Field Crops

Field Crop Answers  |  Resources & Research  |  From the Organic Broadcaster

Field Crops

Field Crop Fact Sheets:

1. Converting CRP Land to Organic Production
2. Marketing Organic Grains
3. Protecting Your Organic Land from Unwanted Chemical Sprays
4. Transition to Organic Crop Production

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Ask an Organic Specialist: Field Crop Answers

Must I use organic seed?

Answer by Organic Specialist Harriet Behar: If you are still in transition to organic, you are not required under the organic regulations to plant organic seed. However, you cannot plant seeds that have prohibited synthetic treatments applied, such as a fungicide or insecticide (ie: Captan, Maxim,Thiram). Nitrogen-fixing rhizobial bacteria, used as a treatment on leguminous seeds, is allowed. You must make sure this bacteria is not genetically modified, and the bacteria is not sold with a prohibited synthetic carrier or fertilizer.

You must keep documentation that the seed planted during your transition meets these requirements as part of your application for organic certification. If you plant a corn seed treated with captan after two years of transitioning to organic, for instance, you must restart the 36-month clock on your transition, to the day you planted that seed on that field. If you are unsure if a seed treatment is allowed, ask MOSES, or the organic certification agency you are planning to use when you become certified for organic production.

If your operation is certified organic, you are required under the organic regulations to plant organic seed, unless you cannot find an “equivalent organically produced variety” in the form, quality or quantity that you want. For example, you may want organically approved clay-coated carrot seed for ease of planting, and it is not available on organic seed; or, you want 1000 pounds of bodacious sweet corn seed and you cannot find organic seed in that quantity; or, the germination rate for the organic barley you found is only 65%; or, you cannot find the specific variety of seed in an organic form that the buyer of your crop wants you to grow. In all of these cases, you can use non-organic seed. It cannot have prohibited seed treatments, as described above.

Note that the rule requires you to seek out an “equivalent” variety. If you are new to organic and are unsure whether the organic seed varieties are equivalent to the familiar non-organic varieties you are used to growing, you should trial out organic varieties with similar characteristics at the same time as planting your untreated non-organic seed, to see if you can find one to your liking. Higher price is NOT an acceptable reason to avoid planting organic seed.

Organic seed is an investment in our future as organic producers. Since organic seed is produced under organic management, and the seed breeders are specifically working to provide characteristics that organic crop producers need, it makes sense to purchase from these companies and support their efforts. For example, organic corn producers cannot plant in cold ground in the early spring, since their seed is not treated with fungicides. Therefore, they want a seed that will germinate quickly as well as canopy thick and early to help with weed control in their organic fields. Organic seed breeders work to have crops that respond well to natural, slower release forms of fertility inputs, whereas nonorganic corn seed breeders don’t do this.

I am having my organic corn (or soybeans or small grains or hay) custom harvested. What should I do to protect the organic integrity of my crop?

Answer by Organic Specialist Harriet Behar: Harvesting of many organic crops is routinely done by custom operators who are not organic. These operators will need to follow specific protocols to prevent commingling of the organic crop with any non-organic crops or prohibited substances still present in the equipment.

When using a combine to harvest grains, soybeans or corn, the machine must be cleaned thoroughly between any non-organic crop and the organic crop. If the combine operator is working with another organic operator before harvesting your crop, you may not need to have the combine cleaned. You will need documentation that the last crop run through the combine was organic, and not a buffer strip, a transitional crop, or non-organic crop the other organic producer may have grown.

Cleaning a combine is labor-intensive and still may not remove all traces of a non-organic crop. Running the combine with all of the doors open is one way to shake out kernels and dust. Blowing out with compressed air and/or a shop vac is also an option. After either of these is done, you also must run the combine through a swath of your organic field, separating the first 30-60 feet or more of the crop that has been harvested. This harvest must be stored, used and/or sold as conventional. Keep a receipt or other documentation to show your organic inspector that this combine “purge” was either fed to your own non-organic livestock or sold as conventional. The distance you harvest for this combine “purge” depends on the size of the combine and the density of the crop. You should be able to justify to your inspector the amount of your purge. Typically it is 10-20 bushels.

Combine cleaning is done routinely by farmers who grow crops to sell as seed in order to maintain seed purity. Many custom operators know how many bushels they need to run through their combine to remove traces of the previous crop, especially if they combine small grains in mid-summer and then beans and corn. You must document who cleaned the combine, what they did and when. Some manufacturers may have information on how many bushels must be run through the combine to clean it out.

If the previous non-organic crop was Genetically Modified (GMO), even a trace of non-organic crop dust in your organic crop could result in a positive GMO test and rejection of your organic load if and when it is tested by the buyer. An ounce of prevention is definitely worth a pound of cure in this case.

If someone is custom harvesting your hay or swathing your small grains, make sure the equipment arrives at your organic field clean. The cutting and windrowing equipment is easy to inspect. If it is traveling any distance over the road it has most likely been shaken enough to remove any non-organic hay or straw. This is true for large round balers, as they are mostly self-cleaning. However, it is still your responsibility as the organic producer to verify and document that there is no residue of non-organic crop in or on the equipment before it is used to harvest your organic hay or straw. If a custom operator first harvests your own conventional hay, a buffer zone, or transitional hay, you will need to clean the equipment before using it on your organic crop.

Small- and large-square balers are more problematic since they typically retain a partial bale or two. You will need to run at least three small-square bales or one large bale of your own crop through the machine as a “purge,” and document that these were stored and sold or used as non-organic. Many large square balers have some sort of preservative that is injected into the large bale. The preservative container should be emptied of any prohibited substances before the baler is used to harvest your organic crop; note this in your records. If the product is a bacteria or other naturally occurring substance you should verify with your certification agency that it would be allowed on your organic bales. Ask your custom operator what type of preservatives might be used in the equipment, and check it with your certifier at least a week before the operator shows up to bale your hay.

Rented storage areas as well as any transportation vehicles also must be verified clean and free of previous crop residues or prohibited substances before being used for organic crops. Document that you verified they were clean before you used them. This documentation can be part of your field activity log or calendar, or you can use the various forms your certification agency may provide.

I shipped one load of organic corn, and it was rejected by my buyer as having GMO contamination and was then sold to a conventional buyer. What should I do for my next load?

Answer by Organic Specialist Harriet Behar: Under our organic regulation, the GMO contaminated organic corn is still certified organic, although your buyer may have stricter purchasing preferences that include a specific tolerance level for GMOs, such as less than 1%. It would have been a good idea to send a sample to your buyer before you shipped the entire load to make sure it would not be rejected. Once it has been loaded and shipped off the farm, it is difficult and expensive to bring it back to your farm.

Before signing a contract for purchase of your crop, or selling a crop on the spot market, it would be a good idea to find out what, if any, GMO testing is done and what level of GMO contamination would cause the load to be rejected by the buyer you are considering. You can also find out what level of GMO contamination your previous load had, and try to take some precautions next year when planting corn to lower your risk and level of contamination. You might try planting later than your neighbor to avoid cross pollination, increasing the size of your buffer strip, or choosing to grow corn where it is more isolated from neighboring GMO corn. Even though corn pollen will travel great distances, higher levels of contamination will occur when the non-GMO and GMO corns are grown in close proximity.

Typically, all organic crops sold for direct human consumption are tested for GMOs, sometimes numerous times in the process of cleaning and readying for sale. However, most livestock feeds are not tested for GMOs. In 2011, a report by the Office of Inspector General noted this lack of GMO testing of organic livestock feed, and encouraged the National Organic Program to require more testing of livestock feeds, especially those sold to organic dairy farmers. At this time, there is no specific direction from the NOP on GMO testing of organic livestock feeds.

It is unfortunate that the organic farmer bears the brunt of the weakness of GMO technology; that it is promiscuous and does not stay on the user’s side of the fence. Depending on the amount of GMO contamination, you may have the option of selling your crop as organic to another buyer with lower requirements, telling that buyer about the GMO contamination.

Must I use organic seed?

Answer by Organic Specialist Harriet Behar: If you are still in transition to organic, you are not required under the organic regulations to plant organic seed. However, you cannot plant seeds that have prohibited synthetic treatments applied, such as a fungicide or insecticide (ie: Captan, Maxim,Thiram). Nitrogen-fixing rhizobial bacteria, used as a treatment on leguminous seeds, is allowed. You must make sure this bacteria is not genetically modified, and the bacteria is not sold with a prohibited synthetic carrier or fertilizer.

You must keep documentation that the seed planted during your transition meets these requirements as part of your application for organic certification. If you plant a corn seed treated with captan after two years of transitioning to organic, for instance, you must restart the 36-month clock on your transition, to the day you planted that seed on that field. If you are unsure if a seed treatment is allowed, ask MOSES, or the organic certification agency you are planning to use when you become certified for organic production.

If your operation is certified organic, you are required under the organic regulations to plant organic seed, unless you cannot find an “equivalent organically produced variety” in the form, quality or quantity that you want. For example, you may want organically approved clay-coated carrot seed for ease of planting, and it is not available on organic seed; or, you want 1000 pounds of bodacious sweet corn seed and you cannot find organic seed in that quantity; or, the germination rate for the organic barley you found is only 65%; or, you cannot find the specific variety of seed in an organic form that the buyer of your crop wants you to grow. In all of these cases, you can use non-organic seed. It cannot have prohibited seed treatments, as described above.

Note that the rule requires you to seek out an “equivalent” variety. If you are new to organic and are unsure whether the organic seed varieties are equivalent to the familiar non-organic varieties you are used to growing, you should trial out organic varieties with similar characteristics at the same time as planting your untreated non-organic seed, to see if you can find one to your liking. Higher price is NOT an acceptable reason to avoid planting organic seed.

Organic seed is an investment in our future as organic producers. Since organic seed is produced under organic management, and the seed breeders are specifically working to provide characteristics that organic crop producers need, it makes sense to purchase from these companies and support their efforts. For example, organic corn producers cannot plant in cold ground in the early spring, since their seed is not treated with fungicides. Therefore, they want a seed that will germinate quickly as well as canopy thick and early to help with weed control in their organic fields. Organic seed breeders work to have crops that respond well to natural, slower release forms of fertility inputs, whereas nonorganic corn seed breeders don’t do this.

I have some organic corn and hay to sell, but see the prices have dropped from last year. Why the change?

Answer by Organic Specialist Joe Pedretti:

Prices for both organic and non-organic corn and hay are lower than in recent years because the supply is greater now, and the demand is lower. Weather was one factor behind the unusually high grain and forage prices in 2012 and 2013. Drought during the summer of 2012 caused a lot of crop failures and substantially reduced yields everywhere. Forage production suffered, too, causing many livestock farmers to dip into their stored feed supplies much earlier than normal. The unusually long and cold spring of 2013 only increased the shortage problem.

Demand rose for purchased feed because of these shortages, but also due to increased demand for organic dairy products. Most of the organic milk companies were expanding their new farm base during this same time period to meet consumer demand. These two factors created strong demand for a very limited supply of feed and drove prices up to historic highs late in 2012 and through the first half of 2013.

2013 saw a reversal in fortunes for both supply and demand. Despite the slow, cold start, organic grain and forage production was good to excellent in most areas of the country. Pasture was ample, so farmers were able to restock their hay and silage stores. 2013 also saw a softening of the organic dairy market. The downturn was not as bad as 2008-09, which saw quotas and flat sales, but sales did not meet budgeted increases and efforts were, and are still being made to reduce organic dairy production.

A year ago organic feed corn was $14.14; now it’s $10.25 to $12. The recent USDA forecast put non-organic corn at $3.90 per bushel in the coming crop year.

I am harvesting organic grain and want to make sure it retains quality in storage. What can I do to prevent insect infestations?

Answer by Organic Specialist Harriet Behar: 

Many organic producers use diatomaceous earth, commonly called DE, to control insect infes­tations in organic grain storage. This fossilized remains of an ancient hard shell algae is used in many food-grade products, including as a filtra­tion aid for liquids and in toothpaste. The fine powder kills a wide variety of insects or larvae by absorbing lipids from their exoskeletons’ waxy outer layer, causing them to dehydrate. Due to these characteristics, anyone handling this prod­uct should use a tight-fitting filter or respirator over their nose and mouth and goggles over their eyes to prevent health problems. Long sleeves, pants and gloves would be a good idea, too.

Typically, DE is scattered on the floor of the grain bin and periodically added to the grain as it is being loaded into the bin. Add 1 cup of DE to every couple of bush­els or so of grain for good coverage. If you have a perforated floor in your bin with a fan, you can have the fan running on low as you load the bin to incorporate the DE into the first few feet. It is also a good idea to lift up the floor and clean underneath before loading it with this year’s crop.

If you can, run the grain through a spiral screen air cleaner before storage (pictured below). This will lessen the chaff, screenings, and insect load in your stored grain. It also dries grain bet­ter for higher quality long-term storage. Running your grain through the same cleaner before load­ing to your buyer would also be appreciated, since DE can be abrasive to their cleaning equipment. Shipping clean grain also means there will be less dockage from your payment due to screen­ings and foreign matter.

Make sure you leave head space at the top of the bin to allow for moisture to escape. If you are concerned about vomitoxin or other issues, test before you put it in the bin. The grain will not improve in quality when in storage, so knowing what you have at the start will help you make decisions on where to sell your crop and how long to store it.

Another resource with recommendations on managing grain after harvest is available from Iowa State University.

I know I am supposed to plant organic seeds if I sell my crop production as organic. How do I accomplish this?

Answer by Organic Specialist Harriet Behar: 

The National Organic Program (NOP) man­dates the use of organic seed for crops that will be sold as organic unless you can show that you could not find the quality, quantity or equivalent variety of seed you wanted to plant. Under no circumstance can seeds treated with GMO nitrogen-fixing bacteria or non-approved syn­thetic fungicides or insecticides be used when you sell your crop in the marketplace as organic. This rule also applies to producers who sell less than $5,000 in organically labeled products, making them exempt from organic certification (but not from following organic standards). If prohibited materials are used on the seed, or a GMO seed is planted, the land cannot be used for organic production for three years.

More and more seed companies are develop­ing organic seed varieties that function well in organic systems to meet the demand of the organic marketplace. By supporting organic seed suppliers, you encourage further research and development of organic seeds that compete well with weeds, grow vigorously with slow-release fertility inputs and are resistant to disease and pests. Also, certified organic seed would never have prohibited seed treatments.

An excellent resource for finding organic seed of all types is the website www.organicseed­finder.com. Field crops, vegetables, fruits, herbs and flower sources are all listed. This website is also helpful for finding seed suppliers that would be the most likely to carry organic seed varieties.

A broader list of organic seed suppliers is in the Upper Midwest Organic Resource Directory. The “Seed Sup­pliers” section lists not only suppliers of seed, but also farms that supply seed potatoes or grow crops for seed. The directory also is available in print. You may request a copy by calling the MOSES office at 715-778-5775.

If the specific variety of seed you want is not available, you are required to purchase organic seed of an equivalent variety. If you are unsure if the organic variety is similar or equivalent, consider purchasing some organic seed and trialing out new organic varieties to see if they do as well as the non-organic seed that you are used to growing. Remember, the NOP does not consider price to be a valid reason not to pur­chase organic seed.

If you plant untreated non-organic seed, you will need to document why your search for organic seed was unsuccessful—quantity, qual­ity, and variety are all valid reasons for buying non-organic seed. For example, the organic seed only came in one-ounce packets and you wanted to purchase 20 pounds (quantity). Or, the organic seed germination rate was only 20%, and the non-organic seed had a germination rate of 95% (quality). Or, you wanted to grow an orange oxheart tomato, and could not find it from at least three sources that typically sell organic seed (variety). Searching at your local garden center which does not typically sell organic seed is not considered a viable organic seed search by most certification agencies. You should be trying to find organic seed from the many suppliers that offer it. Even a search on the Internet for organic seed varieties can be fruitful.

Organic seed can be in short supply. It is a good idea to start your organic seed searches in winter and not wait until late spring when they often are sold out.  

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Resources & Research:

SARE shows how farmers are seeing multiple benefits from cover crops, including increased yields of corn and soybeans following the cover crop. The new report reveals other benefits farmers gain from planting cover crops, including increases in soil organic matter, reduced soil erosion and compaction, improved weed control, and the availability of “free” nitrogen through soil fixation by legumes. The report also shows rapid growth in the number of acres seeded to cover crops.

A one-day informational event for ag industry representatives, agency and extension staff, and other farm advisors on the latest developments with cover crops. The event took place April 2014 and posted online are all of the presentations.

Created as part of the USDA’s Organic Literacy Initiative to connect organic farmers, ranchers, and processors with the USDA resources available to them. Include information about organic requirements and best practices, and explain the certification process.

Cover crops in a crop rotation can provide a range of benefits to soils, crops, and water quality. They can control erosion, smother weeds, reduce soil moisture loss, and add nitrogen and organic matter to the soil. Nearly all survey respondents identified “soil health” as a key benefit of using cover crops.

Another benefit, cover crops can also slow climate change or reduce its impacts on crops. Cover crops increase capture of carbon from the air when they are used during the cash-crop dormant season. They add more carbon to the soil, where it can be stored, than cash crops alone.

University of Wisconsin-Madison research is helping farmers fine-tune irrigation to save water and the energy needed to pump it. An online tool called WISP 2012 makes it easier to make better decisions about when and how much to water. Growers enter the type of crop, soil type, and rainfall from the field. WISP 2012 uses that information, NRCS data on soil field capacity, and daily evapotranspiration rates to make a recommendation on when to irrigate.

An Ohio farmer strays from the norm  on his farm by performing these three uncommon practices: planting off-season cover crops, not tilling, and adding wheat to the corn-soy rotation. Advantages to these practices include building up the soil health long-term, saving small amounts of moisture from evaporation and disrupting weed and pest patterns to cut down on herbicide and other agrichemical use.

Including Bi-Weekly National Organic Grain and Feedstuff and Weekly Feed and Seed Summary. From the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service.

The centralized database offers a way for organic growers to find reliable sources for organic seed. Seed vendors pay a fee to post on the site, which provides free access to growers. The site was created to make it easier to find certified organic seeds and to expand overall organic production. Created by the Organic Seed Alliance and the Association of Official Seed Certifying Agencies.

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From the Organic Broadcaster:

Biopesticides offer effective, progressive pest management
November | December 2014

Through organic soil management practices, farmers foster a very important soil microbial and biochemical resource for successful biological control of potential pests affecting their crops or livestock.  Read more.

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Research shows ‘sandblasting’ works to control weeds
November | December 2014

The unlikely hobby of growing apricots in Minnesota may have led a research agronomist to a new way to control in-row weeds on organic farms: blasting them away.  Read more.

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Dairy farmer shows how he transitioned CRP land to corn, soybeans, grains
September | October 2014

Marvin Lynch, an organic dairy farmer from Cascade, Iowa, hosted a field day July 15, to share how he transitioned CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) land into organic production.  Read more.

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Cultivating Beans on Driscoll FarmGenetically engineered corn creates tipping point for family to go organic
September | October 2014

Farmers, like professional gamblers, are used to taking risks. The weather typically is the biggest risk factor in farming. When genetically engineered crops entered the game….  Read more.

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DCF 1.0Research moves forward on ‘organic-ready’ open-pollinated corn
September | October 2014

It has been known, at least since the 1950s, that popcorn cannot set seed if pollinated by yellow field corn.  Read more.

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Non-GMO farmers caught in crossfire of war on herbicide-resistant weeds
July | August 2014

Dow AgriScience is pushing for deregulation of its Enlist Duo™ program—herbicide-resistant corn and soybeans genetically engineered…. Read more.

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Research explores potential benefits of mixing cover crops
July | August 2014

The potential benefits of using cover crops are wide ranging and well documented. The potential benefits of using cover crop mixtures, however, have been less thoroughly explored. Read more.

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Cover crops—organic mainstays—move into mainstream
May | June 2014

Cereal rye and oilseed radish have been appearing in a growing number of fields around the country in the past few years. A standard practice for successful organic farmers…. Read more.

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Research looks to cover crops to alleviate soil compaction, suppress weeds
May | June 2014

Rotary hoeing and in-row cultivation during the grain growing season help suppress weed populations. Read more.

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Campbell Cover CropsResearchers evaluate precision cover cropping
March | April 2014

Implementation of specific cover cropping strategies that cost-effectively capture benefits while minimizing challenges is easier said than done. Read more here.

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OlsonsSeasoned organic farmers make transitioning look easy
March | April 2014

Seasoned farmers Jonathan and Carolyn Olson started with a conventionally managed 300-acre farm and now manage more than 1,100 acres of certified organic land. Read more here.

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Vilicus Farm 3Farm couple takes pollinator conservation to higher level
January  |  February 2014

“We want to implement pollinator conserva­tion at the field-level scale.” Read more here.

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Noah Engel tackles weeds while he prepares his fields for planting. Photo by Patrick Lillard.

Friends or foes: Farmers talk about their relationships with weeds
January  |  February 2014

Whether or not we like it, we all have relationships with those plants we call “weeds.” Read more here.

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211rowflamerProof Positive – Research highlights best practices for propane-fueled flame weeding
January  |  February 2014

Flame weeding has received renewed interest for its potential in not only organic, but also conventional cropping systems…. Read more here.

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cover crops in organicsCover Crops Bring a Diversity of Benefits to the Farm
November/December 2013

Diversity is the foundation of any sustainable agriculture system, and cover crops are a great management tool for bringing diversity to the farm. Read more here.

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215.12Perennial Wheat Shows Potential as a Versatile Crop
September/October 2013

Organic farmers know there is no silver bullet to address all crop and soil needs. But, what if you planted a crop that one year produced grain…. Read more here.

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213KerkaertsCertified and Transitioning Cropland Take-Home Message: Change your Mindset
May/June 2013

It’s hard to find a more enterprising, determined couple than Bryan and Theresa Kerkaert, who began crop farming five years ago. Read more here.

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plowedFieldChoosing Early Season Cover Crops
January/February 2013

Begin with the end in mind! This popular saying, written about extensively in Stephen R. Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” is especially pertinent…. Read more here.

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211rowflamerProof Positive –
Research Shows Flaming and Cultivation Key to Weed Control

January/February 2013

Weeds are one of the major yield limit factors in both conventional and organic crop production systems. Read more here.

 

 

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