Organic research conducted by MSU Extension at Kellogg Biological Station

Controlling weeds, potassium sources, soybean production and cover crops are just some of the projects MSU Extension is researching for organic farming systems.

The Michigan State University Extension (MSUE) Cover Crop Program at the W.K. Kellogg Biological Station (KBS) began conducting organic research in 1996. In 1997, we had 12 acres certified organic through the Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA). We now have 15 acres certified organic where we conduct small plot research that is driven by farmer advisory groups.

In 1996, MSU had only a few researchers working with organic farmers. Over the past 15 years, that has changed tremendously to where MSU is one of the top Land Grant universities researching organic farming systems.

Some of the research projects being conducted are described below.

Evaluation of an organic no-till system for corn and soybean production. This is a six-state (Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota and Pennsylvania) long-term, no-till organic cropping system project. We are measuring crop productivity, yields, soil quality and economic performance. The crimper/roller is being evaluated as a tool to enhance organic no-till practices. The crimper/roller crushes the cover crop, leaving a mulch that shades out weeds and prevents them from germinating. Following this crushing, we no-till drill or plant soybeans or corn into the mulch. Hairy vetch and cereal rye are being used in this study for both corn and soybean production. The no-till treatments are being compared to more traditional conventional-tilled treatments for corn and soybeans. Each state also has the same experiment being conducted on an organic farmer’s field. This is the third year of a four-year project.

Controlling weeds using flame heat for organic farmers. A study was initiated at KBS to evaluate the time of day for the best results of flame burning weeds in corn systems. A six-row flamer was used at 8:00 AM, 12 noon, 4:00 PM and 8:00 PM in organic corn. The study was conducted over two years and the results will be presented by MSU weed scientist Christy Sprague at this year’s MOSES conference.

Evaluation of organic potassium sources for alfalfa. In 2009, the field had been a crop of organic no-till soybeans with rye, and had cereal rye and clover growing, making it necessary to moldboard plow. In 2010, the first year of this project was spent establishing the alfalfa. A field farmed organically for the past three years was moldboard plowed on March 19. The untreated alfalfa seed was donated to the project by Cisco Seeds.

The field was planted to alfalfa at 28 lbs/A with a nurse crop of oats at 1 bu/A on April 12. Timely rains and warm weather resulted in good establishment of the oats and alfalfa. The oats became competitive with the alfalfa by late May, and based on advice from MSU’s forage specialist, the oats were mowed off and removed on June 11. Weeds overtook the 2-3 inch alfalfa after mowing, and were flail mowed and removed on August 6. An excellent alfalfa stand resulted from these management strategies. In 2011, sulphate of potash (SOP, Great Salt Lake Minerals Corporation) and dairy slurry as potassium sources will be compared to an untreated control for their influence on alfalfa yield and quality.

Evaluation of eight legume cover crops no-till drilled into wheat stubble and their influence on organic corn yield. Since nitrogen is often a limiting factor for organic corn, a study was conducted to compare several legumes no-till drilled after wheat harvest for their nitrogen contribution to corn the following season. Red clover, hairy vetch and crimson clover resulted in the highest corn yields in 2010 at 117, 105 and 103 bu/A respectively. We drilled Austrian winter pea at two rates, 60 and 90 lbs/A, where the 90 lb. rate resulted in a 5 bushel corn yield gain of 96 bu/A, as compared to 60 lbs/A rate at 91 bu/A. The sweet clover treatment resulted in a corn yield of 97 bu/A, which was comparable to the 90 lb/A Austrian winter pea treatment at 96 bu/A. Vernal alfalfa, chickling vetch and the no cover crop control had the lowest yield of 82, 85 and 84 bu/A respectively.

Our results indicate that in Michigan on sandy loam soils, red clover provided the best corn yield compared to the other tested legumes.

Brassica mustard as a cover crop for weed control in the spring. This study involves using two varieties of mustard – Tilney and Ida Gold – that were planted on four separate dates. A quadrant of no cover crop (bare ground) was left in each plot to evaluate weed pressure without cover crops. Biomass samples were taken during the spring. Cover crop biomass was compared to weed biomass. In 2010 we had an early spring and were able to plant earlier than most seasons. These data should help farmers evaluate mustards as a spring weed control tool. Three states are conducting this experiment – Michigan, New York and Illinois.

Organic dry bean production and weed control. A dry bean variety and production trial is being initiated in 2011. We have tested 32 varieties of dry beans over the past three years on our certified organic soil. A more expansive research project at KBS and on organic farms will be evaluated over the next four years.

Other research projects being conducted by the MSUE Cover Crop group at sites other than KBS are organic pumpkins, organic tomatoes, 13 oilseed radish and seven other brassicas variety trial with NRCS and University of Minnesota.

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