The struggle for longer crop rotations

Growers know the benefits, but often the economics seem just too steep

Modern agronomic science is clear. Longer rotations are better. Three crops are better than two, four are better than three. Yet commodity prices and weather conditions often confound the search for an ideal rotation.

In 2019, corn had two knocks against it. The planting season turned wet. Plus, the market was weighed down by heavy inventories in the U.S. But instead of discouraging growers from planting corn, it spurred many to simplify and shorten rotations on their farms, convincing them they can make more money with two and not three crops.

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Why? As much as people like to think agronomics, soil health and even a “getting-back-to-basics” approach with cover crops are the deciding factors, it turns out the biggest factor is often price — not of the crops, but of the land.

Across much of southern Ontario, land prices are above $20,000 per acre, with some locations tilting upwards of $25,000 per acre, with big rises in Eastern Ontario too.

In an ideal world, every farm would strive to maintain rotations, but Shannon Bieman says that’s just not possible, in spite of commodity prices. In her eyes, it comes down to economics, no matter how much she agrees with soil health benefits from maintaining rotations.

“The first challenge is the cost of land. As it continues to increase, growers cannot pencil revenue from cereals,” says Bieman, a certified crop advisor (CCA) with SeCan. “At $15,000 an acre — as an average — and with a crop of oats at $220 per tonne (FOB at the farm) this fall, or barley at $230 per tonne, a grower can’t make sense of those numbers. And the yields in some areas are not dynamic, either — at only 1.5 tonnes per acre, the math isn’t there.”

What’s worse, she adds, is that if ethanol use in the U.S. remains weak (due to ongoing COVID-19 concerns), stunted corn prices are likely to affect the price of cereals. There’s also the concern that food processors need only so many tonnes of spring cereals, and if the crop is rejected due to colour or test weight, a grower has very few options. Farmers in livestock areas may have feed markets to sell into, of course, but even then there are fewer livestock operations these days and they tend to have greater biosecurity systems in place that discourage buying from their neighbours.

Dr. Ron DePauw and Sarah Fretz, both with SeCan, examine a field of spring barley.
photo: Willie Vanderpol, SeCan

Bieman can offer her recommendation on the ideal crop rotation — a hay crop with corn, soybeans and a cereal. But in this current market, it’s easier with a two-crop rotation than it is to stick with cereals, despite the well-known benefits of longer, diverse crop plans.

“Growers are getting away from cereals largely because of land costs and not seeing positive returns,” says Bieman. “In eastern Ontario, there have been a few years where winter wheat has struggled through the winter and there’s nothing worse than planting a crop only have to watch it die over winter and replant in the spring.”

Today versus tomorrow

Arguably, there’s a greater urgency to growers’ cropping decisions today, and Tanya Legault, who operates Domar Farms Ltd., along with her husband, sister and brother-in-law and her parents, concedes that the shift is on to more of a corn-and-soybean rotation, even in the east.

“Cereals are being dropped, often in favour of corn and soybeans, and often in the belief that corn-soy rotations are the more ‘market-stable’ crop plan,” says Legault, who’s based near Moose Creek, northwest of Cornwall. Their rotation consists of corn, soybeans, wheat (winter and spring) and edible beans on 3,700 acres, and in the past, they have tried adzuki beans and peas. “People who have animals will have hay in the rotation but some are even moving to forage soybeans and reducing hay production since there is no worry of winter-kill on the crop.”

In spite of the temptation to shorten their rotation, Legault acknowledges the benefits of small grains, not just for helping the soil but also for splitting the harvest so they have a chance to get in more field work, like levelling or fixing tiles. After that, there’s still plenty of time to put down some fertilizer or manure and plant a cover crop. They maintain wheat because of the shift in markets they see with lower prices for corn and soybeans. She also concedes that timing for winter or spring wheat can be tricky: too late in the fall and the crop has trouble establishing before winter sets in. Planting too late in the spring can affect yields.

Alternatives — the great unknown

Enthusiasts can talk about the wonders of edible beans, more diverse forages, malt barley or canola. But getting started in such crops can present a problem with familiarity, establishing markets or learning different practices, such as fertility or weed management, especially with so much riding on crop production and revenues.

“I spoke to a lentil grower from Wellington County this past winter,” says Willie Vanderpol, market development with SeCan. “They told me market demand and cost of production were impediments to consider before growing lentils again. Their local retailer had to bring in products specifically for lentils and the grower had to purchase an entire jug of each even when there was a small acreage to cover.”

Vanderpol notes there are other field crop options being explored, including winter canola, winter barley, malting barley, buckwheat, spelt and hemp. There’s even the potential for gluten-free oats as an inducement to get growers planting them for a premium. Yet the urgency of “now” can diminish that “spirit of discovery.”

The search for alternative crops covers a variety of options, including lima beans, grown near St. Thomas in 2018.
photo: Willie Vanderpol, SeCan

“Registration of chemicals to be sprayed in certain crop types can be a challenge,” she adds. “Crop protection companies often do not register products for certain crop types because of the investment involved to have successful registrations: their return on investment isn’t there when acreages of some crops are so small. Combine these factors with a fear of switching crop production practices and it becomes difficult for a farmer who’s grown a corn-soybean rotation to embrace change.”

Longer-term perspective

For Paul Sullivan, the need for the immediate solution to lower commodity prices and surviving another year has been oversimplified. Just as longer rotations may require more advanced planning and the ability to adjust quickly to weather and markets, assessing the benefits versus drawbacks of a cropping system requires a longer-term perspective.

“In our area, cereals did very well in 2019 and were the most profitable crop,” says Sullivan, who operates P.T. Sullivan Agro in Kinburn, Ont. “In 2018, it was probably soybeans and in 2017, it was probably corn. There’s a certain amount of production or inconsistency that’s out of anybody’s control, but if you look at the diversity of crops, that in itself is going to provide a difference in how the season rolls.”

The other factor for growers in eastern Ontario is winter survival in a crop like winter wheat, which can be a worry every year in the east compared to sporadically elsewhere.

“We’re never going to expect to have a perfect winter and perfect survival,” says Sullivan, echoing the others on the need to focus on the near-term, in spite of the research that confirms the benefits of longer rotations. “What it has done is shift growers to look at forage soybeans as more of a predictable crop, which is an annual forage which tends to have some challenges as to timing or seeding, timing of harvest and peak production issues. Quality is also dictated by the timing of when things are done.”

Sullivan adds that diversity of cropping rotations is a greater benefit for heavier soils than on lighter soils. In his region, the chase for diversity of rotations can be complicated on those farms with livestock operations requiring forages for feed. The challenges become greater when the operation itself is more diverse.

Cover crops — do they help?

As for the discussion surrounding cover crops, Sullivan recognizes their benefits, but he believes a lot depends on the goals of the producer as well as on the cropping system involved.

“We continue to have conversations with some of our customers who ask, ‘What about cover crops?’” relates Sullivan. “They’ve heard that cover crops are supposed to be good but it’s hard to get a cover crop in there. It’s a matter of fitting it into your system and having something that’s going to fit in when it can. If you’re in a corn and soybean rotation and you put cereal rye in after your soybeans, you have cereal rye ahead of your corn, which complicates things because cereal rye is aggressive.”

The length of the season also plays a part in the decision on cover crops. At least in eastern Ontario, as forage soybeans increase, they come off in early September, so there’s time for a cover after that. After corn silage with cereal rye, there’s the option of utilizing the forage the next spring to feed cattle, and Sullivan says it’ll provide a benefit to the soil, as well.

As much as diversity is desired and near-term economics must be acknowledged, Sullivan maintains that “simple” isn’t a word that fits into most farming operations today. When growers start to put a more complicated system in place, a cookie-cutter management regimen becomes more of a challenge, with more to adapt. Growers tend to like easier answers and once any kind of complex or diverse system is put in place, it requires more advanced planning.

“In a lot of things that we do, we prefer simplicity and that drives a lot of other decisions,” says Sullivan. “To say, ‘I can’t make money on wheat’ is too easy or judgmental. We impose different problems on different crops: tougher criteria on wheat than on soybeans. As such, the criteria that we impose on things like our crops are such that when there’s another crop, we’re bound to fail because we don’t necessarily give it a chance to succeed.”

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CG Production Editor

Ralph Pearce

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