A day spent planting covercrop

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Not a very engaging title, is it?  Yet it is descriptive, and that’s what we’re going for. Pictured above, you’ll see the Gator loaded with seed. What seed, you ask? We use a blend of barley, rye, and crimson clover as our mainstay covercrop mix. It comes from a local supplier (S&S Seeds in Carpinteria), and is great biomass for the money. The clover should add a little Nitrogen, but frankly the vigorous rye and barley usually crowd it out. If we’re looking for N, we plant that separately, but that’s a different story.

One of the most important elements to our covercrop program is timing. We want the cover in the orchard rows to grow without reliance on the tree’s sprinklers. Sure, they’ll pick up a little, but the goal is to dryfarm the covercrop. To get things started, we want to plant just before a rain. And we’re picky… too little rain causes the seeds to sprout and die; too much might rinse them away, along with some of the topsoil we’re working to build. We want 1 to 2 inches or rain after most fall orchard operations are over. And yesterday, conditions were perfect. Cool, overcast, and a 100% chance of rain today.

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Step 1: Prepping the seed bed. To protect the topsoil, we rarely disc the soil, but opening it up to get the covercrop seeded is one time we make an exception. In the picture above, Carlos handles the discing. Doesn’t that soil look nice?

Much better than the pictures below… These were taken along the edge of the orchard that fronts CA 126. We don’t cover this strip every season, and it is indicative of what our orchard soil would be looking like if we didn’t cover at all. Note how the disc has only scratched at the surface of the hardened clay.

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Now check out two more. See the difference? Much more crumbly, more organic matter, and darker color. The color is partly from the soil quality, but mostly because it is holding moisture… Exactly what you want your soil to do in a drought.

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The rest of the day looks pretty much like this, with the exception of breaks to empty 50 pound sacks of seeds into the hopper. Up and down, up and down, 80 rows of trees. Ah, the glamour of farming.

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But it does feel good when everything works as planned. Today’s rain arrived as expected and this season’s covercrop is on it’s way!

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This picture from February 2013 gives a good idea of what we will can expect in February 2015. Lots of biomass. We don’t have a practical way to measure it, but it should be 3000 to 4000 pounds to the acre. 90 pound Otto is included for scale.

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