In early fall 2016, Sue and I were visiting my sister Ginny who lives in central Ohio — a region which is very much part of the nation’s grain belt. So we drove by huge fields of stover trash from both corn and soybeans that had been recently combined. These trashy fields would lay that way until spring when they would be disked up and planted to the non-sod-forming crops just mentioned. Fall-planted winter grain cover crops were extremely conspicuous by their absence. Fields weren’t even chisel-plowed, which would have helped ground moisture wick up and down.
Fast forward two years when a wind storm hit Central New York pretty hard. Strangely enough, the village of Hartwick, where we live, did not suffer a power outage (they’re pretty common here). But a blast of wind did tear loose a narrow straight branch from our century-old oak tree. This branch is about 12 feet long, is driftwood grey in color, and impaled itself in the soft ground at the base of the tree. I think the branch died about 10 years ago. But, positioned some 30 or 40 feet above the ground, and remaining dry the vast majority of time, it failed to become part of the carbon cycle.
Similarly, we commonly see solitary dead trees standing in pastures. Due to absent moisture, the above-ground mass of these grey ghosts doesn’t rot. However, the bases of such trees — in constant contact with damp topsoil — will quickly biodegrade enough for the whole dead tree to topple. At that point — as the whole tree carcass contacts earth — the biodegradation train is back on track. This will take place in much less time than the spell in which the newly fallen dead branch had been suspended aloft in our front yard’s mighty oak. Dead trees in a forest tend to return to nature much more rapidly than their counterparts in open fields. In the forest, shaded by living trees’ canopies, the ambient humidity is much higher, due to constant evapo-transpiration performed by living vegetation. This higher relative humidity accelerates the rotting process. Evapo-transpiration in the woods is also what makes the air so much cooler than what one experiences in adjacent sunny meadows.
So here’s the punch-line of this “joke.” Our ability to harness Mother Nature’s soil and moisture to break down dead vegetation causes me to recommend fall brush-hogging and chisel-plowing. The most visible example of potentially useful dead vegetation doing nothing productive can be seen where goldenrod takes over a meadow. Goldenrod is a much less aggressive weed than what its prevalence and mass would hint at. It tolerates fairly low soil pH and even lower phosphate levels. Goldenrod doesn’t like excess moisture. Philosophically, one can consider this weed as a way for Mother Nature to hang onto her soil, a task at which humans often fail. When mowed or brush-hogged, goldenrod rapidly breaks down, with the carbon in its lanky bodies rapidly evolving into soil organic matter.
Very often, as mulched goldenrod (and other apparently useless vegetation) gravitates through the carbon cycle, a welcome is being extended to desirable seeds lying dormant under foot in the seed bank. With moisture and sunshine no longer being hogged by goldenrod, new players come to bat. Typically these plants are medium red clovers, white clovers, timothy, bromegrass, and even birdsfoot trefoil. If the field in question hasn’t been soil-tested, now is a good time. With reduced work load this time of year, turn-around times at most soils labs are pretty quick. If field conditions are passable, getting the necessary lime spread before winter sets in for real is always a great idea. This is because the freezing/thawing action of the cold weather makes the lime more biologically available come spring.
I think we all know that fall-planted grains continue quietly working for us under the snow during their dormancy period, taking advantage of every bit of available geothermal warmth. But there’s another example of such warmth. Probably about 20 years ago, when we were still burning firewood, I purchased “chunked” seasoned hardwood logged by customers. All I had to do was split them small enough for our furnace in the basement, throw them in my truck, then take them home.
Splitting was generally easier when air temperatures were at least 10 degrees below freezing. And I noticed that chunks that lay with round surface down split a lot easier than chunks with cut flat surface down. This was because the ground contacted by the flat surface of the chunk stayed thawed, allowing moisture to wick into the wood — pretty much keeping the wood thawed also, and rather bouncy. The chunks lying on their round sides were governed by the ambient frigid conditions. So the wood, much more like a block of ice, split much more readily; sometimes the go-devil did the job, without a wedge. I would visit the place with the wood chunks on frigid day one, and make sure they all were round-side down. On frigid day two, I turned all the chunks flat side down — then easily rendered them down to proper size. There’s plenty of warmth in the soil — even in winter. Take advantage of it.
Before winter sets in too seriously, try to spread manure on the further away fields, while fields are still navigable. If manure ends up getting piled when snow gets too deep, come spring it rarely, if ever, gets spread on those far away fields. Good idea to plan ahead and clear off a spot in a nearby meadow so the ground freezes and stays frozen. Keep it clear and you’ll have a hard surface to pile manure on — and handle it in the spring without getting stuck. If you have such a designated spot, hopefully you won’t need to use it. Historically, when a farmer takes soil samples — and I just read and interpret the results — I can always tell which fields were nearest the barn.