When the pumpkin harvest is in, I plant a winter rye and hairy vetch cover crop for the following spring. Lately I've been experimenting with a no-till strategy. Instead of plowing under the rye, I let it grow until early June when it is close to flowering and about 4 feet tall. Then I knock it down with a rotary cutter (bush hog). It makes an effective mulch and ground cover under the pumpkins.
Winter Rye can Grow Five Feet Tall
Squash growing on killed cover crop mulch
Unfortunately, a bush hog is not the ideal piece of equipment to use. It fluffs, chops, and clumps too much. The best approach is to flatten or "roll" the crop down using a special, very expensive tractor implement. Cutting it at the base with a sickle bar mower is probably next best. What you're looking for is a thick, overlapped mat of fallen rye. Needless to say, we don't own a roller/crimper. We don't own a sickle bar either, and no amount of creative "tractor math" could rationalize one. I thought about a homemade roller, or even cutting by hand with a scythe, but the results would surely be embarassing. What I really needed was one of those two wheel walk-behind sickle bar mowers.
A roller/crimper implement at work
An Italian-made BCS tractor and sickle bar attachment
A couple of European manufactures make some very stylish looking cutters, but for the price I might as well buy an attachment for the tractor, or a Ferrari for that matter. I needed something used, very used. Gravely, Simplicity, TroyBuilt, Bolens and other domestic brands all made sickle bar mowers in the past. One day, I saw an ad on Craigs List for a Jari Monarch. An oldie but a goodie it said, $300 negotiable. The picture looked like it was something from the 1970's. A little quick research showed that Jari has been making sickle bar mowers since 1942 in Minnesota, and they're still going strong. In fact, they have something of a cult following among antique tractor enthusiasts. The consistency and simplicity of the design was what surprised me the most, and the availability of parts. I made an offer of $275 with delivery to my local supermarket parking lot. We had a deal.
A collection of antique Jari sickle bar mowers
I got the machine home. I was suspect, but the 4 hp Briggs and Stratton engine started after a few pulls. It sputtered a bit, so I filled the tank with fresh gas which did the trick. Holding my breath, I engaged the drive levers. Shake rattle and roll. I was off. I cut a few swaths of frozen lawn and quickly determined the belt(s) were slipping, but the adjustments were incredibly simple. In five minutes, I was back out on the proving ground. This time I headed to some daunting 6 inch clover behind the garage! Things were going well with the tightened belts. I clipped only a few feet though when everything came to a sudden halt. Broken pulley on the crankshaft. Game over for now. I called the Jari parts number, and spoke to a guy with a very friendly Minnesota accent. A replacement pulley and belt were soon on the way.
The replaced crankshaft pulley
Ready to go - An oldie but a goodie
I'm an average mechanic at best, but the repair wasn't difficult. I won't bore you with the details. The new pulley and belt seemed to be working great, at least inside the barn. Unfortunately a foot of snow now lay on the ground, so field trials were suspended. I wheeled the Jari into the shed. I'll post a couple updates in the spring, but for now I'm optimistic about the machine. 70 years of essentially the same design have to be worth something. The cover crop, mulch, and no-till plantings are a key ingredient in our pumpkin growing recipe. I'm excited about doing it right. No more mowing and chopping. I've got a cutter in the rye.