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.

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Resources & Research:

Cover crop adoption has been increasing rapidly in the last 5 years, with an estimated 1.5 to 2.0 million acres of cover crops planted in the U.S. in 2012.

A total of 759 farmers completed the survey.  The farmers who completed the survey used cover crops on about 218,000 acres in 2012, and expected to increase that to over 300,000 acres in 2013.

Questions on cover crop adoption, benefits, challenges, and yield impacts were included in the survey.  Key findings included the following:

    • During the fall of 2012, corn planted after cover crops had a 9.6% increase in yield compared to side-by-side fields with no cover crops.  Likewise, soybean yields were improved 11.6% following cover crops.
    • In the hardest hit drought areas of the Corn Belt, yield differences were even larger, with an 11.0% yield increase for corn and a 14.3% increase for soybeans.
    • Surveyed farmers are rapidly increasing acreage of cover crops used, with an average of 303 acres of cover crops per farm planted in 2012 and farmers intending to plant an average of 421 acres of cover crops in 2013.  Total acreage of cover crops among farmers surveyed increased 350% from 2008 to 2012.
    • Farmers identified improved soil health as a key overall benefit from cover crops.  Reduction in soil compaction, improved nutrient management, and reduced soil erosion were other key benefits cited for cover crops.  As one of the surveyed farmers commented, “Cover crops are just part of a systems approach that builds a healthy soil, higher yields, and cleaner water.”
    • Farmers are willing to pay an average (median) amount of $25 per acre for cover crop seed and an additional $15 per acre for establishment costs (either for their own cost of planting or to hire a contractor to do the seeding of the cover crop).

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:

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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