Here’s an update on the winter cocktail we planted in mid-September 2012. All pictures are from our six-acre east field. This field was in ailing pasture grasses since fall 2008. Before we planted the cocktail, we lightly rotovated the grass while spraying beneficial microbes, seaweed extract, fish, and molasses. Before 2008, this field was farmed in roundup ready soybeans for about a decade. This is a very old farm field with burned out, very sandy soil. On the bright side, organic matter has increased by more than 1% (now 2.8%) since 2008. Based on the success we’ve seen with cover crops in other fields, we decided to super-charge this one with a winter cocktail.
The cocktail: tillage radishes, oats, cereal rye, Austrian winter peas, hairy vetch, crimson clover, and sweet blue lupine.
Catch Crops: A Source of Pride and Embarrassment!
All seed varieties germinated really well in September, but the tillage radishes and oats grew extremely fast. These two catch crops (they catch and hold a lot of nutrients) are designed to grow very quickly in the fall and then winter-kill (die) in very cold temperatures. Because they catch a lot of nutrients and grow really fast, they loudly display the best and worst parts of field.
Check out these two pictures from late December. These were in a far corner of the field, where I believe the soybean farmer never planted. The oats grew to three feet tall, and many radishes reached 3 inches in diameter. (Big radishes are growing in good soil with plenty of nutrients available for catching.)
Winter cover crop cocktail in best part of field. Thigh-high oats and radishes dominating other plants with lush, thick foliage. East field 12.31.2012
Close-up of lush oats and radishes with under growth of peas, rye, crimson clover. Some radishes are 3″ in diameter. East field 12.31.2012
The embarrassing part is captured in this next picture, the poor part of the field. The oats grew to only one foot tall and started turning red in December. I believe red leaves indicate phosphorus deficiency, made worse by cold weather. Most radishes did not reach one inch in diameter. This is our “you gotta start somewhere” picture. We know from our previous cover crops that this is typical for our farm, and the next cover crop will do much better because this current cover crop is making big improvements for the soil even though it looks pretty bad!
Winter cocktail in poor part of field. All plants are small with lots of red leaves. East field 12.31.2012
Winter-Kill: Change is Good
Our farm got the Arctic blast that much of the eastern U.S. experienced in mid-January 2013. The oats are now totally dead, and the radishes are dying due to multiple nights with temperatures in the teens. This is great! Winter-kill knocks back the domineering oats and radishes, allowing more sunlight for the other cocktail plants as they rush into their late winter/early spring growth cycle. This is one of the benefits of planting a cocktail – different plants flourish at different times, which extends the growth season.
Winter cover crop cocktail after deep freeze. Oats (brown leaves) and tillage radishes are dying. East field 1.26.2013
Dead oats and radishes with growing cereal rye and austrian winter peas. East field cover crop cocktail 1.26.2013
Winter cover crop cocktail after severe freeze. Oats and radishes are dead, but peas, vetch, crimson clover and cereal rye are growing and getting ready for spring. East field 1.26.2013
What We Hope to See in May 2013
Hopefully this field will be chock-full of tall cereal rye with blooming peas and vetch climbing up the rye. The crimson clover should be blooming too. I’m not sure if the lupines survived the Arctic blast, but if they did, I hope they bloom with everything else in May. It sounds like max prettiness!
We hope all the belowground action is just as dynamite. It would be great if all the legumes produce nitrogen and all the plants release their signature root exudates to stimulate their preferred part of soil biology. If all this happens, then this field’s soil health will be well on its way to becoming healthy and productive.
We plan to wait until most of the crop matures so when we mow it, the clippings will be carbon-rich and supply mulch for a long time. Next up for this field is a primo soil-building summer cover crop. We’re leaning towards sorghum sudangrass, cowpeas, and buckwheat. Thanks for reading!