The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

November 10, 2012

Old ways work best

By Alan Guebert

— Life seems to bounce from one hard lesson to the next.

For example, no sooner than someone tells you “It’s not about the money,” you learn that, yes, it’s always about the money. Then, after years of working to acquire that money, you discover you can’t take it with you.

Farming and ranching seem to built on similar truths and research by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, University of Minnesota and Iowa State University confirms what your father and grandfather told you back when: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

The research, published in several formats this fall, show three-year and four-year crop rotations that include a small grain like oats and a forage, such as red clover and alfalfa, produce not only as good or better yields per acre than today’s dominant corn-soybeans rotation but also dramatically cut energy use per acre, manage weeds effectively while slashing fertilizer and herbicide use and improve what the researchers called “agroecosystem” elements, like water quality.

The research was on 22 acres of prime Iowa farmland over nine years, from 2003 through 2011. Its goal was to “… explore the potential benefits of diversifying cropping systems” to better manage pests, “improve resource efficiencies” and “enhance other agroecosystem processes.”

The three rotations were not unlike yours, Dad’s and Grandpa’s: a two-year corn/soybean system; a three-year corn/soybean/small grain plus red clover plan; and, finally, a four-year corn/soybeans/small grain plus alfalfa/alfalfa rotation.

The results, reported as the trials were ongoing and in at least two publications this fall were striking. For example, according to an Iowa State University Extension bulletin published in September, the two-year corn/soybean rotation produced a glittering average of 193.7 bushels of corn and 50.3 bushels of beans from 2006 through 2011.

The three-year, corn/soybean/ oats rotation across those same years produced even better average yields — 199.8 bushels of corn, 54.73 bushels of soybeans and 97.9 bushels of oats.

The four-year rotation, however, was killer: 202.4 on corn, 56.9 on soybeans, 101.6 for oats and almost 4 tons of alfalfa it first full year. Profit per acre was equally striking. The ISU paper breaks out profit in three categories. First is the classic “Land, Labor, Management” figure, next just “Land & Management,” and finally, “Management.”

The two-year rotation’s average per acre “Return to Management” from 2006 to 2011 was $188. Similarly the average for the three-year rotation was $194 per acre and the four-year rotation averaged $170 per acre.

The three- and four-year rotations carried big savings in production costs.

What’s the catch? You know it; you have to farm like your father and grandfather. Longer rotations; use of livestock manure; hay baling; moldboard plow the alfalfa; and, yep, retrieve that cultivator from behind the barn.

One modern addition to that regime, though, seemed not to matter. “Overall yields were higher in the longer rotations,” relates one of the principle researchers, Matt Liebman of Iowa State, in a Nov. 6 telephone interview, “and that was true for both conventional and GMO seeds.”

The study’s point is clear: “There is an attainable balance between high productivity, conservation and profitability.”

Grandpa and Dad knew that, and the evidence of their wisdom is the land they entrusted to us. We should be so wise.

© 2012 ag comm