Prepping an old, neglected field for crop production – Part 1 of 2

Tips for beginning farmers trying to get an old sod field into shape for vegetables, field crops, forage, fruit or other crops.

Tilling killed sod at a trial site at the MSU Upper Peninsula Research and Extension Center in Chatham, Michigan.

Tilling killed sod at a trial site at the MSU Upper Peninsula Research and Extension Center in Chatham, Michigan.

Organizations that provide crop production information to farmers, including Michigan State University Extension, Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), agricultural supply businesses and other organizations, often make the assumption that those who receive their information are experienced and working well-established farm fields. However, many landowners and new farmers are starting out with old fields that have not been managed for many years. Neglected pastures, hayfields and fallow cropland can be converted to useable fields in many cases. Good planning is needed to improve these marginal lands, with attention to economics and practical management practices.

In general, the good cropland in Michigan is already being used for crop production. There is probably a reason why your old field has been out of production for so long. Poor natural soil fertility, poor texture, excessive stoniness, drainage challenges (too little or too much), short growing season and distance to market may all be factors. However, the increased public interest in local food and the proliferation of farmer’s markets and other smaller scale marketing opportunities has resulted in renewed interest in many old fields for agricultural production.

Here is a short list of questions to consider before embarking on the laborious and expensive task of cleaning up and improving crop production land:

  • What is your most desirable end-use for this land? This will make a difference in site preparation:
    • Permanent pasture?
    • Annual crop rotation?
    • Crop rotation including multi-year crops, such as perennial hay?
    • Site for secondary structures, such as permanent raised beds, hoophouses, etc.?
  • Do you know about the soil and topographical characteristics?

    • Have you reviewed the soil types on a USDA soils map?
    • What are the soils generally suitable for?
    • Will erosion or drainage be a big issue?
    • Is a recent soil test available?
    • What is the pH and plant nutrient status of the field?
    • How stony is it?
  • Do you know about the history of the field?

    • What has it been used for? Grazing, hay, grain, silage, vegetable crops?
    • What has been successful in the past?
  • Will you use herbicides to control unwanted vegetation?

    • If so, are all the herbicides “general use,” or will you need to gain state certification to use “restricted use” herbicides?
    • If not, are you prepared to invest the time and inputs needed to accomplish this without herbicides?
    • If you lack experience using pesticides, do you have someone to serve as a mentor, or at least help guide you through the process the first time?
  • Do you have access to the necessary equipment for tillage, stone removal, material spreading, spraying and planting? For a field larger than a half-acre, tractor-drawn equipment is usually needed.

    • Sledge or wagon for stone removal.
    • Hydraulic bucket or other tool for lifting large stones.
    • Primary and secondary tillage equipment, such as a moldboard or chisel plow, disk, field cultivator, harrow, cultipacker.
    • Three-point hitch “cone-type” spreader for lime and fertilizer, manure spreader.
    • Field sprayer in good repair and calibration.
    • Seed drill, no-till drill or broadcast seeder for establishing green manure/cover crops.
  • What’s your timeline?

    • Are you in a hurry? Or can you afford to wait a year or two to allow for site and soil improvement?

Part 2 of this article will address a suggested sequence of tasks to move forward with prepping a neglected field.

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