Organic Broadcaster

Small grains offer many benefits in crop rotation

By Drake Larsen

Adding a small grain, such as wheat, extends the crop rotation to help build soil and break up the cycle of pests and disease. Photo by Harriet Behar

Multiyear crop rotations are a central tenet of organic crop production, and for good reason. Maintaining crop diversity harnesses ecology to build soil, disrupt pests and improve the overall sustainability of cropping systems. In organic grain production systems small grains—such as oats, wheat, rye, barley, and triticale—are typically part of the rotation.

Adding small grains to extend a crop rotation also improves soil. Increases in the variety of root types and root depths in the soil help to build soil organic matter (SOM). Over time, increasing SOM makes soils more resilient to drought and floods. In the long-term, soil building practices such as this could also play a role in climate change mitigation through the sequestration of carbon in soil.

Extending the crop rotation can help to break up pest and disease cycles. Matt Liebman and colleagues at Iowa State University have been conducting research on extended crop rotations at ISU’s Marsden Farm in Boone County, Iowa. In Practical Farmers of Iowa’s recent Farminar, Liebman reported on the side-by-side comparison of 2-, 3-, and 4-year crop rotations. The study documented significant reductions in the occurrence and severity of soybean sudden death syndrome, one of the most important soybean diseases in the Midwest, in the 3- and 4-year rotation compared to continuous row crops. The archived Farminar is available at bit.ly/CropFarminar.

Planting a winter-seeded small grain in low lying areas or on heavy soils that typically are wet when spring field work usually would be done can help to keep the tractor out of the field when the chance for compaction is greatest. Often, even spring-seeded small grains, such as oats, allow a farmer to get in the field in March before spring rains saturate the field. May showers nurture the crop rather than prevent planting.

Small grains also help spread out the workload over the season. Planting and harvest both happen ahead of the row crop calendar, with planting in March or April and harvest typically in late July.

Small grains help to break up weed life cycles well, especially those adapted to a corn-
soybean system. The dense seeding populations, over a million seeds per acre, will effectively crowd out many warm season weeds. Additionally, mid-summer harvest of small grains will cut many weeds before they set seed. Where weed pressure still persists, small grains offer avenues for active management to further suppress weed pressure.

Farmers who have tried to grow small grains for the first time report a steep learning curve. The number of acres in small grains has declined over time, so many farmers do not even have neighbors to talk to about how to successfully grow small grains.

With this in mind, Practical Farmers of Iowa has been working with successful small grains producers—both certified organic and conventional—to document and share strategies to help other farmers interesting in bringing small grains into their rotation.

One farmer that is helping with this project is Tom Frantzen, a familiar face to many in the MOSES community. Tom runs an organic family farm, along with his wife, Irene, and son, James, near New Hampton, Iowa. Tom and Irene were named the 2009 MOSES Organic Farmers of the Year. Practical Farmers also awarded the Frantzen family with the 2011 Sustainable Agriculture Achievement Award.

The Frantzen Farm looks much like a traditional Iowa family farm with several hundred acres managed under a cropping plan that integrates the production of both crops and livestock. Diversified crop rotations of grain and forage facilitates the movement of beef cows around the farm, while grain and straw production provides for hogs raised in a deep-bedded hoop house system.

There are two rotations on the Frantzen Farm: corn-soybean-small grain-hay-pasture and corn-soybean-small grain-hay.

“If you took the small grains out of our farm, I wouldn’t know how to make it work,” Tom said. “We maintain the crop rotation we have, and enjoy the economic stability we have, because we don’t pick the package apart. The overall package gives us the stability,” he explained.

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Establishing a good stand is critical and starts with preparing the field. “Seed bed preparation is essential, try to get the ground as level as possible,” Tom said. Soybean ground can be disked or cultivated just ahead of small grains planting. For corn ground more tillage might be needed, depending on location, to incorporate the residue and to get the ground level.

“There are times we have to grow small grains following corn, but they are much easier to establish after soybeans. The reason is two-fold, you need that seed bed, for starters,” Tom explained. “Seed-soil contact is essential. Then, with heavy corn stalk residues the competition for nitrogen can be a recipe for small grains failure.”

Small grains have always been a part of the farm; early on Tom grew oats and later barley. Today the Frantzens rarely grow a single small grain alone, opting rather to plant succotash, a mix of several small grains. Their succotash mix consists of oats, barley and wheat along with an under seeding that includes red clover, alfalfa, timothy, orchard grass and brome grass.

Succotash will typically yield more pounds per acre than if each small grain were planted separately. Planting a diverse mixture is a good way to mitigate risk, Tom added. “If one crop is poor due to environmental conditions then often another thrives so overall the yield is still good.” While seed separators can be used to parse some succotash mixes after harvest—for example wheat and oats works well—the Frantzens can readily capitalize on the mixture because they are feeding livestock. “The best market is feeding it on the farm,” Tom said with a smile.

Succotash typically provides a better feed value than straight oats, with more pounds and more protein. Whichever grain thrives in a given year, the Frantzens can adjust the feed rations accordingly. Chopping the small grain succotash for silage allows the Frantzens another option with high feed value for their livestock.

Small grains are flexible. “It’s all part of our integrated management on the farm,” Tom explained. “Every year we’ll take a look at the small grain crop in late June or early July and identify places in the field with weed issues—namely giant ragweed—and where there is weed pressure we get out the chopper and put it in a bag,” to be used as silage to be fed to weaned calves. “Chopping silage allows us to target the areas with the greatest weed pressure and cut the giant ragweed before seed heads form.” Later, Tom harvests the remaining mature small grains by windrowing and a pick-up head combine. Both operations serve to sever weeds before they spread.

Small grains in the bin then serve as feed for both cows and hogs. The Frantzens recently conducted a feeding trial to compare corn-finished versus small grains-finished pork at a PFI field day at Story City Locker in Story City, Iowa. While the jury was split on taste preference, everyone agreed the different grains did give the meat unique characteristics. There is no doubt small grains can be part of high quality meat production.

For those without livestock needs, other markets do exist. Throughout the years Tom has marketed small grains to Grain Millers Inc. and other buyers in the area. Midwest small grains face the challenge of meeting quality standards that can be hard to achieve in humid climates, but it can be done.

As part of Practical Farmers of Iowa’s small grains project, our weekly winter Farminar series will focus on small grains in the month of February. Farminars are every Tuesday evening from 7 to 8:30 p.m., and are open to anyone. The topics for February’s sessions include: choosing a rye variety and spring stand assessment, field and planter preparation for fall- and spring-seeded small grains, oat variety performance, and more . The topics and dates are listed online at practicalfarmers.org/farminars.

Drake Larsen works for Practical Farmers of Iowa.

From the January | February 2015 Issue

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