A farmer-researcher collaborative effort to design no-till systems appropriate for small-scale organic producers in Alabama and the Deep South

2011 Annual Report for LS09-218

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2009: $250,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2013
Region: Southern
State: Alabama
Principal Investigator:
Joseph Kloepper
Auburn University
Dr. Jan Garrett
Auburn university

A farmer-researcher collaborative effort to design no-till systems appropriate for small-scale organic producers in Alabama and the Deep South


During 2011 two field days were held on farms participating in this project, Randle Farm and Sunbright Farm. About 50 people attended each field day. At Sunbright Farm, cover crop termination was demonstrated. The rye cover crop was terminated using various types and sizes of equipment. At the Randle Farm field day cover crop termination was demonstrated as well as transplanting vegetable seedlings with a NT transplanter. At both locations, charts, graphs, and discussions were used to explain the NT systems and the benefits of high residue cover crops in suppressing weeds and improving soil fertility.

Sunbright Farm was added this year due to Noah Valley Farm dropping out and due to the fact that the participating farmers were experiencing limited success with the NT project. The major problem in all cases was identified as a failure to produce a good cover crop stand. Farmers need more education about the benefits of cover crops, and need to be encouraged to value the cover crop as much as the cash crop so that they will put forth the effort required to produce a good cover crop stand.

The North Alabama Horticultural Research Station experienced tornado damage in the spring of 2011. Consequently the NT experiment was not implemented this year.

The E.V. Smith Research Station completed a second year of investigating the effects of tillage on winter grain biomass production. Tillage had no effect on wheat or rye biomass, but oats performed better in conventional tilled than in no-tilled plots. The USDA-ARS Soils Dynamics Lab (NSDL) and Auburn University initiated long term tillage trials on the organic plots at E.V. Smith. Winter rye and kale were planted into sunn hemp residue (NT), or incorporated sunn hemp (CT).

Objectives/Performance Targets

1. Establish a collaborative effort between farmers and researchers to identify NT production methods that are appropriate for a variety of crops, soil types, and farming scales suitable for organic vegetable production in the Deep South.
2. Evaluate the effectiveness of various high residue cover crops and mixtures for ease of growth, maintenance of soil fertility, and weed control.
3. Evaluate tillage treatments across various soil types, cash crops, and cover crops, with respect to soil fertility, weed control, crop yield, and farmer acceptance.
4. Evaluate the effects of different pre-plant fertilizer rates on crop yield, weed populations, and cover crop growth.
5. Expand NT production practices in AL by assisting small-scale farmers in the state with the implementation of organic NT practices.


A roller crimper was designed by a project participant, Ted Kornecki, engineer for the USDA-ARS Soils Dynamics Lab (NSDL, for a BCS walk behind tractor. This implement is suitable for small scale growers, which include all of the organic farmers in this state. The roller crimper was demonstrated at the 2 field days held during 2011. Other methods of terminating cover crops were demonstrated as well: using a tiller with the tines unengaged, using the bottom of the front end loader bucket to lay down the cover crop, using a flail mower powered by a BCS to cut the cover crop, as well as a full size roller crimper powered by a category II tractor for farmers with larger areas in NT production.

Participating farmers tried various types of crops and cover crops in NT systems.

Farmer 1:
Farmer 1 was reluctant to try sunn hemp last year (2010) because it was a new crop and the seed was expensive. Even though our agreed upon protocol had been to plant sunn hemp in the future planting rows and plant sudan sorghum between the planting rows, he only planted sunn hemp in about 25% of the project area and planted brown top millet in the rest of it. There was a drought in 2010 but the sunn hemp performed very well. He was convinced to try it again so in the summer of 2011 he planted the entire project area to sunn hemp and it produced a good stand. The sunn hemp was tilled and rye and crimson clover were planted in the plot. The plan is to plant squash into the rye residue in the spring of 2012. This farmer reported success with the no-till system but is beginning to have a problem with perennial weeds. He says he will need to till to control the nutsedge.

Farm 2:
Farm 2 experienced success with planting tomatoes and melons into rolled black oat and lupine residue in the summer of 2010, but weeds began to be a problem toward the end of the growing season. The weeds depressed yields and made harvesting more difficult. The farmer decided not to plant a cover crop on most of his land this year, but to use fallow and frequent tillage to confront the weeds. In the NT plot, he had planted Austrian winter pea with the stated goal of trying again to plant early spring crops, lettuce and string beans into the standing cover crop using a row tiller and vinegar to control weeds.

Farm 3:
Farm 3 dropped out of the project because the farmer decided to suspend his farming enterprise and go to graduate school. Sunbright Farm was used as a replacement.

Sunbright Farm had a good stand of rye that had been established NT in the fall. The last week of April a field day was held at this farm and the rye cover crop was rolled demonstrating a variety of techniques for terminating the cover crop. After the rye residue had dried for a week, 100′ rows were marked on 6′ centers. Compost mulch was placed on the planting rows. Vegetable transplants and seeds were planted into the compost mulch using hand implements. Holes for transplants were dug with post hole diggers and holes for seeds were dug with a fence post tamper bar. Planting was very labor intensive. The crops performed well and did not require any weeding for about 4-6 weeks. By mid-July grass and other weeds had begun to grow through the rye residue and interfere with plant growth and field operations. A weed eater and lawn mower were used to control the weeds. Weed management was not sufficient for the melons. They were over topped and covered with weeds, which made them rot.

The farmer’s evaluation of the NT system was that it was labor intensive during the planting, provided a break from maintenance for a short time while the rye mulch was suppressing weeds, then weed management was required as in a conventional system. The weed management was probably less than would have been required in a conventional system though the tools were more limited due to the restriction not to disturb the soil.

At the end of the growing season the field was tilled due to weed invasion, compost applied, and Georgia Gore wheat and hull-less oats were planted, along with a small strip of crimson clover. The grower plans to plant southern peas or beans into the wheat and oat mulch using the NT seeder.

Farm 4:
Farmer 4 grew oats for her winter cover crop. She has livestock and oats can serve as animal feed as well as mulch. The farmer had broadcast oats into standing bermuda grass. At the time of the last visit in 2010 in October, there was no sign of oats coming up yet. In the spring of 2011, there was a good stand of oats.
The farmer had planned for the oats to winter kill but they did not. She collected seed from them and then seeded melons into the oat residue. During a farm visit the first week of August it was observed that the melons were very small and almost totally hidden by the grass and weeds. The farmer was advised to till the field to get control of the grass, start over with the NT trial, and use transplants when possible instead of seed. Rye was recommended as a cover crop to suppress weeds.

During fall of 2011 the oats were allowed to germinate from last year’s seed in the NT part of the field (no new oat crop was planted) and Big Buck Blend (a blend of grains and legumes for deer fields) was planted by plowing, discing, and hand broadcasting into the CT (conventional till) area of the field. The farmer plans to roll the Buck Blend and plant vegetables into the residue using a no-till planter.

This field has been full of bermuda grass since the beginning of the project. This farmer has not been successful with NT due to lack of weed control and failure to establish a good, dense cover crop stand. The farmer’s evaluation of the project is that her success could have been improved by aggressively tilling at the beginning to get a clean field, fertilizing the cover crops, and putting more effort into getting a good cover crop stand. She says she would probably still need to till occassionally and mulch with straw to control weeds.

Farm 5:
This farmer had planted southern peas last summer, let them winter kill and planted brassicas into the residue. She reported good success with the brassicas. During the late summer farm visit it was oberved that the crops were planted into stands of weeds. The pea residue had not lasted very long the subsequent season and weeds had grown in profusion. The farmer was advised to till and establish a good cover crop stand and try again to do NT in the spring. However, they did not get a good cover crop stand established due to being too busy, not having seed, and due to abundant rains. She plans to establish a good stand of summer cover crop and try NT again in the fall. She is planning to plant sudan sorghum this summer and plant brassicas into the rolled residue in the fall. This farm suffered some setbacks in thier farming business this year; the wife had major surgery and the tractor broke down.

All of these farmers have learned enough from their failures of the past 2 years to succeed in 2012 with NT, they have good strategies planned, and are eager to try again.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

A new implement was designed for small-scale farmers to be able to implement NT: a roller/crimper for a BCS walk behind tractor. This implement is offered for sale by Earth Tools. Other appropriate methods of terminating cover crops were demonstrated to farmers.

A new collaboration was established between Auburn University and the USDA-ARS National Soils Dynamics Lab to implement and manage long term organic vegetable tillage trials at E.V. Smith Research Station and one year of data was collected and a second year of replicating the research was inititated. A USDA grant proposal was submitted to build on the results of this project by investigating no-till grain production in the southeast.

A different strategy for organic NT vegetable production was investigated by one of the farmers: planting early spring crops into winter killed cover crop residues. This had appeared to be a sound strategy, and one that needed investigating, but the result was that the residue did not last long enough the subsequent season to prevent severe weed infestations as soon as the weather warmed up. Therefore, as a result of this project, I would not recommend it unless there was a good strategy for intercropping to prevent weed infestations.

A major limiting factor of successful organic vegetable production was identified as a lack of sufficient effort to establish good, high residue cover crop stands. Consequently, most of the participating farms experienced limited success with their NT trials this year. A good cover crop stand is a prerequisite for success in organic NT systems. However, the results of this year’s NT trials indicate that even good stands of high residue cover crops will not suppress weeds for the entire growing season for the subsequent crop, requiring additional mulching, mowing and/or weedeating. Rodale has reported that organic NT systems can only be maintained for a few years without tilling due to perennial weed pressure. Tillage may need to be implemented more frequently in the southeast than in Pennsylvania. Also, field crops may be more suitable for NT than row crops because field crops are spaced more closely together and shade the ground surface whereas row crops leave a lot of empty space between rows for weeds to invade.

Sunbright Farm experienced a successful season with NT vegetable production due to starting with a good high residue cover crop stand. Though planting was labor intensive due to lack of specialized equipment on this small scale farm, the field did not require weed management until mid summer when the grass and weeds began to grow through the rye residue. The amount of weeds present at the end of the season led to the decision to till in order to establish a good fall cover crop stand.

The preliminary results of this project have helped to identify the constraints to implementing successful organic NT vegetable production systems and the areas where more research and educational effort is needed. For example, growers need more information on cover crops and they need more encouragement to value their cover crops as much as their cash crops. More research is needed on opportunities for incorporating over-lapping rotations and intercropping into small-scale organic vegetable production systems. Also, grain crops may hold potential for success in organic no-till systems.


Gary Weil

Red Root Farm
9286 Hwy. 29 North
Banks, AL 36005
Office Phone: 3342434072
Website: http://www.redrootfarm.com/
Andrew Price

Weed Ecologist, Affiliate Assistant Professor
USDA-ARS Soil Dynamics Lab
Auburn University
Auburn , AL 36849
Office Phone: 3348444741
Karen Wynne

Rosita's Farm
1889 Cornhill Road
Hartselle, AL 35640
Office Phone: 2566947810
Website: http://www.rositasfarm.com/
Frank Randle

Randle Farms
9215 Lee Road 54
Auburn, AL 36830
Office Phone: 3347491073
Website: http://randlefarms.com/
Karen Wynne

Executive Director
Alabama Sustainable Agriculture Network
P.O. Box 18782
Huntsville, AL 45804
Office Phone: 2565202400
Website: http://www.asanonline.org/
Dove & Russell Stackhouse

Sand Mountain CSA
Albertville, AL 35950
Office Phone: 2568919856
Website: http://www.sandmountaincsa.com/
Ted Kornecki

Affiliate Assistant Professor, Engineer
USDA-ARS Soil Dynamics Lab
Auburn University
Auburn , AL 36849
Office Phone: 3348444741