I seeded another acre of cornstalks with a cover crop mix yesterday, walking up and down rows with a hand cranked seeder. I did the same thing on an acre last month. By the end of April, I should see the beginnings of oats, medium red clover, sweet clover, perennial ryegrass, and kernza. Over time, this combination will fix nitrogen, sequester carbon, and create an environment for microbial soil life to flourish, all while giving the pigs something to graze.
Most farmers and gardeners till the previous crop under before planting the next crop. This is especially true of the long, almost woody stalks left over after corn harvest. No matter what the tool they use—disk, plow, tiller—or the size, working cornstalks in requires horsepower. Unless it comes from an actual horse, horsepower burns fossil fuel. I try to limit my fossil fuel use on the farm, and since I don’t have a tractor, I’d like to avoid tilling two acres of cornstalks under with a 30-inch tiller. But there are even better reasons to avoid tilling the stalks.
Tillage, while necessary at times, works against nature. Most soil organisms live in the first four inches of the surface. One teaspoon of good soil can contain one billion invisible bacteria, several yards of fungal hyphae, a few thousand protozoa, and dozens of nematodes.* Tillage tears through these dense microbial communities like a tornado through a trailer park, shredding fungal hyphae while ripping earthworms and arthropods from their homes and crushing them. The regular tillage in conventional gardening and farming, along with salt-based fertilizers and toxic herbicides, turns soil from the living means for growing plants into a dead medium that holds the roots of chemically dependent monocultures.
If destroying the microorganisms’ home isn’t bad enough, tilling corn stalks under also throws their food system out of balance. Soil microorganisms thrive with a diet of 24:1 Carbon to Nitrogen (C:N) ratio. If you have ever tried composting, you know that this is the ratio of dry material and grass clippings that makes a pile “hot” with microbial activity. Tilling cornstalks in overloads the soil with carbonaceous material at almost 60:1. Soil organisms then immobilize any excess nitrogen in order to break down the carbon, leaving any plant life starved for nitrogen. Tilling stalks under before planting makes nitrogen unavailable right when the farmer or gardener needs it.
By seeding into standing cornstalks, I hope to get a green mat of cover crop growing up around them. By mid-summer, there will be far more nitrogen and microbial life in the soil. Then, when the pigs knock the stalks flat while grazing, the soil surface environment is optimized to begin decomposing that carbonaceous material.
So how can just scattering seed over the ground work? It’s what nature does all the time. The trick is timing. By seeding now, several cycles of frost, thaw, rain, and sun will work most of the seeds into the soil surface where they will germinate and grow. I seeded an acre on the 27th of last month. In the photo below, which covers about 5 x 8 inches, you can see at least six tiny clover sprouts in a triangle pattern.
That’s two acres of pasture sown without ever firing up an engine or turning a single handful of soil. I can’t think of an environmentally friendlier path to greener pastures.
—Find A Way--
* From "Teaming With Microbes" by Jeff Lowenfels & Wayne Lewis
Former Marine Infantry Officer. Iraq Vet. Interested in Regenerative Agriculture at any scale.
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