Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Breaking the Conventional Mold in Crop Rotation

One of the many great benefits of being a member of the Practical Farmers of Iowa is that they have their own e-mail List-serv. The e-mail list has hooked me up with potential customers, been a good place to go to when I'm looking for help, and has also been a good source of great research. That was especially true last week when an e-mail came through with a PDF of an article titled, "Benefits and barriers to perennial forage crops in Iowa corn and soybean rotations". I suppose it is more of a research paper than an article, but it was great nonetheless.

I haven't had time to tackle all of it yet, but I will share a couple quotes and thoughts from the introduction:
  • Basically, things changed around WWII (which has been discussed here a lot). Before that most Iowa farms were very diversified in crops and livestock and had multi-crop rotations in place. Those rotations included forages, something not seen these days.
  • Between 1950 and 2004 corn and soybean yields have just about quadrupled. Way to go crop specialists! I assume that means that the amount of money the farmers are making is also increasing...
  • But, that is not the case. First of all the number of Iowa farms during that same time period has dropped by more than 50% and the net income per farm (after inflation adjustment) was actually 9% lower in 2001 than it was in 1960. I'm not sure if that changes with $7.50 corn or not, but I'm guessing it doesn't because all the inputs have also jumped sky high.
It will be interesting to make my way through this paper as they explore the environmental and financial impacts and benefits of switching back to an intensive crop/livestock rotation. They are also going to look at socio-political things that prevent farmers from making the change (I'm really looking forward to that section!).

1 comment:

Rich said...

I think there are a number of reasons (both real and perceived) for a reduction in the amount of crop rotations, and an almost complete abandonment of forage rotations (temporary perennial pasture).

In general, The Agricultural Act of 1949 required farmers to produce specific commodities on specific acres or in prescribed amounts in order to remain eligible for government subsidies. If a farm had a history of 120 acres of corn, then that was what the farmer could plant and still be eligible for government payments. Since very few people were willing to jeopardize being able to receive a government subsidy, they would be extremely reluctant to take any portion of their corn acres out of production and plant them to pasture for any portion of time. Most of the following “Farm” bills simply added or modified the 1949 Act, so the basic premise of the historic planted acres still existed to one extent or another. The 1996 Freedom to Farm Act allowed some more flexibility for rotations, but basically reverts back to the original 1949 Act whenever a new bill fails to be enacted in the future. I think many farmers and landlords might still be hesitant to change their cropland into pastures (even for a short period of time) without being absolutely sure how future legislation will impact them in the future. This could easily be solved by planning to opt out of the farm subsidy program in the future if it changes significantly, (easier said than done, but still possible)

Another reason for less crop rotation is due to the residual effects of many of the herbicides used on different crops. As an example, if a broadleaf weed control herbicide is sprayed on something like corn or wheat, there is a period of time until the residual effect will allow planting some legumes. Atrazine sprayed on corn and sorghum to control volunteer rye won’t allow the planting of wheat immediately following the corn or sorghum crop. Of course, controlling weeds with a good rotational system instead of spraying herbicides would solve that problem.

It is possible, but I’m not entirely convinced, that the fact that many farmers have an off-farm job might possibly be one reason for planting a single crop like corn instead of a system of crop rotations. Planting a single crop like corn means that the work is more likely to be concentrated into short intense periods of time; seedbed preparation, planting, and then harvest. Some might think that it would be easier to schedule time off from their off-farm job to accomplish each phase of the operation.

A system of crop rotations means the workload is spread out more evenly over the year instead of concentrated into a smaller period. Some farmers might believe that with the work spread out over the year, it could be more difficult to take time off their off-farm job to finish the work required of a rotational crop system. I tend to think that it would be easier to “part-time” a rotational crop system because there would be less total work to be done at any given time (easier to squeeze into a weekend, etc.).

Equipment is probably another factor in less crop rotations, it’s kind of hard to harvest wheat with a corn picker, and it’s kind of hard to plant wheat with a planter. But, being creative and doing something unconventional like using livestock grazing to direct harvest some of your crops could easily solve this problem.

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