By Bryce Irlbeck, AgriSecure Co-Founder & B&B Irlbeck Farms
You’ve heard the saying, “location, location, location” — the real estate mantra used to remind people that where a property is located is often the most important factor in its value.
In organic farming, the same can be said about rotation. Having the right rotation in place is critical for year-to-year success and the long-term value of your organic operation.
Why Rotation is Key to Organic Success
Rotation is so important in organic production because, unlike conventional production, you cannot rely upon chemical crop inputs to deliver fertility or fight weeds, diseases and pests.
The foundation for your weed control comes from establishing a diverse rotation because different crops help control different weeds. For instance, if you have wheat and corn in your rotation, the weeds that typically go to seed in corn won’t have that opportunity with wheat, because you harvest wheat 3 months earlier. Thus, a diverse crop rotation (with a minimum of three different crops) sets the right tone for weed management.
Similarly, a good rotation will also reduce the risks of pests and diseases altering the cycle upon which diseases or pests can build their presence in a field.
Finally, a diverse crop rotation incorporating cover crops can also help enhance soil health. For example, different crops will also extract nutrients in differently from the soil, allowing Mother Nature to do what it’s intended to do, which is to build and balance nutrients and biology in the soil.
Designing the Right Rotation
Similar to building the right transition plan, deciding on the best rotation for your organic acres comes down to agronomics, economics, and management.
Rotation can provide timing advantages for your weed control and other fieldwork activities. If your plan is an organic corn and soybeans rotation, your planting, weed control and harvest activities will all happen at the same time, which is more challenging to do in organic because of the higher level of management required. However, if your organic rotation includes small grains and summer annuals, your workload will be spread out — effectively increasing your “acreage capacity” without adding more equipment or people.
While there’s no rule of thumb to the number of crops that should be in your long-term rotation, aiming for three different cash crops in 5 years will provide the diversity to help control weeds and reduce the risks of pest and disease. When including cover crops, many farmers will end up with 6-8 different crops in that time period.
You should also try to design an annual rotation where the workload for at least one third of your acres occur at a separate time from the other two-thirds to help with time management, such as a corn-peas-wheat rotation.
Focus on the 10-Year Return
The biggest mistake I see organic farmers make is spending too much money up front by basing purchasing decisions off of the organic corn economics, whether it was on equipment, transition, or renting more land. As a result, they are forced into growing only high-value crops (like corn) to make that money back as quickly as possible. Ultimately this will lead to failure more often than not.
You can’t always go for the biggest money every year. Instead, look at your 10-year return profile and consider what is going to work best in the long run. If you have to shoot for making the most money on every acre each year with a one-year view, it is usually not sustainable.
You should also consider your 10-year return profile when growing different crops. I’m often asked, “What else do we grow beside corn and soybeans in Iowa?” There is no one-size-fits-all answer right now. At AgriSecure we are always exploring different crop rotations and working to develop new markets for our clients. As an organic farmer, you will have to think outside the box and keep it simple. Think about what kind of rotations you can successfully grow, how it’s going to benefit you agronomically, and how it will fit in your 10-year return profile.
Get Guidance on Your Rotation
Rotation is too important a factor in organic farming to risk making the wrong decision. If you’re wondering what the best rotation is based on your location, workload, equipment and markets, AgriSecure can help.