largest, most successful farmers. His innovation in tillage systems, foliar feeding of crops, and soil fertility management earned him the respect of both conventional and ecological farmers. He contributed frequently to various agricultural publications and was well known for conducting numerous seminars and farm programs annually. He has previously writ­ten two books, From the Soil Up and Tillage in Transition.

No-Till Growing: Vegetable Production

By Bryan O’Hara

Over the last 20-plus years of vegetable growing at Tobacco Road Farm in Lebanon, Connecticut, we have constantly sought ways to improve the health and vitality of our crops and soils, and going no-till has been part of that journey.

About 3 acres of land is in vegetables, with half in year-round vegetable production and the other half cover cropped through the winter months.

The crop rotations are very close, with yields very high, so the intensity of production demands very careful soil care. To this end, soil amendments, fertilizers, inoculants and compost have been carefully selected and applied over the years.

cabbages at Tobacco Road Farm
Robust spring cabbages at Tobacco Road Farm.

Under this intensity of production, tillage was previously utilized to an excessive degree. This left the soil with a soil structure that was lacking in aggregation, tended toward surface crusting and with a plow pan always in need of mechanical breaking. The loosened soil of the tillage layer dried excessively in summer, leading to irrigation needs, and the soils’ air/water balance was constantly in jeopardy.

Tillage also imbalanced the soil microbes, including the fungal and bacterial relationships, all of which led to high nitrogen and potassium, and low calcium, magnesium and phosphorus levels in tissue analysis. Some signs of this in the field include weed proliferation in the form of Galinsoga parviflora along with fungal disease pressure.

To limit soil damage, reduced tillage was steadily adopted over the years. This took the form of permanent bedding and wheel tracks with chisel plowing and very shallow rototilling of the bed surface. We then moved into prepping the beds’ surface with harrows only: disc, spring-tooth and rod weeders, combined with a roller.

No-till began with experimentation in mown annual cover crops at flowering with furrow openers for seeding winter squash, as well as thick mulches applied to bed surfaces and transplanted into, or thick mulches which had been in place removed before seeding of various crops. All of these no-till systems had limited success due to difficulties in applying them to our fast-moving production system as well as difficulties with slugs. We clearly needed a better system.

No-Till: Combining Approaches

Measures to improve these conditions were assisted by extensive soil and tissue analysis along with traditional biodynamic approaches. The real push to no-till, however, came from the recommendations of Korean Natural Farming (KNF). KNF is most commonly known for the use and practices around IMOs, or Indigenous Microorganisms. The use of IMOs involves the culturing of forest organisms into a very high level of activity, much of which is fungal. This culture is then applied to soils. To apply tillage to such cultured soils would be counterproductive, as fungus is generally thoroughly damaged by the churning action of tillage implements.

We developed a system on the farm which has proven to be quite successful in improving crop and soil health as well as dramatically increasing yields.

The techniques involved include ways to eliminate the preceding crop or cover crop and chop their residues, control weeds and achieve weed-free bedding surfaces, apply appropriate fertility application and irrigation, increase biological activity and diversity through IMO, broadcast and inter-seeding crops and cover crops. The fields where this system has been put into place were quite fertile, had few perennial weeds and previously had plenty of annual weeds.

When appropriate, we still use tillage techniques to bring a field into this system. These include moldboard plowing and immediate disc harrowing, followed by bed-shaping to establish permanent wheel tracks, then chisel plowing the beds, field cultivating and rolling; with additional appropriately timed trips with the field cultivator and rod weeder, if perennial weeds like quackgrass are an issue.

An annual cover crop may then be sown to allow the field to restabilize after such intervention. Since we will hopefully not be returning to the field in the future with tillage equipment, it is critical to “set the stage” correctly before entering into no-till. In short, this means the tillage addresses plow pan compaction, full elimination of perennial weeds and incorporation of any needed amendments.

planting seeds in soil
Healthy soil full of vitality and activity. To limit soil damage, reduced tillage was steadily adopted over several years.

To begin seedbed preparations, the existing vegetation must be reduced. This is achieved most often with a mowing machine front-mounted on a BCS two-wheel tractor. If we desire a chopped residue for quick decomposition, a rotary mower implement is utilized. If we desire a slow decomposition, a sickle bar mower is the implement of choice. The rotary mower is essentially a heavy-duty lawn mower and has a bagging capacity useful for removal of residues that contain weed seed. With the infrequency of weeds, however, most residues are left on the soil surface, which aids in fertility and enhances the overall layering effort to reduce weed seed germination.

The sickle bar mower is able to more easily handle taller residues and is gentler on beneficial insects such as spiders, lady beetle larvae, etc. Though we have a few larger tractors, the lighter weight and superior maneuverability of the BCS have made it the machine of choice for this job.

Other methods used to chop residues include hand tools such as the machete, scythe, or sickle. These tools need to be kept very sharp to be effective and are obviously much slower than the mowing machine, but occasionally have an appropriate use. There are usually very few weeds in the system, but any weed seed heads are removed with knives before mowing. Low-growing weeds with seeds are grub hoed and removed if necessary.


Once the vegetation has been reduced and weakened by mowing, the possibility of regrowth from its roots is then addressed. From approximately May through September this is achieved through solarization with sheets of clear plastic in the hot sun.

The plastic is secured with sandbags along the sides every 20 feet or so (it is important to limit air from getting in under the cover so the residues are mown relatively low). One to two days of sunny, roughly 75°F-plus weather are usually sufficient, but depending on conditions, slightly lower temperatures may work as well.

Solarization quickly kills any annual plant, however perennial roots are entirely resistant to such quick solarization and are manually removed.

The surface soil temperature increases about 50°F above air temperature, so an 80°F day will give a 130°F soil surface temperature. This temperature drops significantly at a 1-inch soil depth to about a 10°F gain however, so damage to soil biology is minimal. The plastic sheets are taken off the field as soon as possible to avoid soil damage.

The sheets are often previously used high or low tunnel covers, though large sheets of 4 mil construction grade plastic are also utilized.

These sheets are rotated in order to cover large areas. For instance, we may mow a quarter acre of cover crop, solarize for two days and then mow the next quarter acre and move the sheets over.

During the cooler months, when solarization is ineffective, roots are hoed with very sharp wide hoes just below the soil line. In this case the roots are often simply vegetable residue, weak and easily hoed. Winter-killed cover crops such as oat and field pea may also be utilized for early sown vegetables.

Another practice is mowing and leaving roots in place, then burying the roots with the weed-free compost and chopped mulch is also practiced for a smothering effect.

Once the previous vegetation has been managed, the next step is to apply weed-free compost, if required. The preparation of this compost is relatively easy as it is top-dressed, which allows for flexibility in its state of decomposition.

This compost goes a long way toward burying weed seeds and feeding soil biology. The compost is prepared with high-carbon materials, making it fungal-friendly, and contains large amounts of silica as well as other added minerals. Biodynamic preparations are utilized. The basic ingredients are: wood chips, cattle manure, weed-free farm residues, vegetable scraps from the local food co-op, leaves, aged sawdust, basalt dust (from a local quarry’s rock crushing), clay subsoil, and minerals like gypsum, talc, hydrated lime, sea salt, sulfur, zinc sulfate and a small amount of boron, molybdenum and cobalt. A high percentage of wood chips, say about 40 percent, greatly aids in passively aerating the pile which reduces turning needs.

The piles are turned a couple of times, then applied to the surface of the beds with wheelbarrows (loaded from a tractor bucket), a dump cart mounted on a Farmall Cub, or for wider beds, straight from a pickup truck bed or a manure spreader which straddle the beds.

Since the material is applied to the surface of the bed, larger volumes of carbon in various forms are possible and beneficial for our conditions. In the first year of transitioning to no-till we applied a 1-2-inch thick layer of compost to the bed surface; now a typical application would be about ½-inch thick. Compost application definitely gives better seed germination as most seed is broadcast, though compost is not necessary at every seeding.

Following compost application, inoculant is often applied to the bed surface. This is in the form of an IMO, which is cultured from forest microbes from the farm’s surroundings. The techniques are from Korean Natural Farming manuals previously purchased from Acres U.S.A.

This inoculant looks like a mycelium-rich compost and aids greatly in enhancing fungal and microbial activity. The compost and inoculant are very sensitive to drying and should be carefully applied — often this is done late in the day, with immediate seeding, irrigation and covering with mulch. The inoculant is also applied through irrigation and foliars, and sometimes inoculant is not applied at all, depending on the crop and availability.

Seed is often broadcast by hand over the bed surface. This needs to be done very carefully to get an even spread. In order to achieve this at a proper crop spacing we measure volume of seed per bed surface area. Broadcasting allows for maximum coverage of the bed with vegetation, which increases overall photosynthesis, helps feed the soil life and increase yield as well as inhibiting weed growth.

Crops and cover crops can also be inter-seeded at any time since the soil surface is generally weed-free. This allows for crop mix combinations which can also enhance soil life as well as yield. This flexibility to seed cover crops into a weed-free environment is very useful. Transplants are also set into the bed, though often they are set after the mulching step described below.

Some crops are still seeded in rows, accomplished with the use of warren hoes or single tine hoes to rip a furrow through the mulch residue. Seeding can then be accomplished with a hand push seeder or placed by hand. This is often done for large-seeded crops like corn and beans. The broadcast seed applied to the bed surface germinates better if it is worked into the soil surface, accomplished with the use of a drag, which is a group of chain rings attached to a bar similar to a chain harrow but with more flexibility.

The rings are grain drill covering rings, purchased from Agri Supply Company, and were not expensive. The drag is pulled one way over the length of the bed and then back the other way and is very quick and effective.

A leaf rake with straightened tines can also be used, but it is not quite as quick and effective. Another tool that is sometimes used for larger seed is a garden weasel, which resembles a hand-pulled rolling cultivator. The garden weasel works the seed further into the soil before dragging.

Also, a roller is sometimes employed, which further enhances seed-to-soil contact though often rolling occurs after the next step, mulching. The entire process of mowing to reseeding usually occurs in a matter of one to two days. This allows for higher yields and more soil coverage with a growing crop, thus enhancing soil biology.

Mulching & Moisture

Once the seed is worked into the soil, mulch is applied to cover the seed which aids seed germination, further reduces weed germination, and protects the compost and inoculant as well as provides food for the soil life.

The mulch is chopped hay, straw, wood chip, and/or leaves. The bales of straw, hay and sometimes leaf are run through a bale chopper to make a fine material that spreads easily and does not inhibit germination.

Unchopped bales can also be carefully used. The hay is preferably from a late first cutting, which helps avoid some of the seed heads and is a more carbonaceous material, however the danger of weed seed, and the lower carbon level, makes hay the least desirable of these materials.

Straw is used, but needs to be free of grain, and both hay and straw need to be free of herbicide residue.

Chopped leaf is even better as a material as it contains virtually no weed seed, is more carbonaceous and is most appropriate for feeding the soil.

It is much harder to handle in bulk, however, and is easier to use when dry. Wet leaves have a tendency to mat, which is not conducive to germination.

Partially decomposed unground leaf has been successfully used by itself on some crops. Presently, a mixture of straw and leaf with a little wood chip mixed in after grinding is the mulch of choice. Those materials should be carefully applied in proper amounts to help cover seed for small seeds; more for crops like potato. The mulch does cool the soil which is of benefit during the summer, but may slow growth in the cooler months, so is sometimes not applied for winter production.

We also experimented with laying down a foot or more of fresh cut hay to “burn out” a patch of quackgrass in the winter squash with success.

Immediately after seeding or planting, the crop is irrigated. This gives the crop a jump on any possible weeds and helps preserve the compost and inoculant. It is possible to irrigate before mulching as significantly more water is needed to saturate and penetrate a dry mulch. However a soaked mulch is superior for moisture retention needs. Often this is the only irrigation necessary for a crop because of the tremendous benefit of no-till and mulching on soil water retention and movement. If the crop requires additional fertilizing, liquid nutrient can be applied through irrigation. Specific composts are also used as side dressing and foliars are applied.

Weed Management

Without tillage weeds are far less prone to germinate, and conditions are far less conducive to their growth. This system also buries weed seed, and with the layering techniques this control improves every year. Some weeds, however, still slip through and must be dealt with. Since the soil is mulched and crops are broadcast, hoeing is usually not an option. The tool of choice, then, is a serrated weed knife purchased from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, though an aggressive steak knife can also work. They are used to cut annual weeds just below the soil line. Knifing the weeds is surprisingly quick and does not disturb the soil, which is a benefit to any nearby growing crop.

garlic growing
Tall garlic growing at Tobacco Road Farm in Lebanon, Connecticut.

For perennial weeds, the roots must be removed, so they are either hand-pulled or a trowel or drain spade is used for removal. If the weed has gone to seed it is removed from the field.

The greatest challenge for this system seems to lie in the potential for perennial weed build up, so attention is paid to removing them. Perennial weeds are generally not as fast-growing as annual weeds, so they offer less direct competition to a crop. Their strength, however, lies in their tenacity! Canada thistle, quackgrass and yellow dock are the most prominent weeds presently. Last year part of a field required tillage for quackgrass.

Perennial weeds are often intolerant of thorough, careful tillage, so the tillage equipment stands ready for action if required. In general, however, the soil structure has improved to such an extent that many of the perennial roots are now able to be extracted simply by pulling on the plant.

Slug Patrol & Soil Structure

Another potential difficulty is slugs, particularly for spring plantings. The high residue and wet conditions may encourage slugs, so irrigation is carefully applied so as not to keep the soil/mulch wet for extended periods. The mulch may be dispensed with during this period. Techniques that keep the area drier, such as raised beds, proper drainage (tiles, ditches) and eliminating slugs by solarizing larger areas, are useful.

For problem areas, a slug repellent dust is applied to the surface at seeding. This is a mixture of approximately 40 percent talc (magnesium silicate), 40 percent diatomaceous earth (calcium silicate) and 20 percent hydrated lime (feed grade). These materials are drying to slugs and also enhance crop growth. Note: The slug dust may have to be reapplied after rainy conditions.

The lush growth from excess nitrogen fertilization especially needs to be avoided. Growing sturdy, hardy plants through proper fertilization is of greatest benefit. Foliar application of leaf “hardening” materials such as vinegar, at rates of about 1:300 of water, would be an example.

Overall, the system has greatly improved the biological activity and diversity of soil organisms. Higher worm populations are obvious, as well as a much-improved crumb structure to the soil. Fungal activity is obvious with lots of mycelium present, along with mushrooms. Vastly improved soil water characteristics include the great benefit of proper wicking from lower soil levels, which helps keep the soil life hydrated throughout the seasons, as well as better drainage, water retention and in-soaking.

Soil air is also enhanced through the ability of the soil to breathe through the crumb structure, while excess oxygenation from tillage is avoided. The soil temperature is much more stable, staying cooler in the summer heat and warmer during the winter months.

The soil structure is not pulverized through tillage, and erosion is decreased through mulching and constant vegetative cover. Theoretically, there is better nutrient retention and management.

There have been significant decreases in insects and diseases, including: greatly reduced brassica flea beetle, absence of root maggot in rutabaga and turnip, no cabbage losses to black rot and much less leek leaf disease, among others. Though a little more effort is required to prepare the beds and make the appropriate compost, overall there are great savings because of much higher yields, dramatically reduced weed control, reduced irrigation (including no need for a drip system), as well as a significant reduction in tractor time.

Crops are also always planted on time as the soil is never “too wet” to work. All of this has led to higher yields of higher quality. The crops are even sweeter and more flavorful; there are very few culls; storage quality is enhanced, and the vibrancy of the crops is noted and appreciated by the customers.

The system has proven to be quite economically rewarding on our farm, and has also been successfully adopted by other farmers in our region. The low level of mechanization is an attractive benefit to beginning farmers, as well as the intensity of production and high yields. This puts a farming livelihood into the hands of people with a small land base with little initial capital investment.

The techniques are also appropriate for scaling to a much larger area as well. No-till systems such as this work in a more harmonious relationship with nature, which has become critical to successful vegetable production.

With the environmental changes that have occurred, it has become much more difficult to produce vegetable crops than it used to be even 20 or 30 years ago. The effects of erratic weather conditions and environmental toxins are extensive. In our region we are faced with severe acid rain and other rain-based pollutants. This has damaged the soil biology and changed the nutrient capacities of our soils. The upside of this is that humans must now adapt their agricultural practices to survive. This has led to a more harmonious relationship with nature in terms of our agricultural practices, as the old exploitative systems simply no longer work well.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the October 2016 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.

An Introduction to the Organic No-Till Farming Method

By Jeff Moyer

It is the hope and dream of many organic farmers to limit tillage, increase soil organic matter, save money, and improve soil structure on their farms. Organic no-till can fulfill all these goals.

Many organic farmers are accused of overtilling the soil. Tillage is used for pre-plant soil preparation, as a means of managing weeds, and as a method of incorporating fertilizers, crop residue, and soil amendments. Now, armed with new technologies and tools based on sound biological principles, organic producers can begin to reduce or even eliminate tillage from their system.

Organic no-till is both a technique and a tool to achieve farmer’s objectives of reducing tillage and improving soil organic matter. It is also a whole farm system. While there are many ways the system can be implemented, in its simplest form organic no-till includes the following elements:

  • annual or winter annual cover crops that are planted in the fall,
  • overwintered until mature in the spring, and then
  • killed with a special tool called a roller/crimper.
Jeff Moyer, Transitioning to Organic, from the 2015 Eco-Ag Conference & Trade Show. (1 hour, 3 minutes). Listen in as Moyer, the executive director of Rodale Institute, teaches a class on important details to know before you transition your operation to organic.

After the death of the cover crop, cash crops can be planted into the residue with a no-till planter, drill or transplanter. Whether you grow agronomic or horticultural crops, this system can work on your farm, and we’ll show you how to get started with this exciting new technology.

Farmer organic no-till farm
Organic no-till is a rotational tillage system that combines the best aspects of no-till while satisfying the requirements of the USDA organic regulations.

These techniques and tools can work equally well on both conventional (farms based on chemically based practices) and organic farms (farms that follow the USDA’s definition of organic).

Organic no-till is a rotational tillage system that combines the best aspects of no-till while satisfying the requirements of the USDA organic regulations. It is not necessarily a continuous no-till system but one that may include some tillage in rotation, especially to establish the cover crops. After cash crops are planted, no further tillage or cultivation is generally needed, and this greatly reduces the required field operations.

While organic farmers typically work the field several times just to get the crop in the ground, organic no-till farmers can get by with as few as two field operations: rolling the cover crop and planting the cash crop in one pass, and then harvesting the cash crop. By reducing the number of field operations, farmers can save on fuel and time — all the while building up their soil.

Cover crops are the cornerstone of weed management and soil building — so much so that they become as important as the cash crop.

Most organic farmers know something about cover cropping, but with organic no-till you’ll get a chance to sharpen your skills. If you are managing a chemically based operation you can still take advantage of these tools and use cover cropping on your farm. Winter annuals like rye and hairy vetch are common examples, but summer planted buckwheat, field peas, many small grains, and annual legumes are also a possibility. A later chapter on cover crops will tell you more about which cover crops can be killed by rolling and when.

Our rule of thumb is simple: if you can step on the plant and it dies, then you can kill it with a roller/crimper. This means that plants like alfalfa or perennial weeds are not good candidates for rolling.

Farmer no-till cover crop mulch
The author pulling back the killed cover crop to show no-till mulch in action with corn seedlings.

When seeded at the correct time during the fall, these cover crops will get started by developing an extensive root system and growing a small amount of vegetative matter. During the winter, the cover crops will either continue to grow slowly (in warmer climates) or essentially remain dormant (in the north).

There are several benefits to a winter cover crop, including erosion control, nutrient cycling, and microbial habitat in the root zone.

During spring, the cover crops jump to life and really put on biomass. Then they can be killed with the roller/crimper as they reach the peak of their life cycle.

With the winter annuals commonly used in the system, this corresponds to the period when they are entering their reproductive phase. For example, with winter rye, the correct time to roll the cover crop is when the rye is in “anthesis” or producing pollen. With hairy vetch, the vetch should be at least 75 percent in bloom, but 100 percent bloom is even better.

An annual crop typically allocates 20 to 30 percent of its resources toward the process of flowering and seed production. In addition, enzymatic changes at this time cause the plant to begin to senesce, or start the process of aging and breakdown prior to death. During this phase of the plant’s life cycle, it is much more vulnerable, and can be effectively killed by the roller/crimper.

No-till farm roller crimper
The Rodale Institute roller/crimper in action.

The roller/crimper is a specialized tool designed by John Brubaker and myself and tested at the Rodale Institute. It works by rolling the cover crop plants in one direction, crushing them, and crimping their stems.

The roller/crimper can be front mounted on a tractor, while a no-till planter, drill or transplanter brings up the rear, planting directly into the rolled cover crop. Or the roller can be pulled in a separate pass.

Since the system is based on biology and mechanics, it is scale neutral — suitable for use on either small or large farms. The roller/crimper can be pulled behind a tractor, a horse, or even by hand depending on the scale of the operation. While other tools, such as a stalk chopper, rolling harrows, and mowers have been used for this purpose; the roller/crimper has several advantages over other tools. It has been specially designed for organic no-till, and performs its function exceptionally well.

Provided that the cover crop is thick enough, the field will take care of itself for the rest of the season.

The mashed cover crops provide a mulch layer for the cash crop, both preventing the growth of weeds, but also breaking down gradually during the season to provide a long-term slow release of nutrients.

To achieve adequate weed control, the cover crop should be planted at a high rate and produce approximately 2.5 tons of dry matter per acre. For this reason, only certain kinds of cover crops, ones that yield a high amount of biomass, work well for the no-till system. It’s also important to select cover crops with a carbon to nitrogen ratio higher than 20:1. The higher the ratio, the more carbon, and the more slowly the crop will break down.

This will provide a consistent weed management barrier through the season. These topics will be explained in more detail further in this book.

After harvest, the killed cover crops can be disked under and the next round of cover crops is planted for the following season. Thus, the crop year begins in the fall with planning for the following year. For this reason, organic no-till requires considerable long-term planning.

Principles of Organic No-Till

Organic no-till rests on three fundamental principles:

  • soil biology powers the system;
  • cover crops are a source of fertility and weed management; and
  • tillage is limited, and best described as rotational tillage.

In both the goals and ideology, organic no-till is very similar to other kinds of organic farming.

These include soil building with organic matter and soil biology, managing weeds, insects and diseases through diverse and non-chemical means, and achieving general plant health through soil health and good management practices. However, organic no-till uses different methods to achieve those goals. Much more emphasis is placed on cover cropping, which replaces tillage and cultivation as a means of soil building and managing weeds.

Maximize Natural Soil Biology

In organic no-till, as with all types of organic agriculture, biology replaces chemistry. This means that organic farmers let the soil organisms do the work of facilitating nitrogen fixation, improving nutrient cycling, as well as enhancing soil structure and texture.

These soil organisms include macroorganisms like earthworms and as well as microorganisms like soil bacteria and fungi. Organic no-till goes one step further than the current technology offered in organic systems.

By providing nearly year-round cover and limiting tillage, the soil biology is given a chance to thrive and power the system that is the organic farm.

Chemistry, as used by conventional agriculture, has some fundamental problems. When we say chemistry we mean synthetic products such as man-made fertilizers and pesticides.

Conventional no-till is closely tied to herbicide use, since this is the primary means of weed control. Typically, as tillage is reduced herbicide management is increased in an attempt to control weeds. Although some surface residues are generated from no-till, they are not enough to provide consistent weed control.

This dependence on herbicides generates a host of problems, from resistant weeds to the destruction of beneficial insects.

Genetically modified crops (GMOs) are also commonly used in a conventional no-till system since the marriage of herbicide resistant crops and ag chemicals has been a consistent theme.

There are a number of concerns about GMOs — they may cause allergic reactions in sensitive individuals, they can cross pollinate with non-GMO crops, and there is an increased dependence on chemical herbicides and pesticides. GMOs also prevent farmers from saving their own seed since these technologies are all patented. None of these technologies are currently allowed under the USDA organic standards.

About the Author

Author Jeff Moyer
Jeff Moyer

Jeff Moyer has been working in the field of organic agriculture all of his adult life. Over the past 28 years he has been the farm manager/director for the prestigious Rodale Institute located in Southeastern Pennsylvania. Moyer’s interest in agriculture began while growing up on a small farm in Pennsylvania where his family grew and produced much of the food they consumed. Eventually, his desire to participate in the organic movement of the ’70s led him to the Rodale Institute, where he worked for 20 years on designing equipment specifically for the management of cover crops. He currently chairs the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Standards Board and serves as an advisor on organic issues to the Secretary of Agriculture. Jeff is also a founding board member of Pennsylvania Certified Organic, a private non-profit certification agency. He serves (and has served) as a member of several other committees and boards as well. He is also a past president and current member of the Northeast Society of Agricultural Research Managers. Moyer also manages Sky Hollow Farm, a small farm of his own where he and his family have lived for over 30 years.

SOURCE: Organic No-Till Farming

Non-toxic Management Practices for Weeds

Charles Walters describes important farm management practices concerning soil health and the identification and non-toxic treatment of weeds.

By Charles Walters

For now, it seems appropriate to walk through farm management practices worthy of consideration. How they fit soils in any area and how they dovetail with crop systems projections becomes all important for the grower who wants to minimize the hazards of weeds so that he does not have to depend on the obscene presence of herbicides to control them.

Fall Tillage

Fall tillage has to be considered number one. It is the first thing a farmer should want to do, yet every fall when the crop is harvested, that bad weather always seems to arrive. Often the fall work does not get done. The farmer is too busy harvesting and he can’t get in there and do the tillage.

Moreover, most crops are harvested late because schoolbook technology has given us degenerated soils. We do not convert and use fertilizers, nitrogen and other fertility factors locked up in the soil to properly grow field-ripened crops.

Proper fertility management would see to it that harvest can take place a month earlier and thus permit time for that fall work. That is when compaction could be best removed, when trash could be mulched in. That is also the time when pH modifiers could be applied. That is when lime and other nutrients could be used to influence the quality and character of the soil’s pH, all in time to meld into the soil during fall and over winter.

It is this procedure that would make the soil come alive in spring and get the growing season underway so that crops can germinate a week or ten days earlier.

Fall tillage is an important key to weed management. It is certainly one way to diminish the chances for foxtail and grass type weeds. If fall tillage is used to put soil systems into ridges, those ridges will drain faster in spring. They will warm up a week to ten days earlier. They will have germinating capacity restored earlier and permit planting earlier so that the economic crop can get a head start on weeds.

Once the soil is conditioned, it won’t be necessary to turn the soil so much in spring. Obviously, every time the soil is turned, more weed seeds already in the soil are exposed to sunlight and warmth and other influences that wake them out of dormancy. Soil bedded in the fall, with pH modified so that the structure does not permit crusting when spring rains arrive, will permit rain to soak in faster, bringing air behind it. Such a soil will warm faster and therefore determine the hormone process that will take place. Good water and air entry into the soil will not likely set the stage for foxtail (image below), nut sedge, watergrass and other debilitating influences on the crop.

Foxtail can be avoided with practical weed management
Anhydrous ammonia is almost an insurance policy for its proliferation. Foxtail grows in organic matter soil where there is a surplus of humic acid. Although pH adjustment has been front burner stuff so far, the topic has to surface in any discussion of the foxtail weed problem.

When the cash crop is germinated under these conditions, that is when your little pigweeds and lambsquarters, your broadleaf weeds — which require a good quality available phosphate — hand off their message. They say the phosphate conversion is good and the fertility release system is more than adequate to grow a high-yielding crop.

Such broadleafs are easy to manage. When they germinate and achieve growth of an inch or less, and you tickle the soil before you insert the seed, they are easily killed off. As a consequence, the hormone process gains the upper hand for four to six weeks, a time frame that permits the crops to grow big enough to be cultivated.

Organic Materials in the Soil

Needless to say, the bio-grower has to depend on proper decay of organic materials in the soil. Root residue and crop stover are always present, and these have a direct bearing on how prolific weeds might grow. This means farmers, one and all, must learn how to manage decay of organic matter better.

As we incorporate it into the soil, preside over proper decay conditions by pH management and regulate the water either present or absent, we achieve plenty of air and good humid conditions that will allow organic material to decay properly and in the right direction to provide the steady supply of carbon dioxide necessary for a higher yield.

While adjustments are being made in the soil — soils are sometimes out of equilibrium for years — it is unrealistic to expect the situation will be corrected in a single season or a single month. We can speed the process with the application of properly composted manures. The point here is that there is a difference between quality of various composts, just as there is a difference between predigested manures and manures sheet composted in the soil itself.

Readers of Acres U.S.A. in general, and those who have enjoyed the short book, Pottenger’s Cats, will recall how that great scientist planted dwarf beans in beach sand at Monrovia, California, as part of an experiment. Cats had been raised on that beach sand. Some had been fed evaporated milk, others raw meat, still others meat that had been cooked to achieve near total enzyme-destroying potential and some had been fed on raw milk. Cats fed evaporated milk, cooked meat — dung going into the beach sand — produced a dilapidated, depressed crop of beans. Cats fed whole milk — their dung also going into the beach sand, produced a prolific and extended crop, the dwarf bean variety growing to the top of a six-foot-high cage. The quality of manures used in composting have a direct bearing on the performance of that compost.

Experience has taught all those who wish to see that the kind of compost Fletcher Sims of Canyon, Texas, introduces into the soil has many desirable fungal systems of bacteria and molds. These have the capacity to attack rhizome roots of quackgrass, Johnsongrass, and those type of roots so far under the top of the soil they cannot be reached with physical tools. Compost tells us that we have to set in motion an environment with antagonistic fungi that will attack the rhizomes when they are in a dormant phase as the season begins to close.

In late August and early September, the length of the day shortens. Everything starts to go into fall dormancy. If at that time we can apply a wholesome, properly composted material to the soil and have it working for thirty days before the soil freezes and becomes inactive, a lot of weed cleanup work takes place at that time. Compost will simply digest most of the dormant weed seeds, and in two or three years of this approach seeds are literally vacuumed up, like soil particles on the family room carpet.

The key is timing. When weeds go into dormancy, they are subject to decay. They can be turned into fresh humus, rather than a charge of gunpowder ready to explode. Quackgrass in particular responds to the compost treatment. With calcium-adjusted pH, compost will attack quackgrass roots and rot them out in one season. The same principle operates with deep-rooted rhizomes, Johnsongrass and thistles.

Quackgrass signals soil decay systems are poor
Quackgrass, sometimes called couchgrass. Agropyron repens is shown here (A); its spikelets (B); the ligule (C); and florets (D). Decay systems are at fault when this weed appears.

The simplest way to start a biological weed control program, then, is to adjust the pH. This affects the intake of water and makes it possible to manage water.

In the cornbelt, where rain often comes at the wrong time and where droughts frustrate the best of intentions, this management of water and its capillary return is front burner stuff. pH management directly relates to so many desirable things, there is justification for referring the reader to the several volumes of The Albrecht Papers for background insight.

Soil Management

Each weed has a direct bearing on the track record of the farm. Each reflects back to what the farmer has done correctly or incorrectly over the years. Too often — in this age of super mechanization — we have large fields with soft spots and hard textured soils. The farmer moves across one then over the next area because he feels impelled to farm big fields with big machinery. All the low soil is too wet, and so a pass through sets the stage for wild oats or foxtail in corn, or fall panicum.

Some soils get the wrong treatment simply because they, not the weeds, are in the wrong place. It may be that the eco-farmer will have to redesign the shape of his fields, or plant in strips so that similar types of soils can be planted at the same time, with due regard being given to the need for soils to dry out and warm up and drain properly. It might be better to wait a couple of weeks. A little delay is better than wet soil work which leaves no chance at all for a crop.

As far as weeds as related to insects, the great Professor Phil Callahan has given us a roadmap that cannot be ignored. He called it Tuning In To Nature, and in it he related how the energy in the infrared that is given off by a plant is the signal for insect invasion.

It stands to reason that a plant that is subclinically ill will give off a different wavelength than the one with balanced hormone and enzyme systems. That these signals match up with the signals of lower phylum plants is more than speculation.

While writing An Acres U.S.A. Primer, I often made field observations that supported Callahan. It became obvious that when farmers did certain things in the soil, the crop could endure the presence of insects because they seemed incapable of doing much damage. I didn’t know how the mechanism worked, at least not before the release of Tuning In To Nature.

Weeds are going to tell about the nutritional supply, and they therefore rate as a worthy laboratory for making judgments about the soil’s nutritional system. They can often reveal the nutrients that must be added to the foliage of the growing crop to react with the negative effects of stress. After all, all growing seasons have variable degrees of timing and stress. It is not only necessary to arrive with nutritional support in time, it is mandatory.

The many mansions in the house of weeds all have family histories. They tell more about gene splicing and DNA manipulation than all the journals of genetic engineering put together. And if we pay attention during class, weeds are our greatest teachers. To learn our lessons, we have only to get into the business of watching weeds grow.

Source: Weeds—Control Without Poison 

Tillage Types for Soybeans: Traditional, No-Till and Ridge-Till Methods

By Dr. Harold Willis

The tillage methods you use for soybeans should depend on your climate, soil type, slope, crop rotation, machinery and costs.

Traditional Soybean Tillage

Tillage is done for three reasons: to prepare a seedbed or improve-soil structure, to incorporate organic matter and fertilizers, and to control weeds. There are several commonly used tillage methods. The moldboard plow lifts and turns the soil, inverting the plow layer. This causes drastic disturbance in the soil ecosystem, but can be useful in heavy soils if done in the fall. Winter freezing and thawing may improve soil structure.

Chisel plows fracture the soil rather than turning it. Less energy is needed-to pull the plow, and the soil is disturbed less. Some plant residue is left on the surface, which is helpful for reducing erosion.

Discs cut and loosen soil and incorporate much of the plant residue, but they compact the soil beneath the blades.

Field cultivators and springtooth harrows dig and lift the upper layers of soil and do not compact lower soil. Little residue is incorporated.

Rotary hoes break up clods and crusts and leave a fine-particle layer.

Subsoilers and deep chisels are used to fracture subsoil and break up hard-pans, in an attempt to improve drainage and deep soil structure. Generally the effects are temporary, and without increasing soil humus, hard soil conditions will return.

In general, tillage on humus-poor, heavy soils causes deleterious effects, espe­cially if overdone. Soil structure is destroyed, organic matter disappears and ero­sion increases. Tillage operations should be kept to a minimum if soil is poor.

no-till soybean field
A no-till soybean field in Argentina.

No-till Soybean Farming

The above disadvantages of tillage in poor soils have led to the development and promotion of various reduced- and no-till systems. By using special planters that can operate in surface crop residue and by using high levels of herbicide for weed control, crops can be grown fairly successfully (except in northern climates on poorly drained clay soils).

While it is true that reduced-tillage systems do reduce erosion and save fuel, the requirements for high amounts of fertilizer and pesticides and the long-term tendency for deep soil to become depleted in oxygen and toxic are disadvantages. Soil-living pests and diseases often increase, and springtime soil temperatures may be cold.

All of these disadvantages of no-till could be eliminated and most of the advantages obtained if an adequate level of humus (up to 10 to 12%) is main­tained in the soil and if the use of materials toxic to soil organisms is reduced or eliminated (pesticides, some herbicides, high-salt and chlorine-containing fertilizers, over-use of raw manure). Humus and soil life create loose, non-crusting soil structure and break up hard subsoil and hardpans, improving drainage. Erosion is greatly reduced because humus holds soil particles in small clumps (aggregates).

Ridge Planting

A fairly new tillage method that works well in some cases for corn and soybeans is called ridge planting or ridge-till. Rows must be at least 30 inches apart to allow ridges and valleys to be built up (branching varieties of soybeans must be used). The crop is planted on top of the ridges, with crop residue left in the valleys. Earlier planting is possible because ridge tops warm up soon, and wind erosion is reduced. Ridges catch more snow in winter. Weeds can be cultivated out in the valleys and if necessary, in-row herbicide can be used. Ridges must be built up each year, and machinery must be compatible with the ridge widths.

Still don’t know? Try these studies to learn more about the practical results from no-till and tillage studies:

Rodale Institute study on No-Till

A Yield Comparison from No-Till & Till (Kansas State University)

Benefits of No-Till (Michigan State University)

Soybean Seeding Rates by Tillage (Ohio State University)

No-Till Versus Conventional Soybeans (University of Kentucky)

Source: How to Grow Super Soybeans