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Putting a value on crop diversity

Economists and agronomists are getting together to compare the benefits of short and long rotations

Have you ever stared at your crop plan and wished that it didn’t rely so heavily on canola? Or wheat? Or peas? Or any crop that is too often called on for cash flow at the expense of proper rotation?

Agronomists have been beating the drum of crop diversity for years and farmers understand that tight rotations of any crop lead to increased disease, weed and insect pressure, and eventually to reduced yield and quality.

But it certainly is difficult to lengthen canola rotations when the crop is bringing in the bucks and you’ve got bills to pay. It’s one reason why, even as the incidence and severity of diseases rise, many farmers still plant canola on the same field every second year. They know it may bite them in future, but the income is needed now.

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That dilemma between short-term gain and long-term pain is something Danny Le Roy hopes to ease in the future. An associate professor in the department of economics at the University of Lethbridge, Le Roy is working with U of L bio-economist Elwin Smith and colleagues from the Universities of Alberta and Manitoba on a five-year, WGRF-funded research project aimed at determining the economic value of diversified cropping systems. He wants to put a dollar figure on the tradeoffs between short- and longer-rotation plans. “The reality is that with the spread of root rots, clubroot, blackleg and more, farmers are struggling with crop decisions,” Le Roy says. “That’s part of the rationale for this research. Instead of just relying on a gut feeling, is it possible to put some numbers to it?”

Smoothing the peaks and valleys

Maybe one place to start is to think about the sources of profit. You sell a crop, you get a return, and whether it’s a high or low return depends on markets and the quality of what you have to sell — that’s pretty straightforward. But productivity also influences profit: the more productive the land, the higher the yield and grade, the higher (presumably) the return. You can’t affect markets, but you can affect productivity.

“Up to this point, land has been intensively used,” Le Roy says, referring to the short-rotation patterns typical of Prairie agriculture. “With canola, for example, the tradeoff for it being the money-maker is that canola pests reduce the productivity of that land. If you have a longer rotation, you might have a lower return, but the variability of that return may be lower.”

In other words, what you lose in a spectacular return every few years, you gain in making smaller, but steadier, more reliable returns over time. It’s kind of like the stock market — there are dips and valleys month-to-month and year-to-year, but the overall trend is upward.

Three soil regions

To find out the profit potential of long rotations and fully diversified cropping systems, Le Roy and his colleagues are gathering data from three distinct agronomic regions in Western Canada: the black soil zone of southern Manitoba, where corn and soy crop systems are dominant; black and grey soil zone areas of Alberta and Saskatchewan, where canola and cereals are ubiquitous; and the brown and dark brown soil zones of southern Alberta and Saskatchewan, where pulses reign supreme.

Both short, less diversified rotations and longer, more diversified rotations are included in the study, and data points will be collected by researchers and agronomists from field projects they are already working on. “All the information we need has been collected for years, but it needs to be reorganized,” says Le Roy.

The main goal is to develop a solid framework that farmers can use to help make cropping decisions more easily, perhaps more aware of the risks associated with various choices.

“Margins are very thin,” Le Roy says. “It’s a very competitive industry. A small difference here or there may make the difference between making a mortgage payment and getting foreclosed, and growers need to protect that margin. So if canola doesn’t make the margin you’re used to, a tool like this will help you make some decisions — ‘given what I’m putting in, what’s the best course of action?’”

Specifically, the framework will be a way to quantify the economic tradeoffs between the profit potential of short-rotation crop plans and the long-term benefits of diversification. “I don’t know at this point if the work we’re doing will lead to a commercializable spreadsheet — that would be the dream,” says Le Roy. “The point is to help real people in the real world.”

“The problem motivating this study is timeless,” Le Roy says, adding that the alarm bells ringing now — increased pest severity, resistance and pressure on Western Canada’s major crops — create a sense of urgency. “I don’t know all the answers, but I can help frame the question,” he says.

“The importance of this research is to quantify some things that are becoming increasingly important — this is truly agronomically driven work,” he says. “I would like farmers to know there are means being developed that will help them evaluate the choices they make in the spring.”

This project is funded by WGRF plus these funding partners:

  • Alberta Pulse Growers Commission (APG)
  • Alberta Wheat Commission (AWC)
  • Brewing and Malting Barley Research Institute (BMBRI)
  • Manitoba Pulse & Soybean Growers (MPSG)
  • Prairie Oat Growers Association (POGA)
  • Saskatchewan Wheat Development Commission (SWDC)

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