How Do Oats Behave in Hot Weather?

Oats love cool weather.  Farmers plant them in fall or early spring.  But have you ever heard of summer oats?  I couldn’t find any info about oats planted in late spring or summer, but oat seed is cheap, so I decided to try it out.  I needed a summer cover crop that would poop out on its own by mid-August.  Plants that fit this bill aren’t too hard to find, but many of them, like buckwheat, don’t suck up and hold many nutrients.  Oats do.  They are a wonderful “catch crop,” and I needed them to catch all the nitrogen and other goodies my winter cocktail produced and pumped into the soil this spring.  (Nitrogen leaches from soil very easily.)

We planted oats on June 1st in a mix of buckwheat and sunflowers.  I was hoping most of the oats would germinate and grow at least 4 inches before they shriveled in the summer heat.  The oats beat my expectations!  They grew about 2 feet tall, which is about half their normal height in cool weather.  Some of them are starting to seed out now.  They do look puny, but they grew plenty of leaves, which probably means they have some decent root mass going too.  I think with one mowing, they’ll be dead.  We’ve had an extremely wet summer so far, so all the rain probably helped the oats.  Thanks, oats!

Oat seed head.  Planted June 1, 2013 with buckwheat.  About 2 feet tall. (7/31/2013)

Oat seed head. Planted June 1, 2013 with buckwheat. About 2 feet tall. (7/31/2013)

See What a Cover Crop Cocktail Did to Our Farm Soil!

Sorry for the drought in blog posts!  Hubby and I have been working extra long hours sprucing up a rental house to put on the market.  If it sells this time, our dream of leaving our DC jobs and farming full time will become a reality.  Fingers crossed!

I took these pics on May 19, 2013, a couple days after mowing down our stupendous winter cover crop cocktail.  By May it was hugely tall – everything at least 5 feet tall, and some was up to 7 feet in places.  Hubby and I kept talking about the roots – I wonder how deep the roots grew?  I wonder if the soil structure improved?  We got a shovel and went out to the field to see.

McCarthy field, May 2013.

McCarthy field, May 2013.

Here’s the most telling picture (above).  This is a chunk from our best field.  I labeled the healthy soil evidence:  earthworm tunnel holes, fungi threads (fungi are soil’s “network” and give nutrients to plants plus probably many other things we don’t know yet), and many soil animals.  It’s hard to make out the tiny soil bugs from the coarse sand particles, but this soil chunk was crawling with tiny critters!  This demonstrates a huge improvement from where this soil started in 2008.  Back then it was tight and crusty with no signs of soil life.  A shovel-full would not break apart into nice fluffy chunks like it does now.  Porous structure is crucial for letting air and water through the profile and for giving soil life nice homes so they can do their jobs.

McCarthy field, mid-May 2013.

McCarthy field, mid-May 2013.

And earthworms!  I cannot believe three of these dudes were in one shovel-full of soil!  Until this spring, I’ve been unable to find adult earthworms, so three is a great excuse to break out some champagne!

McCarthy field.  Mowed mulch 14 inches thick.  May 2013.

McCarthy field. Mowed mulch 14 inches thick. May 2013.

Here’s a rather boring pic of what our bushhog left behind.  MULCH!  Soil life loves this stuff on top so don’t till it in!  A thick mulch layer keeps soil temperature and moisture steady during weather extremes.  Mulch keeps soil life comfortable.  It is soil’s protective cover and the key for our soil’s improving health.

Thanks for reading!  And leave a comment if you have any questions or want to say anything.  I’d love to hear from you!

Winter Cover Crop Cocktail – May 2013 Update in Pictures

Hello!  Here’s an update on our quest of planting series of cover crops to improve our burned-out soil.  We planted this latest cover crop in September 2012 on 29 acres.  It’s a “cocktail” mix of oats, radish, cereal rye, Austrian winter peas, sweet blue lupin, and crimson clover.  The oats, radishes, and lupines winter-killed in January 2013.  It’s now May, and the rest of the cover crop is blooming and breathtakingly beautiful (maybe I’m partial!)

Most of these pictures are of our six-acre east field.  This is the first cover crop for this particular field – we lightly rotovated the pasture grass before planting in September.  In addition to the cocktail mix, we threw in a 25-pound bag of turnip seed and a 50-pound bag of vetch for the east field.

Beautiful 5-foot tall Austrian winter pea flower.   Rye (looks like wheat) and crimson clover in the background.  Scott east field May 2013.

Beautiful 5-foot tall Austrian winter pea flower. Rye (looks like wheat) and crimson clover in the background. Scott east field May 2013.

Purple vetch flowers surrounded by 4-foot tall crimson clover with rye towering overhead.  White flower is a radish that survived winter.  Yellow flower is a turnip.  I didn’t know crimson clover would get this tall!  Scott east field May 2013.

Purple vetch flowers surrounded by 4-foot tall crimson clover with rye towering overhead. White flower is a radish that survived winter. Yellow flower is a turnip. I didn’t know crimson clover would get this tall! Scott east field May 2013.

My kind of field of dreams.  Scott east field May 2013.

My kind of field of dreams. Cheesy but true!  Scott east field May 2013.

McCarthy field.  This is our “best” field with the highest organic matter and only field to get compost so far.  Much of the old orchard grass has returned – see fluffy orchard grass seed heads in front.  All plants in this field are bigger and healthier.  Rye is over 6 feet tall.  Orchard grass is lush and 5 feet tall here, compared to 3 feet tall in our old pasture fields.  May 2013.

McCarthy field. This is our “best” field with the highest organic matter and only field to get compost so far. Much of the old orchard grass has returned – see fluffy orchard grass seed heads in front. All plants in this field are bigger and healthier. Rye is over 6 feet tall. Orchard grass is lush and 5 feet tall here, compared to 3 feet tall in our old pasture fields. May 2013.

Winter-killed lupin pic taken January 2013.  Six-inch tall plant with at least 8-inch tap root (I didn’t get the whole root) with great soil adhesion (evidence of good soil microbe activity).  Roots are the point of this cover crop cocktail.  Roots stimulate soil biology, improve soil structure, and turn into organic matter.   Even though lupines lived only 4 months, they contributed to soil health.

Winter-killed lupin pic taken January 2013. Six-inch tall plant with at least 8-inch tap root (I didn’t get the whole root) with great soil adhesion (evidence of good soil microbe activity). Roots are the point of this cover crop cocktail. Roots stimulate soil biology, improve soil structure, and turn into organic matter. Even though lupines lived only 4 months, they contributed to soil health.

Look closely – this pic is full of turnip seedpods.  Turnip lesson:  lower the seeding rate!  This is the “good” part of the east field profiled in a previous blog post.  Turnips’ bright yellow flowers dominated the east field two weeks ago and the bee activity was amazing!  Scott east field May 2013.

Look closely – this pic is full of turnip seedpods. Turnip lesson: lower the seeding rate! This is the “good” part of the east field. Turnips’ bright yellow flowers dominated the east field two weeks ago and the bee activity was amazing! Scott east field May 2013.

Turnip flowers turning into long, skinny seedpods.  If just 5% of the new seed germinates, I will have a major turnip problem!   Scott east field May 2013.

Turnip flowers turning into long, skinny seedpods. If just 5% of the new seed germinates, I will have a major turnip problem! Scott east field May 2013.

Turnips are great cover crops though.  They are high in sugar and attract the bacteria that worms love to eat.  Here’s a worm and some good-looking soil under a big turnip bulb.   I’ve previously had a very hard time finding worms in this field.  Scott east field May 2013.

Turnips are great cover crops though. They are high in sugar and attract the bacteria that worms love to eat. Here’s a worm and some good-looking soil under a big turnip bulb. I’ve previously had a very hard time finding worms in this field. Scott east field May 2013.

What’s next:  We’ll bush hog (mow) this cover crop in a couple of weeks.  Timing is key because plants can be mow-killed when they flower.  All plants are flowering en masse right now except for rye and vetch, and we want these two dead for sure.  We expect them to flower in the next 2 weeks or so.  This crop will make fantastic mulch and protect soil life against summer’s heat.  In late May, we’ll drill (plant) a summer cover crop.  Reduction in seed cost is our goal for the next cover crop.  We’ve been planting way too much seed at high cost and want to change this.  Stay tuned!

Cover Crop Cocktail’s Remarkable Drought Resistance – Accumulating Evidence?

Last summer, our farm experienced the same extreme heat and drought that broiled most U.S. farmland.  Our pastures went completely dormant, and neighboring corn fields got crunchy brown.  As the drought went on, we noticed that our summer cocktail fields were staying green and growing!  They didn’t look lush, but compared to other fields, they were a cool, green oasis.  We started searching for an explanation and ran into online anecdotes about cover crop mixes’ strange and wonderful ability to resist drought.    We were excited to see these other reports, but we wondered if anyone had any measured proof.

We found some very exciting proof in North Dakota farmer Gabe Brown’s presentation at the 2012 Quivira Coalition conference.  This video of his presentation is so chock-full of interesting information that the segment on drought resistance, which starts around the 9:30 minute mark, is kinda easy to miss.  But I think it’s revolutionary and deserves studying.

Experiment Comparing Cocktail to Monocultures

He partnered with his Soil Conservation District in 2006 to plant and measure the yield of six plants (oilseed radish, purple top turnip, pasja turnip, soybean, cowpea, lupin).  Each species was planted alone in a monoculture right next to the others.  Then, they combined all six into a cocktail mix and planted the mix nearby.  That year was extremely dry, even compared to his normally arid climate.  With an unusual “open winter” with no snow cover, the seeds got planted into dry soil in mid-May.   During the growing period, the plants received just a little over one inch of rain.  The soil conservation district measured the crop on July 31st.

Here is a picture of his turnip monoculture – obviously stricken by drought.

North Dakota farmer Gabe Brown showing drought-stricken turnip monoculture.

North Dakota farmer Gabe Brown showing drought-stricken turnip monoculture.

Here’s his cocktail mix.  It’s green and clearly a MUCH better crop than the turnips growing alone.

Green and growing cocktail mix (including turnip).

Green and growing cocktail mix (including turnip).

But the real proof in the pudding is this clipped & weighed production chart.  He more than tripled his dry matter forage yield in a drought by growing a mix.  Unbelievable!  The results are even more exciting because I believe Soil Conservation Districts use standard methodology for measuring production – which lends some necessary scientific credence.

Production chart

But What’s Going On?

So far, I’ve heard people explain mixes’ drought resistance by:   (1) deep rooting plants bringing up moisture for other plants and (2) mycorrhizae fungi networks supplying moisture to keep plants healthy and growing.

Who knows the real reason?  I think cocktail mixes simply capitalize on how nature has evolved to work over billions of years – via competition and indirect cooperation among many winners and losers (diversity).  Diverse plant mixes seem very resilient, but maybe plant mixes’ great performance under stress is the “normal” standard to which we should compare monoculture performance, not the other way around.  Monocultures are odd, not diverse mixes.

As Gabe Brown says in the video, “Why do we grow monocultures?”  How much more productive could U.S. pastures and cornfields have been if they were highly diverse?  Or if the cornfields at least had a diverse winter cocktail growing before the corn was planted?   For our farm anyway, we’ll be planting cocktail forage mixes for summer grazing.  They appear to be dependable insurance against drought, and much more affordable than purchasing hay at high drought prices.  Thanks for reading!

Winter Cover Crop Cocktail – January 2013 Update in Pictures

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

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

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 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

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

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

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!

Human Impact and Hope: This Type of Farming is Extraordinarily Good for the Environment

surviving progressI’ve been watching several environmental documentaries on Netflix.  Whatever the focus, every documentary seems to be built upon the theme of “human impact is horrible for the environment – we just can’t help ourselves”.   It’s hard to disagree with this theme when so many U.S. examples are staring at us in the face – the decimation of 75 million-strong herd of Great Plains buffalo, the 1930s Dust Bowl, the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico, the paving of paradises for strip malls, and on an on.  One interviewed gentleman discussed the impact of cities on the environment but said, “Well, people returning to the land isn’t an option either, because that would result in even more land being destroyed.”

A few years ago, I would’ve been nodding my head in complete agreement.  But now, I know there’s another path.  Humans have the resources to provide extraordinary benefits to the environment – healing the land, reversing desertification, and stopping climate change.  I’m not talking about millions of small farms/gardens.  I’m talking about humans using a very low-tech and often vilified tool:  livestock.

Allan Savory, founder of the holistic livestock management framework, has proven that correctly managed herds of livestock can completely heal the land.  It’s all about time management.  The land is pulsed with very high animal impact for a short amount of time and then moved on.   The herd returns months later after the grass has recuperated.  The herd provides another grazing pulse and is again moved on.  Grazing, intense hoof trampling, and manure stimulate grasses to thrive.  Growing grasses extend their roots deeper into the soil profile and take CO2 from the atmosphere and sequester it into the soil.  Plant roots slough off after each grazing pulse, which puts even more carbon into the soil.  High carbon (organic matter) soils hold water and improve the landscape’s water cycle, which attracts more plant and wildlife diversity.  Land on the brink of desertification is restored to beautiful bio-diverse savannah that sustains human communities.  What work is more noble than this?

Check out this short video of Allan Savory explaining the process and proving that it works.  This video is the longer version – very worthwhile watching.

U.S. folks like Greg Judy are using Savory’s principles with management practices called mob-stocking.  This video is very inspirational and demonstrates how land can be amazingly improved via high intensity livestock grazing.  At the end, Greg Judy states that mob stocking can be scaled down all the way to two animals – good news for our small farm.

The housing collapse has delayed our plans for livestock farming for a disappointing several years now.  We’ve been trying to make the best of the delay by cover cropping to improve our farmed-out soil.  The organic matter has increased by 1 to 2 percentage points, and we feel super good about that!  But, we can’t wait to quit our desk jobs and get started with high intensity grazing and watch our soil improve even more.  Thanks for reading!

High intensity grazing improves land.  Herd grazes for short amount of time, then moves.

High intensity grazing improves land. Herd grazes for short amount of time, then moves.

Soil Quality Indicator: Do You Have Mophead Roots?

Check out this picture:

From November 2012 Acres USA article by Hugh Lovel.

From November 2012 Acres USA article by Hugh Lovel.

Have you ever noticed the degree of soil adhesion on your plant roots?  The roots on the right are what we want.  And I know for sure that our pasture roots aren’t there yet.  See the pic at the bottom of this recent post.  It resembles roots on the left. 

Mophead roots mean the plant is photosynthesizing very well and is healthy enough to donate a lot of sugary photosynthesis products to soil microbes via root exudation.  When these sugar goodies start seeping out of roots, soil microbes in the rhizosphere (root area) have a 5-star dinner and start multiplying like crazy.  They make the gums, glues and gels that cause soil adhesion and start delivering minerals and vitamins in plant-friendly form so the plant will get even healthier and make more sugary snacks.  Ain’t it neat?

The roots on the left show a plant that isn’t healthy enough to donate many photosynthesis products to soil microbes.  The plant is probably in survival mode.

Mophead roots are a sign of a fully functioning plant/soil ecosystem.  In our quest to increase our soil’s organic matter, mophead roots are the holy grail!  Those sugary snacks are carbon-containing molecules that get digested through the soil food chain and eventually get turned into stable organic matter.  And well-fed soil microbes will help plants make even more carbonaceous snacks, and in turn, more organic matter. 

 We have some grass that survived rotovating and is growing astoundingly well in our cover crop plots.  I’m going to check the roots this spring to see if they’ve reached mophead status.   Thanks for reading!