Saturday, September 12, 2015

Better Late Than Never 2015 Garden Cover Crop Update

Back in early May, I planted some alternating hills of corn and pinto beans along with some alternating hills of squashes, watermelons, and beans as a cover cropping experiment.  At the time, I said I was going to try to document the progress of this sort of cover crop planting and then I promptly forget about putting any updates at all on the blog (mainly because all of the photos I took along the way turned out all blurry for some reason).  But while looking through some photos, I happened to find a couple taken sometime in late-June that weren't all blurry which makes it a whole lot easier to show what was going on this summer with this cover crop.
approx. 6/28 - corn is just starting to tassel
Notice the hills of beans in between each hill of corn in the "row of corn"

This area of the garden was planted with the mixture of corn, beans, squash and watermelons right about the time most of the heavy rains we received this spring really started coming (rainfall totals were close to 30" in 30 days), but it seemed like the garden just sucked up every bit of rain and didn't really got waterlogged.  I don't know if it was a combination of the mountain of compost I spread years ago, the biochar, the residue from the cover crop mix, the earthworm activity, or a combination of all of the above, but it was pretty interesting the way the water just kept soaking into the ground.  Of course, I also could have just been seeing what I wanted to see, and the rain would have soaked in regardless of what I'd done in the garden.

I was looking forward to eating some watermelons out of this garden this year, but the pinto beans overwhelmed the watermelons and squash faster than I thought they would, and this was a home-grown watermelon-less summer for me and mine.  The next time I try something like this, I'll plant the  watermelons in their own row, with anything else planted at least 3-4 feet away so that I hopefully won't have to suffer through another watermelon-less summer.  
It's not really impressive corn, but there was some corn at the end of summer
I was a little surprised at how the corn grew when it was planted in hills like this.  My original thinking when I planted these alternating hills of corn and beans was that it would be more of a thicker cover crop type of planting with not very many ears of corn.  I also wasn't too sure about what sort of pollination I'd get, if any, with the the rows of corn spaced on six foot centers. But after the corn dried down I found a decent amount of harvestable ears of corn in almost every hill I'd planted. 

The corn was an open-pollinated corn variety (87 day Minnesota 13) that I first planted about 6-7 years ago and I've been saving seed from that first planting since then, so I made sure to save all the nice big ears of corn I could find. Growing OP corn and saving seed is interesting (at least to me) and I had grand plans for it on the farm back when I first started trying to grow it, so I might share a little about what I think about OP corn in the future.  

It's hard to define if this "experiment" was a success or failure (whatever that might mean to you or me), but I did come up with a few ideas about what I might try in the future both on the farm and in the garden.   

I've been thinking that I could easily use the planter to plant a cover crop of alternating rows of corn and beans (soybeans or cowpeas) simply by installing alternating corn and soybeans plates.  My planter uses a 30 cell corn plate and a 120 cell soybean plate so I could easily get the seed counts pretty close to optimum for both (i.e. the equivalent of 25K corn seeds and 100K soybean seeds per acre in each row).  A field of alternating rows of corn and cowpeas (or grain sorghum and cowpeas) would make a pretty interesting looking cover crop, and it's possible that I might even be able to harvest some corn, or I could just use the cattle to harvest it either during the summer or over the winter. 

Or, I might just mix some corn and beans together in each planter box and plant them as a mixture to duplicate the row of alternating hills of corn and beans.

It's interesting how ideas and plans can come from a handful of seeds, somewhere to plant them, a few photos, and a little head-scratching trying to figure out what you're seeing.  As always, so many ideas, but so little time and energy.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Baling Sorghum-sudangrass Hay

Looking east across a field of sorghum-sudangrass
There's nothing really exciting about baling some sorghum-sudangrass hay, but for some reason it seems like there are a lot of visits to the blog looking at the sorghum-sudangrass stuff, so for what its worth I thought I'd write about the sorghum-sudangrass I grew this summer. 

I planted about 36 acres of sorghum-sudangrass back on June 24, but instead of grazing it after it winter-killed like I did last year, I decided to bale it this summer.  One of the main reasons for baling hay instead of grazing it this winter is that I'm planning on planting grain sorghum next spring and I don't want to take the risk of ending up with a bunch of volunteer sorghum-sudnagrass in my grain sorghum field like I had this year.  Depending on how much rain we get, the sorghum-sudangrass should easily regrow to about 18-24 inches tall in the next few weeks or so, then I'll graze it off with the cattle and plant some wheat as a cover crop (at a much lower rate than I'd normally plant).  I'm thinking about planting a simple mix of wheat and turnips to feed the worms, cattle, and deer, but I don't know if that will happen until it happens.    

This summer, I planted a photoperiod-sensitive type of sorghum-sudangrass which means it won't start heading until the days get shorter than 12.5 hours in length. Because of that trait, it is supposed to make a higher quality hay because the maturity is delayed until sometime in September, which means it produces more leaves for a longer period of time instead of producing a head and getting more stemmy.  All of that also means that the seed costs more, and at this point, I'm a little undecided about if it grew any differently than "ordinary" sorghum-sudangrass would have grown and if the extra seed cost was worth it, although I'm leaning awful hard in the direction that ordinary, cheaper sorghum-sudangrass would work just as well for the way I grow and manage it.

From what I've seen,  photoperiod-sensitive sorghum-sudangrass would be better suited to a situation where it was being planted in late-April and was going to be cut for hay multiple times over the summer.   If you're going to double crop it after wheat or are planning to graze it in the summer, the ordinary, hopefully cheaper varieties of sorghum-sudangrass might be the better choice.
It's almost hard to see where you're driving in a field of 5-6 foot tall grass

The cropland around here is all terraced, so I usually try to break the fields up when I cut them for hay so that I'm not driving up and down the terraces on the ends as much (which probably doesn't make any sense at all to someone that doesn't know what I'm talking about).  In other words, instead of cutting one big square, I like to divide it up into two or more long rectangles.  All of that means that I have to dive into the middle of the field on that first pass across the field and almost drive blind while trying to follow a terrace. This year, I only had to deal with grass about 5-6 ft. tall, but I've cut some that was 8 ft. tall where I almost ran through the fence on the end when I didn't turn soon enough, it felt like driving in thick fog and almost going off of a cliff. So, if you plant some sorghum-sudangrass, don't wait too long to cut it, and I wouldn't plant it if you have a bunch of hidden obstacles in your field.

Besides that, baling sorghum-sudangrass is about the same as any other grass hay except that it's a little trickier getting it dry enough to bale while also trying to make sure it doesn't get too dry.  If anyone is thinking about baling sorghum-sudangrass, it's pretty important to cut it with something like a disc mower conditioner which crimps the stem so that it will dry down quick enough.  Even though I use a disc mower, most of the time it'll take at least an extra day or so for it to be dry enough to bale. 
Every time I've baled sorghum-sudangrass, the bales seem to come out much heavier and tighter than my other grass hay bales.  I've never weighed any bales, but I'd guess that my sorghum-sudangrass bales are at least 10-20% heavier, so there's even more hay out there than you'd think there was at first glance.

My bales also always seem to have a "shaggy" look to them when they are first baled, it always makes me get off of the tractor to double-check those first bales since it looks like the bales aren't being tied right or are loose, but I think it's just the nature of the grass and after the bales have set for a while they start to lose that "shaggy" look.  A net-wrapped bale wouldn't have that temporary shagginess, but since my baler gives me twine-wrapped bales, the shagginess doesn't bother me at all (besides that, I'm not a big fan of net-wrapped bales).  

That's about all I know about sorghum-sudangrass hay.  It grows quick, needs a little nitrogen but not too much, it can sometimes be difficult to get dry, it makes heavy bales, and my cattle seem to attack any bales of it that I feed them (there's almost no waste and they practically lick the ground clean to get every last bit of hay).