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Growing Plants for Biodiversity on the Farm

An on-farm applied study of using “farmscaping” and beneficial planting principles on farms of all scale.

The Project at a Glimpse

Introduction

The idea of growing a crop with the purpose of benefiting others is nothing new to agriculture. Cover cropping, nurse crops, and interactions between neighboring plants has long been used and studied as means to improve agricultural and natural interactions. In this on-farm study, diverse plots were planted in the marginal field areas that are either difficult to plant, poor yielding, subject to erosion, or otherwise neglected. Planting a mixture of warm-season plants is intended to provide: habitat for beneficial insects and wildlife, flowers for pollinators, biomass for soil structure, and weed suppression through good leaf canopy cover. This qualitative research of the planted biodiversity crops will consider the establishment techniques, species selection, timing, and benefits for agriculture systems of any scale.

Plot Descriptions

Six plots were planted (totaling 6 acres of plots):

  • Two Field Crop Commodity Farms
  • One Blueberry Farm with wildlife management goals
  • One Blueberry and Vegetable Farm
  • One small acreage sustenance farm with a horse operation

Mix Planted

Buckwheat – Cool season and Summer annual that covers soil quickly and produces a flower in 70 days. For weed suppression, Phosphorus scavenging, nectar source, and soil erosion reduction due to fine fibrous roots.

Sunflower– Native summer annual. Produces large amounts of biomass and provides pollen for bees. Semi-drought tolerant and quick growing. Sunflower also provides a large root mass that is beneficial in maintaining soil structure and reducing erosion effects. Research shows a reduction in corn borer, soybean cyst, and other crop pests with sunflower production in a crop rotation.

Sunn Hemp -Sunn Hemp is a tall, herbaceous, warm-season, annual legume producing up to 120 lbs of Nitrogen and 5,000 lbs of dry matter per acre in just 9 to 12 weeks. Adapted to poor soils and has rapid growth (up to 9 ft). Potential to improve soil quality, reduce soil erosion, conserve soil moisture, suppress weeds and nematodes, recycle plant nutrients, as well as provide insectary habitat.

Yellow Sweet Clover – Biennial forming large plants with lots of biomass (up to 8,500 lbs per acre in 2 years) and having a strong taproot that breaks up compacted soils. The flowers attract honeybees, tachnid flies, and large predatory wasps. This plant is highly adapted to drought and poor soil.

Brown Top Millet- Annual, warm-season grass. Fast growing cover to suppress weeds, provide cover for wildlife and insects, reduce erosion, and prevent wind damage. Also known to suppress Root-knot Nematodes. Large seed production provides food for small wildlife.

Ratio of Mix

Buckwheat 20 lbs
Sunn Hemp 7 lbs
Sunflower 4 lbs
Browntop Millet 4 lbs
Yellow Sweet Clover 3 lbs
Putting seed mix into seed drill

Filling seed mix in seed drill.

Methods

Utilizing a 5-foot, no-till drill pulled by a minimum of a 50-60 horsepower tractor, the seed mix was planted at a rate of 38 pounds per acre. The drill was adjusted and calibrated to that rate and a planting depth of about 1.25″-1.5″.

Image of tractor

Tractor pulling no-till drill to plant between power poles and the road in a non-cultivated strip.

The planting dates ranged from June 15 to June 28, 2018

The drill was followed and checked to ensure good seed placement and distribution.

Each site was chosen based on the objectives of the producer. The sites all were typically uncultivated or marginally productive.

Each site was observed weekly for 16 weeks for: germination, growth, flowering period, insect frequencies, and stand quality.

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