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Diversifying Rotations Can Bring Agronomic, Economic, Environmental And Lifestyle Benefits

Five years of results from a long-term Wisconsin study suggest that farmers growing corn or corn and soybeans may be able to improve profitability and agronomic performance by diversifying their cropping systems.

Since 1990 the Wisconsin Integrated Cropping Systems Trial (WICST) has been comparing the productivity, profitability and environmental impacts of three cash-grain systems: continuous corn, a corn-soybean rotation, and a corn-soybean-wheat/red clover system. The researchers now have five years” of data from sites at the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences Arlington Agricultural Research Station (Columbia Co.) and the Lakeland Agricultural Complex (Walworth Co.).

“From what we”ve seen, there are some potential economic advantages to diversified rotations,” says project economist Rick Klemme of the UW-Madison Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems. Klemme points out that continuous corn has almost invariably been the least profitable of the three systems. “High production costs tend to eat up the profits in continuous corn, especially during years of wet harvests, which lead to high drying costs.”

The moderate input corn-soybean system has been significantly more profitable than continuous corn, both because production costs are lower (much less nitrogen fertilizer is needed, and no corn insecticides are necessary), and because corn yields are higher in this two-phase rotation.
Perhaps WICST”s biggest economic surprise has been the performance of its most diversified system: corn-soybeans-wheat/red clover. This system has been managed organically for the past three years, and for the last three years has also been at least as profitable as the corn-soybean system. That”s without organic premiums. “We”ve been calculating profitability using conventional prices,” says Klemme.

What accounts for this system”s success? Low production costs, primarily. The system has been competitive even though its yields are often 5 to 10 percent lower. An integrated cropping system that minimizes the need for purchased inputs keeps production costs low. The small grain allows use of a cover crop, which puts more nitrogen in the system, helps break up disease and pest cycles, and reduces weed pressure. Says Klemme, “This system can be quite competitive economically, especially if you can manage it for yields in the neighborhood of the corn-soybean rotation.”

There are other advantages to this diversified cropping system as well. Its field operations and thus labor needs are more evenly spread throughout the growing season, reducing peak labor demand and possibly the need for hired labor. This is despite the fact that it requires somewhat more labor overall than the other two systems.

John Hall, of the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, notes other benefits. “This diversified system uses less fuel, leaves less leachable nitrate in the soil, and reduces the potential for environmental harm from agrichemicals since it can be successfully managed as a low-input or organic system.”

If diversifying crop rotations can bring so many agronomic, economic, environmental, and lifestyle benefits, why isn”t everyone doing it? “Habit, a history of commodity payments, and the management challenges of diversifying are the main reasons” says WICST researcher Josh Posner, an agronomist in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. “With the Freedom to Farm provisions of the most recent Farm Bill, we expect a lot of farmers will take a hard look at their current cropping systems though and maybe some of them will consider diversifying.”
WICST researchers hope that their findings will encourage farmers to move in this direction, and provide useful information to those who do. Managing more crops with fewer chemical inputs offers real benefits, but it can also present some challenges, according to the team. “We”ve got some advice for managing low-input, diversified rotations some tricks of the trade and some cautionary tales, especially about weeds!” says Hall. Project researchers plan to share results more widely in the next couple of years, using brief, accessible publications and events to summarize findings and lessons learned.

One of the most interesting outreach efforts to come out of the WICST project may be a small-grains initiative. Building on the successes of the corn-soybean-wheat/red clover rotation, the WICST team recently received a federal Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education grant to reintroduce food-grade oats, barley, and wheat grown with cover crops to Wisconsin corn and soybean fields.

The project involves a strategic partnership between processors, grain handlers, input dealers, crop consultants, and producers to link regional production with regional markets. A number of processors and handlers, including Quaker Oats, Schreier Malting, and La Crosse Milling, have signed on to the effort, and the group is actively seeking additional farmer collaborators.
Producers interested in the small-grains project may contact Jim Stute at (414) 642-3303 or Scott Alt at (608) 265-2948. For more information about the WICST project, or to get on the newsletter mailing list, contact Kat Griffith at (608) 233-5029.

A coalition of scientists from the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, Cooperative Extension and the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, along with farmers near the two sites, created WICST in 1989 to study the profitability, productivity and environmental impact of entire cropping systems.