Organic Broadcaster

Dairy farmer shows how he transitioned CRP land to corn, soybeans, grains

By Joe Pedretti, MOSES

Marvin Lynch and his son, Waylon, look out over the former CRP field he rented in 2013 where he now is growing corn.
Photo by Harriet Behar.

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. Marvin, who milks 80 cows and needed more land to reduce his feed pur­chases, found 94 acres of former CRP ground for rent in 2013. The landowners specifically reached out to Marvin, because they wanted the land to be kept organic. The land had been in CRP for 30 years, and like all fallow land, required extra planning and work to bring back into production. Midwestern Bio- Ag consultants Al Steger and Bob Yanda, who helped Marvin through the process, also shared information at the field day.

Although CRP land is an attractive option because it can be immediately certified, Marvin and Al stressed that CRP land takes careful planning to bring back into production. Most of the carbon and organic matter are tied up in brown plant matter (roots, thatch, stems) that must be incorporated and broken down before it can become available as plant nutrients. Break­ing down this plant matter requires nitrogen which is the most expensive nutrient for organic farmers to apply. Marvin was fortunate to have a ready supply of liquid manure, which he applied just after working the soil in the spring of 2013. Ideally he would have liked to have plowed, tilled and applied manure in the fall of 2012 to allow extra time for the carbon breakdown.

Soil tests are critical for CRP land, which often lacks other nutrients besides nitrogen. Al Steger used Marvin’s soil test to carefully design a fertility plan that included addition of calcium, phosphorous and micro-nutrients. Every field and farm will be different, so soil tests are a nec­essary first step, Al said.

Marvin chose to plow his fields, since that was the tool he had avail­able, but a rotovator is a better choice, since it incorporates the organic matter rather than burying much of it. Either method will work to prepare the fields. The fields that Marvin rents had been hayed while in CRP, so a previous farmer had cleared the brush and trees. Most CRP fields will require tree and brush removal before tillage begins.

Corn is a heavy feeder, so it may not be a good choice for a first crop after renovation. Soybeans tend to do better since they can fix nitrogen. In Marvin’s case, he decided to start with corn and soybeans his first year since he had the manure and had added the soil amendments. Marvin was happy with his yields in 2013, and weeds were not a major problem due to timely cultivation and a low weed seed bank.

For 2014, Marvin began rotating some of the fields into hay, by planting oats as a nurse crop for his new seeding of alfalfa. The remaining fields were split between soybeans and corn. While the corn and new seeding looked excellent, weeds were more of a chal­lenge due to the wet spring, which prevented good cultivation.

When asked if he would do it all again, Marvin told the group that it had been worth the extra effort, since he was able to reduce his reliance on purchased feed, but stressed that, to do it right, required careful planning, a lot of work and the help of a good soils consultant.

To help landowners and farmers learn more about converting CRP land to organic production, MOSES has teamed with Midwestern Bio-Ag to create a new “Converting CRP Land to Organic Pro­duction” fact sheet. You may request a printed copy via mail by calling the MOSES office at 715-778-5775.

From the September | October 2014 Issue

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