Horticultural Crops: The Farmers

Flexible Steel, Dependable Cover Crops Launch Trials for Organic No-Till

Kenny Haines
Misty Morning Farms
Belvidere, North Carolina

  • 200 acres
  • swamp and mineral soils
  • certified organic
  • 48-inch bedded rows
  • wholesale fresh market vegetables
  • rye/vetch, summer covers
  • Weed management highlights

Strategies: intensive early cultivation... cover crops... transplanting slow-growing crops

Tools: rotary tiller... flex-tine weeder... S-tine cultivator... rolling cultivator... vegetable knives (standard and reversed mounting)

Ten years after starting organic production on 10 acres, Kenny Haines is confident he can control weeds with a handful of tools and careful crop selection on 200 acres of widely varying soils. 'If I can get in to cultivate, I don't have a problem with weeds,' declares Haines.

He plants crops from March to October, usually establishing two vegetable crops and one or more cover crops per year in most fields. His packing shed supplies national organic chains with field crops of summer and winter squash, cucumbers, broccoli, cabbage, Brussel sprouts, carrots, sweet corn, peppers, tomatoes and snap beans. He extends production of tomatoes and cucumbers in greenhouses covering about two-thirds of an acre.

Because Haines can't control the area's frequent rainfall that encourages weeds in prepared soil, he waits until he can 'freshen the beds' just hours before planting. When the interval between incorporating cover crops and forming the beds is short, he uses a bed shaper. Its flat metal panels rub against the top and sides of the bed, working the soil surface just enough to disrupt germinating weeds.

If beds are still well-shaped but weeds and grass are more developed, he adds ranks of S-tine shanks with 1- to 2-inch shovels over each bed. He mounts S-tines ahead of the shaper and uses a row of bed-firming straight minicoulters behind it to prepare the bed for planting.

'There's not one super-tool or simple method to non-chemical weed control.' - Kenny Haines

When heavy rains pack and round off beds to the point where precision weeding would be difficult, Haines uses a rotary tiller with bed-shaping panels. His favored tool is a 6-foot Maschio tiller, which features a heavy-duty chain and structure that fits his needs better than a lighter KMC 19-foot model. His next tool to build will be a 16-foot, PTO-driven tiller to work three beds at a time.

The tiller will be part of his move to standardize row spacing to simplify integration of tillage, planting, cultivation and harvesting equipment. Many vegetable growers with more than 50 acres under production agree. Their calculations show they can realize long-term labor and machinery savings if they strategically upgrade from dissimilar row-width implements.

Haines plants as many crops as he can on 48-inch beds that are 72 inches on center, with 24-inch furrows.

'Planting' at Misty Morning Farm means transplanting for all vegetables except quick-spreading vine crops and sweet corn. Yet Haines uses the same weed control equipment whether crops start as seeds or sturdy seedlings. 'We'll start using our 20-foot Lely flex-tine weeder within a few days of planting seeds, and as soon as transplants are firmly rooted - usually less than week,' says Haines. He uses Speedling transplants, which have an inverted pyramid shaped root ball that provides added stability.

'The weeder works best before the weeds poke through, the same as a rotary hoe,' he explains. He considered both tools before buying the Lely, basing his decision on the overall and individual-tine tension adjustability of the weeder and its longer operating window in terms of crop maturity. Broccoli plants up to 5 inches tall don't suffer from a weeding pass, he notes.

Haines loosens tension on the weeder's looped coil adjustment in his rich, soft swamp soils, which have up to 10 percent organic matter. The non-crusting soil flows easily around the thin round tines, giving the tool nearly ideal operating conditions.

On some of his rental ground, the light-framed Lely has difficulty aerating crusted mineral (clay) soils, even at its highest down-pressure setting. A second pass is required. The weeder's gauge wheels help to maintain a consistent tine depth. When he needs to protect crops as they get older, he takes 10 minutes to swing up tines over the nine rows (three beds) he weeds per pass.

He introduces three more types of steel - 5-inch sweeps, vegetable knives and rolling cultivator gangs - as weeds and crops develop. He achieves the best weed kill by mixing passive sweeps and knives - which move through the soil - with the greater shattering action of vibrating S-tines and the ground-driven rolling cultivator.

'Sometimes I'll see little weeds with their roots holding on to a ball of soil after I cultivate with my S tines,' he explains. 'The soil is loose, but the weeds can re-root. The Lely reaches any place across the bed to knock the roots loose so they dry out.' He usually pulls the frame weeder at 6 to 8 mph - twice the S-tine's top speed. But when he has full-leafed weeds in his heavy soil, he needs the S-tines to break them loose first.

'There's not one super-tool or simple method to non-chemical weed control,' Haines cautions. 'My neighbors have an arsenal of herbicides. I need an arsenal of steel with pieces that roll, cut, and scratch the soil - whatever it needs.'

He continues the dual-position use of vegetable knives that's been customary in his region for decades. On the early cultivator passes, he sets the knives with the upright fin next to the row and the single trailing arm angled back away from the row. The vertical steel fin shunts all soil away from the row, running within 2 inches of the crop.

'I run just as close as I can hold the tractor to the row,' he explains. 'Sure we lose a few plants, but I don't skimp on seed. It pays off in close-in weed control.'

Hains constructed the cultivator frame for these tools in his shop. The main 4x7-inch toolbar holds the typical round pipe gangs for rolling cultivators. At the rear of the pipe gangs are brackets for sweeps. He hangs the knives on a 4x4-inch secondary toolbar, which is attached 3 feet behind the main frame with channel iron.

On later cultivator passes, as crop plants bush out to create a canopy, he reverses knife positions. He moves the knife's toolbar attachment bracket so that the vertical fin runs far from the rows and the tip of the sweep slices to within inches of the crop stalks. The 'tip-in' setting reaches under a canopy in a way few other tools can. Point-to-tip knife arm lengths range from 8 to 16 inches.

Rolling cultivator spider gangs make their biggest contribution in combination with the knives. The round standards and other adjustable brackets allow the spider gangs to be swiveled to control soil flow (toward or away from the row) and angled to the exact slope of the bed sides, uprooting weeds while maintaining the bed shape.

Haines likes the weed suppression and soil-building benefits of his winter cover-crop standby combination - rye and hairy vetch drilled at one bushel and 25 pounds per acre, respectively, following a light disking of the beds. He lets the cover grow in spring as long as he can to add biomass and nitrogen to the soil. The following crop sets the actual tillage date - earlier for sweet corn, as late as rye heading-out stage for fall squash.

'Farmers hear it the best from other farmers, and we need more of them to get to work with trying new ideas with covers and cultivators.' - Kenny Haines

Haines uses a rotary tiller to incorporate the cover crop, a move that makes sense because of his need to create raised beds. The tiller does both jobs in a single pass. To seed cucumbers and squash, he attaches a planter to the rear toolbar to roll the three jobs into one.

He's confident that his work with summer covers such as millet, quick-growing clovers and flowering native species will give him new cropping options that will reduce tillage while he suppresses weeds, builds soil organic matter and creates habitat for beneficial insects. Flail-type stalk choppers to knock down covers, no-till transplanters and high-residue cultivators for weed control can open up new options for no-till, no-chemical vegetable systems. He sees niches in his system where buckwheat and soybeans will bridge spring and fall crops.

'We haven't even touched the tip of the iceberg in no-till vegetable production,' Haines says with a sense of urgency. He knows his grandfather sowed red-top clover with turnip seed in front of a tine weeder,giving him a winter legume crop after the fall root harvest. Haines wants to synthesize that kind pre-fertilizer era wisdom with the best weed control practices and soil building strategies.

'If we think hard about the future, maybe we can pick up the knowledge we need from the old people before we bury them,' he muses. 'Farmers hear it the best from other farmers, and we need more of them to get to work with trying new ideas with covers and cultivators.'