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“So many farmers in our conventional world pay taxes on the land for 12 months out of the year but only use it for 4. That's unfortunate. We should be using that soil 12 months out of the year by planting cover crops.”

— Jeff Moyer, No-Till Innovator & retired Rodale Institute CEO

For this episode of the No-Till Farmer Influencers & Innovators Podcast, brought to you by SOURCE® from Sound Agriculture, No-Till Innovator and retired Rodale Institute CEO Jeff Moyer tells the story of how he helped to create and popularize the first roller crimper, a tool that changed the game for no-tillers, cover croppers and regenerative ag growers around the world.  

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Full Transcript

McCain Vogel:

Welcome to the No-Till Farmer Influencers and Innovators podcast, brought to you by Source from Sound Agriculture. I'm McCain Vogel, associate Editor of No-Till Farmer. In today's episode, listen to No-Till Innovator and CEO at Rodale Institute, Jeff Moyer, as he tells the story of how he helped to create and popularize the first roller crimper, which would completely change the game for no-tillers, cover croppers and regenerative ag growers around the world.

Jeff Moyer:

My name is Jeff Moyer. My current title is CEO Emeritus of Rodale Institute. I was the chief executive officer for eight years. Prior to that, I was the farm director, and prior to that I was a farm manager, and prior to that and prior to that, I've been at Rodale a long time, almost all of my working career, and I'm really fortunate to have grown up in the organic community. I grew up on a small farm at home. My father always worked full-time off the farm. It was just an opportunity to raise kids out in the country, and we had chickens and ducks and animals like that and big gardens, that sort of thing. I really enjoyed, we had a large woodlot on our property. I enjoyed spending time in the forest, and so when I graduated from high school, I went to forestry school.

When I got out of forestry school, I couldn't find any work in forestry, but I did find work in agriculture and that's where I stayed. Like I said, been with Rodale where I was fortunate to be able to explore and experiment with many different types of farming operations, and became clear to me partway through my career that thinking about soil health and focusing so much energy on the health of the soil, that the amount of tillage we were doing in some organic operations was not really conducive to improving the health of the soil. Although, you can improve the health of the soil with tillage. I'm not an anti tiller per se, but when you think about the great strides that conventional agriculture made in no-till and our organic operations weren't able to take advantage of that, I set myself the work to figure out a strategy that would allow organic farmers to take advantage of no-till planter technology and all the great strides that were being made in the conventional world and import those into the organic community. And that's the kind of work that I was able to do in weed management. I was really fortunate to do that.

Speaker 3:

Great, so as you set out to help organic farmers adopt some of those advancements that no tillers in conventional operation, conventional no tillers had made, how did that first get received by the organic farmers?

Jeff Moyer:

Well, the challenge that we had, of course, was that as we were reducing tillage in organic systems, we didn't really have any tools that would allow us to manage weeds effectively. When you look at conventional, no-till agriculture, it really grew up hand-in-glove with the expansion of chemical herbicides, which allowed no-till to flourish in the conventional world. You had two tools that worked there. You had no-till and herbicides where in the organic system we were just trying to reduce tillage and trying to accommodate the system through crop rotations, and that really didn't seem to be enough. My work was really focused on cover crop management, and most of that sort of happened by accident as we were experimenting with some different cover crops in a planting trial back in the early-1990s. What happened was we had planted, in this case it was a cover crop of hairy vetch across this large field, which then had hundreds of research plots in it.

When we no-tilled or even when we did tillage, we just didn't till the ends of the field. We had this cover crop of hairy vetch sitting there, and when we planted the plots, which happened to be corn, we ran the planter right into the ends of the field. It was just easier, picked it up, turned around, set the planter down, went back into research plots, and in the process of doing that, we accidentally drove over the cover crop completely. We planted seeds into it on every plot, and a few weeks later, one of my neighbors stopped over and said, "Hey, Jeff, I thought you guys were organic." I said, "Of course, we are." He said, "Well, somebody sprayed herbicide on the ends of your field up there." We got in his truck and we drove up there and looked at it, and here what had happened was in the process of driving over the ends of the field, we crushed the cover crop and the no-till planter planted seeds into it, and we had this beautiful stand of corn coming up through this mulch of cover crops.

I spent the rest of my career trying to replicate that in a non-accidental way so that we could predict what was going to happen. Of course, if we told farmers that what they should do is just drive all over their fields endlessly with a tractor, they would think we were crazy and we would be. We worked on tools that would accommodate that activity or mimic that driving over the field, and that's when we designed and built the roller crimper, which we're talking about here today, that has now allowed farmers, even conventional farmers, use the tool to manage cover crops without herbicides. It facilitates taking advantage of all the no-till planter and transplanter technology, allowing grain farmers, vegetable farmers, just about everybody to establish seeds or plants in the soil without tillage, and to do it in a system where you don't need herbicides or in the case of some conventional farmers, at least reducing their need for herbicides.

It's really exploded. It's been exciting to watch the technology to take off now over the last few years as more and more farmers are getting accustomed to hearing about it, thinking about it and using it, and it's really been a global phenomenon as well. We have farmers using a roller crimper in Argentina and Norway and China and India and all over the US. It's really been exciting to see other people explore how that technology can work on their farms or even how they might be able to improve on the tool that I built.

Speaker 3:

It's really amazing too that this was kind of an accidental discovery that you then it clicked as to how can we make this a piece of equipment that we can then apply not by accident intentionally?

Jeff Moyer:

Yeah, yeah. We started out using off-the-shelf tools that would mimic that sort of roller or compacting action. We used a tool, we call it a cul de mulcher. Some people call it a rolling packer or a packer harrow, different names for the tool across the United States, depending where you're looking. We tried that tool. We tried mowers, we tried sickle bar mowers, we tried flail mowers, we tried rotary mowers. Nothing seemed to work quite right, keeping in mind that if we mowed the field, then when we came in with the planter, the planter, while it still said planter on the equipment, it was really a hay rake and it just would drag that cover crop, and so that didn't work. We ended up saying, "Let's just build a tool from scratch, keep it simple, make it practical, make it scalable so that farmers from literally gardeners to thousands of acres could use the technology," because really it's the cover crop that's doing all the work.

All we're doing is giving farmers a tool that allows them to terminate that cover crop in place. At the same time we saw what was happening there in the field, we were looking at what we're doing at the garden scale. Sometimes it's hard for farmers to look at garden scale and make something relate back to their large scale operation, but in this case, we were looking at a garden and saying, "Well, how do we stop annual weeds from growing in a garden?" Well, we put mulch down, we can mulch with straw, newspaper, cardboard, pick anything that you want. If you put enough of it on the surface of the soil, you can stop annual weeds from germinating. It's not that the weed seeds aren't there, it's not that we've killed anything. We've just not allowed the signals to turn on the seed to express itself as a plant.

How do we do that on a field scale? Well, if we were going to mulch a thousand acres of corn, that would just be ridiculous. It would take far too much labor, far too much mulch, and it would not be practical at that scale. If we can grow the mulch right in place in the field and then terminate it with this roller, it makes perfect sense. The challenge then became marrying up the precise cover crop that we wanted to use with the cash crop that we wanted to plant. When we plant, for example, when I plant soybeans, I generally proceed that with a cover crop of rye because I have a grass and a legume, they mix well. I can roll the rye, no-till the soybeans into it, and I can get a beautiful stand of soybeans with no tillage and no herbicide.

What has also allowed us to do in the organic system is if we can eliminate the primary tillage, then we also eliminate all the secondary tillages and most of the cultivations, if not all of the cultivations. It really reduces the number of trips through the field dramatically. In a conventional field, what it does is it doesn't really reduce the number of trips over the field, it just shifts them around because you use some of your trips over the field to plant the cover crop, but then you don't have to run over the field with herbicide, and if you don't have to buy herbicide, and if you don't have to make that extra trip over the field, that's just money that farmers can save, save time, save money. Why not?

Speaker 3:

Exactly, and it all adds up quickly when you think about it per acre.

Jeff Moyer:

It does. Yes.

Speaker 3:

Going back to when you decided, "Let's just design something from scratch with the roller crimper," what did that process look like in terms of what were you originally thinking as the design and then how did it evolve over the years?

Jeff Moyer:

Well, what I did was I worked with my neighbor, a Mennonite farmer. His name is John Brubaker. John is a really great fabricator, and so I asked him if he would help me design and build a tool, and he said yes. At that point, what I wanted to do was I wanted to put a tool, in this case, a roller or some sort of rolling tool on the front of the tractor so that the first thing that touched the cover crop wasn't the tractor itself or the rubber tires of the tractor, it was the roller crimper. We wanted to make it a front-mounted roller. Rubber tires can be a good crimping tool, a rolling tool, depending on the soil condition. If you think about it, what you're really doing is you're using the soil as an anvil and whatever tool you're putting onto it, either the roller crimper or a tractor tire as a hammer, and you're crushing the stem of the plant against the soil.

If the soil is very soft or moist, all you do with a tractor tire is sort of push it into the depression of the tractor tire, and when you come back two weeks later, all those tire tracks are standing back up again. You didn't really kill the plant, you just smooshed it over a little bit and it stood back up. What we really want to do is break the stem, stop the flow of moisture from the root to the top of the plant, so the plant is actually terminated. In order to do that, we felt like we needed some sort of a blade. We had done a little bit of work with rolling stock choppers, so we knew that the rolling stock chopper did a decent job of knocking the plant down, but it also cut it up into pieces, and we didn't want that to happen.

We weren't trying to chop stocks. We wanted to just roll them down. We wanted more of a blunt blade. Then when we were standing, we literally, it may seem comical to most of the listeners or readers, but we literally stood with different sized bicycle wheels in front of the tractor just so it held them up for size and said, "Well, if it's real small, it's going to look like a toy and it's going to break. If it's three feet in diameter, it's going to look like a steamroller, and people think you're crazy driving through the field with that," we came up with the design that we have, which is around 30 inches. We went to our local used steel lot. It is just a salvage lot, and we found some 16-inch well casing that seemed to be appropriate, and then we found some four-inch blades of steel that were already cut, and we thought, "Well, that looked right."

If the blades are too short, they won't crimp. If they're too big, they'll bend in the field. Then that's what we came up with. Then what we decided was early in the design process, I was concerned that if you mount the roller on the front of the tractor and the blades are straight, I don't know if you've ever seen a picture of the roller crimper that we designed that you have. Okay, so then maybe it makes a little sense if people or listeners haven't seen it, this might not make sense. If you put the blades straight across the drum as it rolls because it's on the front of the tractor, it actually bounces. Because you have a blade touching the ground and then you have a blade in the air and then it sort of drops, and when it drops, that's a bounce and you can feel that bouncing through the steering mechanism of the tractor, and it's more than slightly annoying to be planting a field bouncing along like that.

We were trying to come up with a plan to minimize that bouncing, and if you think about it, what we did was we just took the ends of the cylinder. It's a long cylinder with blades mounted straight across it, and if you just twisted that, the blades turned into a spiral. Now, one part of the blade is touching the ground at every point during its rotation and it no longer bounces. The problem you have with that is you've actually created a screw, and we farm on hills in Pennsylvania, and if you're screwing the front of the tractor uphill, that's probably okay. You can manage that, but if you're screwing it downhill, it just pulls the tractor and the planter off your planter mark and you can't plant straight, and that's not what farmers want to do. Looking at that with my partner, John, we came to the conclusion that what we needed to do was twist both ends to the middle.

We created that chevron pattern that everybody's using today, and it totally eliminates the drift of the roller or the pull of the roller uphill downhill. It has no impact on steering and we can roll smoothly through the field. Now, what we didn't realize, because we're not ag engineers, I'm not an ag engineer, nor is my partner in this crime, John Brubaker an ag engineer, what we didn't realize was that by creating that chevron pattern, we've also increased the weight of the roller per square inch on the surface of the soil and the plant that it's crimping. That makes perfect sense if you think about it, because there's only a small portion of the blade that's actually touching the ground at any one point in time during its revolution, and it sort of moves back and forth across those spirals. If you sort of video it and look at it in slow motion, you can see that.

That worked well because we have that extra weight, and then we also design our tools so that they can be filled with water or beet juice or whatever you want to put in it to increase the weight. We always put water on ours and organic farms because we don't have organic beet juice and we don't want to put oil in it in case it would leak. Conventional farmers do that and they put oil in it or beet juice so they don't have to empty it out every year. If you put water in it and you live in an area where water freezes, you of course have to drain it out or it will break the tool. We can manage the weight with water. We set the roller on the ground, it just floats on the ground under its own weight. There's no down pressure on it, and we roll through cover crops en mass, terminate them, and then no-till our cash crops into it, so it's been exciting.

Speaker 3:

Did you and your neighbor patent your design with the chevron?

Jeff Moyer:

Well, that's a really good question. We did not for very specific reasons. Our goal at Rodale Institute being a nonprofit is to move knowledge rapidly across the spectrum of opportunities, whether it's in our science or research or whether it's something like this where it's a little more mechanical or practical in nature. If you patent it, initially we talked to a patent attorney because our CEO at the time said, "Oh, Jeff, maybe we should patent this." I said, "Well, you're the boss, not me. You decide." We got on the phone with a patent attorney and the first question he asked us was, "If a farmer builds a roller, are you going to sue them?" We said, "No, we don't sue farmers. We're trying to work with farmers on a global scale to improve soil health. Why would we sue them?"

He said, "Well, if you don't want to sue them, then you don't want to patent. What you should do is just make the information available to everybody en mass common knowledge, and then no one else can patent it and everybody can use it," so that's what we did. We immediately reverse engineered the tool, put the plans online for free so anybody could download the plans. You can get it on AutoCAD, you can still do that today if you wanted to. Any farmer anywhere in the world could download the plans and build their own roller, and that's what we did, and we're really excited that we did that because I think it's just made the technology more available to farmers on a global basis.

Speaker 3:

Yeah. For sure. I know that was something that our no-till advisory board when they were choosing the winners, they were so impressed by the fact that you and your team decided not to patent this specifically for that reason, that you want this to be available to farmers and have this out there to help everybody get better at what they're doing.

Jeff Moyer:

Yeah. As an institution in research and education, we do better when we spend our time doing the science and the education that we work on, not spending our time in court trying to protect patents.

McCain Vogel:

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Speaker 3:

What else do you think led to such widespread adoption of the roller-crimper around the world?

Jeff Moyer:

Well, several things. One, it's a technology that's available to every scale farmer. Whether you're farming with a rototiller or even by hand, you can make use of the technology of using cover crops to smother annual weeds and terminating them in place. It's scale neutral. You can use it at any scale. We have rollers out there that are 60 feet wide in sections that fold up like an octopus and then unfold. We have rollers that are 18 inches. It depends on the scale. It's been quickly adopted because farmers at different scales can use it. I think it's been adopted widely because it's very practical. It makes sense. The farmers, there's no engine, no moving parts, two bearings on the end of a roller. It's really low technology. Farmers in developing nations can build them in their weld shops and put them to work right away.

There's not a lot of expensive shipping and handling that has to take place. I think that's helped. Then the fact that you can use it on every crop, whether it's vegetable crops, we haven't seen anybody figure out a system to use it for very small seeded crops like carrots or amaranth or plants that are viewed in nature because of the size of the seed, they would see themselves as a weed under this mulch. The mulch would treat it like a weed. Most of the seeds that work tend to be annual seeds that are large in size. They have a lot of energy. A corn seed or a soybean seed or string beans or lima beans have a lot of energy. There are a large seed, pumpkins, squash, cucumbers, all those plants, you plant them in the ground, they have a lot of energy and they push up through the mulch, and that works.

Something that's really small seeded like a carrot, which struggle, I think, we haven't been able to make that work, but for most other crops it works great. Viney crops, pumpkin growers love the system because it not only allows them to reduce tillage, but it also facilitates having clean pumpkins. Nobody wants to clean pumpkins at the end of harvest time this time of the year when Halloween and fall decorations are out there, people don't want muddy pumpkins, and this system keeps the pumpkins clean. There's different reasons that people use it, the system and the tool, but I think there's a lot of reasons why it's been highly adopted across a spectrum of operations.

We have fruit growers that use it in vineyards and in orchards to manage the orchard floor and the plant cover crops in the orchard floor helps them manage insects in their trees by managing the cover crop, and they do that with a roller, and sometimes in pruning operations, they use them to break branches under the tree or under the vines. There's multiple uses of a tool that can sort of just with low impact, terminate cover crops or manage crops in a unique way.

Speaker 3:

You mentioned that you can use it on any crop, except there's some limitations with the small seeded crops. What are some other tips or keys to being successful with roller crimping for the average no-tiller?

Jeff Moyer:

Well, I tell everybody kind of like it's like that 400 level course in college, you're stepping up your management in many ways. When you're relying on herbicides, we're typically relying on a great deal of science and technology that's sort of behind you that makes that herbicide work. When you're using a roller crimper, you are the brain power that's making it work. You have to do a lot more thinking, a lot more management of your system. For example, farmers will say to me, oftentimes they'll say, "Well, what's the best cover crop to use?" It depends. It depends on your cash crop, it depends on your location, it depends on your topography, your elevation. There's so many things that impact the cover crop that you're going to use. What I do tell farmers is you can roll any annual or winter annual as long as you wait till it's sexually mature.

That means that cover crop has to have pollinated or flowered or in some way entered its reproductive cycle so that you can cover it. I mean, if you take, people will say, "Well, can you roll alfalfa?" Well, sure, you can roll it, but you're not going to kill it. Rolling alfalfa doesn't kill it, so you can't do that. Or people will say, "Well, if I roll thistles, will it kill them?" It's like, "Well, no, it's not magic. It'll knock the top of the plant off and you can break the plant, but it's a thistle. It's going to grow back, so it doesn't work like that." You can roll any of the small grains, oats, wheat, barley, rye. You can roll a lot of annual legumes like crimson clover, hairy vetch, nitrile alfalfa, which is an annual alfalfa. You can roll any of those buckwheat, peas. All the peas you can roll.

It depends on what you're going to plant, how long you need that mulch to stay in place. Peas are a great example. You can grow winter peas or even spring peas and roll them in June to plant a crop of pumpkins. The problem is there's not much carbon in the system. When you have a field of peas standing above the ground, you really have like six inches of water held in four foot of plant. It's juicy, it's succulent. You roll it, it looks great, but it decomposes rather quickly. You take a crop like rye and you grow that to six or seven feet tall and have six tons of biomass on the field, it'll last all season long. It depends what you're trying to do. If you're growing short season vegetables, having a mulch there that only lasts six weeks might be just what you need, and then it decomposes into the soil, gives you the nitrogen you need and allows you to get your cut crop in and out because it's a short season and you move on to the next cover crop.

What we're trying to do is suggest that farmers look at their crop rotation and try to create windows of opportunities for cover crops. Oftentimes, when I was on a lecture circuit, we would literally play a game with the audience where we would ask them to literally take out note cards. We pass out note cards and write the cash crops that they have in their system and then begin to rearrange them and try to create windows for opportunities to plant cover crops. If I would change this and add a crop of wheat to my corn rotation, that gives me an opportunity to get a cover crop in because I harvest the wheat in August or whenever, July or August, you harvest your wheat. That gives you a big window of opportunity to get a cover crop in. When you plant corn next year, you don't have to do any tillage or spray any herbicide.

Some farmers don't want to add weeds. If you plant corn, and soybeans, it's pretty much biologically it's the same crop in terms of its last spring. You harvest it in fall and it doesn't give you much of a window for a cover crop because you're harvesting now, it's hard to plant cover crops now here in Pennsylvania, we should have planted them. You got to play with your cover crop and try to marry them up so that you can match a cover crop that accomplishes your goals, your individual and specific goals on your farm, and also helps you to help the soil, your microbiology of the soil because you have green living roots in the soil for a longer period of time.

So many farmers in our conventional world, we pay taxes on the land for 12 months out the year, and we use it for four. That's unfortunate. We should be using that soil 12 months out of the year and making it work for us. I work 12 months out of the year. You probably work 12 months out of the year, 12 months out of the year too, and it will, it'll work for us if we treat it right and put cover crops on it, then how do we manage those? That's where the roller crimper comes in.

Speaker 3:

Thinking about the window of opportunity for cover crops, where do you see the biggest opportunity in the usual corn and soybean rotation in a place like Illinois or the Midwest? When you think about the very traditional conventional no-till operations?

Jeff Moyer:

Well, that window of opportunity really is the winter season when you're sort of sitting there. In many cases, [inaudible 00:29:18], we have some cases where farmers [inaudible 00:29:20] and then leave the soil open through the winter. That's really hard on the microbiology of the soil. I think everybody can understand that. What we try to do is farmers plant the cover crop as early in the fall as they possibly can. Again, we're asking a lot of our cover crops. We're asking it in our case with an organic system, we're asking it to be the primary weed management tool that we have on the farm. We have to get our cover crops planted on time at a good seeding rate. And even if we have to do some light surface tillage to get that cover crop established, we'll do it because we know as soon as we plant the cover crop, it's going to jump out of the ground, get started in growing cover that, protect it through the winter.

Then in spring it'll can plant our corn or soybeans. Yeah, we were talking about the use of creating the idea of creating opportunity for farmers in the Midwest that are in a typical corn or corn and soybean rotation. Really the best window of opportunity they have for growing cover crops is the winter season when they're not typically using the soil on their farm for anything else. The challenge is getting the cover crop planted early enough. What we have to keep in mind is we're asking this cover crop to do a lot for us in terms of weed management and soil health improvement.

We want to get the cover crop planted on time and do any sort of seed preparation that we need to do to the field to ensure a good stand of cover crops. In some cases, it might be that a farmer to really look at their crop rotation and determine whether or not they could introduce another crop into that rotation. Typically, a small grain works best in a corn-bean rotation because it allows you to get the cover crop for either the corn or the soybeans planted earlier in the fall, because typically we can't harvest our small grains because we're seeing a really basic window to get cover crops in. There's different strategies that farmers can use, but always trying to cover the ground with something green and growing through the winter makes perfect sense.

Speaker 3:

Exactly, and on that note, was there anything else that you'd like to add that I didn't ask you about?

Jeff Moyer:

No, I think your questions were very thorough. I would only encourage farmers explore the possibilities, work with tool, and share the information that they generate with others, because together we just learn so much more when we can share those experiences. I'm sure one of the attendees of the conference or listeners of the podcast will come up with a modification of the tool or systems with the cover crops that we could all benefit from, and I would love to hear about their work as well.

Speaker 3:

Yes, definitely. Anyone who's listening, please share what updates or modifications you've made with us, and then we can all continue to learn like Jeff said. Once again, congratulations on your Innovator Award, Jeff, and we are so grateful that you took the time to talk with me today.

Jeff Moyer:

It's been a privilege to talk with you, and I feel deeply honored to have been offered. I wish I could be there in person to receive it, but I am especially grateful to the committee for nominating me and allowing me to receive this award. Thank you so much.

McCain Vogel:

That's it for this episode of the No-Till Farmer Influencers and Innovators Podcast. Thanks to our sponsor, Source from Sound Agriculture for helping to make this podcast possible. A transcript of this episode and our archive of previous podcast episodes are both available at For our entire staff here at No-Till Farmer, I'm McCain Vogel. Thanks for listening. Keep on no-tilling and have a great day.