Modern farming practices are more expansive, high-tech and large-scale than the patchwork farms of yesteryear. Modern efficiencies and technology have increased yields, but bigger isn’t always better: Some contemporary techniques don’t always maximize production or foster good land stewardship.
Today’s row crops are often planted woodline to woodline, and farming on those treed edges robs crops of sunlight, nutrients and moisture. A quick stroll along those outer limits quickly reveals these realities. Plants are smaller and less vigorous, resulting in marginal yield.
Is the cost of soil cultivation, fertilizers, planting and harvesting worth the investment? Modern technologies are capable of mapping yield across the field. Every situation is different, but more often than not, the outer edge of the field is less productive. While the edge eats at the field’s profit margin, determining how far away from the edge to plant is difficult.
Visually taking note of edges can give you an idea of where production wanes—as a rule of thumb, the first 20 feet of edge likely has yields lower than the center.
Finding Good Use For Field Borders
There are a few options for those edges or field borders. Perhaps the easiest is to simply let the edge go fallow, allowing the seed bank to re-vegetate. Another option is to plant clover, which might help distract wildlife heading for your planted crops. Finally, a restoration of native warm-season grasses and wildflowers might earn you a conservation award by maximizing wildlife habitat benefits and helping out troubled pollinators.
Maintaining Field Borders
Like everything on the farm, your borders are going to need maintenance. The point of the border is to keep trees from sapping your crops, which means disturbing the ground to keep it in a grass and wildflower stage. Several tools are in the hobby farmer’s tool box to tackle this job, but the easiest, of course, is mowing. Break the border into blocks or strips and mow one-third of them each year. By year three, your entire border has been managed once. Continue this rotation, occasionally spot-spraying young trees to arrest their growth. If you plant clover, you’ll need to mow the entire border several times each summer to keep it growing vigorously.
If you have a fallow or native grass border, better options include controlled burning or disking. Create a two- or three-year rotation similar to the one for mowing. Get help from your state forestry division or fish and wildlife agency. If you’d rather not burn, a heavy offset disk is a great tool to consider. Mow the vegetation first to make your disking easier, then go over the ground at least once in each direction.
The Benefits Of Field Border Control
Field borders do more than save time and money: They can help curb soil erosion, filter nutrient-laden run-off and harbor beneficial predatory insects. Plus, they’re great wildlife and pollinator habitats.
But there’s one more big benefit: They can earn you money! The USDA Farm Services Agency has a program that pays you to install borders around your crop field called Conservation Reserve Program, and the practice is called “Habitat Buffers for Upland Birds.” Go to your county USDA office for more information and see if you’re eligible. You’ll be glad you did!
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2014 issue of Hobby Farms.