Trying high-residue no-till on a budget

Update 4/1/15: Since writing this post originally, I have received feedback from a few people that this system has been hard to implement effectively. It takes a lot of weight to crimp the cover crops, there can be a good amount of re-growth, and in shaped beds, the angle iron fails to make contact with the whole bed. I’ve decided to leave the post up here to continue to promote discussion on small-scale systems for high-residue cover crops. Got experience (good or bad) with small-scale roller-crimpers? This angle-iron tool or BCS attachments? Please get in touch and add to this conversation.

Original Post

With all the talk of roller crimpers, it might seem like high-residue no-till is out of the question unless you want to make a huge investment in new equipment. Recently, I stumbled across a very simple way to crimp cover crops that even the least mechanically inclined and empty-pocketed of us could manage. The one thing you do need is a really nice stand of high-residue cover crop, like rye or rye and vetch (your net worth just skyrocketed!), and a little bit of time to commit. To try out a system that might revolutionize the way you grow things and lead to equipment purchases down the road, it might be worth it.

John Hayden in Vermont made a hand-held crimper for killing cover crops in his hoophouses.

John Hayden in Vermont made a hand-held crimper for killing cover crops in his hoophouses. (click image to go to Rodale’s roller-crimper gallery)

The tool is a simple 90 degree angle iron (or similarly shaped piece of metal) mounted to a board, with some kind of rope or twine looped around each end. This is apparently like the tool people use to make crop circles (mystery solved!!). John Hayden and his crew in Vermont used this tool to kill a rye cover crop in their hoophouses prior to tomato planting. He tells me they no longer use it because they’ve shifted their farm operation to all perennial fruits. I don’t think it was because they went crazy crimping cover crops, but who knows. This is definitely a slow and small-scale way to crimp cover crops, but what I like about the method is that it simulates what the big roller-crimpers do, so it can give farmers a good sense of whether this style of high-residue no-till is worth pursuing further on their farms. That is, if you ignore the time it takes to crimp the cover crop and transplant the cash crop– does the cash crop grow well under these conditions? Would this be something worth scaling up on the farm?

The same constraints for killing cover crops and successful no-till apply when using this method. The covers need to be at the right stage of growth and have adequate biomass to provide weed suppression. The weight of the crimper (in this case person and tool) are important for successful termination (see feedback below). Nutrient needs of the cash crop should be monitored, as some high-residue cover crops can reduce nutrient availability. More resources on high-residue cover crops can be found here.

After posting this initially, I received some feedback from Brian Luton:

In theory great. In practice… I’ll simply say that we have two of these farm made crimping units “for sale”. I think currently they’re in storage in the scrap pile.
In our experience a cover crop with enough biomass to suppress weeds was to thic
k upon being laid down with this crimper to be crimped all the way through. Thus cover crops weren’t killed, and were standing back up and/or maturing seed on the ground. We tried sharpening the angle iron but this simply cut the top layers and still didn’t crimp the bottom ones. This was with two different guys doing the crimping each around 175 lbs. one with size 13 stompers.
Possibly if we both both could have stomped on the crimper at once…hmm?!
Still very little ventured in trying this so it may be worth experimenting with for others. It would be great to have a good “low tech” crimping method for small areas.

Do you have experience with this method or other low-tech ideas for crimping cover crops? Get in touch and let me know.

Happy crimping!

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