By Mark Watson, Panhandle No-Till Educator
There is a lot of emphasis on adding crop diversity to our cropping rotations on dry land acres in our region. The National Natural Resource and Conservation Service are concentrating their efforts on improving soil health across the nation. A big component of this initiative is to diversify cropping rotations to improve organic matter and biological diversity in our soils.
In our own cropping rotation we have added field peas to our rotation to compliment the grass crops we raise with our winter wheat, a cool season grass, and corn, which is a warm season grass. I feel the addition of a legume in our rotation with the field peas has really improved the health of our soil and our yields seem to be improving over time.
I think there is more to our improved yields than the nitrogen fixation the legumes in our rotation provide. I think we have also changed the biological activity in the soil by increasing the population and diversity of our soil microorganisms which has contributed to our overall crop production yield benefits. More and more producers around our region have adopted field peas into their crop rotation and it will be interesting to see how adding diversity into their rotation with the field peas improves their overall crop production.
With the drought our area has experienced over this past growing season and the detrimental effects this drought has had on rangeland in our area I think this would be a good time to look at adding more diversity into our crop rotations. The addition of diverse forage mixtures into our crop rotations could be a real benefit to our soil health and the health of our pastures.
For producers who have cattle and rangeland in their operation and also produce crops on their dry land farming acres I think there is a real potential to diversify their approach to combining cattle, rangeland, and cropping rotations. By adding a mixture of diverse forages into their cropping rotation they could really improve the soil health on their dry land acres and have the flexibility to rest their rangeland and allow it to recover after this devastating drought.
If I had cattle in my operation I would look hard at a crop rotation of winter wheat, forages, and field peas as my cropping system. This rotation would increase diversity into the system far more than my current wheat, corn, field pea rotation. The addition of the diverse forage mixtures for grazing would really improve the health of the soil as long as these fields were managed so over grazing isn’t a problem.
The golden rule for producers using this type of cropping rotation is to leave 50% of the forages for the soil. You have to keep the residues on the soil surface to help feed the soil microorganisms, improve the organic matter of the soil, and have enough residues on the soil surface to protect the soil. This is extremely important in the long term sustainability of our soil resource. You have to have the residues to increase water infiltration into the soil and reduce soil moisture evaporation.
The added benefit to producing diverse forages on our dry land acres would be to allow the rangeland and pastures the opportunity to recover from the drought. Most of our rangeland grazing potential has been maximized and the addition of forages would allow the rangeland to recover over the next several years. In the long run I would think this would increase the productivity of the rangeland as well.
I also look at the diverse forage mixtures for grazing as a hedge against prolonged drought. In our region we almost always get enough moisture to produce crops to the vegetative stage of production. Where we often fail from lack of moisture is trying to get from the vegetative stage to the grain fill stage of our crops. With the addition of forages for grazing we eliminate the moisture required to reach grain fill since these crops are being grown for forage for grazing rather than grain.
As producers start to plan for next year and are faced with the difficulties this year’s drought has left us with I think it may be a good time to look at adding forages for grazing as part of a dry land cropping system. In our environment we have dry spells where additional forages for livestock would seldom be a problem and in years like this one the additional forages could really improve the profitability of the operation.