Cultivating/replanting a hay field and growing barley organically

Hi all, I am a newbie farmer, have a 100 acre farm which is being farmed by a local tenant, all conventional methods. I am interested in converting the whole operation to organic, am starting with 2 handy 5 acre fields which are separate from the rest. One is a hay field which is a mixture of a bunch of different grasses, maybe some alfalfa thrown in, hasn’t had anything sprayed on it for 20 years or so. The local conventional farmers tell me I wouldn’t be able to grow anything on it even if I plowed and cultivated it, the grass will keep coming back. They recommend spraying it with Roundup first and killing the grass, then going at it. Doing that would defeat my purpose somewhat and would also set the clock back as far as organic certification goes. Wondering if anyone has a better suggestion.
2nd issue, I want to try to grow some malting barley. Am told I will need to use a fungicide… I don’t believe there are any organic options, maybe I’m wrong. Any tips on growing barley organically? I have 2 fields at my disposal, one was in wheat last year, the other the aforementioned hay field. I’ve just read that it is best to not plant barley in a field that had small grain in it previously due to the common diseases, wondering if that might have been mitigated by the fact that last years crop was sprayed etc.
Any and all advice would be appreciated.

If I remember correctly, copper sulfate, a fungicide, can be used under organic certification. However, I don’t know how well that would work on barley as I have never done it myself. And yes, if you follow up wheat with barley you run the risk of passing on things like leaf rust (which is fungal). The spray may have worked for the previous crop, but its effects won’t last forever and I don’t believe that spraying it will kill fungal spores. just the fungus itself.

As to your original problem with ridding yourself of the current pasture, I don’t have any realistic ideas on how you can manage that without working the soil to death or using Roundup, and I don’t like either of those solutions any more than you do. :confused:

Step one: stop listening to your local conventional farmers.
Step two: go talk to their fathers or grandfathers who farmed without RoundUp and fungicides and somehow managed just fine!

Kidding aside, a well-done moldboard plow job will terminate that sod, and done right, you won’t need to work the soil to death. Only plow deep enough to completely detach the roots, and don’t flip the furrow all the way over. The better the plow job, the less secondary tillage is required. Wait till the sod is dead, cultivate or disc, then establish an aggressive cover crop (like buckwheat or oats, depending on the time of year). By next spring, you’ll have a clean field, ready for whatever crop you want to grow. You can move from sod to crops without destroying soil health: use tillage tools properly (and at the proper time), do the minimum required, and re-establish living roots as soon as possible.

The vast majority organic small grains like wheat or barley grown in Ontario are not sprayed with fungicides of any kind. A healthy soil and diverse rotations are the best prevention (so like Denis says, barley after wheat isn’t a great idea). Rust is a concern in some years, yes. Having a soil with adequate levels of potassium, manganese, and copper will grow plants with natural resistance to fungal pathogens. (If hay has been continually harvested from your land for years with nothing put back, it could be low in minerals - do a soil test!) Last year, some farmers in Ontario were pleased with the benefits of applying foliar EcoTea to their wheat crops to counter rust and other leaf diseases - using good biology to outcompete the bad and to stimulate the plant’s natural defences (full disclosure - I work for the company that distributes EcoTea in Ontario).

If you don’t have a copy already, the Canadian Organic Growers’ Organic Field Crop Handbook is a good general reference.

Hope this helps!

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Thank you very much. My local guy has been very helpful - despite the fact that he is still farming conventionally, does remember some of the old ways. He suggested “lightly” plowing the ex-wheat field - there was enough volunteer wheat that I believe it was acting somewhat like a cover crop, in that there were very little weeds, just a uniform field of new wheat. I plowed and disced it, maybe didn’t wait long enough between those 2 operations but I could see that the wheat was dying after being turned over for a day or two, the base of the plant was yellow. To be honest that was just by luck, I hadn’t considered that as a factor in the equation. I thought I was killing the plant just by turning it over but anyways, now I’m ready to plant. I guess my only question is whether I should disc it one more time to get rid of some remaining clumps of wheat roots or minimize the tillage and just plant it.
I’ll definitely get a copy of the handbook you suggest and also get my soil tested. I’ve read that buckwheat can either be planted early in the year or late in the summer, am considering working the hayfield after the first cut of hay comes off and planting the buckwheat then. Any thoughts on that?
All the best,

Hi Denis,
Your first question is tough to answer without more information. What are you planning on planting into the ex-wheat field? Are the remaining clumps dead, or still green? Are they big enough to interfere with the planting and/or future weed control passes?

Buckwheat after first cut is a good strategy. Buckwheat usually takes 6 weeks from planting to flowering, so keep that in mind if you want to harvest a crop, or have it frost-kill before it sets seed! Pollination during hot weather can have a big negative impact on yield, which is why when it’s grown for grain, it’s planted later than most crops.


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