February 16, 2006: Cover crops are growing or hibernating
in eight bioregions—from California to Virginia, and
Mississippi to North Dakota—in fields of cooperators
in The Rodale Institute’s organic no-till research.
Farmer-researcher teams are assembling their one-pass, kill-plant
equipment for this spring, with each using a roller based
on the tool designed at The Rodale Institute® several
The ambitious research project expands the number of on-farm
test fields for the concept, which holds great promise to
reduce seasonal weed pressure in organic and non-organic systems
without using herbicides. It is based on rolling down a winter
cover crop (a winter grain, legume or a species mix) and planting
a cash crop in the same pass—without herbicides and
without tilling. When successful as designed, the early season
mulch from the rolled cover crop provides weed suppression,
nitrogen and preserves soil moisture, as well as organic matter
for the soil and habitat for beneficial insects—all
the while cutting out additional field passes to save fuel,
time and soil compaction.
Research goals are to better understand how variables of
cover crop species, best maturity stage for rolling, soil
conditions at rolling, planter foot/trash handling refinements
and cash crop selection all work together in each bioregion
under real farm conditions. Cash crops to be seeded by cooperating
farmers range from corn and soybeans to cotton to vegetables.
In Virginia, vegetable transplants will be going in.
Jeff Moyer, farm manager at The Rodale Institute, reports
strong interest in the innovative no-till system wherever
he goes to speak before farmers’ groups. “It’s
perfect for organic farmers, who can’t spray—and
everybody else, too. Nobody wants to till and spray more than
they have to.”
Read about roller innovations and the integrated cropping
systems they support on our “No-till Plus” page
Covers boost no-till benefits
The combination of no-till technology with a cover crop
that delivers multiple benefits gives conventional no-tillers
raising commodity grains extra reasons to diversify their
rotations. The change holds big benefits they could never
attain without the covers.
“Especially in humid tropical and temperate environments,
no-till alone may reduce erosion, but by itself the practice
is ineffective in building soil carbon and improving soil
quality,” says Dr. Wayne Reeves, research leader at
the USDA-ARS J. Phil Campbell Sr. Natural Resource Conservation
Center at Watkinsville, Georgia. “Cover crops and crop
rotations with high-residue crops are the other key components
of a conservation system that have the potential to do more
than maintain soil carbon.” Reeves has many years of
research experience with cover crops, tillage and sustainable
crop systems research.
The Rodale Institute (TRI) no-till project cooperators in
California and Mississippi will probably begin experimenting
in March, using rollers built from The Institute’s technical
drawings. A local fabricator has crafted two variations on
the original roller design: a 10 ft. 6 in. model (like the
TRI prototype), suitable for use with a four-row planter set
for 30-inch rows; and a 15 ft. 6 in. model, suitable for use
with a six-row planter on 30-inch rows but also workable for
a four-row planter on 38-inch rows.
Building the first models is Jacob Blank of I&J
Manufacturing, Gap, Pennsylvania. Being in Lancaster County
puts him within an extensive network of specialized steel
suppliers, engineers with ag experience and machinists who
provide laser cutting, he says.
By adding the Institute's cover crop roller to his equipment
inventory, Blank is making a strategic move toward no-till,
as are many of his former tillage tool customers—many
of whom farm with horse-drawn equipment. An earlier innovation
several years ago was a draw-behind roller/hooded sprayer
unit, designed to knock down mulches or weeds in the rows
between plastic-covered raised beds for vegetable production.
Roller system offers transition to organic
The Rodale Institute cover crop roller is in a similar vein,
but because of its ability to succeed without chemical herbicides,
it also fits in with a parallel trend toward organic management
among area farmers. Lancaster County boasts the highest density
of organic farms in Pennsylvania and one of the highest in
the country. This phenomena is a product, in part, of the
powerful combination of stewardship and enterprise in a time
of dynamic agricultural change that characterizes the county’s
“Plain” (Amish and conservative Mennonite) communities.
Organic farming can be a good fit for "plainer farmers,"
Blank adds, because it's often more labor intensive. It provides
a way to keep farming with higher-value crops and products
when land values rise but commodity prices don’t.
Moyer noted that while front-mounting the roller on a tractor
improves cover-crop kill (because it hits the plants before
they are pressed down into tire tracks), Amish operators could
pull the roller with horses without losing effectiveness.
To accommodate push or pull options, Blank re-tooled the roller
mounting design to allow roller movement in either direction
by changing several bolts.