Last fall I spread 32 bushels — 1800 pounds — of winter rye seed on my newly cleared back acres, cranking from a bag on my shoulder, and then rolled it in.
This spring, on May 6, standing at the top of the south pasture, I could see a pale green haze beginning to creep across those back acres as the last snow melted.
By mid-May, the green had intensified.
Now, in mid-June, those acres are a green sea of rye.
Winter rye, also called grain rye or cereal rye, is used by farmers primarily as a ground cover to protect plowed fields from erosion over the winter. It is usually cut and turned under in the spring as a so-called “green manure.”
I won’t be turning my rye under. Not only do I not have a tractor, but on a coffee break two weeks ago, I listened to Allen and Leon, two old farm boys, crack jokes about the impossibility of plowing my rocky land. They’ve both sweated over it even using excavators and bulldozers.
Rye is relatively cheap: $20 per bushel bag vs. $135 for pasture seed. It sends down deep roots, improving soil tilth. It can grow on poor, infertile ground. It can crowd out many weeds.
The one drawback of winter rye for farmers is that if not cut early it can leave “excessive residue.” In other words, too much mulch. In the world of Fairhope Farm, there is no such thing as too much mulch. I have used winter rye as a pioneer seeding on every scrap of my starved, sour land.
I have learned through bitter experience, however, that it is important to mow it promptly before too long. Not to kill the rye, as a real farmer hopes to do, but to kill the poplar and black cherry saplings that inevitably lift their heads, and mow off the raspberries and briars that poke through wherever the stand is thin. Poplar and cherry trees can grow two inches thick at the butt and five feet tall in two seasons. Briars and raspberries twine together in wicked, impenetrable thickets that pierce your clothes and tear your skin.
Ask me how I know.
Another advantage to mowing early is that I can still see the ground from the seat of the mower, and can spot rocks, roots, and broken logs before I hit them and break the mower blades.
A couple of years ago my friend Mike found me a battered dump cart to tow behind my mower. (The tires regularly go flat but I just pump them up again.)
On Friday I started mowing the back field in long swathes. Every minute or two I would disengage the blades, jump off the mower, pick up rocks, toss them in the cart, and then mow on. It’s slow but it works.
Unfortunately it is so slow that the biting blackflies easily keep pace with me. In one afternoon I was covered with bleeding welts behind my ears, at my temples, and along the cuff of my coverall pants. Oh, well. No pain, no gain.
Here is the back field after one day’s mowing. If you double-click you can see the mowed stretch on the far right. I estimate I’ve cleared and cut about 1/20th of the field.
My hope is to mow it all in the next two weeks. Meanwhile I’m spreading this summer’s fresh manure on the mowed strips. (As I can’t yet afford to fence these acres, there won’t be animals grazing it soon.) One spreader-load will cover each strip.
Rick, my hay man, has promised to bring me ten 700-pound bales of cheap, ruined mulch hay by the end of the month. My plan is to dot the bales across the mowed field and then unroll and spread them. My hope is that the giant bales will supply both more organic matter to feed the soil and an enormous amount of free grass seed.
Farming books and Rick say unrolling round bales is easy. Allen and D say it’s very hard. It looks as if I’ll be finding out for myself.