Developing Round Bale Systems to Mulch Vegetable Transplants with Switch Grass

Project Overview

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2012: $6,854.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2012
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Project Coordinator:
Tony Ends
Scotch Hill Farm

Annual Reports


  • Vegetables: cabbages, tomatoes
  • Additional Plants: native plants


  • Education and Training: demonstration, on-farm/ranch research
  • Farm Business Management: new enterprise development
  • Pest Management: mulching - plastic, mulching - vegetative
  • Production Systems: agroecosystems, organic agriculture

    Proposal summary:

    Water wheel vegetable transplanters will be adapted to small rolled bales (40 to 60 lbs.) and large rolled bales (250 to 500 lbs) of switch grass and small grains straw with systems to replace black plastic mulch, increase soil fertility, cut labor costs, diversify farm income (through small round bale mulch and hay sales), with goals of enhancing small farm sustainability and ecology in our region.

    Scotch Hill Farm is a certified organic Community Supported Agriculture vegetable crop (100 varieties), small grains and hay producing farm that grew from 5 to 210 subscribers in its first 15 years. Grower/owners Dela and Tony Ends begin an 18th season in spring 2012. They also raise dairy goats, sheep and poultry, and maintain a value-added farmstead milk soap and natural ingredient skin care products business. The Ends led a dairy goat milk soap guild and cooperative with 8 farms for 6 years. They grow crops on 41 acres of owned and rented land, with two high tunnel greenhouses, two lean-to greenhouses for seeding flats of transplants, a commercial-size kitchen, walk-in cooler, packing shed and full set of field-scale equipment. The farm sells 20-week, November and December shares; with some cool season hoop house production through winter, to Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison, Monroe and local subscribers.

    Dela and Tony have been active in Madison Area CSA Coalition for 16 years and have long served on the Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training steering committee. Dela teaches organic gardening at Blackhawk Technical College in Monroe, Wis. Son Joel, who will take active part in this project, has a 1-year welding certificate from BTC; 3 years of welding experience in farm implement manufacturing at Kuhn International, Brodhead; and 5 years’ training and service, including two meritorious promotions in the Madison Marine Corps Unit. Joel takes part in all aspects of Scotch Hill Farm’s vegetable crop, hay and small grains production.

    Tony led the farm’s 2009-2010 SARE Farmer/Rancher producer grant project comparing oat, wheat and switch grass straw mulch with vegetable crops. He will lead this second SARE project. He has led and completed five other applied research and capital improvement projects, helping establish a value-added enterprise facility, increasing water pumping capacity and extending water lines to greenhouses, and adding field-scale transplanting, seeding and cultivating equipment at Scotch Hill. Tony worked for 13½ years at daily newspapers and still writes occasionally for general circulation and farm publications. He has a master’s in journalism from Marquette University. Tony designed and wrote grant project applications for on-farm research in 3 states with agronomists, soil scientists and educators at Michael Fields Agricultural Institute for 4½ years as communications coordinator.

    Switch grass, baled to mulch organic vegetable crops, has compared well in weed suppression to oat and wheat straw mulch in field trials at Scotch Hill Farm (see previous SARE grant). Scotch Hill identified several challenges it must overcome, however, in using switch grass or small grains straw to develop organic, ecological alternatives to black plastic and biodegradable mulch for commercial vegetable crops.

    Widespread black plastic use on more than 30 million acres from polyethylene film to mulch vegetable crops increasingly since the 1950s has raised concerns about leaching, both during field use and in landfills where much of it is ultimately discarded. Photodegradable and biodegradable plastic mulches, made from cornstarch or coated paper are being developed and studied. Concerns noted in and from these studies are: ability of biodegradable mulch to meet national organic standards; residues mulches may leave behind after degrading, inability of some mulches to completely degrade; and effectiveness of some alternative mulches for longer-season vegetable crops since the mulches break down too soon.

    In its past field trials, Scotch Hill used small grains straw and switch grass to mulch 15 field-scale vegetable crops. For all mulches, their ability to suppress weeds seemed to depend on how quickly growers Tony and Dela applied the mulch after seeding or transplanting, and how thick and thorough the mulch application. Straw mulch contributes organic matter to soil and saves time required to remove black plastic at season’s end. Breaking open square bales of straw to mulch vegetable transplants, however, makes achieving uniform density difficult. Too light an application allows weeds to overcome the mulch before vegetables attain size and canopy to compete with weeds for water, nutrients and sunlight. Too dense an application can provide cover to field mice and chipmunks, which can damage or consume vegetable crops. To address these problems, Scotch Hill will develop small and large round bale systems for mulching vegetable seedling transplants.

    The farm will use its own receipts and SARE funding to buy two different baling machines wholesale from Small Farm Innovations of Caldwell, Texas. It will use these machines in field trials and at least 3 field days. The trials will bale small (40 to 60 lbs) and large (250 to 500 lbs) switch grass and small grains straw mulch. Joel Ends will develop a metal harness to pull behind a wide row tractor over prepared beds to unravel the large round bales of straw and switch grass mulch across the 3-foot-wide, field-scale beds. Scotch Hill will purchase two additional steel water wheels with 12-inch spacing from Roeters Farm Equipment of Grant, Mich., for the farm’s present two-row water wheel transplanter. Joel will develop and fabricate extended metal spade attachments for these wheels to penetrate both the round mulch carpet across prepared vegetable beds and the soil beneath the mulch to a depth that will easily receive greenhouse vegetable starts. Scotch Hill will then adjust the water wheel spade attachments until they work as well with rolled bale mulch as this equipment works presently with rolled black plastic mulch and greenhouse vegetable starts.

    Additionally, Scotch Hill will employ small round bales to mulch some vegetable transplant beds by hand and photograph their use in place of square bale straw and switch grass mulch. A PowerPoint, talk and possibly film on ease of using 40- and 60-pound round bales over square bales will be prepared from field trial documentation for urban, community and school gardens. Time-savings from transplanting into rolled mulch, rather than following transplanting with square bale applications of straw or switch grass will be emphasized. The presentation will also describe ecological advantages of rolled switch grass mulch over black plastic, avoidance of herbicide carry-over from conventional small grains straw mulch, and the earlier SARE trials at Scotch Hill indicating switch grass mulch does not harbor plant disease, as oat and wheat straw sometimes do.

    Talks to urban growers will be scheduled and promoted by The Green Home Experts in Oak Park, Ill.; the CSA Learning Center in Caledonia, Ill., and through other stores in the Chicago area that sell urban vegetable growers and gardeners organic and sustainable supplies. Scotch Hill Farm will thus test markets and price points for small round bale organic small grains straw mulch, switch grass or prairie grass mulch, and hay. Gardeners, CSA growers, small-scale livestock owners and horse owner markets will be targeted in these presentations.

    An estimated 75 CSA-style vegetable growing operations now produce for the Chicago area. A grain merchandiser in Sharon, Wis., estimates there are 750,000 recreational horses in a triangle from Chicago, to Madison, to Milwaukee. Markets for hay and straw mulch are strong along the state line, yet diverse organic production must compete for land with subsidized ethanol-driven corn production, as well as urban sprawl. In its field days and presentations, Scotch Hill Farm will also test marketability for small round balers and modified transplanting wheels. Round balers date to 1910 in the United States, but were not manufactured in number until Alis Chalmers purchased their patent rights in 1940. Early round bales of hay were 40 to 50 lbs in weight and became quickly popular for leaving more leaves on stems, ease with which they were unrolled to feed cattle and their ability to be left outside without deteriorating in weather (Wessels Living History Farm). Helping reintroduce newly made round balers from Japan through Small Farm Innovations will address the mulching and hay-feeding needs of young farmers, start-up farms and gardens, and small-scale operations that do not have finances to build hay and mulch storage units, nor to purchase heavy equipment to handle 250 to 500 lb. bales.

    Our SARE producer grant project compliments previous work done on organic and natural mulch. It also provides a new use and income stream from switch grass to encourage wider cultivation and planting. This should strengthen development of switch grass as a promising agro-fuel in coming years. A search for “straw mulch in vegetable crops” on the SARE research report database yielded 59 results, yet found no studies or comparisons of small grains or switch grass straw as mulch, other than our own previous SARE trials between 2009 and 2010. Use of “living mulch” to suppress weeds in walkways and paths between rows of crops, however, has been studied back to 1988, with pearl millet, crimson clover, rye and annual rye grass, especially for berry fruit production.

    A 2003 SARE bulletin and other referenced studies on the SARE website cite a number of living mulch experiments and trials. In one example, a grower planted vetch and winter rye, cut the stand with a rolling mower into a dense mulch when it reached 5 feet and transplanted tomatoes into the mulch. Another experiment cited by Rodale described trampling a living mulch planted around vegetables growing in a greenhouse. Allelopathic qualities of millet and rye, in particular, however, require thorough knowledge of these cover crops to avoid inadvertently inhibiting growth and yield of (or even killing) vegetable plants susceptible to the same qualities that suppress weeds by phyto-toxins or plant poisons. Care is needed in using living mulches to ensure proper rotations of susceptible crops and sage companion planting of crops so the living mulch does not harm them in any way.

    Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) is a native warm-season grass that is a leading U.S. biomass crop, according to the Extension Service. More than 70 years’ experience with switchgrass as a hay and forage crop suggest switchgrass will be productive and sustainable on rain-fed marginal land east of the 100th meridian. Long-term plot trials and farm-scale studies in the Great Plains and plot trials in the Great Plains, Midwest, South, and Southeast indicate switchgrass is productive, protective of the environment, and profitable for farmers. Weed control is essential during establishment but with good management is typically not required again. Although stands can be maintained indefinitely, stands are expected to last at least 10 years. Thereafter, a stand is renovated, and new, higher-yielding material seeded on site. Fertility requires about 12 to 14 pounds of N per acre for each ton of expected yield if the crop is allowed to completely senesce before annual harvest.

    Bioenergy potential has promoted public and private testing of switch grass. It is well suited to marginal cropland and is an energetically and economically feasible and sustainable biomass energy crop with currently available technology. Switchgrass has excellent potential as a bioenergy feedstock for cellulosic ethanol production, direct combustion for heat and electrical generation, gasification, and pyrolysis. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Bioenergy Feedstock Development Program selected switchgrass as the herbaceous model species for biomass energy. Switchgrass is a desirable biomass energy crop because: it is a broadly adapted native to North America, it has consistently high yield relative to other species in varied environments, it requires minimal agricultural inputs, it is relatively easy to establish from seed, and a seed industry already exists (McLaughlin and Kzsos, 2005; Parrish and Fike, 2005; Sanderson et al., 2007, cited on the Extension.Org website).

    Field Days and Demonstrations – Our first year will require purchase and familiarization with round bale production, fabrication of equipment to employ large round bales with prepared vegetable crop beds and to transplant seedling starts into straw mulch in place of black plastic (all demonstrated and described for 2nd year field days). Yet we’ll begin making small round bales from an acre of over-wintered switch grass the first spring, several acres of oat and winter wheat straw the first July of this project and some hay seasonally.

    This spring, summer and fall production will be for presentations in urban areas for small-scale producers of specialty crops and livestock; urban school, home and community gardens; and with these project collaborators: Wisconsin Farmers Union (about 2000 members); Madison Area CSA Coalition (49 grower members, mostly CSA farms, but some value-added producers); Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training (farm interns and Farm Beginnings participants on more than 70 farms); Tour the Farm Day (each May with Brodhead Chamber); UW-Rock County Extension agent Dr. Jim Stute; The Green Home Experts, Oak Park, Ill. (Maria Onesto, store owner, is expanding green garden supplies – her store hosts CSA delivery)

    Photographs and possibly film of the trials and small and round bale mulch use will be incorporated into PowerPoint presentations, posted to collaborator’s websites, and shared with farm apprenticeship, technical college, Extension programs.

    Articles on the project will be sent electronically to the Country Today, Wisconsin State Farmer and general circulation publications in Wisconsin.

    A second Farmer Forum topic on the project will be proposed to SARE for a National Small Farm Conference.

    Our farm has been applying straw and switch grass mulch from small square bales by hand around vegetable transplants in double-row beds, 100 to 250 feet long for 4 years. Developing a harness to unravel large round bales of mulch over prepared vegetable beds before transplanting our crops should save 4 to 6 hours of time mulching crops after they are in place. As a replacement to black plastic mulch, which we’ve used for 15 years, a carpet of straw or switch grass mulch should save all the fall, winter and spring removal time after a season. Developing spade extensions for the water wheel transplanter that penetrate both mulch and soil will be key in evaluating the true effectiveness of round bale mulch over small square bales.

    We will work with the Extension crop specialist to monitor weed penetration and presence in our rolled mulch beds in comparison to our first SARE grant project that employed small square bales of oat, wheat and switch grass straw mulch. We will also attempt with Stute to document soil fertility contributions of organic matter from baled mulch over black plastic.

    Small square bales of conventional wheat straw mulch sell locally from garden supply stores for $5 each. Public response to our talks and field day presentations in terms of:
    (a) purchasing both small round bales of switch grass and small grains straw mulch from our farm will have been successful if we can better retail sales prices of $7 to $10, and
    (b) significant ordering and purchase of small or large round baling machines from Small Farm Innovations is made by CSA and small-scale growers.

    Stute will help our farm determine and evaluate cost savings of round bales over black plastic mulch to encourage this adoption. This adoption of the round bale mulch system over black plastic mulch by other state-line growers ultimately will signal success of our outreach and information campaign during the field days, demonstrations, publications and presentations.

    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.