Life seems to bounce from one hard lesson to the next. For example, no sooner than someone tells you “It’s not about the money,” you learn that, yes, it’s always about the money. Then, after years of working hard to acquire that money, you discover that, no, you can’t take it with you.
Farming and ranching seem built on similar truths and recent research by the USDA, University of Minnesota and Iowa State University confirms what your father and grandfather told you way back when: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
The research, published in several formats this fall, show three-year and four-year crop rotations that include a small grain like oats and a forage such as red clover and alfalfa, produce good or better yields per acre than today’s dominant corn-soybeans rotation.
The rotations also dramatically cut energy use per acre, manage weeds effectively while slashing fertilizer and herbicide use and improve what the researchers called “agroecosystem” elements, like water quality.
Just as important, the research wasn’t conducted by lab-jacketed pencil jockeys in a climate-controlled greenhouse one lovely winter in Hawaii. It was on 22 acres of prime Iowa farmland over nine years, from 2003 through 2011.
Its goal was to ” … explore the potential benefits of diversifying cropping systems” to better manage pests, “improve resource efficiencies” and “enhance other agroecosystem processes.”
The three rotations were not unlike yours, dad’s and grandpa’s: a two-year corn/soybean system; a three-year corn/soybean/small grain plus red clover plan; and, finally, a four-year corn/soybeans/small grain plus alfalfa/alfalfa rotation. The latter two featured triticale as the small grain from 2003 to 2006; oats replaced it from 2006 through 2011.
The results, reported as the trials were ongoing and in at least two publications this fall, (link to both at www.farmandfoodfile.com) were striking.
For example, according to an Iowa State University Extension bulletin published in September, the two-year corn/soybean rotation produced a glittering average of 193.7 bu. of corn and 50.3 bu. of beans from 2006 through 2011.
The three-year, corn/soybean/oats rotation across those same years produced even better average yields — 199.8 bu. corn, 54.73 bu. soybeans and 97.9 bu. oats.
The four-year rotation, however, was killer: 202.4 on corn, 56.9 on soybeans, 101.6 for oats and almost 4 tons of alfalfa it first full year. Profit per acre was equally striking.
The ISU paper breaks out profit in three categories. First is the classic “Land, Labor, Management” figure, next just “Land & Management” and finally, “Management.”
The two-year rotation’s average per acre “Return to Management” from 2006 to 2011 was $188. Similarly the average for the three-year rotation was $194 per acre and the four-year rotation averaged $170 per acre.
The three- and four-year rotations, though, carried big savings in production costs. For instance, each used less than half the BTUs — calculated by totaling fuel, fertilizer, grain drying, “field operations” and pesticides — than the two-year rotation.
When put in terms of gallons of fuel used across the rotations, the two-year system “uses the equivalent of 25.43 gallons of diesel fuel per acre (while the) … three- and four-year rotations are both just over 10 gallons per acre.”
So, what’s the catch?
You already know it; you have to farm like your father and grandfather. Longer rotations; use of livestock manure; hay baling; moldboard plow the alfalfa; and, yep, retrieve that cultivator from behind the barn.
One modern addition to that regime, though, seemed not to matter. “Overall yields were higher in the longer rotations,” relates one of the principle researchers, Matt Liebman, of Iowa State, in a Nov. 6 telephone interview, “and that was true for both conventional and GMO seeds.”
The study’s point, says Liebman, is clear: “There is an attainable balance between high productivity, conservation and profitability.” Grandpa and Dad knew that, and the evidence of their wisdom is the land they entrusted to us. We should be so wise.