Activating soil fertility in mulch-prepared small-plot commercial no-till

2013 Annual Report for FNC13-934

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2013: $5,944.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2014
Region: North Central
State: Kansas
Project Coordinator:
Ryan Stubby
Gardens at Eighty Acres

Activating soil fertility in mulch-prepared small-plot commercial no-till


Over the course of the year activities have been focused on the first phase of my project, which is to prepare two new garden plots for cover cropping and vegetable production with the goal of remaining free from heavy tillage equipment. Prior to 2013, the area of ground where my project is now taking place was established in sod with a history of frequently being cut for hay. The terrain is on a sloping hillside where ancient glacial occurance has shaped it similar to a palm-of-hand form. Some portions of this ground have been compacted from vehicle driving paths.

Year 1 Objectives: Analyze the terrain and layout of the farm and make design decisions based on permaculture principles. Selection of 1/2 acre of available space for initiating site preparation. Source straw from neighboring farmers. Haul in and unload straw square bales from trailer, distributing one every 30 sq ft. Open straw bales and distribute over the selected areas by hand and pitchfork to avoid any further soil compaction. Distribute the straw to form a loose 18-24” layer over the sod. Allow sod underneath the straw layer to decompose for 8-10 months.

Process Details: I selected and staked out two areas of ground totaling ½ acre that are within the overall 2.5 hillside farm. Following the timeline in my proposal, I used the grant funds during late spring to purchase 500 square wheat straw bales at $4/bale and 16 large round bales of oat straw at $25/bale totaling $2,400. The straw square bales were delivered 100 at a time over the course of two days. The driver unloaded them into the first plot by tossing from the trailer while I positioned them at roughly 5.5 feet apart so that each bale would be able to cover at least 30 sq. ft. once they were opened and distributed. 500 bales were in place by the end of the second day.

I resumed activity in the first plot two weeks after positioning the bales while going into production. The 16 oat straw bales were purchased with the grand funds in which was estimated that each of the large round bales equated to the quantity of 15 square wheat straw bales. During early summer I began the activity of breaking apart and distributing the straw bale packages in place by hand to prepare the two ¼ acre garden plots for cover cropping and vegetable production for the following year.

I used two different processes when working with the square bales and round bales. For the 500 square bales I would move across the area in an east to west pattern, cutting and pulling away the baling twine all at once for one row at a time. I would then work the straw apart from the compressed bales with my hands and arms in an accordion motion as well as using my legs and feet to fluff the straw up to 18-20 inches thick for each row of bales. In the first plot I did this action over four sessions, four hours at time. The Oat straw in the larger round bales was a more difficult process because of tangling and compacting within the bales. After trying a number of different techniques, I settled on using a pitchfork to pry away and unwrap layers until getting half way through the bale at which point the core could be flipped away leaving a mat underneath. It was important to follow a process so that a consistent layer could be built up to the fluffy light-proof depth of 18—20 inches. The positioning and proximity of the round bales on the second plot did not allow for simply unrolling them. The entire process of distributing the straw mulch over the sod at a depth of 18 inches required me to labor for a total of 30 hours in a two-week time frame.

The results of my project thus far have shown:
• Reduced soil compaction and erosion
• Increase of earthworm activity and reproduction in surface soil layer
• Increased water holding capacity of soil
• Increase in soil activity under mulch layer throughout winter months
• Decomposition of grasses and weeds

Comparing wheat straw to oat straw: Variations in straw mulch material and their properties result in different matting down patterns that have an effect on soil moisture levels underneath. For example, oat straw is not as rigid in structure as wheat straw, therefore the oat straw mats down more densely over the soil and does not breathe as easily as the wheat straw mulch layer. Additionally the wheat straw has less of a glossy sheet, when compared to the oat straw which may have an effect on soil heating up to a greater or lesser degree.

Labor requirements of mulch-prepared no-till: Preparing new ground for food production with straw mulch by hand is very labor intensive. The labor requirements depend on many factors including:
• Type of straw mulch used
• Square or round bales
• Age/moisture level of mulch
• Method of loading/ unloading mulch
• Number of individuals and physical capacity

My work plan for 2014 begins with early spring removal of the straw mulch from the first plot with pitchfork so that the bare soil will be exposed for seeding field peas. I will continue observing plant and soil quality as the field peas become established. My activities will continue into the second plot later in the spring following the same process to remove straw and broadcast buckwheat cover crop over the bare soil. As the cover crops reach maturity my plan is to cut them with a scythe and allow the summer heat to break them down in place. Once it is determined that the material is broken down sufficiently, the next task will be to begin transplanting fall crops through the debris, or remove the debris for direct seeding during late summer.

I have shared information about my project at Brookside Farmers Market in Kansas City, Missouri throughout my attendance at the market during the 2013 growing season. On average I would service about seventy customers per market for 30 markets, so I had the opportunity to share my project activities in person with many of these customers and answer questions on an individual basis at each market.

Prairiewise Herbal School located at Eight Acres in Leavenworth, Kansas frequently visited the gardens and project site totaling 20 students enrolled in the three year curriculum.

In 2014 I have plans to work with Steve Moring of the Kansas Permaculture Collaborative to share information about my project with student during field days.

Objectives/Performance Targets


Ryan Stubby
28013 167 Street
Leavenworth, KS 66048
Office Phone: 9134338110