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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CROPS AMONG THE WEEDS

As I sit here at my drafting table, the local code enforcement officer is looking askance at my “lawn” which is not mowed at the regulation height of 6 inches or less.  Instead, I have 2 research plots in front of my office, both planted with Peruvian land race potatoes.  One plot is mulched with stable bedding, the other plot covered with weeds up to 4 feet high.  The mulched potatoes are riddled with flea beetles; there are so many holes that the leaves look like window screening.  3 feet away, potatoes growing in weeds have only a few scattered holes in their leaves.  These results are typical of crops grown au naturel = in the wild.

When I was young, “good” farmers were judged by the straightness of their furrows and the cleanliness of their fields.  Bare earth and weed-free crops were the standard of good agricultural practice at that time.  Contrarian that I am, my fields were always less than pristine.  Many decades later, my crops are still a herbicide salesman’s nightmare.  The reason is that I have long since stopped trying to eradicate weeds.  Now, I manage them.  I encourage them.  I even plant weeds because I never seem to have enough wild plants in my fields.

Am I daft?  Certainly.  I am also wealthy because I don’t have big pesticide bills to pay.  My crops may not make record yields, but I am not aiming for a blue ribbon at the County Fair.  I measure success on the bottom line.  Who wants to spend $2,000 to plant a half acre of peppers?  I gladly trade low production costs over huge input bills.  I make more money by saving money.  As an added benefit, my customers can pick vegetables without worrying about being poisoned by agricultural chemicals.  I don’t need “organic” certification.  My customers pay me not to spray.  That’s good business any way you figure it.

Down the road I have a wilderness of citrus interspersed with live oaks, Spanish moss, and pangola grass.  It’s an old orchard that is long overdue for rotation, but it still makes me money because I spend almost nothing to maintain the trees.  Every now and then I spread some racetrack manure.  The irrigation system turns itself on and off.  The weeds grow 6 feet high.  Once a year, right before harvest, I mow between the trees — just enough so folks can pick the fruit.  Result:  No bugs on my trees.  Across the hedgerow of old-fashioned hibiscus, my neighbor clean cultivates his orchard and sprays with robotic frequency.  Every spider mite in the district comes to eat his leaves.  Chemical companies use his orchard to test new pesticides.  The mites don’t seem to mind; they eat insecticide like salad dressing.

Up the road are stake-less tomatoes (with thick, upright stems) transplanted into Berseem = Egyptian clover (Trifolium alexandrinum).  I used to walk the fields pulling any weed not blotted out by the clover.  Now, I don’t bother.  I let the weeds grow wild.  Occasionally, I thin the weeds if they grow too thick.  My fields look messy but I rarely see a hornworm.

Across the lane is my pride and joy: A jungle of weeds and melons.  The weeds grow over my head and the melons grow over the weeds.  The trick is to mulch the young melons (or mow the weeds) just until the vines start to run.  After the melons are well established, the crop fends for itself.  Vine crops thrive in the light shade cast by nearby weeds; the best fruits come from the weediest parts of the field.  Insect pests don’t like the broadleaf jungle so I never have to spray vine crops grown in weeds.

Intelligent Weed Management

Tired of getting sick every time you spray a field?  Use the following rules-of-thumb to create a healthy cropping system tailored to your local soil and climate:

>>>  Weeds are a type of living mulch:  Plants grown to reduce soil erosion, enhance soil fertility, attract beneficial insects, and help retain soil moisture.  Before planting into weeds or any other living mulch, remember that two crops are growing on the same land at the same time — the mulch crop and a cash crop.  Success requires careful management or both crops may fail.

>>>  All living mulches compete with their companion crops.  The extent of competition and consequential yield loss vary with management and crop type.  For example, under drought conditions shallow rooted crops generally show more yield loss than deep rooted crops.  Low or slow growing crops many be overwhelmed by more aggressive companion crops.  As a general rule, living mulches are not recommended where drought is expected because yield losses are too high.  However, many crops benefit from living mulches during dry conditions — the companion plants shade the soil, retard evaporation, and increase humidity.

>>>  Weeds make good living mulches for transplanted vegetable crops provided:  (1)  Crops are irrigated,  (2)  Crops are fertilized, and  (3)  Crops are protected for the first 4 to 6 weeks from competition by the weeds.

>>>  1 to 2 inches of water are needed weekly to grow both weeds and vegetables without undue competition for moisture.  If water is limiting, it is best to drip irrigate the cash crop rather than water the entire field.

>>>  Weeds grow quickly so there is often intense competition for light when cash crops are young.  Mow or roll a narrow strip where transplants will be set, or apply a circle of mulch around transplants to give crops a head start.  Once crops are well established they will usually hold their own.  If necessary, prune or thin weeds to increase light penetration for cash crops.

>>>  Roller-crimpers are better than mowers for weed management.  Mowing stimulates plant regrowth; crimping does not.

>>>  Aggressive, fast-growing crops like tomatoes, peppers, okra, melons, squash, sweet potatoes, gourds and pumpkins all do exceptionally well when transplanted into weeds.  Cucumbers are slower growing and require extra mulch to protect them from early season competition with weedy nurse crops.

>>>  As a general rule, broadleaf weeds make better nurse crops than wild grasses which are more competitive and difficult to manage.  Where weedy grasses are a problem, burn the fields or treat with organic herbicide before transplanting cash crops.

>>>  It is good practice to leave strips of meadow, weeds, wildflowers, cover crops, or other living vegetation between or around fields of cash crops.  These buffer strips act as refuges for beneficial insects needed to control crop pests.  The best refuge plants have small flowers so that good bugs can easily obtain pollen and nectar.  Examples include buckwheat, turnip, rape, clover, and any member of the botanical family Apiaceae = Umbelliferae = carrot family = Anise, Dill, Angelica, Chervil, Celery, Caraway, Coriander, Cumin, Carrot, Fennel, Lovage, Parsnip, and Parsley.

>>>  As a general rule, it is unwise to harvest fields all at once.  Divide fields into strips or parcels then harvest each sequentially.  Leaving un-harvested areas allows predatory insects to migrate from disturbed spaces.  The idea is to preserve a balance between predator and prey to prevent sudden population crashes.  Translation:  You want a resident population of good bugs waiting to eat any bad bugs that fly into your fields.

>>>  If weedy fields are unavailable for planting, seed conventional cover crops.  The best living mulches are low-growing, nitrogen fixing legumes like Dutch White Clover (Trifolium repens), Crimson Clover (Trifolium incarnatum), and Red Clover (Trifolium pratense).  Remember to inoculate legume seeds with compatible nitrogen-fixing rhizobium bacteria.

>>>  Where land is weak or vegetation sparse, plant weeds to restore soil health.  Spread weedy hay over sick fields.  Seed wildflowers adapted to your local climate.  Broadcast grain elevator screenings liberally; screenings are dirt cheap (often free) and contain many weed seeds.  If necessary, seed a nurse crop of common rye (Secale cereale) or millet (Panicum miliaceum) to help establish a vigorous weed population.

>>>  Where agriculture is problematic (bare soils, unfavorable climate, no water or fertilizer) it is best to seed mixed cover crops to mimic the diversity of naturally weedy fields.  Choose 2 cool season grasses + 2 cool season broadleaf plants + 2 cool season legumes + 2 warm season grasses + 2 warm season broadleaf plants + 2 warm season legumes.  Include 2 root crops (forage radish, turnip, or stock beet) to help break up compacted soil layers.  Total:  14 different cover crop species.  Plant at least 20 pounds of mixed cover crop seed per acre = 23 kilograms per hectare.

>>>  Weeds are nature’s band-aid; they are specifically evolved to rapidly cover disturbed soils.  Tillage encourages weed germination and stimulates weed growth.  Consequently, to manage weed populations avoid tillage whenever practical.

>>>  It is best not to disturb healthy populations of weeds or cover crops once they are well established.  Broadcast, transplant, or drill cash crops into surface vegetation.  Use equipment specifically designed for no-till planting on trashy, high-residue fields.  For surface (broadcast) planting, increase seeding rates to maximum levels or use clay pelletized seed.  (Pelleted seeds greatly increase plant survival).

>>>  Weeds are most efficiently controlled by using the natural competitive abilities of crop plants.  For example, top seed forage radish (Raphaus sativus variety longipinnatus) over oats when they start to head out.  The radish understory crop grows slowly until grain harvest.  After oats are combined, radish growth explodes quickly covering the field and blotting out nearly all competing plants.  Weeds never have a chance to get established.  Top seeding into standing vegetation is a great way to grow small-seeded crops without using herbicides.

>>>  Grind weed seeds into flour and use like cotton seed meal as a cheap, slow-release organic fertilizer.  1 ton of weed seed meal supplies approximately 54 pounds of nitrogen, 18 pounds of phosphorous, and 18 pounds of potassium (2.7% nitrogen, 0.9% phosphorous, and 0.9% potassium by weight).  Note:  There is no standard analysis for weed seed meal.  NPK values vary depending on the mixture of species in local samples.

>>>  Every farm has different soil and micro-climate.  Agronomic practices that work in one field may fail in another.  For best results, every farmer should maintain one or more research plots so that new methods can be tested and adapted to local conditions.

>>>  Effective weed management requires careful observation and close attention to detail.  Every farmer must become a weed biologist.  Timing of field operations is critically important.  Planting 2 weeks earlier or later can result in stunning success or dismal failure.  Continuous experimentation  is needed to develop weed control programs for each individual crop, field, and farm.

Organic No-Till Weed Control

Conventional no-till agriculture relies on synthetic herbicides to control weeds.  Following no-till method uses an all-natural herbicide substitute made from acetic acid (vinegar) and citric acid (lemon juice).  Combination makes a non-selective vegicide that works like Roundup (glyphosate) to kill both grasses and broadleaf weeds.

Organic Herbicide Formula By Weight For Farming

10%          Glacial Acetic Acid (liquid)               100 grams

5%            Citric Acid (powder)                         50 grams

83%          Water                                                 830 grams

2%            Wetting Agent (surfactant)            20 grams

100%       TOTAL PARTS BY WEIGHT        1,000 grams

This is a non-selective herbicide = kills everything.  Wetting agent is essential for herbicide to stick to leaves.  For best results, apply herbicide on a warm, sunny day when weed leaves are dry.  Herbicide works best on annual broadleaf weeds and grasses 6 inches or less in height.  This is a burn down herbicide; only surface vegetation is killed.  Herbicide will not kill perennial weeds with deep taproots or grasses with growing points below soil surface.  Herbicide is not translocated to roots or other plant parts.  Weeds die from water loss through their leaves.  Caution:  Glacial acetic acid (industrial strength vinegar) is strongly corrosive.  Protect skin and eyes from acid.  Wear gloves and goggles when mixing and spraying herbicide.  Rinse with pure water if necessary.

Organic Herbicide Formula By Volume For Gardening

This formula uses common vinegar (5% acetic acid) and bottled lemon juice (3% to 8% citric acid) that can be purchased from neighborhood grocery stores.

1,250 milliliters          Common White Vinegar          5 Cups

250 milliliters            Bottled Lemon Juice                 1 Cup

30 milliliters              Dish Washing Detergent          2 Tablespoons

1,530 milliliters        TOTAL VOLUME                     6 1/8 Cups

Above concentration will kill annual broadleaf weeds and grasses 6 inches or less in height.  For best results apply herbicide on a warm, sunny day when weed leaves are dry.

Organic No-Till Procedure

This technique works best with small grains, turnips, and other crops that can be broadcast rather than drilled.

(1)  Select ground with good weed or crop cover.  Weeds or nurse crop will be used as mulch to protect germinating cash crop.  (2)  Broadcast seed into standing weeds or cover crop.  (3)  Kill weeds or nurse crop with organic herbicide.  (4)  Mow weeds or nurse crop when dead.  (5)  If desired, top seed established crop plants with Dutch White Clover (Trifolium repens), Red Clover (Trifolium pratense), Crimson Clover (Trifolium pratense),  or other low growing legume.

Mulch-In-Place

>>>  It is impractical to mulch large fields by hand because the volumes required are too large.  The solution is to grow a mulch crop then kill it by mowing, crimping, or spraying with herbicide.  Seeds or transplants are then set through the surface mulch.

>>>  8,000 to 10,000 pounds of straw mulch per acre are needed to achieve 90% weed control.  A crop of rye grain (Secale cereale) 5 to 6 feet high normally yields 4 to 5 tons of biomass per acre.  Most mulch-in-place systems use grass crops because cereal straw decomposes slowly.  Broadleaf cover crops rot faster leaving holes in the mulch through which weeds grow.

>>>  Mowed fields are best transplanted by hand because no-till planters often get clogged by loose plant materials.  Sickle-bar mowers are better than rotary or flail mowers because they do not chop or scatter the mulch.  Good weed control requires a dense layer of long straw which blocks sunlight and acts as a physical barrier to weed emergence.

>>>  Rolling down a cover crop is faster than mowing.  Roller-crimpers are cheaper than mowers and cost less to operate.

>>>  Roller-crimped fields are ideal for no-till seeders and transplanters.  Always work “with the grain” = in the same direction as the cover crop or weeds are rolled.  Never work against or across the grain or surface mulch will clog planting machinery.

>>>  Mulch crops are best killed when in full flower or early seed set.  Earlier harvest reduces mulch yields and increases chances of regrowth.  (You do not want the cover crop competing with the cash crop).  Late harvest risks reseeding by the mulch crop.  (Seed carryover between seasons turns a good mulch crop into a bad weed problem).  For example:  The best time to kill cereal rye is when the seeds are in their milk or soft dough stage.  Harvest at this time guarantees maximum straw yield and zero regrowth.

>>>  It is good practice to top seed a low growing legume like Dutch White Clover (Trifolium repens) immediately after seeding or transplanting cash crops.  Clover plants fill any holes in the mulch and increase biodiversity in the field.

>>>  To make your own roller-crimper, start with a steel cylinder 12 to 24 inches diameter, like a lawn roller.  The cylinder can be any convenient length; 8 to 10 feet long is the smallest roller recommended for efficient commercial farming.  Weld dull blades of 1/4 inch steel to the roller.  Each blade should be 4 to 5 inches high.  Space blades 7 to 8 inches apart.  Angle blades across the cylinder in a wide V-shape like a chevron; this prevents roller from bouncing around and greatly improves crimping effectiveness.  Mount roller on frame attaching to a 3-point hydraulic hitch on tractor front.  When finished, roller and frame should weigh 3,000 pounds; this weight is necessary to thoroughly crimp mulch plants so they do not regrow.  If desired, roller can be designed to hold water ballast so that weight can be increased for tough-stalked mulch crops like forage maize.  Detailed plans for roller-crimpers are available from the Rodale Institute = http://www.rodaleinstitute.org

Medieval No-Till

Plowing in the Middle Ages was hard, slow work.  Heavy wood plows were ponderous, inefficient, and difficult to turn.  A man with a team of 2 oxen took 3 whole days to plow and harrow a small 1-acre field just 22 yards wide x 220 yards long.  The alternative was even worse:  Digging by hand was back-breaking labor requiring at least 30 days to till 1 acre with spade or fork.  It did not take long for farmers to figure out easier ways to grow crops.  The Dutch were the first to apply the new agricultural technology which married free-range pig ranching with a clover-wheat-turnips rotation:

In spring, fence off plot of Dutch White Clover (Trifolium repens) and turn in swine.  (Pigs like Dutch clover because it is sweet.  Do not put rings in hogs’ snouts or they will not be able to root).  Pigs “plow” soil like a rototiller, uprooting all vegetation.  Broadcast spring wheat onto pig-tilled earth then drive sheep back and forth across land.  Sheep stomp wheat seeds into ground.  When wheat starts heading out (or at least 2 weeks before harvest) broadcast turnip seed over standing grain.  After wheat is cut, fast-growing turnip leaves carpet field overwhelming competing plants.  About 2 weeks before turnip harvest broadcast clover seed over standing foliage.  When roots are lifted, young clover plants blanket field, blotting out most weeds.  Clover cover crop protects and fertilizes soil until following spring when rotation cycle is repeated.

On a typical farm in northern France or upstate New York, no-till clover-wheat-turnips reliably yields 40 bushels of wheat per acre (2,400 pounds per acre = 2,694 kilograms per hectare) without hybrid varieties, irrigation, tractors, diesel fuel, chemical fertilizers, synthetic herbicides, insecticides or fungicides.  (Note:  This rotation works equally well with Oats = Avena sativa, Barley = Hordeum vulgare, Rye = Secale cereale, or Millet = Panicum miliaceum).

Sow-And-Go

No-Till agronomy is not a new idea; no-till was practiced in the Middle Ages (and probably earlier).  Then, no-till was used mostly by small farmers who did not own draft animals — or — as an emergency measure practiced only when primary crops failed or when an army swept through the district (stealing all of the food and farm animals).  Medieval records indicate that no-till was a desperation technology often used by peasants to prevent starvation:

Foul weather prevailed through spring.  Fields could not be plowed so farmers sowed in the rain, scything weeds to hide the seed from birds and mice.  By Divine Grace a crop was made, only two thirds of normal harvest but sufficient to forestall general famine among the tenants.  Tithes were not collected this autumn and the Church distributed alms and acorns to the poor.  Annals of the Abbey of Saint Marien [Lake Constance, Germany] Anno Domini 1340

How To Do It:  Find the weediest field possible.  Broadleaf weeds are best and thistles best of all.  (Thistles indicate fertile soil).  Broadcast seed directly into standing weeds.  (Pelleted seed greatly increases seedling survival, especially for large-seeded crops like peas and beans).  Mow down weeds with a scythe (or use a lot of people with sickles or machetes).  Cut weeds act as mulch for germinating crop.  Pray for rain.  Come back at harvest time and hope for the best.  Yields are low but surprisingly economic (because there are no costs other than seeding and harvest).

Medieval No-Till Yields of Dry Peas:  Poor Crop:  4 to 5 bushels = 250 to 300 pounds per acre.  Average Crop:  6 to 8 bushels = 400 to 500 pounds per acre.  Good Crop:  10 to 13 bushels = 600 to 800 pounds per acre.

Medieval No-Till Yields of Spring Wheat:  Poor Crop:  4 to 6 bushels = 275 to 400 pounds per acre.  Average Crop:  7 to 10 bushels = 440 to 650 pounds per acre.  Good Crop:  11 to 17 bushels = 660 to 1,040 pounds per acre.

Sow-and-Go planting is ancient technology adapted for modern machinery.  In India it is called Zero Budget Natural Farming.  Australians use the term No-Kill Cropping.  Some call it Do Nothing Farming, Zero Petroleum Agriculture, or Minimum Effort Agronomy.  Less charitable souls use the term Subsistence Agriculture.  Regardless of label, the principle remains identical:  Sow seed (without tillage or any other investment) then forget about the crop until harvest time.  Small fields are hand planted, large areas seeded with no-till drills.  The trick is to sow when plants normally drop their seeds, usually during the dry or cold season when weeds are dead or dormant.  Native vegetation is left standing; this is necessary to prevent erosion, feed soil organisms, aid water infiltration, slow wind speed, provide shade, increase humidity, improve biodiversity, and trap snow.

Sow-and-Go agronomy is particularly suited where climate or soils are problematic, especially drought-prone, semi-arid regions like Australia and the western prairies of North America.  Old farms, hay fields, pastures, range lands, or any relatively flat area of grass or weeds is suitable for Sow-and-Go planting.  For best results, no-till planters should have razor sharp coulters to slice through surface vegetation, chisel tines or cultivator shoes to open a narrow slot for seeding, and double press wheels to ensure good seed to soil contact.  Minimal soil disturbance is essential for success.  Pelleted seeds are recommended for broadcast planting or land restoration.

In years with good rainfall, Sow-and-Go crops typically yield 60% to 70% of conventionally grown plants.  Translation:  Expect 40% yield losses compared to full-tillage or herbicide treated crops.  Higher yields are sometimes possible on particularly deep or fertile soils.  Drilled crops generally yield more than broadcast seeded crops, especially when seeds are large, weather is dry, or when planting naked seeds.

Sow-and-Go cereal culture is the wave of the future.  Farmers should set aside a few acres to test this new biological technology which can be used to grow any kind of small grain including pseudo-cereals like amaranth (Amaranthus caudatus), buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum), and quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa).  If weedy fields are not available, seed mixed cover crops of annuals or perennials then plant into this artificial prairie.  Soil fertility and structure improve rapidly under continuous vegetation, especially if legumes and root crops are included in the mix.  Each year planting becomes easier and yield potential increases.  Results are often surprising and cannot be easily predicted because of complex interactions between many species in a new, “designer ecology”.  Careful observation, precise timing, and constant adjustment are needed to “tweak” the system to favor particular crops.  Real ecological management is required — the very opposite of robotic, spray-by-calendar conventional agriculture.  Sow-and-Go farmers are never bored; they are always making new discoveries in their fields.

Related Publications

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

For More Information

Readers who have any questions or require additional information about growing crops in weeds should contact the Author directly:

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 yearly speeds development of new crop varieties).