Converting Your Farm to Organic for Profit and Pleasure—Chapter 6: Questions and Answers from the Northern Great Plains

In conclusion to this introduction of the basic principles of organic agriculture, I would like to open this discussion by sharing our experience over the last 30 years in the form of questions and answers.

Do you have questions about organic agriculture? Or perhaps you’ve overcome a particular challenge on your organic farm that could help others? Whether you’re a seasoned organic farmer or just getting started, we want to help. While we may not be able to answer specific questions outside our climate zone, the overall principles of organic regenerative agriculture do not change from place to place. But how you implement those principles certainly do change based on your location and climate. So message us on Facebook. Each month we will select a question and answer it here so everyone can benefit.

Chapter 6-2

July 26, 2016
What types of weeds do you struggle with and how do you manage them?
There are three main categories of weeds, each of which coincide with certain crops. For example, summer annual weeds, including some types of mustard, pig weed and Russian thistle, are companions to our spring crops like spring wheat, KAMUT® khorasan wheat and safflower. We use our spring crops, which are seeded in the fall, such as winter wheat and spelt, to control these summer weeds. Similarly, winter annual weeds, like fan weed, cheat grass and most mustards, are companions with our fall-seeded crops. Perennial weeds, such as Canadian thistle and creeping Jenny can appear in both types of crops and are the most difficult to control.

A great deal of time and effort must be devoted to weed management in organic agriculture. When these efforts are made consistently, patches of total weed infestation are eliminated, although scattered and mixed populations always remain.

Here are a few very important principles to keep in mind:

  1. Never let your weeds go to seed. We will mow patches of Canadian thistle before they go to seed and undercut harvested crops to prevent weeds from going to seed.
  2. The goal is management not eradication. We look at a few scattered weeds as plant diversity and do not worry about them much. You will know you are successful when solid weed patches disappear and are replaced by a scatter mix of individual, isolated plants.
  3. Use crop rotations to break up week cycles. If you have winter annual weeds, plant spring crops for a couple years. Whereas, if you have bad spring annual weeds, plants fall-seeded crops for a couple years.
  4. Use competitive crops for difficult problems. For example, barley is naturally competitive against summer annual weeds, buckwheat can be used for late-season weed clean up and alfalfa with compete with most any annual weeds.
  5. Soiling building green manure crops will also help, if they are worked down before weeds go to seed.
  6. Always plant into a fresh-tilled field to give your crop a head start against the weeds. A clean slate, so to speak, puts yours crops about a week or so ahead of the competition which is normally enough time for your crops to grow over the weeds and form a canopy that will shade the weeds. Once that happens, they will not be able to compete. If, because of rain immediately after seeding, the weeds come up with the crop, you must make an effort to take most of them out with a harrow or you may have to start over.
  7. Use as narrow a row spacing as possible to cover your fields with your crop plants which will then form a more effective canopy, as mentioned in #6.
  8. If you see a new type of weed in your fields, including those that may come in with purchased seed—like rye, for example—it would be worth your effort to walk the field and rough these new invaders out. I wish I had done that the first time I saw a few summer annual mustard plants, which we had not seen before in our area. And we have spent many hours roughing rye when it shows up and have been able to keep that serious contaminate off of our farm.

It’s important to remember, it is not the goal of organic agriculture to create pristine, weed-free fields. We do not judge the quality of a farmer in that way. And with proper management, weed pressure should decrease until there is no significant loss in yield. Of course you will always have problem areas but if they are addressed year by year, they will not get out of control. As any veteran farmer will tell you, there are no guarantees in farming. However, in organic agriculture we learn that being aware of each field individually by observation and by keeping detailed notes year after year, we are better able to find patterns and problem areas and formulate a plan to deal with challenges as they arise. And doing so, will produce success in the end.

May 31, 2016
Have you had trouble with clover weevil?
Yes. When we first started growing yellow blossom sweet clover as a soil building crop, we had no trouble with the clover weevil. Then one year, as will happen after an especially wet fall, the pastures and ditch banks everywhere were yellow with wild clover in bloom by mid-summer. We call this a clover year and it occurs every five or six years. We almost never have two clover years in a row.

The year after the clover year, we planted our clover as usual. After watching it come up normally, we then saw 100% of it disappear at the 2-3 leaf stage. It was being eaten by the clover weevil, which had grown in huge numbers during the clover year. When the clover population crashed the second year, all the clover weevils came to our clover fields looking for something to eat.

We found we can successfully avoid this problem by not planting clover in the year following a clover year. By doing this, we see very little clover weevil damage during the other years and are able to grow a clover crop quite successfully.