I farm in southern Atchison County in northeastern Kansas. The general landscape is rolling hills with mixed crop, pasture and timber land. Average annual rainfall is 35” and, located on the southwestern edge of the corn belt, major crops are sorghum, corn, soybeans with some wheat, oats and red clover and alfalfa legume hay crops. My farm is comprised of 254 total owned acres, 121 of which is crop land. I rent an additional 100 acres of crop land. My major crops have been corn, sorghum and soybeans, and I consistently participate in the farm program. Most of my crop land is on rolling hills. I am in the process of rebuilding a beef cow herd, which currently consist of 12 brood cows and 6 bred heifers. I also hold a full time job off of the farm.
I have used some sustainable farming practices in the past, but not in a consistent way. I have overseeded red clover in oats on occasion and in some fields some years I have used cultivation for weed control in row corps instead of herbicides with mixed results. I try to rotate soybeans with corn and milo, but the farm program has prevented me from doing so consistently. I soil tested several fields in 1992 for the first time in several years, and by taking credit for available nitrogen and phosphorus and by taking credit for soybean legume N, I saved several hundred dollars in fertilizer costs. I have routinely bought fertilizer and herbicides, which are my major crop expenses and the ones I have the most difficulty paying. I would like to reduce these costs.
Ed Reznicek with the Kansas Rural center has been my major collaborator, helping me plan the crop rotation, do the economic analysis and write this report. Joe Vogelsberg of Home, Kansas and Oren Holle of Bremen, Kansas are two of the farmers whose farms I toured and who have given me a lot of good information on using crop rotations.
PROJECT DESCRIPTION AND RESULTS
I wanted to see if I can develop a more diversified, sustainable crop rotation system that is more profitable than my current corn, sorghum, soybean cropping system and reduces my need for operating loans to buy fertilizer and chemicals. I needed information on what rotation options may work best for my, how they would effect my income and expenses, what other sustainable practices would be beneficial, and how I would implement these new practices while continuing to meet loan payments and other financial obligations.
Selecting and Developing a Rotation Plan:
I worked primarily with Ed Reznicek at the Kansas Rural Center to investigate possible crop rotation options and how a suitable crop rotation might compare financially to my current cropping system. I also obtained articles on sustainable crop rotations and cropping practices to see what might work best for me. Ed and I looked at different crop rotation systems farmers in our region were using, and we tried to develop one that provided the appropriate balance of cash grains and forage legumes for my operation. I decided to look more closely at a six year rotation consisting of oats/alfalfa, alfalfa, corn, soybeans, milo, and soybeans. We made copies of field maps of my farms and we walked over the fields to consider their suitability for the rotation and how we might subdivide fields, if necessary, to make the rotation work better. I decided for the time being to only consider using the land I won in developing a better rotation, as the owners of my rented land are not interested in forage legumes for now and would likely not be interested in having them in a rotation.
In the course of deciding on a rotation plan, we drafted a crop rotation summary which outlined my yield goals and the agronomic details for the rotation. I decided I was not ready to try to implement a different rotation system on all my owned land this year, so I decided to begin implementing and experimenting with a new rotation system on my home 80, which has 33 crop acres. I subdivided one field so that I had an equal number of fields to the years in my new rotation. We also coordinated this with the set-aside requirements I had for the farm program. I purchased sweet clover and alfalfa seed. I planted my se-aside acres to sweet clover, and I seeded one field to oats and alfalfa. During this process we also developed a crop rotation field plan for my home place to help plan the implementation of the rotation system in future years.
Having established my planting intentions for 1993, Ed and I developed economic analysis for the variable costs and returns for my crops as actually planted that year on my owned acres compared with the planned rotation based system if it were fully implemented. We used average custom rates for costs of field operations and actual costs for herbicide and fertilizer applications. We projected equal crop yields for both the conventional and rotation based systems. And we used price projections that FmHA requires in development of farm plans for their programs.
The rotation based cropping system compared favorably to my conventional cropping system. Both cropping systems generated roughly equivalent gross returns. However, gross expenses on the rotation based system were 25% lower, due primarily to reduced fertilizer and herbicide costs, resulting in an overall net return of $2,051 more than the conventional cropping system I have used. The rotation based cropping system reduces my fertilizer and herbicide costs and my need for annual operation credit, assuming I can effectively control weeds with rotations and mechanical cultivation and that I can meet my production, utilization and marketing goals for alfalfa hay. The alfalfa legume crop is very important in this rotation in that it not only is supposed to generate a significant portion of income, but it also must provide a significant portion of soil fertility. I need to raise good alfalfa to get the benefits of this rotation plan.
The rotation plan significantly affects my eligibility for farm program payments. If I was fully implementing the rotation plan in 1993, my deficiency payments would have been reduced by $1,186. I would have been able to preserve my feed grain base allotment by flexing feed grain acres into alfalfa, but I wouldn’t have been eligible for deficiency payments on my alfalfa flex acres. The incentive to adopt the rotation based cropping system would be greater if I wouldn’t have to lose deficiency payments.
Implementing the Rotation Plan:
Implementing the crop rotation plan has been difficult. My intention was to phase in the rotation plan over a two year period, giving myself time to establish legumes and practice non-chemical weed control. I wanted to develop the rotation system on my home place first and, if it worked well, then expand it to my other cropland.
The different farms I own are treated as a single unit for ASCS purposes. This is an advantage in that I can designate se-aside or flex acres on my home place where I wanted to establish legumes.
I had mixed results with the sweet clover and alfalfa I seeded in the spring of 1993. wet weather delayed seeding until May. My sweet clover failed, though the seed was germination tested. I suspect herbicide carryover may have been the problem, as the field was previously in milo and weed pressure in 1993 was not very great. I seeded oats and alfalfa on 1992 set-aside acres and I got good emergence. But the abnormally wet summer weather ruined oat harvest and generated intense weed pressure for the alfalfa. Mowing the weeds helped the alfalfa compete, and by spring 1994 I still had a viable alfalfa stand.
In late summer 1993 I visited three farms in northeast Kansas that are using crop rotations similar to what I am considering and equipment similar to my own. We made several stops on each farm, looking at crops in the different stages of the crop rotation and talking about the specific inputs and cultural practices for each crop. I saw some good looking fields of corn, soybeans and alfalfa with good yield potential and weed control. I also saw some fields that were water stressed and had some weed pressure. The crops on all three farms looked very comparable to most in the area, but with lower fertilizer and herbicide costs. Rotation based cropping systems appear to be working fairly well for these farmer. I got a better sense of how a rotation based cropping system works in practice, and I feel comfortable calling on these farmers in the future with question or to discuss ideas.
My plan had been to seed another field to oats/alfalfa in 1994 and to continue implementing the crop rotation on my home place. Under this plan I would have the crop rotation system in place by 1995.
I have much more information and knowledge about crop rotations than previously, and I have a plan for implementing it on a field by field basis. I have overcome my initial barrier, which was the lack of information on what might be a suitable crop rotation for my operation and how adopting it might economically affect my farm. However, implementing that rotation system has been much more difficult than I expected. Full time employment and wet spring weather has prevented me from establishing and harvesting my forage legumes in a timely manner. Changing cropping systems is more complicated than I thought it would be and for my rotation based cropping system, implementation seems to hinge on successfully establishing and managing the forage legume. Due to time constraints imposed by adverse weather and full time employment, along with other kinds of pressure associated with obtaining and using operating credit, I found myself falling back on my conventional cropping system of using corn, milo and soybeans and making the most of the farm program.
I spoke with neighbors, friends and family about my interest and plan to use better crop rotations to reduce costs. I did not host any tours because I did not yet have much to show in the fields. I have copies of the rotation plans and economic summaries we developed. Ed Reznicek of the Kansas Rural Center uses the planning documents and economic summaries included in this report as educational and planning tools with other farmers interested in crop rotation systems. He has included earlier versions of this report along with the planning documents in mailings to over three dozen farmer and he has used workshops on crop rotation planning.
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