Using Small Grain Cover Crop Alternatives to Diversify Crop Rotations
Our goal is to increase the sustainability of Midwestern farming systems by diversifying the corn-soybean rotation. Our strategy is to re-introduce small grains planted with a legume cover crop into the rotation. Small grains are attracting the attention of producers due to economic and conservation benefits. Recent economic analyses have demonstrated the economic viability of small grains. Conservation and environmental benefits of the small grain-cover crop rotation include reduced soil erosion, increased soil nitrogen, weed suppression and wildlife habitat. Lowering applied agrichemicals reduces risk to humans, water and soil.
Specifically, we have three objectives:
1) Provide educational, technical and networking support to farmers interested in integrating small grain-cover crop combinations into their crop rotations.
2) Broaden the range of market opportunities and uses for small grains in the Upper Midwest.
3) Evaluate and communicate the results and experiences of producers and buyers directly involved with this project to a wider audience.
To meet our first objective, we have built a unique outreach team that joins together producers, university agronomists and extension agents and non-governmental organizations and the food-processing industry. Production and economic data is being collected and analyzed from 27 Midwestern farms as they integrate small grains into corn/soybean rotations. Our second objective is being met through efforts of the team to provide market contracts for production of high-quality food-grade grain for food- industry processors and grain handlers. To meet our third objective, project results will be disseminated via newsletters, field days, conference presentations, and fact sheets.
Adding a cover crop to the rotation has been received favorably among cooperators, many impressed with improved soil health and tilth. Farmers were generally pleased with 1998 yields (wheat averaging 70 bu/a; oats averaging 79 bu/a) and cover crop establishment (generally red clover or hairy vetch) in the fall of 1998. Hairy vetch provides the higher nitrogen credit to the following corn crop as determined by pre-sidedress nitrate tests. More than 1,000 copies of our extension technical bulletin on small grains production have been distributed, now in its second edition.
Several marketing strategies have been developed for placing the small grains and beans from this 3-crop rotation in human food instead of animal feed markets to realize a greater price. The team is organizing marketing cooperatives in order to fill the high volumes needed for companies such as Itochu (soybeans) and Quaker (oats).
The Small Grains Initiative, as we call it, is a win-win system in production, environment and economics. Diversifying the rotation has resulted in maintaining production outcomes while minimizing inputs and aiding in economic and environmental viability. Reduction in insecticide positively impacts wildlife and reduction in nitrogen fertilizer prevents ground water pollution. A more specific calculation of the impacts will be included in the final report.