cows in field

Organically Enhancing Land with Multi-use Crops

By Tamara Scully, NODPA Contributing Writer


Buckwheat and cereal rye are two crops known for their use as a cover crop. But these crops are suited to other uses, too. Although the benefits of cover cropping are numerous, growers can “add value” to these cover by utilizing them in additional ways.

Buckwheat Benefits

The NOFA-NY winter conference session “Better Crops through Buckwheat” featured Klaas Martens of Lakeview Organic Grain and Dr. Thomas Björkman of Cornell AgriTech, along with Kyle Gifford of The Birkett Mills, covering buckwheat from planting to sale. While buckwheat is an ideal cover crop for vegetable growers, its characteristics also make it a ideal crop in many more situations, and dairy farmers in the Northeast may find many reasons to add a buckwheat crop.

Buckwheat is a pseudo-grain. It has fine roots which add tilth to soils, germinates quickly in proper conditions to prevent weed growth, has a root exudate that attacks pathogenic soil organisms, can be grown in low fertility soils, requires little cash outlay to plant and requires virtually no care until harvest.

The Birkett Mills is one ready market in the region, offering farmers a direct contract with a hundredweight price and no yield limits, and the demand for buckwheat for human use is growing. The current contracted price for 2023 is $45.00/cwt, Gifford said, and the mill needs all of the buckwheat it can procure, fueled by consumer demand for this gluten-free, versatile staple food which acts like rice or quinoa.

Organic Multi-tasker

When buckwheat flowers, which it does a few short weeks after planting, pollinators appear, including honeybees. The presence of pollinators is a boon to other crops, and the increased insect diversity can mean less pressure from pests, and more beneficial insects. Buckwheat itself has no pest or disease problems, and requires very little - if any - added fertility, qualities which make it ideal for organic farms.

Buckwheat suppresses weeds due to its rapid germination. In trials, portions of the same field with the same fertility were left fallow after a spring crop, and others were planted to buckwheat in early July. There were no weeds seen in the buckwheat plot, while the fallow ground had numerous perennial weeds by fall.

Buckwheat is recommended as a first crop when idle fields are being brought into production, as a rotation crop for hay or pasture, whenever ground is left bare following early crop harvest, or when land needs to be reclaimed from quackgrass, Dr. Björkman said.

Pioneers used buckwheat after clearing trees from the land, Martens said. Soil tilth is enhanced by buckwheat, due to actions of its fine roots. And if land was depleted, farmers would plant a buckwheat crop to release fertility from the soil and rejuvenate it. Buckwheat is good in fields where phosphorous is lacking, as it can break the bonds between phosphorous and other elements, making phosphorous available for its own use, and making it available in the soil.

“They seem to release more phosphorous than they use,” Martens said of buckwheat plants.

Martens has had excellent results utilizing buckwheat in fields where legumes are grown. Legumes are prone to root rot, and buckwheat has a root exudate which erodes the cell walls of pathogenic soil nematodes and fungi which cause root rot. He’s found “a huge difference in the health of the legume crops that follow.”

Aside from the benefits to the soil and subsequent crops, buckwheat is also a high-value forage crop. It can be planted and harvested for haylage or baleage at flowering, which occurs in as little as five or six weeks, Dr. Björkman said. When cut at this time, the protein is good and the digestibility is high. This allows those facing forage shortages a chance to plant buckwheat, rather than buying in hay. Buckwheat can also be grazed.

“It really has a high feed value. It’s an excellent forage crop,” he said.

From Planting to Harvest

While buckwheat is low-care from planting to harvest, those steps must be done correctly to insure a worry-free crop. The seed does well in low fertility soil as long as it is planted in non-compacted soils. Shallow planting, at the rate of 50lbs/acre if drilling seed and 50-70lbs/acre if broadcasting, is ideal. Uniform spacing of no more than 10 inches means the plant will quickly out-compete weeds due to its rapid germination.

Areas in which puddling occur are to be avoided, as the seed won’t germinate if it is too wet after planting, including if heavy rains occur. It does not do well when trying to germinate in the intense summer heat either.

“You have to do every one of these steps with a great deal of care to have success,” with growing buckwheat, Dr. Björkman said. Buckwheat planted early or late, depending on climate, might lose vigor and have reduced yield. In poor soils, it will require more fertility to produce well. It can do well in low pH if the soil is healthy.

Buckwheat seed is ready for harvest when it is primarily black. At this time, the plant is still green, and may even have some flowers. But if the seed is left longer, it will drop, so a timely harvest is important. It can be direct combined, however a special rotor needs to be used, to prevent tangling. Windrow harvesting by cutting the swath high and allowing it to cure for a week or so allows it to be combined quickly and readily.

Establishing buckwheat is low cost, and the time and labor needed to grow the crop are minimal. It is typically planted in early July and harvested in October, although ideal times are going to be highly dependent on location and desired use of the crop. Early or late planting can allow double cropping or use as a cover crop. If frost occurs, the plant must be harvested within 24- 48 hours or the grain will drop.

Harvesting the seeds for sale, utilizing the plant for forage, or adding buckwheat as a cover crop: the benefits buckwheat provides to the soil make it an appealing rotation crop in a myriad of situations. With few drawbacks, buckwheat offers organic dairy farmers options to enhance their soils, feed their cows and diversify their income stream.

This organic-friendly crop - relatively pest and disease free, requiring little time or inputs to grow - is valued for its ability to enhance soil tilth, reduce soil pathogens and add fertility to soil naturally. It adds economic value through these intrinsic qualities, has value as a dairy forage crop, and can also be sold as a in-demand cash crop as the popularity of buckwheat for human consumption continues to grow.

Developing Rye’s Potential

University of Vermont Extension Agronomist Heather Darby is well-versed in growing cereal rye, popularly used as a cover crop. She presented a session, “Capturing Value with Cereal Rye” at the recent NOFA-NY Winter Conference, offering farmers ways to do more with this valuable cover crop.

“Cover crops in our landscape are really important, but there are other things we can do with rye as well,” Darby said. “So many farmers are familiar with rye now. It’s the most widely grown grain in our state (Vermont.) What else could we do with that, to maybe add additional value?”

Dairy farmers have been finding real value by using rye as a forage, by mowing it down and harvesting it in the fall, and by having cows graze it in the spring after planting it as a fall cover crop. Darby shared data from Practical Farmers of Iowa which demonstrated the potential of cereal rye cover crops to provide spring forage to dairy herds.

“There are variety differences, especially in regards to yields,” she said, with some hybrid varieties are showing large yield gains. “Two and a half tons of feed the first thing in the spring is really helpful to many farmers, and cereal rye is ready before anything else.”

Harvesting cereal rye grain for animal feed is a growing trend in the United States. Hybrids are also yielding higher grain yields. Rye is cross-pollinated via the wind, but hybrids on the market are not open pollinated, but have been developed via a specialized breeding system.

Due to its root system, which can grow one meter deep, cereal rye is drought-tolerant and it requires 20 to 30 percent less water than does wheat. It is hardy, with more frost tolerance than wheat, too. Rye germinates at 33 to 41 degrees Fahrenheit, and grows quickly in the fall, typically forming tillers, which provide about half of its yield.

It does require at least 40 days of freezing temperatures for vernalization, so is best suited to northern regions, and matures in 295 days. Spring-planted cereal rye won’t produce grain, as the seeds can’t vernalize, but it can be valuable as a forage crop.

Fusarium head blight is an issue, as is ergot, whether grown for human or livestock use. Fusarium fungi can produce mycotoxins which impact immune, gastrointestinal and reproductive systems. Ergot is a fungal structure produced by Claviceps fungi, which overwinters, and it grows out of the grain where the seed should be. These are highly toxic to livestock and humans, causing gangrene and other serious concerns. Ergot germinates and re-infects the grain, and growers need to clean this out before the grain can be utilized for livestock feed or food production. There is a growing market demand for locally-grown rye grain.

This winter annual is valued as a rotation crop in corn-soybean systems, establishing well in cold temperatures following the fall corn harvest, and preventing erosion, enhancing soil health and allowing a hay or grain crop to be harvested prior to planting soybeans in spring. Rye requires less inputs and expense than corn, and may be an alternative to corn for some farmers.

“Rye doesn’t use as much water. It doesn’t use as much fertilizer,” as corn does, Darby said.

With environmental benefits, feed benefits, a growing market as a food crop, cereal rye - like buckwheat - is evolving from a cover crop into a multi-use crop which can add value to the farm in many ways. Dairy farmers can harvest these crops for forage, graze them, or harvest for grain depending on need, allowing flexibility while gaining ecosystem and economic benefits.