Fall Cover Cropping on the SIFT Farm

By John Wallace, SIFT Farm Manager

Cereal rye and radish battle an early October snow. Photo: NCAT
Cereal rye and radish battle an early October
snow. Photo: NCAT

Timing is everything here in Butte, Montana, and early frosts can create a false belief that the growing season has come to an end. With several light freezes already on the books and the bulk of our harvesting done, it is time to prepare our ground for next year’s crops, also called green manure. But that doesn’t mean we’ve stopped growing. Rather than leave the ground bare and inactive, we will be focusing on building healthier soil, and that includes planting new cover crops that will replace depleted nutrients.

Rather than simply planting the cover crops, we’ve developed a new crop rotation that will allow us to actually study different methods of fall and early spring cover cropping to determine what works best in a cold, high-altitude climate like ours.

Our specific crop rotation plan for the SIFT farm is to follow the garlic plot with a cover crop because garlic is such a heavy feeder on soil nutrients. Having all the garlic harvested, we now have a short window for fall germination in that plot. We made a conservative choice to plant a cover crop of cereal rye, hairy vetch, and daikon radish. The cereal rye will have the best chance of germinating and overwintering, while the hairy vetch and radish are cold-tolerant. This vegetative matter will help generate microbes, add significant carbon matter, and nitrogen as it breaks down back into the soil.

We are also seeding a cover crop just beyond our first two plots. Our plan for this area is to expand our outdoor growing area to allow more potential variety trials. Knowing that the radish and vetch will be more risky to overwinter, we have designated a control zone, where I seeded hairy vetch and radish at the end of September. I will be comparing this to a dormant seeding method in late winter (February). As the ground freezes and thaws, cracks in the ground coupled with a mild snow cover can create a beneficial environment for seed germination. My goal is to test how successful the two methods are for germination of the hairy vetch and radish as a cold-season cover.

These cover crops will help enrich an area that has been inactive on our farm for years. Rejuvenating the microbial life in our soil is vital for its health. By learning how different cover crops grow in our unique environment, we are able to teach others in our community effective and sustainable methods to build healthy soil.

And, I am excited, in the far future, to eat the results.

Posted on: October 11th, 2016