Hairy Vetch in Minimum-Till Organic Rotation

Final Report for FNC94-087

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 1994: $4,399.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1996
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $8,071.00
Region: North Central
State: North Dakota
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


Three Barn Farm is a 32 cow dairy in north central North Dakota operated by the Ryan family. The herd consists of half Holstein cows and half Milking Shorthorns. Since it’s inception in 1981 the farm has been operated organically on its 320 acres of crop and pasture land. Cows remain in tie stalls for most of the winter months with daily exercise, weather permitting, and grazed rotationally over 160 acres in the summer months. A recent addition to the pasture rotation this summer will be a 60 acre planting of native switch grass. The Ryan’s are planning on farm cheese production in 1994.

In the spring of 1993 I mixed vetch and speltz together on a 4 acre plot, hoping to raise seed for larger plantings of both. The vetch was very slow to come, but with the prolonged cool, wet spring survived.

Survive it did, becoming one of the most aggressive plants that I had ever observed. Soon the small ladder of speltz was overcome. Eclipsed is a good work for this. Then the vetch climbed on itself. What a magnificent plant! A think jungle of growth was formed with thousands of purple blossoms. Did someone say “Erosion Control”? It was like a giant, springy mattress, one and a half to two feet thick. Vines were ten to twelve feet long.

No seed would be set on this spring seeding. Evidently winter vetch requires exactly that, an over-wintering, for proper fertilization to occur. How the bees felt about this I do not know. Definitely this is a matter for the County Agent himself!

In the bordering area to this field I had poured oats into the drill over the speltz-vetch mixture. Some vetch was mixed by motion with the oats. Later in September I was able to swath or mow-rake this field where the vetch grew and stack this for very palatable hay. Mowing was required where the vetch was thicker.

Nothing was done to the jungle area of vetch until the next spring. I saw the insulating mat and imagined biological activity all winter. I was willing to give up incorporation of green manure (vetch) in exchange for prolonged soil warmth. Had I lightly disked in the early fall to incorporate most of the organic mater into the top soil profile, I would have still improved fertility which was one of my original goals. Also, two other changes would have occurred: a better seed bed preparation for my minimum till drill seeding that next spring and possibly, further weakening of our most undaunted enemy, the creeping jenny, the field bindweed labeled as “noxious” by most weed control groups around the country.

But, this was not my thinking at the time. Instead I pictured the flattening mat of vetch remaining to shade the emergence of the creeping jenny into the warmer weather when a barley crop would emerge to continue the shading process.

In the second spring a friend consented to no-till the barley into the vetch. It was another cool, wet spring and the ground remained cold. Our planting of barley had to be delayed until the last week in May. He had put new sharp discs on the drill and they sliced the mat into long rows of 7” vetch. I was impressed. However, as the weather warmed, the vetch slices dried and became fluffy, they began to move about in the wind.

This movement compounded problems associated with the emergence of the barley. The soil temperature was one problem, but shading the newly emerged barley made the barley stand uneven. This opened up opportunities for the creeping jenny to compete well with the barley. Where there had been no evidence of jenny the year before, it came back with a vengeance. Of course, I had been told that weakening jenny required a minimum of two years of successful competition or cultivation. In any case, the increase fertility and soil texture improvement gained by the use of vetch was well evident. The barley went on the yield well for us as 35-40 bushels and a heavy test weight.

By this time I had many reservations about the use of no till on our organic farm. However, I pressed on with the intent of exploring the use of vetch in other situations as well. After no tilling the barley we also no tilled vetch into buckwheat stubble. Bad decision, in retrospect. Our previous buckwheat crop had not slowed the jenny down. The weed and the vetch grew neck and neck with the jenny winning. I chose with chagrin to work down the vetch and plant buckwheat again, being our most competitive late season crop. I had heard of farmers planting buckwheat two years running to improve fertility, soil texture and add phosphorous. Isn’t it ironic to be planting a crop in the same family as field bindweed?

Given the coolness of the spring and summer the buckwheat performed reasonably well. Preparing a seedbed had been difficult as well. This particular field had a history of poor soil texture and a high population of moisture robbing creeping jenny. After harvest I employed the use of an under cutter to cultivate the buckwheat stubble twice. Afterwards we spread and worked in composted manure, 12 tons to the acre. These acres would be planted for oat silage in the spring, further cleaning up the ground of weeds.

As I still needed vetch seed in larger quantities and lower price, I followed our oat-vetch crop with rye-vetch. Planting three weeks later than hoped for, the rye and vetch did germinate and went through the winter with a thick snow cover. A very wet spring, poor fertility and generous weed competition made for only a 15 bushel rye crop. Rye is a funny crop anyway. It was a poor year for both winter wheat and rye. The vetch, however, grew well: the grain well-peppered with vetch seed. Unfortunately, try as I might, I was never able to find someone with the proper equipment to clean the vetch out of the rye: a spiral, gravity cleaner, according to Bob Fogg in Michigan.

Our oat silage crop was very respectable at 5-6 tons to the acre. We kept the field clean cultivated afterwards, using the under cutter again. After spreading manure compost over most of the field we planted rye vetch in mid September. A strong rye crop emerged but no vetch to speak of. At least, none survived in the spring to compete successfully with the rye. This was an even, high yielding crop. It kept the jenny at bay and was harvested before the jenny even set seed. It went 34 bushels with a good test weight.

Throughout these attempts at using vetch and our field walks with our advisors we discussed how vetch was fitting into our rotation and how it might fit in the long run. Very slowly, our soil fertility was being addressed by compost and crop variety. Our earthworm population was dramatically increasing. Our creeping jenny problem continued to stare me in the face. However, and it seemed that until it was successfully addressed, the success of our crops and thus, our ability to earn a farm income was severely compromised.

What then would be our course? Fortunately, being a dairy we have a need for generous quantities of alfalfa. The first planted stands of alfalfa of ten years past had still never been rotated back to grain. It was suggested to us by Ken Schneider and Mike Rose, the County Agent; that I consider alfalfa in short term rotation with grain. It would raise fertility, provide feed, and provide good long term weed suppression. Over the years I had seen diminished stands of creeping jenny in strong stands of alfalfa. Alfalfa comes with its own set of problems: successful germination, moisture shortages, and grasshoppers. Still, we all think it’s worth a try.

That’s where the farm is headed. This year we prepared a seedbed on two of our lower fertility fields and the Soil Conservation Service no till alfalfa in with a full seeding of oats. Now there is a well started stand of alfalfa under good snow cover. After initial silage cutting, we will work up a similar amount of alfalfa acres this spring.

We will be working closely with our county agent, Mike Rose to cooberate weed pressures and review all soil tests. He has assured us access to our county wide newsletter for farmers. Any positive results in the area of organic matter increase, especially through the use of a standing vetch, can be funneled through Mike to local no till farmers as well.

We are also welcome to submit articles to our Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society newsletter, which I plan to do. Also, since work of a similar nature is going on at the Carrington Research Center in North Dakota by Dr. John Gardener, I plan to share results and questions with him. We have already spoken about seeding rates for rye and vetch.

Most studies for this nature also turn up in the Farm and Ranch guide which has a very broad circulation. The state Rural Electric Magazine covers the activities of its cooperative members also. We would also submit any results to them.


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.