University of California researchers testing ways to grow profitable organic tomatoes recommend the use of cover crops, mechanical weed control and transplants instead of direct seeding.
University of California researchers testing ways to grow profitable organic tomatoes recommend the use of cover crops, mechanical weed control and transplants instead of direct seeding. Photo courtesy of University of California-Davis

Management Strategies, cont.

Weeds. One of your biggest transition challenges will be weed management. New studies are showing, however, that with careful management, weeds can be controlled effectively during transition:

  • Careful weed control was one reason that an Iowa study found no yield reduction in soybeans, and loss in corn only for the first year of a transition trial. "We attribute our results to high managerial experience in producing diverse crops and accurately operating various implements in organic systems," said project leader Kathleen Delate.
  • A SARE study in Minnesota found that a crop of buckwheat harvested for seed was effective at smothering Canada thistle, in both the immediate and the subsequent crops - winter rye and soybeans. The research also showed the economic impact of good weed management; every bushel of soybeans not lost to weeds increased profitability $12 to $18 an acre. Moreover, replacing four rotary hoeings or harrowings with two well-timed ones for Canada thistle reduced costs by $3 to $5 an acre.

A change in attitude toward weed management is also critical, said John Hall, a Maryland extension educator who co-created the "Organic Grain: Another Way" video. "We think a field has to be weed-less to be productive. What we're seeing by those in transition, though, is that we can tolerate weeds. We just have to know where the threshold is and be willing to accept that."

John Teasdale, a weed scientist with USDA's Agricultural Research Service who has studied non-chemical methods to manage weeds, focuses on controlling seeds. "One aspect of trying to grow crops without herbicides is to control the weed seed population and keep it as low as possible," he said. "It is important not only to try to control weeds and prevent yield losses, but also to prevent those weeds from going to seed and building up a soil seed bank."

Other strategies to consider:

  • Identify weed problems before they start, addressing them in crop rotations.
  • Distinguish between annual and perennial weeds, as well as those that spread by rhizomes and seeds, to develop effective management.
  • Plant higher crop densities to block weed germination.
  • Shift between warm- and cool-season crops in your rotation to disrupt the life cycle of various weeds and reduce competition.
  • Include crops that have natural weed inhibitors like rye and sorghum.
  • Plant crops that can be sown late in the season and easily cultivated. Switching to transplants in horticultural crops can provide a jump on the season, and allows more soil to be thrown up around the plant without causing damage.

Insect Pests. Plan your rotation and soil-building strategies to manage insects and diseases. Be aware that elimination of pesticides can lead to temporary outbreaks of pests.

Before starting the transition, "minimize pesticide applications, and use pesticides with the least impact on natural enemies," said Abby Seaman, an extension educator with the New York State IPM program and Cornell University, who received a SARE grant to investigate the relationship between management practices and pest populations. "This will make the transition less jarring." Seaman also recommends:

  • Push the envelope with IPM practices, such as scouting and setting thresholds for pest populations. Gain experience spotting natural predators in the field.
  • Become familiar with acceptable management materials and start trying them.
  • Build soil organic matter to reduce disease pressure.

Livestock. Many farmers and ranchers who are already using pasture-based systems to raise their animals don't find the transition difficult. Beef producers in Nebraska are entering the organic market by using the pasture-based systems they've perfected over the last few years, said Martin Kleinschmit, sustainable agriculture specialist with the Center for Rural Affairs in Walthill, Neb.

"The transition is easy," Kleinschmit said, although certain rules must be met as you convert to organic production. Ranchers need to provide buffer areas - 25-foot fenced setbacks from conventional neighbors - on their pastures and keep animals out of streams.

Similarly, deep-bedded systems, such as those used in "hoop" barns for hogs, create a jumping-off point for would-be natural or organic pork producers.

With help from a SARE grant, Minnesota pork producer Dave Serfling decided to create a deep-bedded system for his 170 hogs. He converted an old, two-story barn into a straw-based system, an efficient way to generate heat through the animals' body warmth and manure, which composts in the straw. Not only does Serfling save on heating bills, but he also avoids manure storage concerns because the manure-straw mixture creates an ideal crop fertilizer.

"They can even stay warm on days when we record 30 degrees below zero," Serfling said. The hogs are able to grow in a group, exercising and interacting in a herd setting rather than living in individual crates.

Serfling sells his natural pork to an upscale food retailer that established animal welfare guidelines, including a no-crate rule, and supplies restaurants and premier retail stores. Serfling receives at least a 6-cent-per-pound premium.

Dairy farmers are well positioned for transitioning to organic if they use pasture as a major feed source and don't over-push their cows for production or utilize many antibiotics or hormones, said Lisa McCrory. Even if transitional farmers don't follow all these strategies, they can start one at a time by trying alternative dry cow therapies, eliminating prohibited materials such as hormones and antibiotics, and getting the cows grazing.

Pastured cows tend to need less medical treatment and antibiotics because of access to fresh air and exercise, so pasturing is an excellent way to begin a transition. Depending on a farmer's comfort level with grazing, it can take anywhere from one season to five years to learn to take full advantage of a pasture. McCrory also advises producers to:

  • Network with other successful organic dairy farmers for tips and information at farm demonstrations, conferences and meetings.
  • Expect cull rates to go up at first, because the older cows will have a hard time fitting into the new system.
  • Stay focused on the bottom line, rather than production numbers. Anticipate decreased production as your ratio of forage to grain increases. Many organic dairy farmers have reduced production goals yet still turn a higher profit than conventional operators because input costs such as veterinary bills, drugs and feed decrease.

Although the land to produce the organic grain must be managed according to organic standards for three years, the cows only need to be managed organically for one year, so some operators transitioning to organic sell off the milkers and keep the young stock for transition. Heifers eat very little grain, and most will be in compliance since they haven't received antibiotics, or drugs for dry-cow treatment.

For more information about transitioning dairy farms, see Cornell University's booklet, The Organic Decision! Transitioning to Organic Dairy Production. (See "Resources")

Poultry farmers who have adopted outdoor, minimal-confinement systems also have a similarly easy transition to organic systems. The small but growing practice of raising broilers, layers and turkeys in pasture-based systems lends itself to organic certification because it meets two of the requirements of the national rule for organic meat - outdoor access for livestock and elimination of antibiotics in feed.

Most alternative poultry producers already avoid antibiotics, saying birds not crowded together in confinement systems experience fewer infections. Producers still need to watch for diseases and weather-related stress. To control such incidence, consider:

  • Moving the birds frequently, allowing pathogens to die off when their food source is removed
  • Cleaning pens and brooders regularly between flocks