MANAGING WEEDS AS COVER CROPS

The trick to biological farming is knowing how to manage weeds.  “Manage” does NOT mean “kill”.

Internet trolls are bombarding my e-mail box with comments like:  “You can’t plant crops in weeds!  That’s why they invented tractors”.  Horse power is irrelevant and yes, you can plant crops in weeds:  I manage 90,000 acres without herbicides or mechanical cultivation.  Here is how I do it:

(1)  Manage Weeds as Cover Crops.  Think of weeds as a multi-species cover crop that costs nothing to seed.  This will save you about $40 per acre, right off the bat.  $40 x 90,000 acres = $3,600,000.  We are not talking tree-hugging here.  This is serious agronomy.

Grow weeds to protect your top soil.  A typical corn-soybean farmer in Iowa loses 2 1/2% of his land yearly = 20 tons of earth per acre = $450 per acre at $22.50 per ton (U.S. average top soil price, delivered).  Weeds have value.

If you don’t have enough weeds for a winter cover crop, seed 3 to 4 bushels of oats per acre.  Oat roots prevent soil erosion over winter.  Oats winterkill so no herbicides are needed.  Surface trash is minimal and will not interfere with conventional planting equipment.

(2)  RULE:  Keep Fields Green.  Photosynthesis is the process where plants use water, air and sunlight to make sugar.  More photosynthesis = more sugar = more plant growth = higher yields.  Bare fields are not profitable.  Smart farmers keep their soil covered with growing plants year-round.  Plant cash crops whenever possible.  Sow cover crops for mulch or fertilizer.  Seed weeds when there is no time or money to grow anything else.  The goal of biological farming is to produce the most possible organic matter per square foot.  Grow anything rather than leave soil bare.

The underlying principle of biological weed control is plant competition.  Keep the ground covered with growing crops year-round and weeds do not have a chance to get established.  Never leave the soil bare, not even for a single day.

For example:  Plant winter wheat into standing Dutch White Clover (Trifolium repens) using no-till equipment.  Next summer, harvest wheat then immediately (the same day) plant turnips into wheat stubble and clover living mulch.  Field stays green year-round.  Weeds cannot grow because they are constantly shaded by competing plants.

(3)  Sow Weed Seeds.  If you have tired, sick or dead ground, or no top soil, go to your nearest grain elevator and fill your truck with weed seeds.  These are usually free.  Some elevators charge a nominal fee for “elevator screenings” which contain many weed seeds.  Sow liberally, at least 40 pounds per acre.  Prepare for amazement.  Weeds are Nature’s Band-Aid, a fast growing cover crop evolved specifically to heal bare earth.  On steep slopes or mine reclamation sites, spread straw or spoiled hay mulch to protect germinating weeds.

(4)  Fertilize and Water Your Weeds.  Every time I say this, half my audience leaves the room.  No, I am not crazy.  Yes, I do know what I am talking about.  I farm without any government subsidies and each acre earns substantial profit.  It pays to feed and irrigate weeds (if possible).  Remember:  Weeds are a cover crop.  You want every field blanketed with a luxuriant jungle of weeds at least 6 feet high.  So water and fertilize as needed, and do not worry about what your neighbors say.  Farming is not about yields; farming is about the bottom line.  Weeds put money in your pocket.

(5)  Feed the Weeds and the Weeds will Feed Your Crops.  Weeds have enormous root systems in proportion to their stems and leaves.  Many weeds also have tap roots that plunge deep into the subsoil.  Translation:  Weeds are great at scavenging nutrients that would otherwise leach away.  Weeds have quick growth response to plant food so a little fertilizer goes a long way.  A few pounds of nitrogen create a vast jungle of vegetation that makes good mulch and fertilizer.  The average weed contains twice the nutrients of an equal weight of cow manure.  Broad leaf weeds rot quickly so fertilizer elements are rapidly recycled for crop use.  Plant crops and weeds together and yields often increase.  The reason is ecologic synergy = plant symbiosis.  Weeds both compete AND cooperate with neighboring plants.  Water and nutrients are shared so crops and weeds grow better.  I learned this lesson farming melons.  The best fruits came from the weediest fields.  So I started planting melons into weeds.  The weeds provided light shade and the melons followed weed roots down into moist subsoil.  Come drought and clean cultivated fields produced little or no crop.  Melons and weeds yielded fair crops.  Irrigated melons and weeds overfilled my trucks with fruit.  Think about this the next time you buy a drum of herbicide.

(6)  Use Weed Seed Meal Fertilizer.  How would you like to slash fertilizer costs?  Get weed seeds or screenings from your local elevator.  Grind them with a hammer mill or roller mill.  Broadcast 4 tons per acre or drop 10 pounds per 25 feet of row.  Unlike chemical fertilizers weed seed meal will not burn crop roots so you can hurl nutrients with wild abandon.  If you do not have any weed seeds, use any other waste seed like spoiled corn, brewer’s grain, or broken soy beans.

To use LIVE weed seeds as fertilizer broadcast seeds into a standing cover crop like Red Clover (Trifolium pratense).  Earthworms, ants, beetles and other critters eat the weed seeds.  Clover kills any weeds that germinate.  Caution:  Don’t try this unless you have a tall, aggressive cover crop that blankets the soil with dense shade.

(7)  RULE:  Apply Chemical Fertilizer Only to Growing Plants.  This rule covers all crops (including weeds) without exception.  It makes no sense to spread fertilizer on bare ground.  Chemical nutrients are wasted unless there are live roots waiting to absorb them.  For best results, synthetic fertilizers should be applied in small doses throughout the growing season, ideally diluted in irrigation water.  Feed growing crops only and well water stays pure = free of nitrates.

(8)  Good Farmers Grow Fungi.  The Fungi Grow the Crops.  Think of all the pipes, wires and roads needed to run a modern city.  Without these conduits life would be nearly impossible.  A corn field is no different.  Under the soil surface is a jungle of lifeforms, a whole zoo full of critters exceeding the combined population of the world’s largest cities.  And every one of these underground citizens depends on fungi for survival.  Millions of miles of microscopic fungi tie the underground world together.  Fungi are the interstate highway system of the soil ecology.  Water and nutrients are conveyed to hungry roots.  Plants share resources through fungal networks.  Many crops are so dependent on fungi that they cannot exist without these symbiotic micro-organisms.  Kill the fungi and the soil ecology collapses.  Yields plummet and fields become sick and barren.  Try to farm dead soil and you will spend vast sums for synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation.  Today, this is called “conventional agriculture” and most growers lose money on every acre they plant.  There is a better way to farm.

Fungi like cool temperatures, a moist environment, plenty of air, and lots of organic matter.  Rip up the ground with plows and the fungal network is destroyed.  Soil temperatures spike, the earth is parched, a cyclone of oxygen rushes into the ground, and organic matter burns away in a firestorm of excess decomposition.  The result is like dropping a nuclear bomb:  Billions of critters die and the soil ecology is devastated.  Recovery takes years.

Sell your plows, disks and harrows — you don’t need them.  Grow weeds or other cover crops and leave the fungi alone.  Open the soil just enough to get seeds or transplants into the ground.  Further disturbance cuts profits and yields.

(9)  Till Your Fields with Earthworms.  My Grandfather taught me:  “Feed the worms and the worms will tend your crops”.  Common earthworms (Lumbricus terrestris) eat organic matter and excrete enough manure to grow 200 bushel corn = 11,200 pounds per acre.  They also burrow 6 feet into the subsoil.  My fields average 1 million worms per acre.  That’s about 23 worms per cubic foot = 1,200 miles of burrows per acre.  When thunderstorms drop 2 inches of rain per hour my neighbors’ fields wash away.  My soil stays in place.  When drought bakes the county, my corn yields over 100 bushels per acre (without fertilizer, herbicides, cultivation or irrigation).  How is this possible?  Plant clover and earthworm populations double.  I seed clover into weeds and the worms feast on the multi-species “salad bar”.  Mind you, this process does not occur overnight.  It took 12 to 15 years to wean my fields off synthetic nutrients.  That’s 4 to 5 generations of earthworms.  I used to borrow mountains of cash to buy farm chemicals.  Now I plant clover and have no debts.

(10)  Grow Your Own Fertilizer:  Conventional green manures are plowed into the soil.  A less invasive technology is called Chop-And-Drop.  Use a rotary mower, flail mower, bush hog, forage chopper, or common lawn mower to cut plants into small pieces that decompose quickly for rapid nutrient cycling.  Immediately sow or transplant another crop before weeds start germinating.  Alternatively, knock down cover crop with a roller-crimper or sickle-bar mower then plant through the mulch using no-till equipment.  For example, I sow Hairy Vetch = Winter Vetch = Vicia villosa in October then roller-crimp vines in May.  Vetch controls weeds and fixes sufficient nitrogen for 200 bushel corn or any other crop I want to grow.  Remember:  Chop plants into small pieces for fast-acting fertilizer.  Crimp or cut whole plants for mulch.  Finely chopped plants will NOT control weeds.

(11)  Use Mulch-In-Place.   Think of how much money you will save if you don’t have to buy herbicides or cultivate fields multiple times.  The savings in diesel fuel alone will pay for a 2-week vacation anywhere you care to go.  Let your neighbors plant seed in cold ground.  Be patient and give your weeds more time to grow.  Wait until the soil warms and weeds are at least 5 feet high.  Kill weed cover crop with a roller-crimper or sickle-bar mower then immediately seed or transplant through weed mulch with no-till equipment.  Mulch retards weed growth 4 to 6 weeks — just enough time for your crop to germinate and start covering the rows.  Once the crop canopy closes weeds are shaded and there is no more work until harvest.

There are many variations of Mulch-In-Place.  For example, use a forage chopper to deposit weed mulch into convenient windrows then transplant pumpkins or other fast-growing vine crops through the mulch.  Alternatively, mow strips through weed covered fields.  Transplant vine crops down mowed rows then roll out drip irrigation tape.  Use mowed weeds to mulch crops until plants are established.  Once vines begin to run they overwhelm weeds between rows.  Standing weeds protect vine crops from insect pests.

If you do not have weedy fields, sow winter rye = cereal rye = Secale cereale at 3 bushels per acre.  Roller crimp or sickle-bar mow when rye reaches 5 to 6 feet high or when grain reaches soft dough stage.  Immediately seed or transplant through rye mulch using no-till equipment.  Note:  Mulch-In-Place works with just about any cover crop that grows at least 5 feet high and produces 4 to 5 tons of mulch per acre.

Who needs Monsanto?  Grow mulch crops and never buy herbicide again.  Sell your spray rig and pay off farm debts.

(12)  Use Weeds to Control Insect Pests.  Plant weeds with your crops and you will never have to buy insecticides again.   Set 4 rows of tomatoes then leave a strip of weeds.  Seed 4 rows of sweet corn and leave another strip of weeds.  Plant 4 rows of sweet potatoes with a third strip of weeds.  Drill 4 rows of sunflowers and a fourth strip of weeds.   Alternate crops and weeds across fields and farms, following land contours.  Adjust strip widths to match planting and harvesting equipment.  Weeds provide food, shelter and alternate hosts for beneficial insects.  The good bugs eat the bad bugs.  Native weeds should cover at least 5% to 10% of every farm, even if you also grow insectary plants.  I learned this lesson the hard way.  I grew dozens of crops with small flowers especially to feed predatory and parasitic insects.  Biological control was only partly successful until I planted native weeds next to crops needing protection.  Close proximity is essential as many beneficial insects penetrate only 200 feet into a field over the course of a growing season.  Remember:  You need a mix of native weeds AND insectary plants to protect cash crops.  Maintain biological diversity and pests rarely cause economic damage.  I have not purchased insecticides (organic or synthetic) in 18 years.

(13)  Plant into Standing Weeds (Sow-And-Go).  This works best with fall planted winter grains like wheat, barley, and rye.  Seed directly into standing vegetation using no-till equipment.  (Standing weeds trap winter snow).  If desired, you can seed Dutch White Clover (Trifolium repens) at 8 to 12 pounds per acre with winter cereals.  The clover provides 90% to 95% weed control, about as good as glyphosate (Roundup).  Expect 60% to 70% of conventional yields without fertilizer or irrigation.  In a dry year you might lose your crop.

If you do not have no-till equipment, try surface seeding = Sow-And-Mow.  This works best with pelleted seed.  Broadcast seed into standing weeds then immediately roller-crimp or cut vegetation with a sickle-bar mower to cover and protect germinating grain.  Come back next summer and harvest your crop.

Alternatively, broadcast winter grain into standing weeds then mow with a rotary mower or flail mower to chop vegetation into small pieces.  Immediately till field with a rear-tine rototiller set to skim soil surface at 2 inches depth.  Make only 1 pass across field.  Your field will look ugly but will make a good crop = 40 bushels (2,400 pounds) of wheat per acre in cool, temperate climates with 40 or more inches of rainfall yearly.

If you have no farm machinery, try the ancient Roman practice of Stomp Seeding.  Fence field securely.  Broadcast seed into standing vegetation.  Turn in livestock (cattle, sheep or goats) until they eat about 1/2 of the vegetation and stomp the other half into mulch.  Livestock must be well crowded in order to make this work.  Allow each animal only enough space to turn around = use very high stocking densities = mob grazing.  For example, 600 to 1,200 cows per acre.  Directly forage is exhausted, move livestock to a new enclosure or fresh pasture.  If field is “tired”, “sick” or barren, feed livestock in their enclosure until they deposit 1/2 to 1 pound of manure per square foot = about 11 to 22 tons per acre, then move animals to another enclosure.

(14)  Plant into Living Mulches.  This is ideal for transplants or crops with large seeds.  For best results use no-till equipment and low-growing legumes like Dutch White Clover (Trifolium repens) or Crimson Clover (Trifolium incarnatum).  Seed Dutch White Clover at 8 to 12 pounds per acre, or Crimson Clover at 14 pounds per acre.  Seed or transplant directly cover crop reaches mature height of 6 inches for Dutch clover or 12 inches for Crimson clover.  It is good practice to mow clover before planting to give crops a head start.  Watch field carefully.  When the FIRST seedling emerges, immediately mow field as close to soil surface as possible.  If clover is especially vigorous, it may be necessary to mow again 2 weeks later.  Note:  If desired, you can grow corn (Zea mays) with tall-growing Red Clover (Trifolium pratense) using the same method.  No fertilizer, herbicides or cultivation are necessary if clover grows a full year before planting maize.

Planting into clover is a good way for farmers to learn how to work with weeds.  Clover is convenient to grow because its height is easily controlled.  Alternatively, you can make your own cover crop mix and use this as a substitute for naturally weedy fields.  Combine 2 cool season grasses + 2 cool season legumes + 2 cool season broad leaf plants + 2 warm season grasses + 2 warm season legumes + 2 warm season broad leaf plants + 2 root crops (tillage radish, stock beets, or turnips) = 14 species cover crop mix.  Plant at least 20 pounds per acre.  If desired, more species can be added.  For best economy, select cheap seed to keep costs below $40 per acre.

Remember:  All living mulches compete with their companion crops for water, light and nutrients.  For example, Dutch White Clover grows only 6 inches high but this is enough to shade the lower stems of wheat.  Plant Dutch clover with tall wheat varieties and yields are normal.  Seed Dutch clover with semi-dwarf or dwarf wheat and yields may drop 30% to 50%.  Use common sense when pairing cash crops with clover, weeds, or any other living mulch.  Combine tall varieties with low-growing cover crops.  Water and fertilize for both cash crop AND cover crop.  If necessary, retard or kill companion crop by mowing, mulching or roller-crimping.

(15)  Grow Crops and Animals Together.  2,000 years ago the Romans discovered that manure is more profitable than meat.  It pays to keep animals just for their manure.  Pastures grow better when grazed.  Crops grow better when dunged.  There is a significant difference in growth between plants fed manure or artificial nutrients.  No one has yet figured out why.  Drive a herd of cattle into high weeds (or a mixed species cover crop).  Let the cows graze until they have eaten 1/2 of the forage and stomped the rest.  Move herd to fresh pasture then immediately sow small grains or other crops with no-till equipment.  No herbicides, cultivation or chemical fertilizers required.

The cheapest way to keep livestock is to graze them on fresh, green grass.  Move herds to new pasture at least once daily and do not re-graze paddocks until forage has recovered.  This is called rotational grazing and eliminates the costs of building barns, making hay, and spreading manure.  If you don’t have tidy pastures seed mixed-species cover crops or graze native weeds.  What the cows don’t eat the goats will, and what the goats don’t like the sheep will relish.   Range chickens 3 or 4 days behind cows and the birds eat the fly maggots.  Nothing goes to waste and meadows stay clean and sanitary.

Not all weeds are good to have around.  When weeds get out of control there are 2 easy ways to recover ecologic balance:  (1)  Grow cover crops in series, or  (2)  Graze with mixed livestock.  Cover crops overwhelm weeds by shade and competition.  Mixed livestock eats everything in sight.  Either way, problem weeds are eliminated and crop rotation can proceed normally.

(15)  Think Unconventionally.  If everyone around you grows corn, plant something else.  If everyone says you have to spray, don’t.  Conventional wisdom is often just plain wrong.  Do not be afraid to experiment.  Every year I reserve about 2% of my land for agricultural research.  I learned to farm by doing the opposite of what the “Experts” advised.  Along the way I have enjoyed amazing success and spectacular failure.  Both are equally instructive.  Monsanto says weeds are bad and should be eradicated.  I think differently.  For example, in my garden (a jungle of weeds), I thin Bull Thistles (Cirsium vulgare) until they stand about 1 foot apart, then I plant 1 pole bean seed per thistle plant.  The beans climb the thistles and I do not have to cut poles.  My spray-by-the-calendar neighbors told me to cut the weeds or mulch them into oblivion.  Instead, I conducted a paired comparison of 100 beans on thistles with 100 beans on poles.  Thistles beat poles by a slight margin, 3.55% over a 5-year trial.  This is only one of many examples of symbiosis between weeds and crops.  Widely spaced weeds often increase crop yields.  I don’t recommend planting beans and thistles on a commercial scale, but neither do I insist on weed-free fields.  Weeds spaced 3 feet apart (about 5,000 weeds per acre) no longer bother me.  The tomatoes don’t seem to mind and I don’t have to spray for hornworms.  Learn from nature or buy from Monsanto.

Related Publications:  Weed Seed Meal Fertilizer; Trash Farming; No-Till Hungarian Stock Squash; Planting Maize with Living Mulches; Living Mulches for Weed Control; Pelleted Seed Primer; Crops Among the Weeds; Forage Maize for Soil Improvement; and Rototiller Primer.

Would You Like To Know More?  Please visit:  http://www.worldagriculturesolutions.com  — or —  send your questions to:  Eric Koperek, World Agriculture Solutions, 413 Cedar Drive, Moon Township, Pennsylvania, 15108 United States of America  — or —  send an e-mail to:  worldagriculturesolutions@gmail.com

About the Author:  Mr. Koperek is a plant breeder who farms in Pennsylvania during summer and Florida over winter.  (Growing 2 generations yearly speeds development of new crop varieties).

 

 

 

 

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TRASH FARMING

“You got it plum backwards:  You’re supposed to KILL the weeds and GROW the crops”.  Contrarian that I am, I plant weeds and let the crops fend for themselves.

My neighbors call it weed farming or trash farming.  (Less charitable folks say I’m lazy or just plain mental).  I call what I do common sense agronomy.  Planting in weeds saves lots of money.  You should try it.

Most farmers think weeds are enemies that should be exterminated by any means possible.  I take a more balanced view:  Weeds are valuable agricultural resources if properly managed = you have to get off your tractor long enough to think of weeds as an ally.  My spray-by-the-calendar neighbors don’t agree with me but my weedy fields are highly profitable. Their farms are up for auction.

A weed is a plant growing where it is not wanted.  The key to intelligent agriculture is to grow weeds where they are needed.  Here are some ways that weeds can help fill your bank account:

–>     WEEDS ARE GOOD ORGANIC FERTILIZER.     I ran a lawnmower across a typical meadow (8 grasses + 23 broad leaf weeds = 31 species) and sent the clippings off for analysis:  1.00% Nitrogen : 0.27% Phosphorous : 1.10% Potassium by weight = 20 pounds Nitrogen + 5.4 pounds Phosphorous + 22 pounds Potassium per ton.

Compare this with cow manure from my neighbor’s dairy:  0.5% Nitrogen : 0.15% Phosphorous : 0.40% Potassium by weight = 10 pounds Nitrogen + 3 pounds Phosphorous + 8 pounds Potassium per ton.

Fresh green weeds contain approximately double the nutrients of dairy cow manure.  A dense field of weeds 3 feet high yields about 2.5 tons of green manure (stems and leaves) ~ 50 pounds Nitrogen + 13.5 pounds Phosphorous + 55 pounds Potassium per acre.  Green weeds rot fast so most of these nutrients are quickly available to crop plants.

How to Green Manure a Field:     First, cut weeds with a flail, rotary, or sickle bar mower, or use a forage chopper.  Next, use a rear-mounted rototiller, moldboard or disk plow to till the chopped foliage into the soil.  RULE:  Always mow before plowing!  Chopped plants rot faster so crop roots absorb nutrients sooner.  Last, seed or plant field immediately = the same day.  Never leave the soil bare, not even for a single day.  Naked soil is wasted dirt.  Keep the ground covered with growing plants at all times.

Chop-And-Drop:     How do you “green manure” a no-till field?  Answer:  Mow the cover crop as close to the soil surface as possible and leave the chopped vegetation where it falls.  Use a rotary mower, flail mower, forage chopper, or common lawnmower if you want the cover crop to decompose quickly (to feed a following crop or clear a field for planting).  Use a sickle bar mower or roller-crimper for Mulch-In-Place planting.  Timing is important:  To kill a cover crop mow when plants start flowering or begin setting seeds.  Late planted annual cover crops can be left standing until killed by frost; standing vegetation traps snow over winter.  Fall oats are a good crop for this purpose.  Winter killed oats protect soil but do not obstruct spring planting with conventional equipment.

To green manure a field without machinery, use animals to stomp the cover crop.  Erect temporary fencing and “Mob Graze” the field.  Animals should be “well crowded” together.  Ideal stocking density = 680 to 1,210 Animal Units per acre.  (1 Animal Unit = 1,000 pounds live weight).  For example:  680 beef cattle per acre = 1 cow for every 8 x 8 feet = 64 square feet per animal.  1,210 beef cattle per acre = 1 cow for every 6 x 6 feet = 36 square feet per animal.  Keep animals confined until they eat the top 1/3 of the foliage then move herd to fresh pasture.  Plant stomped cover crop the same day with no=till equipment.  Alternatively, broadcast grain into standing cover crop then immediately mob graze field.  This is an old Roman agronomic practice called stomp seeding.

–>     WEEDS ARE HIGH QUALITY MULCH.     Fight fire with fire.  Use weeds to smother weeds.  An 8-inch blanket of cut weed mulch provides 95% or better weed control for 6 to 8 weeks during the growing season.  That is all the time you need to get your crop up and growing.  Once your plants are well established any weeds that poke above the crop canopy won’t matter.  The crop itself suppresses most weeds.  Peek under the leaves and you will see little weeds lurking in the shade.  These tiny plants lost the competition for sunlight.  As long as your crop continues to grow, your fields will remain mostly weed free.

Mulch-In-Place:     Find the weediest field possible.  Dense, luxuriant, rank growth 6 feet high is best = about 4 tons of biomass (stems and leaves) per acre.  Cut weeds with a sickle bar mower or flatten with a roller-crimper.  Seed or transplant directly through the mulch with no-till equipment, or sow by hand.  If desired, you can immediately top seed field with a low growing nitrogen fixing legume like Dutch White Clover (Trifolium repens), Crimson Clover (Trifolium incarnatum), or Sub Clover (Trifolium subterraneum).  The tiny clover seeds fill any holes in the mulch and provide useful biodiversity.  (If you don’t have a weedy field, sow Winter Rye = Secale cereale at 3 bushels per acre then mow or roll when 6 feet high or when seeds reach the soft dough stage.  Cereal rye grows fast like a weed and yields 4 to 5 tons = 8,000 to 10,000 pounds of long straw mulch per acre.  Alternatively, seed a high biomass crop like Sudan Grass = Sorghum sudanense or Forage Maize = Zea mays).

Lawnmower Farming:     You can run a 25 acre ~ 10 hectare commercial vegetable farm with nothing other than a common lawnmower.  (For larger areas use a riding lawnmower = lawn tractor).  Find the weediest field possible.  Mow a strip where you want to plant your crop.  Roll irrigation tape down the row.  (The idea is to water the crop rather than the entire field).  Set your transplants then mulch heavily with cut weeds.  Apply a circle or collar of green mulch 1 foot = 12 inches thick around each plant.  This is a form of sheet composting = the weeds rot and release nutrients to feed your crop.  (It’s ok to use synthetic fertilizers but these are expensive.  A 40 pound bag of 10-10-10 = 10% Nitrogen + 10% Phosphorous + 10% Potassium costs $17.12 at my local farm store.  Why spend 43 cents per pound for chemical fertilizer when weeds cost nothing)?

Weed mulches protect and feed earthworms = Lumbricus terrestris.  Earthworm casts = manure fertilize the soil.  Weed fields fallowed = untilled for 7 years typically have 1 ton = 1 million earthworms per acre ~ 23 earthworms per cubic foot of topsoil.  1 million earthworms per acre produce 2,000 pounds = 1 ton of worm casts each DAY during the growing season.  That is an enormous amount of free organic fertilizer ~ 150 to 180 TONS per acre of worm manure in a typical 5 to 6 month growing season ~ 6 to 8 pounds of worm casts per square foot (distributed from the surface through the entire soil column about 6 feet deep).

Earthworms also biologically till the soil so air and water penetrate deep into the subsoil.  Plant roots follow worm borrows 5 to 6 feet underground where the soil stays moist = crops are nearly drought proof.  (My weed fields average 902 MILES of vertical earthworm burrows per acre).  A hundred-year rainstorm (2-inches per hour) falling on a fallow weed field has almost no runoff = zero soil erosion.  Rain sinks into the land like water through a colander.  Underground water keeps my crops growing while my neighbors’ fields wilt.

Earthworm populations are directly proportional to the amount of available food = organic matter.  Apply more mulch and more worms will come.  Space rows widely so you have sufficient weeds to cut for mulch.  (On very large farms use a forage chopper to deposit chopped weeds into convenient windrows.  Set transplants down the windrows).  RULE:  Cut weeds only to clear rows for planting or to harvest for mulch.  Leave remaining weeds standing to maintain wide environmental diversity.

If you don’t have any weedy fields, plant mixed species cover crops.  The goal is to imitate the broad ecological diversity of a naturally weedy field.  Include 50% legume seed in the mix because earthworms need protein in their diet.  Earthworm populations double on fields of clover versus fields of grass.  More legumes = more earthworms = more free fertilizer = more money in your bank account.

If you can’t afford cover crop seed go to the nearest grain elevator and ask for elevator screenings.  These are usually free or cheap and contain many weed seeds.  Haul as many tons as practical; you will need every pound of weed seed obtainable.  Sow weeds generously = with wild abandon.  Your neighbors will think you daft, but it really does pay to plant weeds (especially on poor, eroded, or barren fields).  Run the remaining elevator screenings through a roller mill to make weed seed meal.  Weed meal is high quality organic fertilizer; use it just like cottonseed meal or other expensive soil amendment.  Apply weed seed meal liberally because it won’t burn plant roots.

Once weed fields are planted they require little or no attention = the crops grow themselves.  Mulch protects young transplants for the first 3 to 6 weeks until they put down roots.  Once crops are well established they will outgrow or overwhelm most weeds.  This is especially true for vigorous plants like tomatoes, peppers, and vine crops:  Pumpkins, squash, gourds, sweet potatoes, cucumbers, and melons.  Vine crops tolerate light shade and easily climb over weeds 5 to 6 feet tall.  I always get my best melons from the weediest fields.  On rare occasions weeds may grow too densely around a pepper or tomato plant.  Thin offending weeds with pruning shears.

Weed Seed Meal:     Seeds of most plants make good fertilizer.  The trick is to mill = grind seeds into a coarse meal or flour so they do not sprout.  If weed seeds are not available, substitute any type of waste or spoiled grain, for example, wet or dry brewer’s grains.  There is no standard analysis for weed seed meal; nutrient content varies depending on species and proportion which change by locality and season.  It is good practice to test weed seed samples yearly so fertilizer application rates can be adjusted as needed.  Below are some average nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P), and potassium (K) values for rough calculations.  Note:  lb = pound.  1 pound = 0.454 kilogram.  1 American ton = 2,000 pounds = 908 kilograms = 0.908 metric ton.  1 metric ton = 1 megagram = 1,000 kilograms = 1,000,000 grams = 2,200 pounds = 1.1 American tons.

Wheat, Broken (Kansas 2011):     2.00% N : 0.85% P : 0.50% K = 40 lb N + 17 lb P + 10 lb K per ton

Weed Seed Meal (Saskatchewan 2015):     3.02% N : 0.56% P : 0.77% K = 60 lb N + 11 lb P + 15 lb K per ton

Weed Seed Meal (Hungary 2013):  2.7% N : 0.90% P : 0.90% K = 54 lb N + 18 lb P + 18 lb K per ton

Rice, White Broken (California 2016):  1.00% N : 0.21% P : 0.27% K = 20 lb N + 4 lb P + 0 lb K per ton

Rice Hulls = Husks (Philippines 2014):  1.9% N : 0.48% P : 0.81% K = 38 lb N + 9 lb P + 18 lb K per ton

Rice, Brown (California 2016):  1% N : 0.48% P : 0.32% K = 20 lb N + 9 lb P + 6 lb K per ton

Rice Bran (India 2015):  4.00% N : 3.00% P : 1.00% K = 80 lb N + 60 lb P + 20 lb K per ton

Oats, Broken (New York 2010):  2.00% N : 0.80% P : 0.60% K = 40 lb N + 16 lb P + 12 lb K per ton

Flaxseed = Linseed Meal (Manitoba 2008):  5.66% N : 0.87% P : 1.24% K = 113 lb N + 17 lb P + 24 lb K per ton

Dent Corn, Spoiled (Maryland 2014):     1.65% N : 0.65% P : 0.40% K = 33 lb N + 13 lb P + 8 lb K per ton

Cowpeas, Broken (California 2014):  3.10% N : 1.00% P : 1.20% K = 62 lb N + 20 lb P + 24 lb K per ton

Cotton Seed, Whole (USDA 2015):  3.14% N : 1.25% P : 1.15% K = 63 lb N + 25 lb P + 23 lb K per ton

Cotton Seed, Pressed (USDA 2015):  4.51% N : 0.64% P : 1.25% K = 90 lb N + 12 lb P + 2b lb K per ton

Cotton Seed Meal (Egypt 2012):  6.6% N : 1.67% P : 1.55% K = 132 lb N + 33 lb P +31 lb K per ton

Castor Beans, Pressed (Egypt 2012):  5.5% N : 2.25% P : 1.125% K = 110 lb N + 45 lb P + 22 lb K per ton

Brewer’s Grain, Wet (Pennsylvania 2012):  0.90% N : 0.50% P : 0.05% K = 18 lb N + 10 lb P + 1 lb K per ton

Brewer’s Grain Dry (Pennsylvania 2012):  4.53% N : 0.47% P 0.24% K = 90 lb N + 9 lb P + 4 lb K per ton

Beans, Soup Broken (New York 1988):  4.0% N : 1.20% P : 1.30% K = 80 lb N + 24 lb P +26 lb K per ton

Barley, Spoiled (Manitoba 2011):  1.75% N : 0.75% P : 0.50% K = 35 lb N + 15 lb P + 10 lb K per ton

For slow release fertilizer mill weed seeds into coarse flakes or meal.  Grind weed seeds into powder for fast acting fertilizer.

Calculate application rates according to soil test recommendation for desired crop.  Minimum application rate is 1 ton = 2,000 pounds per acre ~ 5 pounds or 1 gallon per 100 square feet ~ 2 Tablespoons or 2/3 ounce per square foot.  Apply 1 pound of weed seed meal for every 25 feet of row or trench.  Mix 1/2 to 1 cup in each bushel (8 gallons) of potting soil.  To fertilize trees and bushes, apply 1 pound or 1 1/4 quarts of weed seed meal for every inch of trunk or stem diameter.  Spread meal from trunk or stem to drip line = farthest extent of branches.

Average density of weed seed meal = 0.3125 to 0.40 scale ounce per Tablespoon ~ 5 to 6.5 scale ounces per cup ~ 20 to 25.6 scale ounces per quart ~ 80 to 102.4 scale ounces per gallon ~ 5 pounds to 6 pounds 6.4 ounces per gallon ~ 40 to 51 pounds per bushel (8 gallons).  1 ton = 2,000 pounds weed seed meal = 40 to 50 bushels.

For example:  200 bushel per acre corn crop requires 200 pounds of nitrogen per acre.  200 pounds N divided by 54 pounds of nitrogen per ton of weed seed meal = 3.70 ~ 4 tons of weed seed meal needed per acre of corn.  Weed seed meal can be tilled into the earth by conventional plowing, broadcast on soil surface, side banded down rows, or drilled into furrows or trenches.

For feeding earthworms broadcast weed seed meal (1 ton per acre or 2 Tablespoons per square foot) on soil surface.  Reapply throughout the growing season when meal is no longer visible.

–>     WEEDS PROVIDE FREE BIOLOGICAL INSECT CONTROL.     I used to work for a cannery company.  I have dreadful memories of being bombed by crop dusters.  I would run for my truck, slam the door and stomp on the gas pedal.  The toxic mist really was that lethal.  Any human caught in the open would spend weeks in hospital and years twitching oddly.  Of course, the cabbage loopers took only 2 or 3 seasons to develop immunity to the toxin.  Then it was replaced with something even more poisonous.  Never again!  I refuse to become yet another ghastly statistic.  Just as stubbornly, I won’t buy something I don’t need.  Farming is all about cheap.  Margins are slim (especially for commodity crops) so a jug of synthetic chemical per acre can make all the difference between hanging-on-by-our-fingernails profit and loss of the family homestead.  Consequently, I cross all agricultural chemicals off my shopping list.  I’m not a “tree hugger” just ruthlessly frugal.  My family has farmed the same land for over 800 years.  I’m not going to be the one who fails.

Pests Be Gone!      Weeds are the poor man’s wildflowers.  Sow weeds just as you would wildflowers to provide food, shelter, and alternate hosts for beneficial predatory and parasitic insects.  For best results, reserve at least 5% of cropland for weeds.  Seed every 20th row with weeds.  Plant a strip of weeds around each field, vineyard, and orchard.  The trick to biological insect control is to grow weeds in close proximity to crops needing protection.  Serious insect problems usually mean a farm does not have enough wild plants.  Spatial orientation is important:  Weeds on one side of a farm will not protect tomatoes on the opposite side.  Plant tomatoes and weeds together = few hornworms.

Strip Cropping:     Plant crops in long narrow strips 4 to 16 rows wide (depending on the size of planting and harvesting equipment).  Long fields increase mechanical efficiency = fewer turns.  Try to keep strips as narrow as mechanically practical.  Narrow strips maximize biological edge effects and increase light penetration into crop canopy.  More edges = less pests.  More sunlight = more photosynthesis = higher yields.  Run strips across fields and farms following land contours.  Plant adjacent strips with unrelated crops to increase biological diversity = more food and shelter for beneficial insects.  If weed seed is unavailable or wildflowers too costly, plant mixed species cover crops to simulate weed populations.  Thomas Jefferson used buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum), turnips (Brassica rapa subspecies rapa), and winter vetch (Vicia villosa) = small flowered plants ideal for predators and parasites with tiny mouth parts.  A diligent program of crop rotation, strip planting, and weed farming usually keeps pest populations from rising to harmful levels.

–>     WEEDS ARE POTENT INSECTICIDES.     Over millions of years weeds have evolved elaborate chemical defenses against bugs.  Most weeds have only 1 or 2 minor pests; many wild plants are immune to just about everything.  When bugs get out of hand most infestations can be controlled by spraying with weed tea = a simple infusion of fresh weeds in hot water.  Find any weeds not bothered by the pest needing control.  Collect a large quantity of plants equal to the volume of water needed for spraying.  Chop weeds with a shredder, hydro-mill, or household blender.  Alternatively, crush weeds in a roller mill or laundry wringer.  Soak milled weeds in boiling water until mixture cools to air temperature.  Strain before use then add a commercial surfactant so insecticide spreads over and sticks to crop leaves.

If necessary, dilute weed tea concentrate with clear water to make up spray tank volume.  One application is usually enough to control most pests.  If infestation continues spray again or increase insecticide concentration by brewing equal weights of weeds and water (1 pound of weeds for each pint of water).  The forests around me abound with wild plants, especially ferns.  Nothing eats a fern.  Fern tea will kill or deter any bug known to modern agriculture.  Many common farm and garden weeds are equally distasteful or toxic.

–>     WEEDS ARE GOOD NURSE CROPS.     Weeds moderate farm microclimates by reducing wind speed, increasing humidity, shading soil, drawing water from subsoil depths and sharing moisture with shallow-rooted plants.  In times of drought, crops grown in weeds often out yield plants in cultivated weed-free fields.  Even dead weeds are useful; they protect topsoil from wind and water erosion, and their decomposing tissues feed soil organisms.

Sow-And-Go:     Drill or broadcast small grains into standing vegetation.  For best results sow tall varieties as these compete better against weeds.  The best time to plant is in the dry or cold season when most weeds and grasses are dead, dormant, or growing slowly.  Pelleted seed greatly increases germination and seedling survival.  If desired, you can sow Dutch White Clover (Trifolium repens) along with the grain.  With plentiful water, expect yields 60% to 70% of conventionally planted cereals.  If rains are poor expect little or no harvest.

Sow-and-Go agronomy works best with winter cereals.  Here in Butler County, Pennsylvania (40.8606 degrees North Latitude, 79.8947 degrees West Longitude)  sow-and-go winter wheat yields 24 to 28 bushels = 1,440 to 1,680 pounds per acre.  (Conventionally planted wheat yields 40 bushels = 2,400 pounds per acre).  My fields look awful but they produce enough grain to feed my family and the entire parish.  More importantly, out-of-pocket costs are minimal so profits are high.  Sow-and-Go cereals reduce economic risk.  Consequently, growing grain in weeds usually makes more money than planting cereal crops in cultivated or herbicide-sprayed fields.

–>     WEEDS ARE GOOD BEE FORAGE.     A jar labeled “wildflower honey” means “made from weeds”.  Very few apiaries plant flowers for their bees.  Most commercial honey in the United States comes from hives that are trucked across the country to pollinate almonds, blueberries, and oranges.  These bees are fed sugar syrup to keep them alive so if you want “real” honey buy from small, local apiaries or keep your own bees.

Honeybees feed on small flowers because they have short tongues.  Most weeds are ideal bee forage because they produce many small flowers throughout the growing season.

For a hungry bee the average plow-and-spray farm is a “green desert”.  Vast monoculture fields of corn and wheat do not provide nectar = starving hives.  To maintain healthy bee colonies plant weeds and wildflowers throughout the farm or sow small-flowered crops like Anise (Pimpinella anisum), Caraway (Carum carvi), Coriander (Coriandrum sativum), Dill (Anethum graveolens), and Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare).   Seed every available space as honey production is directly dependent on flower numbers.  More blossoms = more pollen and nectar = more bees = more honey.  Alternatively, plant mixed species cover crops to replace the bountiful blossoms of naturally weedy fields.  For example, seed orchards with buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum), hairy vetch (Vicia villosa), and turnips (Brassica rapa subspecies rapa) to feed bees and other beneficial insects.

Think before mowing!     Do not clip entire hay fields at once.  Leave 5% to 10% of each field un-harvested so bees have something to eat.  Whenever practical, divide fields into blocks or strips then harvest sequentially so beneficial insects can move to undisturbed areas.  Similarly, mow orchards only before harvest; let weeds, wildflowers, and cover crops grow without disturbance.  More flowers = fewer insect pests.

Plant thoughtfully.     Bees will fly 5 miles to gather nectar but long trips are inefficient = less honey.  Would you like to walk 5 miles to get your dinner?  Think like a bee and sow flowers as close to hives and crops as practical.  Integrate crops and weeds whenever possible.  For example, alternate strips of tomatoes and weeds.  Result:  Save $400 per acre for insecticides.

There is no such thing as a free lunch.     Biology can replace synthetic chemicals but there is an economic trade-off:  At least 5% of a farm must be covered in weeds.  This is the same as losing 5% of your corn crop and that costs money.  If this is not acceptable then plant wildflowers or any other small-flowered crop that you can harvest and sell the seed.  You can have bees and a profitable farm at the same time.

“Weed Farming” is an essential part of the New Green Revolution where biology replaces what is normally done by diesel tractors and synthetic chemicals.  This is leading edge agronomy = what our Great-Great-Grandfathers used to do.  Every farmer should reserve a few acres to experiment with this rediscovered technology.  Growing crops in weeds is profitable — provided farmers exercise careful stewardship.  For best results manage weeds just like a living mulch or mixed species cover crop.  Always remember that there are 2 crops growing on the same land at the same time — the weed crop and the cash crop.  Each requires equal care or both crops may fail.

RELATED PUBLICATIONS:     Managing Weeds as Cover Crops; Weed Seed Meal Fertilizer; No-Till Hungarian Stock Squash; Planting Maize with Living Mulches; Living Mulches for Weed Control; Organic Herbicides; Pelleted Seed Primer; Crops Among the Weeds; Forage Maize for Soil Improvement; Forage Radish Primer; and Rototiller Primer.

WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?     Contact the Author directly if you have any questions or need additional information on growing crops and weeds together.

Please visit:  http://www.worldagriculturesolutions.com  — or —  send your questions to:  Eric Koperek, Editor, World Agriculture Solutions, 413 Cedar Drive, Moon Township, Pennsylvania, 15108 United States of America  — or —  send an e-mail to:  Eric Koperek = worldagriculturesolutions@gmail.com

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:     Mr. Koperek is a plant breeder who farms in Pennsylvania during summer and Florida over winter.  (Growing 2 generations each year speeds development of new crop varieties).