Growing grain without tillage, chemicals, equipment, or work

We are currently experimenting with easy and sustainable ways to grow grain crops to help supplement pasture forage for our pigs and poultry. Currently, we purchase locally grown organic, non-GMO corn and beans from nearby farms. However, it’s expensive, and even though it’s organic, it’s still grown using conventional tillage that leads to soil degradation and erosion. Farmers have been tilling the soil for 10,000 years in order to destroy existing vegetation and provide an open substrate for their preferred grain seeds to germinate and grow. This strategy works great for growing grain crops, but has the unintended consequences of soil erosion, compaction, and oxidizing carbon into the atmosphere, depleting soil fertility. There’s got to be a better way.In order to smother vegetation and prevent the growth of grass and weeds in the spot we wanted to grow grain, we fed out bales of hay to the cattle in the winter. Instead of feeding round bales in a feeder, we simply put them on the ground and let the cattle waste some hay. We fed the bales in sequence along the valley floor in a grid with bales about 20′ apart. Just far apart to cover all the ground with hay and manure, without much overlap.

In late May when the ground warmed up and frost was no longer a concern, I went back to the bale feeding area and broadcasted seed over an area about 30′ squared. I just mixed corn and soybean seed in a five gallon bucket and tossed it out so that the seeds were spread out between 3-6” apart. Then I put out a few feed troughs, filled them with alfalfa pellets, and yelled out “Hey Cows!” We have a herd of around 50 cows, calves, and yearlings that came running, crowded around the troughs, and scarfed down the alfalfa. In doing so, they pressed those seeds down through the hay pack and into the soil.

Every day for a week or two, I broadcasted seed and gave the cows their treats, and ended up planting about an acre of corn and beans.

The experiment was a huge success. The corn and beans both came up strong and flourished. There were a few spots where the seeds germinated, but did not flourish. Growth stagnated, their leaves turned yellow, and they ended up outcompeted by weeds. I think these spots had too

much hay packed down, and either nitrogen was limited from microbial feeding on the hay pack, or else the roots weren’t able to get through the top of the soil.  When I do it next year, I’ll make extra sure the hay bales are far enough apart and I don’t feed two bales in the same spot. The soybeans did great around the edges of the corn, but the corn was so thick, the beans didn’t produce much in the shade of the corn. Next year, I’ll probably just plant corn.

So what are we doing with all our corn? First, we’re harvesting a bunch for ourselves. We enjoy making our own corn tortillas and frying them in our pastured lard. Basically the best food ever. So we’re harvesting and drying the corn in order to grind and eat. Then we’re bringing the pigs in to hog down all the rest of the corn and beans, and the poultry to clean up after the pigs.  That way we’re feeding less bought feed, which is why we did this experiment in the first place. We’ll definitely be dedicating an acre or two of land to this type of planting in the future for sustainable, no-till, no-fuel, no-work grain crops.