To rotate, or not to rotate crops in 2013

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By JOE LAUER

MADISON, Wis. — Crop rotation is a universal management practice that has been recognized and exploited for centuries and is a proven process that increases crop yields.

In the Midwestern U.S., a biennial rotation of corn and soybeans produces significant increases in the yields of both crops.

There are clear indications that the current corn-soybean rotation is unstable, easily disrupted by weather, disease, and insects, and relies on foreign trade and biofuel production.

Little diversity

Midwest cropping systems although productive, are highly specialized, standardized and simplified to meet increasing demands. Many of these cropping systems are approaching monoculture systems that need to incorporate technological advances, high fossil fuel-based inputs, and genetic engineering to remain sustainable.

Cropping systems specializing in one or two crops with little attention to crop diversity could lead to biological and physical soil degradation and ultimately soil chemical degradation. Nature’s plant and animal diversity is currently replaced with a small number of cultivated plants and domestic animals.

Rotation benefit

The mechanism for the rotation effect is unknown. One hypothesis is that one factor causes the effect. Another hypothesis is that multiple factors cause the effect and risk of expression depends upon the environment.

Research evidence began mounting in the 1970s, which indicated that, in spite of all the management inputs a farmer might impose, there was still a yield advantage to be obtained from rotations.

These studies showed that corn yields are usually higher when the crop is rotated with some other crop rather than grown continuously. Yield advantages to corn from rotating with some other crop are at least 10 percent.

In addition, soybean yields also improved by 10 percent when the crop is rotated out of a continuous pattern.

More recent research has shown this increase to be even greater than expected with responses up to 19 percent (Figure 1). The rotation effect lasts two years, increasing corn grain yield 10 to 19 percent for 1C and 0 to 7% for 2C.

Adding a third crop like wheat does not increase corn grain yield, but does improve soybean grain yield (Figure 2).

If there is only a one-year break in the rotation, then the second corn phase is equivalent to continuous corn.

At least two break years are needed to measure a response in the second corn phase compared to continuous corn (Figure 3).

Although scientists cannot yet satisfactorily explain the rotation effect, farmers can exploit it every year.

In 2013, more acres will likely be planted to a third year of corn. These acres will be at continuous corn yield levels regardless of the number of break years. It will be important for growers to consider getting back to rotating crops.

The age-old practice of rotating crops, which for a while was considered unnecessary, has returned to today’s agriculture with proven benefits.

(The author is a corn agronomist at the University of Wisconsin.)

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