Cover Cropping on Vegetable Beds: Novel Equipment and Ideas

Cover crops like these are amazing in
their ability to improve soil health and provide lots of other services. But to do these good things they need to be planted correctly and managed carefully and having the right equipment is critical I’m going to be talking about
some innovative cover cropping equipment that we’ve been developing and dreaming
about developing but let me start off with a story of my first experience planting a winter cover crop in the organic research farm that I started
managing several years ago The soil here was in bad shape and needed lots of cover cropping to turn it around So when I planted that first cover crop this is the grain drill that I used And I remember how good it felt as I pulled
that drill back and forth across the field planting the cover crop and
thinking about all the good things that I was doing for the soil Now after I’d planted about half of the field I figured I better go and check to see how
much seed was left in the hopper Well, unfortunately one side was completely empty and I had no idea where in the field the seed had run out Now I didn’t want my first planting to look like I didn’t know what I was doing You know, with big gaps where the weeds would grow so I reloaded the grain drill with seed
and I replanted the whole field again I’ve learned a lot about cover crops
since then and I’m now much more comfortable with the various features on
standard planters but I’ve also come to realize that these planters and a lot of the other tools that we use to manage the cover crops have their limitations and aren’t always well-suited for the high value cropping systems that I work in and I think this is part of the reason that cover crops aren’t as widely used as they should be So the novel system and equipment that
I’m going to be focusing on involves growing cover crops on beds in the same row spacing that we use for many of our vegetables Now there’s lots of potential advantages of growing cover crops on beds and I’ll explain some of those
after I show you the modified planter that we used to plant that So this precision belt seeder works really well with round pelleted seeds And it’s been the standard planter for most of the lettuce industry for more than 50 years It’s a great planter because it accurately spaces individual seeds within a row But we don’t need that level of accuracy with a cover crop and it wouldn’t make economic sense to pellet irregularly-shaped cover crop seeds The pelleting process is pretty expensive So we remove the seed metering
units and we added these multi-purpose hoppers that deliver the seed right down
to the bed where it’s needed. Here we are planting the rye cover crop in two lines on four beds and here’s the field nine days after planting Now the first potential advantage of cover cropping on beds is that we use about sixty to
seventy percent less seed than with a standard planting arrangement With a standard cover crop planted say with a grain drill there would be several more
seed lines per unit area and this is important to shade the soil quickly and suppress weeds but with a bedded cover crop we manage the weeds differently So here we are rotary hoeing the cover crop to uproot weeds that aren’t as deeply
rooted as the cover crop We then like to follow this with a standard vegetable cultivator about a week later and this helps to take out remaining weeds that may be in the furrow bottoms or on the bed top and might have been missed by the rotary hoe The cover crop then fills in the bed top and shades the furrows giving us a nearly weed free cover crop that’s still extremely productive Now if the weather cooperates we can take out several weed flushes during a single winter and this really helps to reduce the weed seed bank When the cover crop
needs to be mowed there are some real benefits to having it on beds rather than having it in a standard unbedded arrangement The wheel tracks of the
tractor in a standard cover crop push down the cover crop in front of the
mower and this can leave long unmowed strips through the field that are difficult to incorporate into the soil later Now in contrast with a bedded cover crop the wheels run in the bare furrow bottoms and this allows us to cut the cover crop into smaller and more uniform pieces and also mow the cover crop closer to the soil surface Now another potential benefit to cover cropping on beds is that it allows us to control the growth of the taller cereal component in a legume cereal mixture For example, with this rye-vetch mixture the rye starts to flower before the vetch and we can actually mow the rye seed heads off in the upper canopy to prevent them from setting viable seed and then let the vetch vines get a little bit more light and grow a little longer to potentially fix more nitrogen Let me now share some ideas of some innovative cover crop management strategies and equipment that I’ve been dreaming about developing Earlier this year I wrote a paper that addresses this complicated question about cover crops and sustainability And in that paper I described several different cover cropping strategies.. some new ones probably the most novel idea involves
extracting nitrogen rich juice from cover crop shoots to use as a liquid fertilizer in subsequent vegetables You might want to check out that paper and learn some more about that interesting idea The juicing strategy involves
harvesting cover crop shoots from beds using a forage harvester like this it would actually be pulling a trailer to catch all the harvested shoots and then they would be processed And as we’ve been experimenting with his forage harvester I’ve been wondering about another way to use it that doesn’t involve juicing and this idea came to me when we were trying out the mower or the harvester after some broccoli What really impressed me about it is that it cut the broccoli right at the bed top and then lifted the residue off the bed
top leaving it really clear The bed top was actually so clear that it looked like you could plant your next vegetable right into it with almost no tillage So we’re going to try modifying the hood of this forage harvester so that the finely chopped material that’s pulled off the bed can be channeled back down and into the furrows between the beds leaving the bed top free of residue We could then lightly strip-till the bed top if we needed to and then plant our next vegetable and leave the residue in the furrow bottoms as a mulch where it would decompose slowly and then provide a lot of other benefits Now as you’ve probably figured out I like Legos They inspire kids to be creative and also
adults too and as we develop new tools for cover
cropping I often feel like… a kid with a lego set it’s a lot of fun seeing what
you can come up with So stay tuned as we continue working on innovative cover cropping equipment and strategies I think these have got a lot of potential
to increase cover crop adoption and make the systems that I work in here far more sustainable take care

2 Replies to “Cover Cropping on Vegetable Beds: Novel Equipment and Ideas

  1. Beautifully done video, Eric! Thank you to you and Jim for what you are doing! Absolutely critical for the survival of our planet!

  2. Do you also use New Zealand white clover seeds that do not grow so high? Maybe this would help to cover the furrows quickly.

    Otherwise, thank you very much for this great video!

    I took the clover idea from Marks YouTube Channel. 😉

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