Green Manure

I no longer like to make pure Red Clover hay; I think it is not good for dairy cattle for at least two reasons: 1) the pseudoestrogens in it mess with their hormones, to the point that open heifers will develop udders, and 2) because pure legume hay is too rich in nitrogen making cow urine smell heavily of ammonia. As soon as I switched off pure legume hay and went back to mixed grass-legume hay, both of these problems immediately stopped. So what to do with all the legume hayfields? Well, my answer is green manure, which, if you don’t have animals, should be the foundation of a serious gardening operation.

One of the problems with compost is that there is never enough of it. Another problem is that it is difficult to make compared to the perceived reward (which is delayed by months or years), and so most folks get lazy with it. I’ve never actually witnessed ANYONE in real life (sure, I’ve seen pictures in books and videos on you tube) making good compost in anywhere near an adequate quantity to get real gardening done or undertake restoration of worn out fields. This is why most gardeners resort to lightweight, convenient bagged fertilizer, to which I am opposed.

Instead of fighting human nature, I sort of try to roll with it, and green manure is definitely one of those ways, since it is essentially nothing more than mowing a hayfield, which is the easy part of making hay, and not raking or gathering, which is the hard part. Yes, green manuring is that simple. Just get a high-yeilding locally adapted legume growing–Red Clover, Sweetclover, or Alfalfa–and let the mown herbage rot down, enriching the soil with organic matter, nitrogenous residue, and feeding the subterranean livestock (earthworms). The best mower for this job is a heavy duty rotary lawnmower, a brushog, a flail mower, or a disc mower–anything that will chop up the herbage to promote its breakdown. But I don’t have any of those mowers; I just have a $120 cheapo push-type lawnmower for the lawns around my house that will bog down in something like Red Clover and my sickle-bar mower, a problem I aim to remedy. In any case, it still works with a sickle-bar mower just more slowly.


This field was the wheat and rye cum red clover (which I frost seeded in February).

I mowed when the Red Clover was in full bloom, and so the plants had plenty of time to establish their root structures. I wasn’t aiming for maximum production here, but I wanted to give the plants a chance to really establish themselves, especially since they will have to push through all that thick herbage.

We will also use herbage to mulch our succession planted crops. Now that many of our crops our done, I will thoroughly till them in (something that should be done with all Cucurbits to set back Striped Cucumber beetle larvae, which overwinter in cucurbit stems) and plant turnips, carrots, kale, cabbages, and beets. While mulch is not necessary, it is particularly helpful in retaining moisture this time of year. It certainly wont hurt anything.

Now that I no longer use pure Red Clover hay, I think it advisable to add some Sweetclover to it. Sweetclover, which is more closely related to Alfalfa and has a very deep taproot, but is a biannual plant, works well with Red Clover. Sweetclover alone I am not impressed with. It does not grow as rapidly as Red Clover and doesn’t compete as aggressively with weeds, and is not as winter hardy, but I’ve seen mixes of about 70% Red Clover and 30% Sweetclover marketed as “plowdown mixes”–essentially green manuring. The reason why many people are reluctant with Sweetclover is that hay made from it can be dangerous to animals. A mold that grows on Sweetclover converts harmless coumarin contained in the plant to dicoumarol, a powerful anti-coagulant (similar to Warfarin), which kills livestock as easily as Warfarin kills rats. So, while Sweetclover is safe for animals to graze, and I’ve raised a cow on a diet of essentially Winter Barley and Sweetclover green chop, I’ve never dared to make hay from the stuff. Now that I won’t be making hay, I will be adding some Sweetclover to the Red Clover and hopefully get the plow-pan busting and tilth-building benefits of Sweetclover with none of the drawbacks. Plus, unlike Red Clover, which is nearly useless as Honeybee forage, Sweetclover is a prime Honeybee forage plant. Nothing made me happier recently that reading that Honeybees are making a comeback. I wonder if it has anything to do with the partial ban on Nicotinoid pesticides in Europe or all the forage plantings people have been doing stateside.

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