Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Comparing Prairie Grass and Small Grain Straw for Mulching Vegetable Crops

SARE Farmer/Rancher Grant

Project Number:  FNC08-742 Brodhead, WI – Tony Ends

Objective: To compare a biodegradable mulch alternative to the rolled plastic mulch made from polyethylene film.

Comparison of oat and wheat straw 
and switchgrass as mulch
Results: We started producing vegetables for direct market sale in 1994 on Scotch Hill Farm. We grow more than 100 varieties of vegetables, including sweet corn, on 10 to 12 acres per year. On another 29 acres, we grow oats, wheat, hay, rye, and now switchgrass.

Controlling labor costs through reliable, cost-effective methods of suppressing weeds is vitally important. Rolled plastic mulch from polyethylene film has increasingly helped vegetable crop farmers control weeds since the 1950s. However, extracting and disposing of plastic mulch after the growing season poses challenges for most growers.

In addition, much of it ends up in landfills, which are filling up and closing. Consumers worry about lack plastic mulch leaching chemicals into soil during and after production.

We’ve used both black plastic and straw mulch to reduce labor expenses for seeding and cut cultivation time. Our SARE producer grant for comparison of oat, wheat, and switchgrass straw mulch took place in 2009 and 2010. We compared the performance of prairie grass straw to oat and wheat straw as organic mulch alternatives to black plastic for fresh market production of a variety of vegetable crops.

We also compared our own experience establishing 3- to 5-acre fields of oats, wheat, and prairie grass and their integration into our primary production and rotation of vegetable crops. All three mulch types were equally effective in delaying the emergence of weeds. Switchgrass seemed to host no plant disease, though some plant disease was detected in both the oat and wheat straw.  Learn more by clicking here.

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