Farm Horizons, September 1998

Organic farming offers alternative to chemicals


The warm evening sported a light breeze, as over 70 farmers gathered on the lawn of Craig and Angie Anderson's farm Aug. 20.

They were there to listen to Anderson, Extension Educator Dave Schwartz, and Dr. Don Wyse, Professor in the University of Minnesota Agronomy and Plant Genetics Department, speak about organic farming in Minnesota.

Depressed farm markets have many farmers looking for other ways to keep their businesses growing and profitable, and organic farming has that potential, said Anderson.

"This year," he said, "the soybeans I have contracted are to Japan for $16.50 per bushel, picked up on the farm."

Anderson said when he and Angie got married in 1992, they started looking into organic farming.

Now they have almost all of their 250 acres in organic or transition fields.

In addition to that, they have 40 head of beef cows and calves. The government has no certification of meat animals yet, said Anderson, but they feed organically and use the manure for the fields.

Anderson converted one field at a time and kept the harvests separate.

In order to be certified as an organic field, the soil has to be chemical-free for three years.

This means the transition crops have to be grown without chemicals, but can't be sold as organic.

Hay has been the crop of choice for most of the transition fields, as it inhibits weed growth, and provides a plow-down crop the last year to add humus to the soil.

Contrary to popular belief, said Wyse, alfalfa doesn't add a lot of nutrients to the soil. It depletes potassium and potash.

"But if you plow down a good stand of alfalfa, it gets you 150 bushels to the acre corn for the first two years because of the added nitrogen, " Schwartz said.

"We have a whole lot of acreage in hay right now, and sometimes we have to turn a blind eye to a few extra weeds."

The alfalfa is generally spring plowed, he said, and this year he seeded corn May 13.

"I try and let the first weeds germinate, so I can work up the field after that and then plant the corn," he said.

The corn field was rotary hoed three times and cultivated once, but as an experiment, rye was also planted in the rows.

Anderson hopes enough germinated and grew to pasture his cattle herd on it after harvest.

Rye has some properties that inhibit weed growth, said Schwartz. It is a broad spectrum cover crop that reduces the germination of weed seeds.

Cover crops such as hairy vetch and ryegrass won't usually winter over in Minnesota.

"When you shift tillage practices, you change the types of weeds you contend with," said Schwartz.

A tall crop like corn or late season planting will help the weed problem, but no mater what you use at what rate, you always take a chance on weed competition, he said.

The crops are planted with untreated seed, said Anderson. If the order is placed soon enough for a large enough amount, the local seed companies seem willing to provide the untreated seed.

Anderson planted Dahlco 95-day, modified single cross seed without treatment.

"There hasn't been a problem, using untreated seed," said Anderson.

He tries to shoot for 100 bushels-to-the-acre corn. Schwartz said the average for Meeker County is 115.

Composted manure from Anderson's beef cows helps provide the nitrogen needed by the corn.

He composts the manure with old hay for the humus content.

Then when the manure is applied, it is incorporated immediately, so none of the nitrogen is lost, he said.

Whether manure or plow-down crops are used, both Schwartz and Wyse agreed it is a good idea to soil test the fields and the manure itself for nutrient content.

"I'm really impressed with this field," said Schwartz. "This is an almost spotless field of corn, and fields using the regular methods of weed control (chemicals) are weedy this year.

Soybeans follow a corn crop, always, Anderson explained, then hay is planted again.

Hay and small grain is planted early to provide early cover to help eliminate problems from annual weeds.

When weed specialist Don Wyse was asked how to best combat the weeds, he said, "Timing, timing, timing."

Timing of the first cultivation, to get rid of early weeds before the crop is planted, is the first step.

Make sure the soil is warm, so the seeds can germinate quickly, he said. And then, rotary hoe or cultivate at the proper time, said Wyse.

"You'd think in a hundred years, we would know everything about weeds," he said.

Not so.

"The focus for most biologists has been on herbicides, not the biology of weeds," Wyse explained.

He said the University of Minnesota is leading the change for the nation to focus on weeds and their emergence patterns.

If the farmer waits for a high percentage of weeds to germinate, those can be killed in the preparation of the soil for planting, he said.

The temperature early in the spring determines the amount of weeds that germinate. The biologists are developing models of these emergence patterns, and they can be used for planting crops, not just for scientific purposes, said Wyse.

"I don't have a lot of experience in organic systems," Wyse said, "but this field is not a fluke.

"Anderson has paid attention to his planting dates, cultivation, and crop rotation to get this field. I'm impressed," he said.

Canada thistle is the worst problem for many farmers, said Schwartz. Global positioning systems (GPS) are one way to fight the problem.

"What we are trying to do is take the GPS and map out the thistle patches. Then we harvest around them. The patches can be treated organically or chemically, depending on the farming system."

One of the hardest things to do as an organic farmer is to allow those thistles to flower before cutting them.

When the thistles flower, they send the carbohydrates up to the flower and deplete the root systems.

Cutting then diminishes the thistle's chance of overwintering, said Wyse. The same holds true for quack grass, he said.

Several of the farmers felt that the timing of the cultivation of the weeds is important, even to the time of day and the weather.

The hottest part of the day will dry out the roots, and it is preferable to not do it just before a rain. The chances of rerooting are greater if it rains, they agreed.

Wyse said a bacteria has been discovered that attacks the Canada thistle. When it works, it really works, but it is still inconsistent.

"We are not able to control the environment in reality, like we are in a laboratory," he said.

Wyse said he noticed yellow thistles over 25 years ago, when he was doing some roadside mowing for the state.

"You know where the emphasis has been. Just recently we wrote a grant to investigate those yellow thistles and discovered the bacteria that kills them," said Wyse.

Scab in wheat is another problem that has almost wiped out some wheat fields in the Red River Valley, said Wyse.

Corn is a carrier of the same scab, he said, so wheat fields are very susceptible if they are surrounded by corn.

The organic market has been hot. Said Anderson, "I got two dollars a bushel over the Chicago Board of Trade for my transition beans, last year."

Schwartz told the crowd that organic apples, particularly Honeycrisp, are selling for $120 a bushel to California, and for $40 a bushel right here in Minnesota.

"We are learning with you," said Schwartz, "so I hope many of you will join our discussion groups."

These groups will be formed for different regions of the state and meet once a month for a few hours to discuss the entire spectrum of organic farming, from weed control to marketing.

They will consist of farmers or other interested parties and faculty from the University of Minnesota.

For more information, call Dave Schwartz at the Meeker County Extension office.

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