Workshop Evaluates Conservation Tillage Systems

7/19/2014 7:00 AM
By Rick Hemphill Maryland Correspondent

WOODBINE, Md. — “No-till farming will always strike a harmonic balance; not always the best yield every year, but the most consistent,” said Dave Myers, the Extension director for Anne Arundel County and area Extension educator for Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties, during a tour of Larriland Farm in Howard County on Monday.

Guy Moore, his brother and sister, are growing tomatoes, pumpkins, fruits, pick-your-own berries and other intensive no-till vegetables on their 250-acre Larriland Farm. More than 75 farmers from Maryland, Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania, and even visitors from Turkey and Germany, came out to the farm the see the family’s no-till and strip-till conservation techniques that have held back erosion, improved the soil and consistently provided increased yields.

The tour was sponsored by Future Harvest Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, or Future Harvest/CASA, and included experts in conservation farming from Virginia Tech and the University of Maryland.

“We came here because Guy Moore has been doing this for awhile; he has been pretty successful at it,” said Mike Snow, chairman of the Future Harvest Education Committee. “And the folks at the University of Maryland know his work. The goal here is to learn more about how to farm better, reduce risk to the farmer and reduce impact on the natural environment around us.”

The advantages of no-tilling into cover crops include reducing soil erosion, improving efficiency of water use, weed suppression and increasing active soil organic matter and microorganisms. Different cover crops such as hairy vetch, clover, forage radish and others are planted depending on the vegetable crop and time of year. Guy Moore uses burn-down chemicals and rollers to ready the fields for transplanting his tomatoes and pumpkins.

“The pumpkins are no-tilled into rye and hairy vetch,” he said. “I plant my pumpkins in late May to get the third or fourth setting of fruit by late October to increase my tonnage. We roll the field, then I put my herbicide down, Roundup or paraquat, and wait seven to 14 days to come in and plant. If you go in too soon, it balls up and clogs up in the planter and drives you insane. You need to roll and kill the cover and give it time to do what it is supposed to do.”

The timing of using a roller is critical in organic no-till plots. Jerry Brust with University of Maryland Extension, said if rolling a cover crop is done too early, the crop won’t be killed and will eventually regrow.

“You want to roll rye just when the seed heads begin, and hairy vetch when it’s in bloom and the pods start to form at the bottom,” Brust said. “For no-till organic, you have to really know what you are doing.”

In some years, Guy Moore mows the cover crop to make the planting easier.

“If you have hard, compacted soil, you are done,” Moore said. “We grow cover crops to get that sponge-cake soil. We have air filtration, water filtration and earthworms in there, and it stays that way. We do not till our cover crops in as we want to energize the top layer of our soil and control soil erosion.”

“That rye cover crop has held the erosion to just one small spot in this tomato field,” said Ronald Morse, professor emeritus in the department of horticulture at Virginia Tech. “Without that cover crop, there would have been more than 10 tons of runoff with the amount of rain we have had this spring.”

Moore said the hardest part of doing no-till is the cost of machinery. He uses a modified transplanter copied from a design by Morse.

“A regular transplanter is not heavy enough to cut through the cover crop residue, so we had to modify ours with tractor weights, a heavy coulter and shank to loosen the soil, and added a water or spray tank in the front for weight,” Moore said.

But not all crops respond to no-till, Myers said, which has led him to experiment with strip-till.

“My first experience with strip-till was using a hand mower through a field of rye and taking all the tines off a rototiller, except for the center gang,” Myers said. “As long as the mow is wide enough to avoid wrapping, you can strip-tillage with things at hand. Don’t give up on no-tillage due to the cost of equipment.”

Myers said that his strip-tillage studies with early preplant burn down led to a 20-30 percent increase in plant population at emergence over no-tillage, and a 15-35 percent yield increase in early spring planted leafy greens and vegetables, although no-tillage may be more effective for summer vegetables with fast germination and quick growth.

Morse explained the four types of conservation tillage. The most common method for corn and soybeans is the no-till killed mulch system, where an entire field is killed and left in place as surface mulch. No-till living mulch kills the cover crop only in the “grow zones.” In a green manure or strip till system, the cover crop is chopped and incorporated into the rows, while alleyways are covered with living cover crops. In conventional tillage systems, cover crops are chopped and incorporated throughout the field.

“Organic no-till is very difficult,” Morse said. “But with zone tillage (strip-till) you may be able to make it work. If you have the capacity to zone seed, I guarantee you will get benefits. I want to plant legumes in the grow zone to produce nitrogen, especially if I am organic, because I want to put my vegetables in there. In the side zones, I want rye, wheat barley or anything that will produce a lot of biomass, control weeds and produce a surface to walk on.”

While he believes zone tillage makes total sense, Morse said each cover crop has to have a purpose.

“For early spring plantings, I am truly impressed with forage radish. If you plant the radishes in the fall and have a winter-kill, you can plant your spring vegetables into them in March and have a very mellow wonderful system,” he said.

Myers said there are organic burn down products on the market.

“I am using a new organic early preplant burn down that is derived from citrus, called Burnout,” Myers said. “And Burnout II, which is expensive and difficult to get, is made from a combination of apple cider vinegar and clove oil. It may take two applications a week or two apart, but it can be used in the organic system.”

While conservation tillage may stabilize farm productivity, Guy Moore said the battle with Mother Nature continues.

“We have been in business for 30 years and we are still the proverbial Dutch boy trying to plug the hole in the dike,” he said. “By Monday morning, we are two days behind and by Tuesday afternoon, we are a week behind. Five families derive an income from here and if Mother Nature smiles at us and gives us rain one week out of four, we will have a good crop.

“We do what is necessary to try to make a living and in a perfect world we wouldn’t use chemicals; we would make more money and we would take better care of our neighbors. It is what it is,” he said.

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