Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Everything Old is New Again: Sod-Based Rotational Farming Method for Crops and Livestock

This article by Madeline Fisher for Crops & Soils magazine and the American Society of Agronomy is titled, "Sod-based rotations - New system could increase profits, reduce risk, and conserve resources" and describes an old-school farming method which needs to be revisited in this era of high-input agricultural costs since it can decrease a farmer's exposure to risk while improving soil quality. The article also includes a section on a Rodale Institute study grazing dairy cows while using the sod rotation method.

Here are a few key quotes related to profitability to pique your interest:
  • His economic calculations also suggest sod rotation can boost farm profitability two- to seven-fold.
  • “We’re thinking that [this rotation] is the only thing that will, on a large landscape, substantially reduce water use by agriculture,”— up to 30%, he estimates.
  • What it shows is that net profits after four years can be two to seven times higher with sod rotation and cattle than in a conventional system.
  • When cattle graze on winter cover crops sown after peanuts in sod rotation, the researchers have also seen yield increases of 25 to 30% in subsequent cotton crops.
From what I understand the interest is strong from farmers wanting to lower input costs while increasing yields these days. More and more, it is realized that this goal can be achieved through organic techniques which improve soil as an added bonus.

Anyone interested in rotational crop and animal grazing will also love this article.

Because the entire article quality is so high, instead of excerpting, I am introducing it here and you can go to the source to read the rest. A special thanks to James Giese, Director of Science Communications for ASA, CSSA, and SSSA, for pointing me towards it.--K.M.

Sod-based rotations have shown promise in research at the University of Florida and elsewhere in increasing profits, reducing risk, conserving water, and building the soil. Unlike annual cover crops, which have most of their biomass above-ground, sod-based rotations incorporate a perennial grass into the rotation, with most of its biomass underground. And unlike pastures, the perennial grasses are rotated into the same fields that are used for row crops. This can have a big effect on soil quality characteristics and ultimately a producer’s bottom line.

Across Florida’s Suwannee County, brothers Ryan and Reed Moore are known for being early adopters of best management practices. They perform nutrient management planning and retrofitted the irrigation system for their 1,200-acre cattle and peanut farm with the latest water-saving features. Their use of “cutting-edge” techniques even earned them Conservation Farmer of the Year honors from the county’s conservation district in 2009.

Yet one of their most important practices isn’t new at all. When their grandfather, R.F. Moore, started his 40-acre livestock and tobacco operation in the 1920s, he established a rotation that involved planting a perennial grass for five or six years, sowing tobacco or peanuts into the same fields for two more, and then going back to sod. Nothing knocked down nematodes or built up soil organic matter quite like it, Ryan Moore explains, plus peanuts, corn, and tobacco “all love to follow grass.”

He and his brother have been keeping up their grandfather’s practice ever since taking over the farm in the late 1970s. “He always believed strongly in this rotation,” Moore says. Another firm believer in sod rotation is University of Florida’s David Wright, who for the past 12 years has been documenting scientifically what the Moores understand intuitively about its benefits. An agronomy professor and extension specialist with the North Florida Research and Education Center, Wright has recorded bumps in peanut yields of 25 to 40% after just two years of sod. He has seen 30 to 40% increases in the total root mass of cotton and peanuts and dramatic drops in nematodes.

His economic calculations also suggest sod rotation can boost farm profitability two- to seven-fold.

In addition to Wright’s work in Florida, those data have now sparked research and demonstration projects in Alabama, Georgia, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and even as far away as Columbia, South America. Still, while Wright believes the rotation can help growers most anywhere, his focus remains on those in the Southeast, particularly young people trying to enter agriculture for the first time. Sod rotation reduces the considerable risk southern farmers face from extreme weather (droughts to hurricanes) and the region’s droughty, compacted, and infertile soils, he contends. Many growers are also just breaking even, meaning that even small increases in yields can produce significant net returns.

Add in the rotation’s capacity to reduce irrigation needs and build the soil, and it’s able to meet agriculture’s three most fundamental goals: profitability, risk management, and natural resource conservation. Read the rest [pdf].