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Improving Organic Cropping Systems

Roller-crimper, a tractor-mounted device used to plant new crop seeds, sits in a field. PHOTO: STEVE WILLIAMS

A roller-crimper is a tractor-mounted device that mechanically pushes cover crop residue down into a weed-shading mat in which new crop seeds are planted. PHOTO: STEVE WILLIAMS

Researchers in the college are investigating ways to create sustainable cropping systems for high-value organic livestock feed and forage. The Reduced-tillage Organic Systems Experiment (ROSE) looks to control pests in organically managed fields while reducing amounts of tillage to prevent soil degradation and soil erosion.

“We’re looking at various factors that affect the success of reducing tillage,” explains Mary Barbercheck, professor of entomology. “We’re looking at planting no-till cash crops into cover crop residues that have been managed using a roller-crimper.” A roller-crimper is a tractor-mounted device that mechanically pushes cover crop residue down into a weed-shading mat in which new crop seeds are planted. 

“We’re also looking at managing cover crops, planting dates, crop variety, and how in-season high-residue cultivation affects soil quality, weed populations, insect populations, and economic performance.” 

Weed and insect control are challenges for organic growers. Because synthetic herbicides and insecticides aren’t allowed, other management choices are utilized. Crop rotation helps control weeds. Manipulating planting dates can help control insects and disease. Research will help better understand and fine-tune the effects of these decisions.

Growers are looking to the college for ways to improve organic production for a variety of reasons. “There’s usually a price premium for organic crops. They’re more valuable than those produced conventionally,” says Barbercheck. “And there’s a great demand for organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy—and those animals all need to eat organically produced feed.” 

The ROSE project goals incorporate balancing weed suppression, encouraging beneficial arthropod populations, maintaining a high quality of environment, and achieving monetary profitability by producing high-value organically grown feed and forage for livestock. ROSE is a multi-institutional joint project, with research stations spanning several states.

At Penn State, Barbercheck is working with other college faculty like weed scientist Bill Curran, economist Jayson Harper, and on-farm research scientist Ron Hoover.