​Did you miss one of our Field Days?  Read through the reports below for what you missed.

Do you have ideas for future Field Days? Send us an email to let us know. 

Fertility, Cover Crops, and Soil Testing

September 26, 2019

UK Horticultural Research Farm, Lexington KY
 

SUMMARY AND HANDOUTS FOR THIS EVENT WILL BE AVAILABLE SOON!

Fertility management in crop production systems involves the soil’s physical, chemical, and biological conditions.  Ongoing monitoring of soil nutrients and composition can help growers to

  • determine the appropriate amount of manure, compost, or other nutrient inputs to apply;

  • select cover crops to build soil organic matter, conserve soil nutrients, or manage weeds;

  • understand how management practices are affecting nutrient availability.

UK Extension Vegetable Specialist Rachel Rudolph and Sustainable Agriculture Professor Krista Jacobsen will walk producers through these and other tools and strategies in developing efficient and targeted nutrient budgets and fertility management plans for open field and high tunnel production. 

Organic Hemp Production

​September 18, 2019
KSU’s Harold R Benson Research and Demonstration Farm, Frankfort, KY

 

HANDOUTS & PRESENTATION AVAILABLE AT LINK BELOW
A WRITTEN SUMMARY OF THIS EVENT WILL BE AVAILABLE SOON!


Back by popular demand, join us to explore the research, logistics, and production realities of growing organic hemp in Kentucky.  Dr. Shawn Lucas, (Kentucky State University), Doris Hamilton (Kentucky Department of Agriculture) and Tony Silvernail (Beyond the Bridge Organics/OAK) will share legal updates, KDA and organic certification requirements, genetics, propagation, weed/pest management, fertility, cultivation, protected culture, and more!

Organic Disease and Pest Management

July 25, 2019

Locust Ridge Organic Farm, Brooksville KY

SUMMARY AND HANDOUTS FOR THIS EVENT WILL BE AVAILABLE SOON!

For pest and disease management in organic crop production, growers must emphasize cultural and preventative practices before they even consider the use of approved organic crop protection products.  USDA organic regulations allow use of certain botanical and  natural pesticides only as a last resort.  Pest management on all farms, but especially those that are certified organic and transitioning, relies on the "PAMS" strategy: prevention, avoidance, monitoring and suppression, with a strong emphasis on prevention and avoidance. 

Join Kelly and Nick Brown at Locust Ridge Organic Farm as they discuss their challenges in high tunnel and open field growing conditions and explore the most effective strategies for control with Emily Pfeufer, UK Extension Plant Pathologist, and Ric Bessin, UK Extension Entomologist, including:

· Scouting, prevention, and accurate identification of pests/diseases

· Simple cultural and sanitation strategies to disrupt pest and disease life cycles

· Crop rotation, cover cropping, cultural practices for crop health

· Habitat for, and introduction of natural predators of pests

 

Open to all, this Field Day is geared toward production farmers and features mid-scale, diversified vegetable production.

Organic No-Till Market Farming

June 27, 2019

Rough Draft Farmstead, Lawrenceburg KY​

 

At this summer Field Day with a few dozen farmers and ag professionals, Jesse Frost and Hannah Crabtree of Rough Draft Farmstead provided a deep dive into their natural-mulching no-till systems.  Using occultation, disturbing the soil as little as possible, planting intensively all-year round, keeping roots in the ground, and diversifying plantings within beds, Hannah and Jesse preserve and conserve the living systems underground, reduce their weeding, and improve the health of their plants and harvest.

 

With a production footprint of ¾ acre and an “Everbed” system of near-constant production within their beds, the Rough Draft team serves three seasons of CSAs, two farmers markets, a local pay-what-you-can restaurant, and a local community center food distribution program.  In recent seasons, they’ve converted their system from one of minimal tillage reliant on hay mulch to their current methods.

 

“When we’re not tilling, our crops are almost always successful.”

Organic Row Crop Production

June 25, 2019

Durham Farms, Crofton KY

SUMMARY AND HANDOUTS FOR THIS EVENT WILL BE AVAILABLE SOON!​

 

Operating a dual organic and conventional farming system, Durham Farms has increased its organic acreage from 60 acres to 1600 acres in the past 6 years.  Visit their fields in production to learn their systems for organic corn, soybean, and hemp production. 

 

Tyler Durham will share his experience with transitioning land to certified organic production, advantages to using cover crops, seed varieties of choice (including two CBD hemp), equipment for weed control, and the benefits of having a strong network of fellow farmers and support professionals.  

 

This OAK Field Day is geared towards large-scale producers in transition or interested in the possibility.

Organic Sheep Production

May 23, 2019
Rootbound Farm, Crestwood KY​

“Why raise sheep?”

This is the question Bree Pearsall and Ben Abell answered to begin a recent OAK Field Day on Organic Sheep Production. Their Rootbound Farm supports a successful organic produce operation serving a 700 member CSA and a local farmers market.

“We have 35 acres in produce production,” Ben explained, “but 80% of our 300 acres of land is untillable.  We want to be stewards of that land, to manage it well… grass-fed animals just make sense!”  

 

With no livestock experience and limited infrastructure, introducing a small ruminant flock was a manageable option - not just to manage their land, but to diversify their market offerings and close the fertility loop with an integrated crop/livestock operation. As a protein option for their current customers and to attract new customers with more diverse products, Bree and Ben saw lamb as a profitable and marketable option that complemented their produce production.  READ THE FULL SUMMARY HERE

Organic Grass-Fed and -Finished Beef Field Day

May 2, 2019
Elmwood Stock Farm, Georgetown, KY

Hearing John Bell, of Elmwood Stock Farm, talk about his grass-finished beef production, it’s nearly impossible to distinguish whether the animal or the grass is more important: “Truly, a grass-finished farmer is a crop farmer.”  This was a key takeaway for dozens of farmers, Extension personnel, and allied professionals who joined OAK for an early May Field Day on Organic Grass-Fed and -Finished Beef Production.

 

Although Elmwood Stock Farm has raised cattle in central Kentucky for six generations, they’ve refined their production of organic, grass-finished beef during the last two decades.  Motivated by the benefits of a grass-finished system to human health, animal welfare, and natural ecosystems, John and his family have evolved their livestock systems to hold soil nutrient cycling, fertility, and organic matter in equal importance to animal genetics and biology.

 

“Any beef cattle farmer is hoping to end with a meat product that is well-marbled, juicy, tender, and good-tasting,” John explains.  “We’re working for that -- as well as for the health of the animal and the healthiest meat for ourselves and our customers.”   READ THE FULL SUMMARY HERE

Irrigation Systems and Considerations

April 12, 2019

UK Horticultural Research Farm, Lexington KY

Farmers and allied professionals “went with the flow” at a recent OAK Field Day focused on drip irrigation.  Drip-irrigation systems are now the industry standard due to its efficiency, explained Rachel Rudolph, UK Extension Vegetable Specialist, as drip can reduce water use for some crops up to 50%.  [Additionally, according to UK’s “Irrigation Systems” fact sheet (available via the link below), combining drip with plastic mulch systems can also double marketable yields!]

UK Sustainable Agriculture Professor Brent Rowell led participants through an instructive show-and-tell of drip irrigation components and terminology.  This in-classroom introduction laid the groundwork for demonstration and hands-on installation of drip system components within a greenhouse (gravity-fed, solar-powered system) and high tunnel (municipal water and standard electrical system) at UK Horticultural Research Farm. READ THE FULL SUMMARY HERE

Mastering Your Marketing Workshop

March 26, 2019

Oldham County Extension Office, LaGrange KY

“How do you differentiate?  What is your story?”

These were some of the leading questions posed by Brett Wolff for all producers to consider as they develop their brand, their marketing plan.  An engaged group of producers joined Brett for the discussion during the OAK “Mastering Your Marketing” workshop, in Oldham County Extension Office in March.

Brett, of the University of Kentucky’s Center for Crop Diversification (CCD), stressed the importance of grabbing consumers’ attention by focusing in the unique qualities of the producer’s specific products, farm, values, and community.  READ THE FULL SUMMARY HERE

From Field to Consumer: Food Safety and Quality

November 2018

UK Horticultural Research Farm's Organic Farming Unit

“Every Kentucky grower should get the basics of food safety.”

This was Dr. Paul Priyesh Vijayakumar’s message to dozens of farmers, agriculture professionals, and local food advocates at OAK’s recent Food Safety and Quality Field Day.   “And the Produce Best Practices Training (PBPT) is the first place to start.”  READ THE FULL SUMMARY HERE

Year-Round High Tunnel Production

An early November Field Day at Magney Legacy Ridge Farm in Princeton attracted more than 40 participants from 11 Kentucky counties (as well as Tennessee and Illinois) to explore Year-round Production in High Tunnels.

READ THE FULL SUMMARY HERE

Organic Hemp Production and Research

September 18, 2018 

Kentucky State University Research Farm, Franklin County

 

“Organic hemp is a way to buoy your product in a volatile market.”

This was the primary message Chad Rosen offered more than 115 participants at the Organic Association of Kentucky’s Organic Hemp Field Day at Kentucky State University (KSU) last month.  Rosen’s company, Victory Hemp Foods, is one of 72 approved processors of industrial hemp in Kentucky and was one of the first within the KY Department of Agriculture (KDA)’s Industrial Hemp Research Pilot Program, launched in 2014.  READ THE FULL SUMMARY HERE

Maximizing High Tunnel Production Field Day

OAK’s September visit to Good Thymes Organic Farm allowed dozens of Kentucky farmers and agriculture agency representatives to focus on high tunnel production with host farmers Cortney Moses and Paul Dengel, 6 UK Extension and agriculture educators, and 3 Grow Appalachia production professionals.  The event covered crop timing and production, pest and disease identification and control, soil health and fertility management, irrigation, product harvest and storage, and funding opportunities.

Paul shared a dozen hand tools he and Cortney use for efficiency in their covered production, including wheel seeders, broadfork, bed preparation rake, flame weeder, long-handled cultivators, tilther, and more.  UK’s Krista Jacobsen, Associate Professor in Horticulture, added that the primary high tunnel tool is a cover crop, and she provided an overview (link for download below) of lessons learned at the UK Horticulture Research Farm for cool season cover crops used for fertility, weed management, and productive rotations.  Crop timing, variety selection, and soil/plant health are integral to efficient and optimal use of “the priority real estate” provided within a tunnel’s protected environment, Krista explained.

Ric Bessin, UK Extension Entomology Professor, offered suggestions for ensuring plant health in relation to the common high tunnel insect and mite pests, primarily spider mites, thrips, fungus gnats, whiteflies, and aphids.  These can cause significant economic damage; whereas occasional pests in high tunnels such as Mexican bean beetle or squash bug may be unwelcome but may not warrant as urgent a need for control.  The keys to insect pest management begin with monitoring crops regularly (tip: 3-5 yellow sticky cards / tunnel can be a tool to alert you to whitefly, fungus gnat, aphid or thrips problems early) and identifying problems properly.   Check plants systematically (under buds and leaves), record your observations, and work with your county Extension agents if you find unusual problems (this is free in Kentucky!). This process helps you identify problems early when there more options are available.  (UK’s publication ID-235 is an excellent resource to help identify the common pest and disease problems in high tunnels. For example, how to recognize that aphid cast skins are not whiteflies!)

After reminding the group that even farmers using OMRI-approved pesticides need to become certified pesticide applicators, Ric passed the speaking baton to UK Entomology Professor John Obrycki, who offered biological control (i.e., releasing beneficial insect predators) as a pest management alternative safer for people to handle and less harsh on the environment.  Companies providing these living organisms help to determine the quantity and choice of products (appropriate to scale of infestation and pest life cycle) based on the farmer’s observations, so careful monitoring (and collaboration with County Extension Agents) is essential for proper treatment.

The high tunnel structure allows further control measures via the closed/protective environment by using screens rolled up along the sidewalls and covering endwall openings.  Row covers within the tunnels add an extra layer of protection. 

Yet, the closed environment can sometimes add to the problem, as Emily Pfeufer, UK Extension Associate Professor in Plant Pathology, explained in regard to plant diseases.  “We’ll see diseases that are never seen in the field, but they show up in the tunnels.”  Sanitation is key to prevention under cover.  Landscape mulch, while a bit pricey, can be swept and reused, providing a clean pathway for weed and insect management.  Handling plants as little as possible (especially when they’re wet!) limits the spreading of diseases.  “Catch it early,” Emily insists, by monitoring plants regularly, and when disease is found, maintain your plants from the “best” (healthiest in appearance) to the “worst” (those showing signs of disease pressure). 

Take caution when trellising plants, which can cause slight wounds and greater susceptibility to disease in plants.  Proper cleaning of tools and equipment can help with overall sanitation, as well as discarding every part of a plant that’s been removed, even at the end of a harvest season. “What you end up with this season, Emily cautions, “you’re starting with next season.”  (Visit this UK Plant Pathology Fact Sheet for more info.)

This “prevention is much easier than remediation” message carried through into a discussion of soil health, led by UK Extension Vegetable Specialist Rachel Rudolph, who urged farmers to sample their high tunnel soils in the fall (pH & nutrients + salts + CEC (nutrient exchange of soil) levels) and to pay attention to what those tests provide.  Phosphorous, for example, is naturally found in many Kentucky soils and then increased via compost or manure amendments, resulting in an excess.

Many plant health problems result from growers who (1) don’t do a soil test and unknowingly add excess nutrient(s); (2) don’t know the soil pH and, therefore, the amended nutrients are not taken up by the plants, and/or (3) don’t maintain consistent moisture. 

Employing fertigation (fertilization via irrigation lines) can help to apply fertilizer in a split-application dosage. If an excess is realized, planting a cover crop can help to remediate excess nutrient and salinity by cutting and removing the cover crop completely.  “Flushing the soil” can also help, either by leaving the high tunnel plastic off and/or by using heavy overhead irrigation during cover crop growth or while the tunnel is empty during a seasonal transition. (TIP: overhead irrigation is not recommended with crops intended for harvest due to plant diseases resulting from water damage)

Demonstrating a modified “overhead” watering system created by elevating drip tape along metal stakes, with extender tubes that “sprayed” the water above the cover crops, Rachel and Brent Rowell, Extension Specialist in International and Sustainable Horticulture, offered a low-cost solution which allowed the crops to be mowed without damage to the irrigation lines.  Brent provided a handful of other cost saving ideas, including use of lay-flat connectors rather than more expensive orchard tubing connectors, a method of rolling drip tape ends three times and then crimping them in half and covering them with a “scrap” piece of tubing as a way to avoid buying plugs, and use of a garden hose rolling spool for careful storage (and increased longevity) of drip tape.

Getting flow rates right saves money and benefits plant health, so making flow rate calculations based on pressure and monitoring with a tensiometer were Brent’s recommendations for adequate soil moisture.  “It’s also just a good way to get to know your irrigation system.”

Regarding rainwater collection, Brent suggested using a solar pump with a gravity tank.  (TIP: The tank does not need to be highly elevated for flow.)  As for snowfall, professional gutter brackets may last longer than high tunnel kit gutters – consider them at initial installation. Brent referred participants to his new Extension publication on the subject (available for download below).

Recommendations continued outside the tunnels and into the pack shed, as Chris McKenzie and Matt Wilson, Small Farm Production Advisers from Grow Appalachia, shared their expertise on harvest and post-harvest.  In addition to sharing handouts for crop-specific harvest and storage (link for download below), they shared best practices for harvest: (1) Consider time of day, relative to temperature: many crops are heat-sensitive and will deteriorate quickly off the plant.  The earlier the better (see #2); and after sunset is not too late!  Heat-loving crops like tomatoes are hardier and can wait until later in the day.  (2) Wait until the leaves are dry: echoing concerns of plant damage and disease susceptibility from earlier in the day with this caution, they specified plants in the cucurbit family.

“Get ‘em in, get ‘em cool, keep ‘em cool!” Harvesting before the sun’s heat sets in is best, yet the temperature must be maintained by cooling produce quickly.  Harvesting into a cart covered with an umbrella or spraying hardier vegetables with potable water can help with temperature regulation.  “Hydro-cooling” greens with a cool water dunk can reduce the heat, but Chris recommended to avoid washing tender leaves, when possible, to reduce damage and deterioration.

Incorporating a “spray table” (surface of stainless steel screening) into the washing station allowed an easy spray-rinse of root crops and tougher skinned-vegetables like squash.  Cucurbits, however, can easily absorb pathogens when wet, so avoid wetting if possible.  Including non-porous wash station surfaces like stainless steel allows complete sanitation during and after wash sessions… wholesale auctions at schools, commercial restaurant supply stores, and restaurants going out-of-business can be good secondhand sources for these items.

Participants for the event included representatives from USDA’s Farm Service Agency and Natural Resources Conservation Service, as well as the Kentucky Horticulture Council, who mentioned various funding opportunities to consider for high tunnel and related agricultural projects; additional participants chimed in with additional ideas.  Here are a few of them…

 

OAK greatly appreciates the collaborative efforts of our hosts and knowledgeable instructors and offers special thanks to Mark Walden, Grow Appalachia’s Production Efficiency Adviser, for organizing, promoting, and creating this event.

Wool, Botanical Dyes, and Value-added Fiber Marketing Field Day

From the sheep pastures to the gardens to the dye vat, participants at a recent OAK Field Day had a glimpse into Hill and Hollow Farm’s process of creating botanically-dyed farm yarn.

In 1998, Robin Verson and Paul Bela purchased 60 acres of Kentucky land that would become Hill and Hollow Farm, with intention to create a life around producing food, living simply, and enjoying their shared interests.  Twenty years later, their farm and family are deeply rooted and have more than doubled in size.  Their 50-member CSA maintains a loyal following and provides consistent income, allowing them to explore new products, projects, and markets to keep things engaging and fresh. For the past dozen years, their farm work has included sheep and wool production, more recently complemented by growing specific plants for dyes.

“I’ve been sharing the message of ‘local products’ and ‘local markets’ for years and years,” Robin explains, “so it only made sense that I would seek a local source for dyeing our wool – growing, harvesting, and producing that dye on the Farm just makes sense!”

Robin and Paul manage a herd of 50 Jacob's sheep, a breed they selected for temperament and fiber quality.  Grazing on Certified Organic pasture, this herd provides the wool that Robin and Paul shear, process, and sell as lambskin, roving (unspun strands of fiber), dyed and undyed yarn, and finished woven/knitted products.

“With Kentucky’s climate, we have a limited demand for wool products,’ Robin admits, “but sites like Etsy (and other “cyber-fiber” communities) help broaden our geographic audience.” 

Creating unique fiber products and marketing local “farm yarn” allows for additional market possibilities, as do shearing and dyeing events, which Hill and Hollow has hosted on their newest property, the Hill and Hollow Farm Stay, complete with a Certified Kitchen, Certified Organic pastures and dye garden, and a future lodging site.

“In addition to being a non-perishable product which can be stored indefinitely,” Robin explains, “the seasonality of the botanical dye production comes at a time when we have a more flexible schedule and allows us to host dyeing events where people can actively participate.”

Similarly, the Field Day participants were welcomed to the Farm Stay with an invitation to help strip indigo leaves, in preparation for the dye vat.  The Japanese indigo (polygonum tinctorium) is a non-tropical, tender annual which Hill and Hollow grows on roughly the same schedule as tomatoes (~March 15 start seeds, ~May 15 transplant).  Japanese indigo-dyed yarns vary in color: the first dip into the dye vat is a rich, dark blue; second dip results in a medium blue; and the third dip is pale blue. Wild-harvested goldenrod and farm-raised marigolds and hollyhocks complement the blues with reds, yellows, oranges, and greens.

“Harvesting the blue” is the way Robin explains the timing chosen to cut, strip, and process the indigo leaves into dye - when the plant is at its ripest, just prior to flowering and seed production (~Aug. 7).  Reaping ~1.5 pounds of leaves per plant allows enough dye for ~1 pound of fiber.  Robin boils the leaves (until “antifreeze color,” when the bluish liquid has a green/yellow cast to it), pours the liquid from bucket to bucket to oxidize it, and then adds ammonia to remove the oxygen, enabling the dye to adhere to fiber. When fiber is pulled from the vat, the dyeing solution re-oxidizes as soon as it hits the air and becomes indigo blue.

Over the years, Robin has added indigo seeds and plant starts to their available products, as she’s learned the difficulty of acquiring quality indigo plants.

“Buy botanical dyes and dye plants from someone who actually uses them to dye,” she recommends, “so you know you’re getting a quality product for your investment.”

She and Paul also recommend learning to shear your own sheep, which they demonstrated for the Field Day participants.  This allows the sheep farmer save a little in the financial investment to the final product.  Sending fleece to the mill to be washed, carded, spun, plied, skeined, and combed costs $25/pound for a finished yarn.  Shearing on the farm also ensures the quality of the fleece – a high quality product is essential in this limited marketplace, as is an early investment of time to find a market prior to spring shearing season.

As the dye cooled and Robin moved forward in the dyeing process (including a great indigo dye on an OAK t-shirt!), Paul led the participants on a bonus tour of the Hill and Hollow pastures, high tunnel and greenhouse, and gardens, wrapping up a fantastic overview of a successful and diverse organic family farm in Kentucky.

Cultivation and Weed Control

Systems thinking is integral to organic farming – as is a longer-term perspective on our actions and their consequences.  Both factors are critical within organic weed management.  This was the message shared with Field Day participants at UK’s Organic Farming Unit in June.

 

“No single organic practice can perform like a chemical herbicide, so we have to use an integrated system of long-term weed seedbank management,” explained Mark Williams, who led the farm tour.  

 

UK plans its system based on plant family rotations (not an easy feat when managing 45 crops!).  Within these rotations are cover crops – some for erosion control, others for increased fertility (leguminous crops = “grow your own fertilizer”), and a handful that are essential to the control of unwanted weeds.  These allelopathic cover crops release chemicals from their leaves, roots, or decaying tissue which suppress the growth of other plants.  Among the allelopathic crops used by UK’s Farm are sorghum-sudangrass, annual rye, wheat, teff, and barley.

 

Cover crops act as living mulch to bareground production beds and, in some cases, for between bed paths as well.  Living mulch is sometimes used for longer-season, multiple-harvest crops
“Don’t overhead water,” Mark cautions.  “Weeds outgrow crops every time!”  Burying irrigation lines (4-5” at UK’s Farm) maximizes the flow of water to the crop’s root zone and still allows for cultivation in bareground beds.

 

“We’re always trying use our knowledge of biology against the weeds.  Knowing what those plants need for growth: sunlight, water, fertility – allows us to avoid disturbing weed seeds that are in dormancy.”

 

As the majority of weed seeds lie in the top 1-1 ½ inches of soil, watering below this zone reduces one of these factors for growth.  When the soil is disturbed near its surface, Mark explains, we consider the multiple ways to kill a weed: chopping it, crushing it, slicing it, or uprooting it to burn in the sun’s heat on the surface.

 

“We let the first flush of weed seeds grow and then, when they’re really small, we shallow cultivate and kill them; we let them grow again, and we cultivate again.  We may do this 2 to 4 times before planting – and we’ve found this reduces our weed pressure up to 90%!”

(TIP:  Timing is everything; the cotyledon, or thread stage is best as weed cannot regrow.)

 

The cultivation technique that UK uses brings all these factors together, utilizing different tools for maximum defense.  For this ‘stale seedbed’ approach, the Farm customized a tractor attachment to include 3 chevron sweeps (uproot), 2 meeker harrows (slice), and a rolling basket (chop) or drum (crush).  This shallow cultivation also helps to improve the tilth, or texture, of the soil by breaking up clods and rough soils.

 

Mechanical cultivation is not the only way to create this same system of defense, however, and Mark shared a collection of effective hand tools… a shuffle or scuffle hoe with oscillating head allows for chopping action in two directions; a swanneck hoe with extended handle for greater reach; a wire weeder for precise weeding and minimum soil disturbance.

 

“These tools, often from Europe, are developed with repetitive use in mind,” Mark mentioned. “They’re created so that you stand vertically, with the tool across the body and the hands in a “thumbs up” position, which is much better for your back and body.”

 

One American-made tool Mark recommends is a wheel hoe (NOT to be confused with the KY High Wheel hoe), which is adaptable to the user. “If it’s not adjusted to your height, you will hate it!  But it’s a great tool when adjusted right.”

 

With any or all of these great tools for weed control, one stands above the rest for the UK Farm: the finger weeder.  This “game changer” in the weed management system is so effective that it has quickly become available for any production scale: wheel hoe attachments, walk-behind tractor cultivators, and large-scale implements offer this tool, which rotates by ground-driven rubber 'fingers' that cultivate at an angle just below the soil surface. 

 

For both plasticulture and bareground crop production approaches on UK’s Farm, an emphasis on eliminating hand-weeding is paramount. However, some hand-weeding is still necessary when weather prevents timely mechanical cultivation.  Flame weeding is also used (and available at multiple scales), but Mark advises caution and careful attention when flame weeding after seeding has occurred.  (TIP: for long-germinating crops like carrots, lay plexiglass to heat test a square of soil; when germination begins, stop flaming (as crop is about to surface).

 

The final approach for weed control at UK involves targeted fertility applications.  Amendments, such as fertilizers and liquid manures, can be directly injected or band-applied directly in line with seeding or along transplants, so they feed the crop and starve the weeds. 

 

The entire integrated weed management system of UK’s Farm has developed over years of experience developed through intensive labor and struggle, which they have documented and share via their UK CSA Flickr website and a 2017 UK CSA Economic Analysis. This latter document, a copy of Mark’s “Winning the Battle Against Weeds” presentation, and an additional resource on using an integrated weed management approach developed by organic farmers Anne and Eric Nordell “Weed the Soil, Not the Crop,” are available for download on OAK’s Field Day documents website.  Additional resources are available via OAK’s partners for this Field day: UK’s Center for Crop Diversification (CCD)’s Weed Management publication and the Ohio Ecological Food and Farming Association (OEFFA)’s Integrated Pest Management resources. 

 

OAK is grateful to have “cross-pollinated” with sustainable growers and educators from across the Ohio River with OEFFA’s promotion and presence at this Field Day; and we continue to rely on the wealth of resources and support from the UK Organic Farming Unit and UK’s CCD.  Many thanks to all!

Seeding, Transplanting and Field Management

A show-and-tell focus was well-received by Field Day participants who joined OAK and UK’s Department of Horticulture in May to learn more about Direct Seeding, Transplanting, and Field Management.  From a bio-intensive, smaller scale of hand trowels and twine-measured beds to a mechanical transplanter and the systemized consistency of a large-scale operation, Mark Williams and Kristi Durbin shared their experiences at the UK Organic Farming Unit on the tradeoffs and benefits of different scales, methods, and equipment.  Complemented by the knowledgeable input of UK Extension Vegetable Specialist Rachel Rudolph, Kristi and Mark provided a glimpse into the Farm’s organic CSA archives and planting documents (available on OAK’s Field Day website!) including all crops, varieties, spacing, dates, and which are direct seeded or transplanted.

“There are some trade-offs, and some crops (beets, carrots, greens), we do always direct seed, but overall, transplanting is better!” 

 

Direct seeding leaves a greater amount of uncertainty and risk, Mark explained, whereas a receives more TLC during the initial growing period of high sensitivity to pests and fungal diseases – ensuring more success from a hardier plant that’s prepared to resist pressures.

 

Yet no matter how hardy the plant or what scale/type of planting method is used, Mark cautioned, “it’s only as good as the preparation of the bed and the tilth of the soil.”  When soil has a favorable condition for growing plants – porous and easy for water to infiltrate – it is said to have good tilth.  This spongy, less compacted soil allows easier growth and anchoring for roots, resists erosion, and is well-aerated.  Poor tilth can negatively impact plant growth even when the optimum amount of nutrients is present, due to its decreased aeration/water movement and highly-compacted structure.  This is especially important to consider in terms of the root’s – and even the seed’s - need to have direct contact with soil AND water.

 

Whether at a scale of hand tools like trowels and jab planters, push seeders like Earthway, Planet Jr, or Jang, or a tractor with a vacuum seeder, success is always dependent on well-prepped soil!  Singulating the seed distribution (instead of broadcast seeding) allows the farmer to reduce thinning of seedlings later in the season, which is where the expedience of precision seeders has gained them popular use.  TIP: a general rule of thumb for seeding is allowing 4 times the seed size as its planting depth.

 

Kristi explained the Farm’s use of their manual push seeder is limited but critical in certain areas.  “Using the Jang seeder allows us to plant high-density salad greens in the middle of 18” rows that were previously vacuum-seeded,” she said, adding that inside high tunnels was another place where the push seeder’s compact usability came in handy.

Standardizing bed widths and lengths and the spacing used for transplants and direct-seeded crops allows for expedient consistency with mechanical systems– from seeders and transplanters, to cultivators and weeding implements, to irrigation/fertigation and plastic/textile coverings.  This standardization does require thinking ahead, as some circumstances, such as the high-density salad greens planting, prohibit the use of mechanical cultivation afterwards and must be hand-cultivated.

 

Careful planning also comes into consideration when considering bare ground or plasticulture transplanting.  “We can bury the drip tape in our bare ground beds,” Mark explained, “and then cultivate the beds for weed management.”  (TIP: deeper drip tape installation (4-6”) is important in heavy clay soils to avoid water pooling and channeling at the surface.) Bare ground transplanting in landscape fabric also helps with weed management and reduces cultivation needs.

 

With plasticulture beds, the Farm also uses drip tape instead of overhead watering to target water flow to crops (instead of weeds) and to reduce risk of fungal disease. Appropriately-spaced holes burned or cut into the plastic covering allows for mechanical transplanting but also needs careful attention for plant health.

 

“Tools alone don’t make everything right,” Mark warned, as he pointed out how cavities of open air left around tender transplants can allow warm air to build and dehydrate plants. Carefully smoothing the bed surface, avoiding clodded soils (from working soil when too wet), and packing potting media above exposed soil can help protect young plants and reduce weeds.

 

Rachel stressed the need to remove plastics immediately at end of season to limit the degradation into the soil.  When questioned about biodegradable plastic use, she referred participants to a recent Washington State Extension report documents (available on OAK’s Field Day website)on the use of biodegradable bio-based plastics in organic production.

 

A visit to the Farm’s tool shed allowed participants to view a broad range of helpful implements that had been referenced throughout the Farm tour, including tensiometers (soil moisture sensors), a hand tool for adding staples in landscape fabric, a hand-drill-powered tilther for use in corners and edges of high tunnels (where bulky walk-behind tractors could do damage to tunnel walls), walk-behind flame weeder, and a mechanical vacuum seeder that also allows banded fertilizer application directly at the planting line.

 

We’ll be back at the UK Organic Farming Unit for June’s Field Day to learn more about the cultivation and weed control techniques and tools they’re using – hope to see you there!

Fertility Management in Diversified Cropping Systems

“We cannot take a conventional agriculture mindset into organic fertility… it’s biological.”

 

These were Mark Williams’ opening words in last month’s Fertility Management Field Day at UK’s Organic Farming Unit, which he led with Kristi Durbin.  “Nutrients are not always immediately available in the form that plants can take up,” Mark explained, noting that for a plant to absorb an element, it must be in a chemical form usable by the plant and dissolved in the soil water.  Although they have the potential to benefit the plant, undissolved or granular nutrients, and those that are chemically bound to soil particles, are not immediately useful.  Additionally, the plants’ stage of growth and environmental conditions (temperature, moisture) must be considered to utilize nutrients properly. 

Organic farmers must take an integrated approach within a well-developed fertility system, considering multiple practices and their impacts, synchronized within the most beneficial timing of each. Taking a reliable soil test helps to initiate that process for, as Mark emphasizes, “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”

 

Taking a soil sample in the fall allows planning and implementation to begin in late fall and winter for the next year’s crops.  In addition to the primary nutrients (macro elements N, P, K), secondary elements should also be evaluated in ppm and where they fall in healthy ranges.  Determining pH and soil organic matter (SOM) begins the fertility planning process in earnest, as pH strongly affects plants ability to take up nutrients, and SOM allows the first look at nitrogen sources.  (Tip: We have no reliable pre-season test for soil nitrogen.)

Within the organic farming community, Williams noted, we tend to mistake that building SOM can be done effectively enough to eliminate need for commercial fertilizers.  “This is misleading and untrue, at least for our soils.  Nutrients need to be present and appropriate in the amount plant needs at specific time,” which is not reliable solely from SOM, especially if tilling is used and as soil temperatures and moisture increase.

This is where a nutrient budget becomes an effective tool.  Beginning with SOM, Williams walked Field Day participants through the process of considering individual fertility practices, calculating their nutrient input, mineralization, and availability, and then making up the difference with commercial fertilizers. 

Cover crops play a primary role in the UK Farm’s fertility system and crop rotation, providing dry matter to increase the SOM and nitrogen-fixing benefits within the soil. (Tip: Not sure if you need to inoculate those leguminous cover crops? Pull up a few, and look for nodules along the roots – if not present, inoculate!)  Additionally, turning under green cover crops can provide a quik nitrogen boost as a “green manure.” Winter covers typical for UK include clover, rye/vetch, and oats/peas; for summer, cowpeas, soybean, and sunnhemp for N; millet, sorghum-sudangrass, brassicas, buckwheat for SOM/”catch crops.” (Tip: winter rye is allelopathic: can help with weed suppression.) 

Synchronizing cover crop planting for their appropriate timing to maximize nutrient availability (considering cover crop height/density, stage of growth development, % cover) can be challenging.  Mark strongly suggested using SARE’s Managing Cover Crops Profitably for reference.

Fall application of manure is also used for nitrogen and carbon, although N content and availability differs widely from source to source.  Organic growers must take care to maintain safe manure use within the 90:120 days-to-harvest standard.

Compost offers another fertility practice, although it must meet organic requirements of carbon to nitrogen ratio, temperature, and maintenance.  Over-application of manure may lead to excess of phosphorous which can negatively impact local waterways/wildlife via runoff as well as having a potential effect on plants’ zinc uptake.  As 10-15% of compost’s N likely mineralizes within the first year, compost should be viewed as an amendment, Mark explains, rather than a long-term fertilizer.

Once contribution percentages have been determined within the nutrient budget, commercial fertilizer can be used as a supplement.  Natural fertilizers typically release nutrients at a slower rate and over a longer period than synthetic fertilizers because microorganisms are involved in the breakdown and release cycle (mineralization). Additionally, “banded” fertilizer application (applying it just along the irrigation zone adjacent to roots) optimizes crop uptake, while broadcasting fertilizer simply feeds the weeds!  UK uses Chilean nitrate, fish emulsion, and pelletized poultry litter for its fertigation and granular supplementation.

Kristi Durbin provided a deeper look into UK’s system for calculating a nutrient budget for nitrogen, considering…

  • The area in production.

  • The nitrogen needs of the crop (Tip: in KY, see UK’s Vegetable Production Guide, ID-36)

  • The N content of SOM and all amendments or fertilizers to be applied.

  • How much N will mineralize in one year.

  • How much amendment/fertilizer will be applied.

 

Kristi provided this visual walk-through using a thorough spreadsheet UK’s Organic Farming Unit staff use for their nutrient calculations.  In its efforts to provide as much experiential organic farming knowledge as possible to its student apprentices and Kentucky farmers, UK has made this spreadsheet available to us, as well as the supporting documents for Mark and Kristi’s research and presentation.  They plan to have all of these, as well as a multitude of additional resources detailing their entire farming system, available on a new UK Organic Farming Unit website later this year. 

Organic Dairy and Forage Walk

Irvin Ramer and his family manage 200 acres of pasture in Todd County, using 140 of those and a well-planned rotation to achieve nearly 12 months of grazing for their 80 Jersey dairy cows. Their Green Acres Farm was one of the first Certified Organic by the Kentucky Department of Agriculture and Organic Valley's longest-standing organic dairy farm in Kentucky. Irvin is also the first Certified Organic egg producer in Kentucky for Handsome Brook Farm. Their farm is participating in a UK/UT research project to determine what forage mixtures are best for organic dairy farmers.

Dr. Silvia Abel-Caines, Staff Ruminant Nutritionist for Organic Valley / CROPP, partnered with Chris Teutsch, Forage Specialist from UK’s Education and Research Center in Princeton, to share their expertise with nearly 30 participants from Kentucky and Tennessee.

Dr. Abel-Caines led the group through a discussion about the specialized nature of ruminant animals (like cows) to produce wholesome products (like milk) from fiber that is not digestible by any other species. Dr. Abel Caines demonstrated how the rumen works to ferment the food the animal consumes, allowing the animal to regurgitate it, chew it back, and then extract all the nutrients from there.

She explains when high amounts of grain are introduced into the cow's diet, the pH in the rumen drops, creating a more acidic environment. The change in pH affects the population of bacteria in the rumen: starch-digesting bacteria increase, and beneficial fiber-digesting bacteria decrease, resulting in a negative impact on the animal’s health. 

 

Conversely, a grass-fed animal consumes microbes present in the grass; the cow chews the grass; and then the rumen microbes—bacteria, fungi, protozoa— transform that into healthier fatty acid.

“The quality of the milk that cow is producing has direct connection with the quality of the grasses and forage and pasture that she’s consuming,” Dr. Abel-Caines remarked.

The diversity of the grasses and legumes growing in the paddock has a direct correlation with the cow’s health and nutritional needs. If the average grasses of the paddock…fescue, orchard grass, timothy, rye grass…are all the cow has for forage, it will need additional nutrients, like protein.  Legumes, like alfalfa and clover, provide more protein to the diet of the cow.

A walk through the pastures of Green Acres Farm allowed us to learn more about Mr. Ramer’s forage mixes of Freedom clover with annual ryegrass and sorghum-sudangrass with turnips.  Additional foundational forages include new fescue, chicory, red and white clovers, alfalfa, and bluegrass in the cattle’s permanent pasture. Rotational research paddocks include crab grass and lespedeza for summer.

 

“Being organic… for me, clover is a must!” stated Mr. Ramer, emphasizing the protein benefit to the cows as well as its nitrogen-fixing bacteria contributing to soil health.  Sunnhemp is another consideration mentioned for leguminous forage, as well as a cowpea/sorghum mix.

 

Dr. Teutsch stressed that it takes years for nitrogen to build up and requires the integration of livestock in the pasture as an important part of the nitrogen cycle.

 

Annual ryegrass, a cool season grass with strong spring production, is temperature-limited by the time June’s heat arrives, and therefore requires a late summer/early fall planting.

Crabgrass, on the other hand, is a warm season perennial and is highly digestible (especially in comparison with other warm season annuals) and can provide 10-14% protein in early season pastures.  As a prolific re-seeder in Ramer’s paddock mixed with clover, it will need to be reclaimed without removing or damaging the critical clover growth, by pasture dragging and rolling in late spring to stimulate growth.

Providing the high-quality of these diverse mixes all year long can be challenging, but Dr. Teutsch offered advice for yielding quality silage

“Cut as vegetative as possible,” Teutsch stressed, referring to harvesting forage in or before the "boot" stage, the plant’s transition from the vegetative to the reproductive stage. 

 

The stage of maturity is the #1 factor for quality silage. Forage quality generally declines with increasing length of the interval between harvests of stored forages or with longer rest periods in rotational grazing. Maturity of legumes and cool-season grasses can be assessed by determining the reproductive stage of growth. For warm-season grasses, however, weeks of regrowth are a better indicator of maturity because flowering may begin shortly after regrowth begins.

 

Making that decision to maximize quality requires the farmer’s concession that the yield will be less than if the plant is allowed to mature farther.  It also may require intensive demands for harvest, such as sorghum-sudangrass, which must be cut and crimped one day and then bailed the very next day before molds set in and quality declines.

 

Another demand for quality pasture includes monitoring soil fertility w/ a soil test every couple of years, taken 3-4” deep in no- or shallow-till systems.  The deeper you test, Teutsch cautions, the nutrients could present lower than the root uptake.  Forage soil testing should include nitrogen and potassium.

 

Learning to assess your average pasture height, density, and dry matter is also a necessary skill to develop for forage management.  Learning to use a grazing stick can help to simplify measuring pasture yield, allocating pasture to animals, and tracking productivity changes.  Tips include advice to truly randomize the 10 samples taken across the field and avoid biased selection of only the richest, healthiest pasture; learning to train the eye while keeping accurate and regular pasture logs; and grazing to no less than 2-3” for forage regrowth.

 

Diversifying and improving forage is essential but not the only consideration for grass-fed dairy cows.  Considering, Dr. Abel-Caines explained, that a 1200lb cow has the capacity to consume 3.5% of its body weight in dry matter daily and requires 2-3% to give milk, maintain her body condition, and reproduce.  The dry matter from grain must be replaced with hay and pasture.  This is no small task when one considers that nine pounds of grain at 13% moisture is close to eight pounds of dry matter.  Consider replacing that eight pounds with forages that have moisture levels of 80 to 90%.  It takes close to 100 actual pounds more of hay or pasture to replace the nine pounds of grain that is no longer being fed!

 

Irvin Ramer’s cows are completely grass-fed, with supplemental mineralization only, and therefore receive no grain in their diet.  They are milked only once per day, which helps to control lactations and better manage their supply during periods when pasture quality is low or stored supply is minimal.

 

Part of this is due to the selection of species, like Mr. Ramer’s Jerseys, Dr. Abel-Cines explained, which maintain condition, milk production, and reproduction on forage. These cattle types are typically smaller-framed and have lower dry matter intake and nutrient requirements than Holsteins, which are designed and bred primarily for high yield.

“Crossbreeding is ideal,” Dr. Abel-Caines added, referencing the Holstein genetics developed through selection by grass-based producers in New Zealand.

Transitioning a grain-based herd to an exclusively or primarily grass-fed diet requires planning and patience, as cows need to go through two lactations to adjust.

“These cows must have a transition from their diet of dry, fermented feed since their rumen bacteria are not accustomed to the high protein of a diversified grass pasture.” Dr. Abel-Caines explained.  “By flash grazing – allowing them 1-2hrs on healthy pasture – the first week, and then gradually increasing the length of time for ~3 weeks, gives their system time to adjust.

 

The final stop of the day was a shift from organic dairy to organic pastured laying hens, for which Mr. Ramer uses a forage selection of perennial rye, bluegrass, and clover that helps primarily with erosion prevention and sod formation under the feet of his 2,400 Isa Brown chickens.

Organic Transplant Production Field Day

Seventeen participants from 10 Kentucky counties joined OAK and UK’s Mark Williams and Steve Diver on a walk through the process of scheduling, seeding, maintaining, and assessing quality organic transplants in market farming.  Refrigerator- or freezer-temperature storage is used for the seeds before they hit the trays, which are chosen to encourage air pruning and branching of roots. 

Potting media was analyzed in depth, through the research data and experiential evidence from UK’s Organic Farm.  Homemade potting media allows growers to become more knowledgeable about what their plant needs and in greater control of how to provide it (ingredient by ingredient).  For these DIY mixes, Steve provided nutrient sources, conversion tips, and practical advice on providing nutrient balance.  When considering commercial potting mixes, growers should plan to provide supplemental fertilization with a liquid organic fertilizer – although some mixes are better than others at feeding the plant for a longer duration while in trays.  Whether homemade or pre-made, media should provide porosity for roots, drain well, and hold for optimal plant health.

Seeding trays more efficiently was one area that Mark stressed could greatly save time for production growers, through simple tools like plastic precision seeders or small vacuum seeders. Demonstrating the latter, Mark seeded an entire 1020 tray within seconds and moved on quickly to the next.  Pelleted seed can add to the efficiency of vacuum seeders

Watering transplants thoroughly and evenly once or twice (especially during germination) each day allows ample moisture for transplants while offering the grower a routine glimpse at the health and progress of the plant.  Humidity, good air circulation, and (for some plants) heat are essential factors in getting plants off to a good start.   

Additional discussion included preparing (hardening-off) seedlings prior to planting, organic pest control within transplant production areas, annual sanitation of trays (and anything else that contacts soil or plants), and the service that UK Organic Farming Unit offers production growers to rent space and maintenance for their transplants.  Overall, the discussion was hearty and the resources plenty - all participants claim they will use something they learned during the event for their own transplant production.  

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OAK's 2018 Field Days are sponsored by 

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