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Farming with Animals, Cover Crops, Manure, Mulches, and Minimal Tillage

photo by Jack Kittredge
Julie Rawson in West Field at Many Hands Organic Farm, admiring some kale and broccoli

Central Massachusetts is not what you would call prime farmland. Like most of New England that isn’t blessed with a nearby waterway and thus alluvial deposits, our soils are thin and only farmable where the underlying landforms aren’t too rocky, hilly or wet to grow crops.

When Julie and I bought this land 36 years ago it was composed of two played-out hayfields that had been de-rocked years ago and about 30 acres of woods that had not. Since then we have put drain tile under the fields to get them plantable by April, brought or grown onto them uncountable tons of organic matter to build soil, and hauled from them an equal volume of rocks that the first team of de-rockers somehow missed. We have yet to deal with the underlying abundance of potter’s clay and ledge.

The big advantage to central Massachusetts, we told ourselves, was that the land was so unattractive to farmers that we didn’t have to worry about spray drift or chemical contamination by neighbors, a huge concern where Julie grew up in Illinois.

Since then we have built a serviceable farm here, certified organic since 1987 and are providing produce and small and orchard fruit through a CSA to some 60 families currently, and to several wholesale accounts. We also raise a number of animals and sell meat and eggs, mostly to individuals.

Soil Fertility

photo by Jack Kittredge
Perennial weeds ferment in water which is then added to the nutrient drench delivered to crops by drip irrigation

As in raising our children, one of the most important concerns for Julie (the primary farmer) has been providing adequate nutrition. That has only gotten stronger over the years. For the last ten years she has been taking a fall soil test (she feels that laboratories like Logan Labs, which use the protocols de-veloped by William Albrecht, are the gold standard for soil testing) and using that as the basis for what to put down the next year. She consults with our son Dan to better understand the test and make recommendations based upon it.

But Rawson does not rely on purchased products for all of her inputs – she also tries ideas picked up from other farmers. At a recent conference Maine’s Mark Fulford suggested using water from fermented weeds as an activator. Julie is trying this out and leads me to her many pails stuffed with plants soaking in brownish water.

“These are all kinds of perennial weeds – whatever is green that we can find. They start fermenting when you soak them, which we do for a week or so, till they get really stinky, then we use the water in the foliar spray mix that we apply to our plants. It makes them grow faster. We can use what is left of the weeds for compost.”

Livestock and Crop Symbiosis

One of the traits which distinguishes our farm from many area organic farms is the presence of a significant number of livestock and poultry. Besides lik-ing to eat meat and eggs that we know are from humanely raised and healthily fed creatures, Julie believes in integrating plants and animals in much the same way that nature does.

“One of the things that we have been trying to perfect,” she explains, “is how to best utilize the animals we have here — we raise 300 meat chickens a year plus adding a hundred new layers each year. We also have two cows, 9 pigs and up to a hundred turkeys.

“What we’re trying to do,” she continues, “is better use the animals in the vegetable growing areas. Before, when the certification standards required 60 days between the removal of animals and harvest of vegetables, we were able to do more with animals right there in the field. Now that they require most-ly 120 days for any crop that has edible parts that touch the ground, we have to be more creative. Chickens can destroy an area, as can pigs. But I try to bring our animals through the vegetable areas when we can, and balance the issue of wanting to have something growing there when they leave. I want to have as much green growing in wintertime as I can so I want those chickens coming in on an area that has perennial cover crops or going through an area early enough that you can plant cover crops after them. That is one of the real challenges of managing animals in this system.”

When putting animals on a field Rawson tries to replicate the ideas that have been popularized by Alan Savory concerning intensive but short periods of grazing followed by rest to allow the pasture to regrow, often called ‘mobstocking’.

“We have found that really builds the structure of the soil,” she stresses. “This summer, when we were in drought, our hayfield was bright green and still growing. We have plenty of pasture right now in mid-October although a lot of folks are struggling with not having enough green in their fields.”

The West Field Experience

photo by Jack Kittredge
Clover grows in the pathways and under the kale

In 2015, for the first time ever, Rawson took one of the main vegetable growing areas out of production in order to fully bring in the benefits of livestock and poultry and long term cover crops.

“We have about three acres of vegetable land,” she explains, “and in 2014 we put down a cover crop on a half acre we call ‘the West Field’ and later put our two beef cows on it to eat it down. They stayed there all winter and we took them out in the spring of 2015, let it all grow back, and put the steers back in again so they were pasturing there in July. Then we put our turkeys, who are out on pasture August to November, on it. They moved back and forth on that field a couple of times. Finally, we covered the entire half acre in cardboard and covered it with leaves, hay and wood chips.”

The results of Julie’s planned ‘Rest & Rehabilitation’ for the West Field have been more than she hoped for.

“Generally this field has been a real paradise this year,” she asserts. “It continues to produce an amazing quantity and quality of food. Just yesterday (October 10) this 100-foot bed of Ace peppers produced 50 pounds for us. The kale, which was planted in April, we are still harvesting. It was a superb crop. This has been a real paradise for broccoli. You can see the blueness of the plants. With broccoli generally you get a head and some side shoots and then the plant piddles out. In the West Field they are producing tertiary heads!”

This last year, because of her concern about carbon and weather etremes, Julie has experimented with various ways of practicing little or no tillage. It is way too early for her to draw conclusions, but she thinks some of these methods show real promise and says the farming year was quite successful. Despite the worst drought central Massachusetts has experienced in our 34 years of growing, it was one of our most productive years. Both crop yield and crop quality were high.

Solarization

One of the methods of preparing a seed bed in a planting area without tillage that has worked for Julie is to ‘solarize’ it. Solarization is the coverage of a growing area with a sheet of greenhouse plastic for long enough (it depends on the time of year, with longer times being necessary in spring and fall and shorter ones in summer) to kill vegetative growth in the top half inch or so of soil without bothering soil life any deeper. In summer this process can be accomplished in one 24-hour period,

“We planted cover crops last fall,” she relates, showing me some beds of thriving kale plants, “in the vegetable crops that were here and mowed them down in mid-June this year. We took the hay off and solarized these beds. Then we took our partially composted woodchips that we got from the local DPW and laid them down. Then we planted kale seedlings on June 22 through the wood chips — we just dug a hole with our hands and put the kale in — and then laid down the drip tape. We didn’t bother with the fungal inoculants that we often use because we figured we had lots of fungus from the wood chips.”

Wood Chips

Wood chips are one of the major innovations Rawson introduced to the farm this year. Our local Department of Public Works collects them from land-scapers and makes them available gratis, loaded into your pickup, to anyone in town who can use them. Julie hired a dump truck and we ended up taking 13 loads this spring. She finds that they are excellent as a mulch and can be applied for many crops even before planting.

“We tried planting through cardboard and wood chips this year,” she explains. “When we planted transplants, we used string to mark our beds and pathways and just dug a hole in the bed through the chips and planted our tomatoes or brassicas. In one instance we planted cucumbers and carrot, seeds in beds that had been mulched with chips for an earlier crop of onions. We drew a pathway and shallow furrow through the chips -– probably an inch deep — with a hoe and planted the seeds in that and covered them back up with dirt. There was a challenge with wood chips falling into the furrow until we learned how far to pull them back – probably 3 inches or so for cucumber seeds. If we are doing something like carrots, however, which we do as 4 rows equidistant in the bed, we found retrospectively that it was better to rake all the chips off the bed first. Germination was not good when we didn’t completely remove them from the bed.

“I have limited experience so far in all this,” Rawson admits, “but I have plenty of experience in evaluating crops and know we got an excellent response from plants sitting there in that wood mulch. For some crops that we planted with a more conventional preparation using the tiller, we weeded once and then mulched the beds heavily with chips. The dirt under there is really friable. There is a lot of fungal activity going on – you can see the white threads of fungus in the soil. Some of my take-homes for this year are that using wood chips as a mulch on crops that are prone to having weed problems has been a real labor saver for us and also has created some really high quality crops. We used this system with onions, leeks, carrots, parsley. One of the things we learned is that, even though many people are concerned about wood chips because they think too much carbon will tie up nitrogen in the soil, when you have carbon covering on the soil it can break down slowly. Worms and microbial life will access it as needed. They will keep the carbon:nitrogen ratio in balance if you don’t incorporate the carbonaceous material in the soil but leave it on top.”

Cardboard

Another innovation we tried was massive coverage of soil in the fall with cardboard. Julie and I located the merchants in town last year who went through large amounts of big corrugated boxes (think dealers of motor cycles, stoves, refrigerators, replacement windows and doors) received their blessings for scheduled raids upon their dumpsters, and brought home truckloads of the stuff which were then laid out over one-half of an acre of field from November through March. On top of that we would often pile truckloads of oak leaves just scavenged from edges of the scenic, tree-lined road on which we live.

“That was the preparation we used in the West field”, she points out. “Just before slaughter of our turkeys in 2015 we started laying down cardboard on the veggie portion of that field (the sunniest portion, in the center of the field). We covered that cardboard with whatever we could – some hay, oak leaves from the roads, and finally wood chips we got from the DPW. Essentially there was cardboard everywhere, covered with a lot of carbonaceous, natural materials.”

The cardboard didn’t break down over the winter and spring as much as Julie hoped, in part because of the lack of precipitation.

“I was worried early on with the cardboard,” she recalls, “that it didn’t seem like the soil was going to be soft and deep.”

Although she mostly planted through the cardboard, in one section of the field she pulled off the cardboard and hay, poked holes every 18 to 24 inches, and planted transplants into the dirt. But she didn’t till. She recalls that worms just filled the area under the carqboard, lying side by side.

“I felt a clodiness to the soil,” she says, “that reminded me of growing up in Illinois — clods the size of my hand, cracks in the soil. It was a different struc-ture than I’m used to here. I finally realized after talking to NRCS people that those clods are a good thing. That bore out in the crops we got here. What I noticed when we planted things here is that they immediately took off, they were dark, beautiful green from the start. That was the second week in June.

“Cardboard works very well to attract earthworms into the system,” she asserts. “I’m not sure why – they must be eating the cardboard or microbes are doing that and the worms are eating them. Also you can see daikon here and there. These are nicely formed plants that have a cohesive structure. The soybeans here were meaty, the summer squash quality and consistency was strong and resulted in a huge amount of production for a long period of time. I’d never had that kind of consistency. Things last longer when raised this way. Here are tomatoes that we didn’t pick last night. Looks like these made it through the frost. These were mammoth plants and we didn’t start getting early blight until about the fourth week in September.

“What I have found where we were just using cardboard,” she continues, “is that the plants, albeit planted earlier, when they came up they had these monster frames. Broccoli are still pumping out heads -– tertiary heads bigger than the primary heads across the street. The cabbages were monstrous too. What I have found this year is that the crops which were planted in that field have much more staying power that the crops planted elsewhere, which did pretty well, actually. With a second crop going in, or at the end of their life cycle, the other crops started to peter out, which I thought was pretty natural for mid October. But I am finding that in the cardboard-treated field the kale is still going strong, the pepper plants, broccoli, cabbages all have a frame that is two to four times the size of those elsewhere and are more resilient.”

Despite all these wonders, Julie is not planning on laying out massive amounts of cardboard this winter.

“It was a lot of work,” she says. “It is a good activity for a winter that is totally open and has little snow, and I will continue to use it around open peren-nials like blueberries, red raspberries, black raspberries, rhubarb – things where you want to have it clean right under the branches so weeds don’t grow too heavily there. In 2016 we used a lot on perennials and put wood chips on top. We had green pathways between the rows that were mowable!”

Avoiding Tillage

photo by Jack Kittredge
Cows and chickens are moved daily, with the birds closely following the bovines. Here Julie and grandson Sammy tend to the animal chores

One interesting lesson so far that Rawson is taking to heart is that despite all her fertility amendments and other good management practices, although her first crop in an area does well, replants in a bed that has been tilled do not hold that quality for the next crop.

“This kale,” she says, pointing out a bed of it “comes from an area that we tilled before we planted lettuce in the spring. After the lettuce came out we put the kale in. The planting was similarly timed to the kale across the street. You can see the difference in quality. These beds were tilled in the spring and got our usual treatment of fertility, drenching and so forth. The lettuce we harvested earlier out of here was very nice and we brought more wood chips in and did a similar treatment and planting to what we did to the other kale. We even under-sowed clover. The big difference is that in the first beds we looked at there has been no tillage since the spring of last year. This one was tilled this spring. Also this is a second crop, a succession where that was the first crop after a cover. This bed is full of grass that maybe came in through tillage. I don’t think the grass is hurting the kale, but the kale doesn’t look as good.”

“When I till and use all the good fertility practices I do,” Rawson explains, “I will have a good first crop but it can’t sustain it for a second crop. Some-times we plant after cardboard, sometimes after cover crops, sometimes after cardboard and cover crops. But it is the tilling that makes the difference, leading to lesser plants. My surmise is that the tillage has a strong negative impact.”

Julie is not sure why areas that have been no-tilled look so much better, but figures that those that have been tilled don’t have as much microbial activity in the soil, particularly less fungal activity.

A major problem that no-till presents is having to change the way you plant. That is part of the work that Many Hands Organic Farm is hoping to address next year.

“We are trying to find creative ways to plant into old cover crop residues,” Rawson says. “That is where our new learning is heading next year. How can we learn how to plant small seeded crops without having to till first? We want to use Bryan O’Hara methods, but that requires a lot of compost and we don’t yet have that system in place.”
Cover Crops

photo by Jack Kittredge
These brassicas were planted without tillage into our West Field, covered over last winter in cardboard and mulched with wood chips.

Besides reducing tillage, the other carbon-building practice Julie has had a lot of success with is use of cocktail cover crops. Although 2016 was a bad year for drought and cover crops sometimes had difficulty germinating, their use seemed to augment crop production.

“We planted cucumbers in our small hoophouse in the spring,” she says. “When they were up adequately we broadcast an annual cover crop mix. The cucumbers were mulched with hay and woodchips and the annual cover crop mix was broadcast onto the mulch. The cucumbers that were here had the longest life of any of our cucumbers on the farm.

“Kale was slow to start,” she continues, “but once it was six inches tall we undersowed clover in the bed to get more greenery in there. We put down some worm castings but not much — a 5 gallon pail of them on a bed 4 feet wide and 130 feet long. You can see they are generally darker and more vibrant than the ones that followed the lettuce crop. What I see is a better building of frame. That is what you want.”

Julie’s interest in cover crops resulted in MHOF being the site of a cover crop workshop attended by 50 or 60 people on July 25. She had taken a section of a field and planted it to 3, 6, 9, 12, 15 and 18-way cover crop mixes. Ray Archuleta and Brandon Smith came from NRCS, dug up soil samples, and showed attendees how to evaluate them. Ray was particularly pleased with our level of soil aggregation!

The biggest problem with cover crop use in operations that specialize in annual vegetable crops is getting them to go away when their usefulness is done. Unless carefully managed, perennial cover crops can overwhelm and crowd out crops planted into them.

The primary ways cover crops are disabled without tillage are by winter killing (for annuals), by rolling over them with a heavy tractor-drawn ‘roll-er-crimper’ which is supposed to knock them down and crimp their stems so that sap can no longer flow up and down, effectively killing them, or by mowing. The latter two systems are far more effective if the cover crop is at the ‘milk stage’ where its energy has shifted from vegetative growth to seed growth. That way the plant is less likely to have the strength to repair damage inflicted by crimping or mowing which does not succeed in actually killing the plant. The risk, however, is that unless done in a timely manner, the plant will get to the stage of setting seed, after which any practical management method guarantees widespread unwanted seed distribution — likely to lead to serious problems when the seed comes up.

“Some people talk about crimping the cover crop and then planting right into that,” she says. “But we haven’t done that and I don’t know what tools could be used for that. I’m using what tools we have available to us. My understanding is that it is very difficult to kill rye unless it is ready to die! My so-lution for early crops is to plant where we have used cardboard, or use annual cover crops that will winterkill.

“Vetch is another killer,” she continues, “like rye. It wraps around everything and chokes it to death where rye just muscles it out. But I like them because vetch fixes nitrogen and rye mines for minerals and builds incredible soil structure with its long roots. You can use nitrogen-fixing annuals like Austrian winter peas and many of the clovers in winter-kill cover mixes, but I like the soil building effect of the perennials so I’ll still use a lot of them.

“If I plant perennial cover crops like rye and vetch,” she concludes, “which are the major aggressive ones I have used here, I have to be sure that the crops I want to plant there the next year are not early crops. You can maybe push it for us, in cold central Mass, if you are planning to plant something on June 1 you could raise rye there, maybe even June 15, and be assured that when you mow it and knock it down it is done growing. That will be the milk stage when all the energy is going into seed production and the stalks become brittle and it loses its vegetative strength. At that moment you can take it out and it won’t grow back. We don’t have a roller crimper to crush the cover crop, so what we do is mow it with a rotary mower. In some areas we did till in 2016 because we had put in rye for the winter and it was hard to kill in the spring. We wanted to use that soil when it was too early for the rye to reach its milk stage — when we could mow it and kill it.

Her experiences with cover crops this year have taught Rawson a lot about management strategies. She feels next year she will be able to manage a lot better.
“Next year,” she promises, “we will have certain areas that were planted into annual cover crops in 2016 that will be the first places we plant. We’ll leave the other areas until June 10 or so and knock down the perennial cover crops and plant into them. But we will cover crop everywhere!”

Green Pathways

photo by Jack Kittredge
These Copra onions, one of our best crops ever, were planted as seedlings into a wood chip mulch after using broadforking of winter-killed cover crops as bed preparation.

Julie is careful to maintain green, carbon producing pathways between her cropping beds. Generally she prefers clover for that purpose, because it doesn’t get too tall and as a legume fixes nitrogen from the atmosphere into the soil. There are some tricky issues in keeping pathways properly managed, howev-er.

Especially with annual beds,” she says, “we make all the pathways 20 inches wide so we can mow them with a hand mower. Part of the problem of mowing pathways with vegetable crops, of course, is that the crops get big and it is hard to do. But if the crop in the bed has big leaves that hang into the pathway, just push them aside as needed to mow.”

Rawson takes us to a pathway between a kale bed and a parsley bed. The kale is tall enough to shade the pathway, and when they harvest the parsley weeders go in advance of the cutters to ‘weed’ the pathway where it comes up to and over the edge of the parsley bed.

“Maybe you don’t keep mowing once the vegetables themselves are drooping over the edges,” she agrees. “But at that point it isn’t so much an issue and the crops are shading the path and growth has slowed down late in the season. It is a work in progress, not always neat. There are certain things you don’t want to do, however, like mow lettuce pathways where you are shooting the grass onto the lettuce. You maybe use a bagger or don’t mow when you are near harvest.”

She also uses green pathways between rows of perennials like rhubarb. Julie mulches the rhubarb itself with wood chips and old chicken bedding, and then lets the middle of the pathway grow up in grass that can be mowed.

Undersowing

photo by Jack Kittredge
Lettuces are transplanted into a wood chip compost, in spots marked off by a 4’ x 4’ dibble, being pressed into bed in upper right. Note drip irrigation header in foreground. Bed prep included mowing and removing perennial cover crops in mid-June followed by one day of solarization. Outstanding high quality lettuce was harvested throughout July in 100˚ heat.

Clover is also excellent undersown with tall crops like kale or chard. In one bed Julie planted chard in May, mulched it with cover crop residue, then broadcast clover on top of that mulch. In October she is still harvesting the chard, which has a lot of good color and taste.

“The Chenopods do well with clover,” she asserts. “I use crimson red. The crimson clover doesn’t necessarily come back next spring. I’d rather not have it come back when I’m planting new crops. The clover can overwhelm them when young. In the pathway is Dutch white clover. That is more of a perennial clover. It can take a lot of traffic and will come back next year.”

Water Infiltration

Water is obviously crucial to agriculture. That importance was accentuated at MHOF in 2016 because of the drought impacting much of central Massa-chusetts. But Rawson feels that the water problems at the farm – both from too much and too little – have been mitigated by the years of building soil carbon.

“I’m very cognizant of the water penetration of our soil,” she says. “When we first moved here in 1982 it had been a hayfield and there was a lot of stand-ing water after any rain. It was a serious problem for us, particularly in June. We have slowly built up our soil structure for 34 years now through lots of good practices. The issue with water has gone away. I remember a rain in 2015 that was one of those 2 inches in an hour rains. The water percolated into the soil and was gone in 10 minutes! This year with a severe drought we had drip irrigation, but each bed would get just an hour or two once per week. Nevertheless, we had stellar crops throughout the whole season. They didn’t succumb to drought. I credit the water-holding capacity of our soil.”

Future Plans

photo by Jack Kittredge
Julie harvests summer squash from giant plants in no-tilled West Field.

Rawson is constantly looking at the root structure of her crops and the soil’s texture and color.

“I got into farming because I like to play in the dirt,” she laughs. “I’m thinking about soil all the time. I didn’t really understand aggregation until lately, but I think our aggregation is good. Our soil is greasy and satiny. I think that is appetizing and comes from a lot of glomalin, the soil protein that fungi create which holds aggregates together.”

“On much of our land the soil is not very deep,” she admits. “I think that is because of a plow pan or perhaps just ledge close to the surface. We are trying to think about tools to deal with that. After going to a talk by Mark Fulford, I’m considering a tool to go down and break it up. It has some sort of shank and you drive over the bed and rip right down the middle, maybe 8 to 12 inches deep. While you are there cutting into the plow pan or ledge, you drop into the furrow a liquid fertilizer with lots of inoculant and then plant potatoes. That way you get the microbial life down there giving everything a boost and then your potatoes don’t grow out and get green shoulders, either. They would partly grow down because there is a lot of space down there.”

Although mostly a practical farmer, Rawson is planning a small 4-way trial next year to compare various farming practices. She has selected an un-cropped area which has grown up with perennial grasses and weeds.

“We’re going to mow it and divide it into 4 equal sections,” she says. “The first one we’ll till this fall, and try to kill the sod, then come back and till 6 weeks later. Then we will leave it for the winter. Next spring we will plant a crop here. The second bed we will cover this fall with cardboard and put leaves and hay on top of that, and try to kill the sod that way. The third bed we will solarize in the spring and then plant into it. The last bed we are going to cover with tarps and kill by shading (called ‘occultation’). We will use the same fertility, same spacing, and plant the same crop in each area. We’ll measure yield and look at insect damage and weigh stuff and take pictures. I think it is important for anyone to be as curious and creative as they have time for. Bring systems that work into your protocols and be tinkering with them to get improvement.