- Agronomic: wheat
- Additional Plants: native plants
- Animals: bovine
- Animal Production: grazing - rotational
- Crop Production: agroforestry, cover crops, no-till
- Education and Training: on-farm/ranch research
- Production Systems: integrated crop and livestock systems
A two-year diversification project using agroforestry and cover crops was implemented in Mulhall, Oklahoma. The project purpose was to diversify the traditional winter wheat and beef cattle wheat system by utilizing agroforestry and cover crop components. Initial project results were presented at the 2016 Organic Oklahoma Conference and with a group of 4H students who were involved in cattle judging. The barriers to implementation include high labor cost of planting and watering permanent trees and the proper timing of cover crop planting. The agroforestry system shows promise for use but still needs work on better medium-term, high-value crops and pollinator habitat.
Background of the problem
The problem that I am faced with as a producer is the need to conserve moisture and sustain yields. I have a smaller amount of acreage than most large scale producers so I need to maximize the value I get for the grain that I grow. I also want to see if I can diversify into other crops that will provide higher income per acre. I’ve attended the past five Oklahoma State University No-Till conferences. At these conferences I’ve learned more about the value of cover crops in building soil health. I want to utilize cover crops to conserve moisture. I’ve tried tillage radish as a cover crop in some of my fields but have been concerned that the cover crops may take up more moisture than they conserve. One of my concerns is how I can improve the fertility and management practices on my farm so that it sustainably provides income for me as I get older and for my sons who want to help me on the farm. We’ve talked about how to move away from commodity wheat and into specialty grains that bring higher economic return. In order to diversify though it is important to understand the available market and if I can get high enough quality product to meet the demand.
The beef cattle/winter wheat dual purpose system in central Oklahoma has developed into a reliable production system (Gadberry & Beck, 2013). Hard Red Winter wheat is planted from September to October, allowed to establish, and then beef cattle are introduced to the wheat fields to graze until before the boot (wheat growing point) emerges (Feb. 20 – March 15). The wheat plant will then continue to grow and produce grain to be harvested in the first two weeks of June. The producer can make a market driven decision at boot stage to remove cattle and produce grain if wheat prices are high, or allow the cattle to graze out the wheat and not harvest for grain if cattle prices are better. The system is useful because the times of growth are matched with the highest times of rainfall in Oklahoma. This system has its drawbacks which include low cattle and wheat prices and the difficulties of finding other options that still fit within the growing season like canola. Wheat production year after year has also allowed for higher and higher weed pressure which requires more chemical use (OCES, 2010). Other options are needed.
Sustainably maintain income
The common response to lower grain prices has been to get bigger as a producer. This means buying more land. This is not a good option for our farm because we are as big as we can get currently and on dryland. After reading the literature our response has been to try and get higher value for the crops we currently grow. I have tried canola, sorghum, and soybeans. The struggle I have is that our driest month in the summer growing season is in August. We have had drought for the past four years and so my soybean crop needs rain in August to develop fully. I just have not received sufficient rain during August. This is why the agroforestry option has looked promising (Shepard, 2013).
Utilizing cover crops have been encouraged by no-till researchers at OSU. They talk about the value of cover crops but caution that because of the moisture taken up by the cover crop it can lead often lead to low soil moisture in September when I normally plant wheat or canola. On the positive side for cover crops there are farmers who have seen positive benefits when they utilize a high biomass crop like Sorghum Sudan and then kill it. Brunetti (2013, p. 243-257) provides great examples of the practical considerations of biotic factors and microbial species interaction once there is enough cover on the soil to allow it to happen.
Here are some of the benefits of cover crops as described in the SARE handbook “Managing Cover Crops Profitably (3rd Ed., p. 9-11)
- Cut fertilizer costs by contributing to Nitrogen and by scavenging and mining other soil nutrients
- Reduce the need for herbicides and other pesticides by smothering or restricting light to weeds & by exuding chemicals to inhibit weed growth.
- Improve yields by enhancing soil health by speeding water infiltration into the soil; relieving soil compaction, adding organic matter, enhancing nutrient cycling.
- Prevent soil erosion by holding soil in place, reducing crusting, and preventing raindrop to soil impact.
- Conserve soil moisture by reducing evaporation and increasing infiltration.
- Protect water quality by slowing erosion and runoff & taking up excess nitrogen to help reduce mobile nitrogen from flowing into the groundwater.
- Help safeguard personal health by reducing reliance on agrichemicals which is better for neighbors, family, and farm workers.
There are also examples of cover crops as part of market farms – http://www.cias.wisc.edu/wp-content/uploads/2003/09/covercrop09final.pdf and these may have use in the infield hedge component of the hedgerow system. As we’ve looked through literature we’ve seen some useful tools like a decision making process for assessing the applicability of cover crops for an agroecosystem (SARE, 2012, p. 12-15). This is important as we move forward and make decisions about how to proceed.
Providing a beneficial insect habitat
To be more sustainable as a farm it is important to preserve pollinators. Beneficial pollinator habitat is not that difficult to encourage and has many benefits (Mader, Spivak, and Evans, 2010; Gliessman, 2015). In addition, if we are going to not use chemical and organic/natural production we need to encourage as many beneficial insects as possible. The benefits of agroforestry as a system is that it provides beneficial insect habitat throughout the field.
Developing alternative crops
The value of developing alternative crops in this area is that the Oklahoma City and Tulsa demand for locally sourced foods is growing. Sixty percent of the state’s residents are located in these two urban areas and this trend is continuing. This is a great opportunity to use the agroforestry system as a way to produce smaller amounts of high value crops.
Build up soil organic matter
Agroforestry systems like the one envisioned in this project have a strong potential to improve organic matter when combined with cover crops (Wojtkowski, 2002; Magdoff & Van Es, 2009). When these are also combined with no-till wheat production then returning these soils to organic matter to 4 – 5 % is achievable (Moyer, 2011; Shepard, 2013).
Agroforestry as a practice
Agroforestry has been demonstrated to be feasible in places like Wisconsin (Shepard, 2013), and in other locales with higher rainfall (Univ. of Missouri, 2016). I’ve also seen examples of agroforestry alley cropping on videos from the University of Missouri Agroforestry Center and from what my son and I’ve been reading in Mark Shepard’s book “Restoration Agriculture.” I’ve not seen if agroforestry systems have been shown to be consistently viable yet in Oklahoma. There is a gap in the literature about this practice in Oklahoma in predominately winter wheat producing areas that this project can shed light on.
Bibliography citations supporting Literature review
Brunetti, J. (2003). The Farm as Ecosystem: Tapping nature’s reservoir – biology, geology, diversity. Austin, Texas: Acres U.S.A.
Gadberry, S. & Beck, P. (2013). Dual – Purpose Wheat Systems for Grazing and Grain or Hay Production in Arkansas. University of Arkansas – Division of Agriculture Publication. FSA3130, Retrieved at http://www.uaex.edu/publications/pdf/FSA-3130.pdf
Gliessman, S.R. (2015). Agroecology: The ecology of sustainable food systems. (2nd Edition). New York: CRC Press.
Mader, E., Spivak, M., & Evans, E. (2010). Managing Alternative Pollinators: A handbook for beekeepers, growers, and conservationists. Handbook Series Book 11. Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education. SARE Program. Maryland, U.S.A.
Magdoff, F. & Van Es, H. (2009). Building Soils for Better Crops: Sustainable soil management. (3rd Ed) Handbook Series Book 10. Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education. SARE Program. Maryland, U.S.A.
Moyer, J. (2011). Organic No-till Farming: Advancing no-till agriculture. Austin, Texas: Acres U.S.A.
Oklahoma State University Plant and Soil Science Department. (2015, 2016, 2017). Annual No-Till Conference. Department of Plant and Soil Science. Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources. Oklahoma State University. http://notill.okstate.edu/
Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service. (2010). No-till Cropping Systems in Oklahoma. E-996. OCES Publication. Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources. Oklahoma State University.
SARE. (2012). Managing Cover Crops Profitably. (3rd Ed.) Handbook Series Book 9. Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education. SARE Program. Maryland, U.S.A.
Shepard, M. (2013). Restoration Agriculture: Real-world permaculture for farmers. Austin, Texas: Acres U.S.A.
Wojtkowski, P. A. (2002). Agroecological Perspectives in Agronomy, Forestry, and Agroforestry. Enfield, NH: Science Publishers Inc.
Set up two 10 acre agroforestry alley cropping sections in wheat fields.
Develop a more diversified approach to winter wheat production that encourages a mix of economically viable trees with insect trap crops in the hedgerow.
Provide beneficial insect habitat within the each of the 10 acre systems.
Develop production expertise for several alternative crops.
Use cover crops to build up soil organic matter.
Monitor any changes in wildlife presence at the two locations.