Dec 22, 2015
Cover crop management helps new growers gain an edge

Jeremy Moghtader is doing his part to help new vegetable growers succeed by working to make farming a more prosperous, secure and sustainable career choice.

The efforts of Moghtader, Michigan State University Student Organic Farm manager and head of the school’s Organic Farmer Training Program, were on display in mid-October as part of MSU’s new Farmer Field School.

Holistic soil management, including fertility, cover cropping, weed management and tillage, were among the topics discussed by Moghtader and other speakers.

Moghtader took participants to various cover crop settings on the farm, including one freshly planted with a rye and vetch combination.

With a preference to plant such a cover crop around Sept. 1, Moghtader said the time period works in Michigan “just so it grows a little bit more.”

“You have to remember, most of the biomass from both the rye and the vetch will happen next spring,” he said. “I want it in a window to precede something I’m not planning on planting next year, so I can let it grow out to early May, have it be high and fully vegetative and holding biomass-suppressing weeds. It also contributes up to 250 pounds of nitrogen per acre in the case of vetch. It’s not all biologically available in the first year, but that’s fantastic. So then I can grow this in one year and live off the benefits going forward.

“If I get a nice mix of vetch, a half vetch mix, it breaks down fairly quickly because all of the nitrogen in the vetch mixes with the rye,” Moghtader said. “We’re trying to kill the rye when it’s vegetative. A lot of people will say the easiest time to kill rye is when it starts to make its seed head. Rye and all grains go through a couple of phases. The first phase is like vegetative; the second phase is called the booting up stage. You can feel inside the stem. You can’t see the flower or grain head yet but you can feel that it’s fat at the base, starting to make a stalk.

“I usually don’t let it go past the booting up stage,” he said. “If I was just going to fallow that field, or until July or a late July planting of a fall brassica, that would be fine. But if I’m going to plant into it earlier, I don’t like the rye to get too leguminous and too stemmy, because then it doesn’t break down very well.”

Moghtader pointed to an area of chickling vetch, that he called “superfast, puts on a lot of biomass and purports that it can fix as much as like 90, 100 pounds of nitrogen in as little as 60 days. The seed looks more like a pea – you can see it’s just very tender and vegetative. It will winterkill, and it’s not something you can use over winter. It tolerates a frost but not a hard freeze.

“Chickling vetch really is interesting, I think, because it’s a very fast-growing cover crop that in as little as 60 to 90 days can put on a fair amount of nitrogen fixation, which is nice when you’re doing a vegetable crop rotation,” he said. “When you’re looking at a really short window, you’re looking at buckwheat, oats and peas. Chickling vetch is like the nitrogen version of buckwheat – you can fit it in when you need it most.”

Moghtader encouraged growers to look at Internet-based decision tools that are

“basically telling you when is my crop going to go in, when is my crop going to grow out. Am I trying to do soil building, nitrogen fixation? Am I trying to do weed suppression? What’s my management goal? And then it spits out a range of what applicable cover crops you might choose from. I’m going to try to talk you through that logic without relying on that tool. It is just a tool.”

School grooms farmers

About 20 participants spent the day in the MSU Student Organic Farm field and hoop houses, gaining practical information on how to use and integrate a broad variety of weed management, soil building and tillage strategies to enhance the production of the vegetable crops they grow

“The Farmer Field School is designed to work with growers in their first 10 years of production, to help provide hands-on, continuing education opportunities hosted on farms and co-lead by farmers,” Moghtader said.

“Experienced farmers and premier agriculture educators from our region are teaming up to co-lead and deliver workshops in the Farmer Field School,” said Tom Cary, Farmer Field School program manager. “Each workshop also includes group-based learning processes where diverse approaches to farming challenges can be shared and discussed by participants and workshop presenters and demonstrated at host farm sites. For the current cycle, workshops will take place on select farms in southern Michigan, with a goal of expanding the workshops to other regions of the state as the program develops.”
The Field School is part of a broader vision and collaboration among statewide organizations including the MSU Center for Regional Food Systems and Michigan Food and Farming Systems. The materials used in the sessions are based on work that is supported by USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

“Statistically, start-up businesses across sectors, including farming, fail at rates of over 50 percent in the first seven years; the goal of the Farmer Field School is to help start up farm businesses succeed,“ Moghtader said.

He said the workshops are part of a collective effort to stem the loss of 36,000 farmers from the Midwest (4,000 farms lost in Michigan) from 2007-2012, by “recognizing that farms are businesses, that they face the all challenges and vulnerabilities of any beginning business and that they have a high chance to fail (some 54 percent of businesses fail in their first five years), and often fail for the same reasons as all businesses – lack of information and skills on how to run their business well enough.”

For more information on the Farmer Field School visit here.

Gary Pullano




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