Iowa farmers planted 23 million acres of corn and soybeans in 2018 and are on target to do it again if the soil ever warms up and dries out.
Looking across Iowa’s winter landscape, it might seem no other crops can be grown — that winter is too harsh for anything else to survive and this land is only meant to have something growing on it from May to September. But it’s important to remember that up until the mid-1970s, the crops opposite of corn were not a summer crop of soybeans, but a winter crop, such as oats or alfalfa. Iowa was growing nearly 6 million acres of oats, which usually nurse-cropped other cool season crops such as alfalfa. Across the Midwest, farmers grew crops year-round, and we were open for business 365 days a year.
Back then, farmers grew multiple crops out of a necessity to manage risk. Maybe my grandparents used all the tools in the farming toolbox out of a necessity to survive, to feed a growing family of seven on a farm in northern Illinois.
Having more than two crops on the farm — usually integrated with livestock — allowed farmers to be better positioned financially during extreme weather, or when markets fluctuated.
Growing crops year-round also helped farmers control input costs like nitrogen fertilizers and herbicides. Cool season crops like alfalfa or red clover provided 50 percent or more of a corn crop’s nitrogen need. Winter cover crops reduced weed pressure by competing with them for sunlight, water and soil nutrients. Having crops growing year-round kept soil protected from wind and water erosion, held nitrogen in the field as opposed to leaching to nearby lakes and streams, and allowed farmers to be less dependent on off-farm purchases.
Fast forward to today and the same principles of managing risk and being financially prudent exist. But, at best, only 5,000 of Iowa’s 80,000 farmers operate throughout the year. Only some are growing plants year-round to capture free sunlight and turn it into crops that create income (grazing livestock, harvesting oats) or reduce costs (substituting purchased fertilizer, reduce stored feed or herbicide costs).
Many organizations have researched ways to make practices like cover crops work. Others have worked solely on reduced tillage systems or using red clover legumes to grow corn less expensively. We don’t lack scientific evidence of what to plant year-round and how it can benefit our operations. What we lack is creativity and confidence to manage risk by growing plants year-round.
Times are tough on the farm, for many reasons. But tough times provide an opportunity to innovate.
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One example is planting a cereal rye cover crop amid cornstalks, either into the standing crop around Labor Day or up until early December. Then, in the spring, soybeans can be no-till planted into that living cover crop. After this cover crop matures to two to three feet and is killed off, it creates a thick, straw mulch to smother weeds while not affecting the growing soybeans.
This “mother of invention” method can pay for itself. A cereal rye cover crop can cost $25 per acre for seed and seeding.
To cover this cost a farmer must evaluate their herbicide program and cut out products or entire spray passes.
A savvy sales agronomist will not look at this as lost revenue but improved customer service with a longer shelf life for the herbicide product already on the market, thereby reducing a company’s research and development budget for bringing new herbicides to market.
A savvy agronomist will focus on complete weed control, which uses multiple tools in the farming toolbox and not just chemicals.
A savvy agronomist will help stimulate “mothers of invention” because of the necessity herbicide-resistant weeds create.
We have a real opportunity to change our farming habits come August and farm year-round on half our crop acres, nearly reaching the 60 percent recommended in Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy. This August, we could distribute 11 million bushels of cereal rye to all fields intended for soybeans in 2020.
We’ll need nearly 2,000 laborers and various equipment (drills, highboys, floaters, vertical tillage, etc.) to seed the cereal rye before the ground freezes.
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Although an estimate for this initiative is $275 million, total savings would be $330 million in reduced herbicide expenses.
Also, at least half the cost will be spent locally and directly paid to 2,000 farmers or custom applicators. That will provide beginning farmers with an opportunity to build sweat equity in a farm operation.
Our need to clean up Iowa’s water quality gives us permission to be creative and return to year-round farming.
• Sarah Carlson is an agronomist and strategic initiatives director with Practical Farmers of Iowa.