Working Towards More Resilient Cropping

You can't change the weather, but you can change practices
Corn seedlings in a no-till field

There’s more talk these days about building in greater resiliency in our cropping systems. In layman’s terms, the concept refers to designing cropping systems and employing techniques that give producers greater flexibility and leave them less vulnerable to unpredictable weather events.

At a time when farms across the state have witnessed damaging hailstorms, parched hayfields, and frequent rains that delayed field work, all within the span of two years, the idea of more resilient cropping systems is attracting more attention from producers.

It’s a multipronged approach that centers on creating soil conditions better able to support crops during both drought and flooding and managing crops that are still able to be productive in unpredictable weather. Farms achieve this by reducing or avoiding soil compaction and crusting that restricts water movement, giving as much attention to soils’ physical and biological health as to fertility, and by reducing their reliance on crops that depend on a too narrow set of conditions for success.

There are a number of ways to put this into practice. Probably one of the easiest ways to start is by making good use of cover crops. Protecting the soil from erosion during the winter with a living cover conserves organic matter and nutrients, and it contributes fresh residues that support the billions of microorganisms residing in the soil. While some farms have developed seed mixes of several species, longtime standbys like winter rye still provide many benefits.

Reducing or even eliminating tillage decreases compaction and preserves soil structure for better water infiltration, but it also involves a little more planning.

These systems typically require specialized equipment, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be making large purchases. You can convert your current corn planter to no-till for much less money, and some counties have no-till equipment available for rent.

Beyond that, you can look at the bigger picture and see if there are opportunities to diversify your crops. There are a number of options that yield well and provide high-quality feed. Some of these crops give you multiple opportunities for harvesting, allowing for greater flexibility when the weather doesn’t cooperate.

Corn silage makes great feed, but straying outside of the relatively short windows for planting and harvesting compromises both yield and quality. Conversely, you can plant summer annuals such as sudangrass, millets, or sudan-sorghum hybrids as late as mid-July with little effect on yields. Harvesting multiple cuts of these species increases the chances that at least some of the feed will retain its quality, even if you run into a spell of less than ideal weather.

Combine them with winter forage from triticale or winter rye  – pulling double duty as a cover crop – and you have multiple opportunities to harvest high-quality forage from mid-May into September. If you’re located in an area where growing corn is frequently challenging, you may even find that this system yields more dry matter per acre. You could also consider using different methods to harvest; livestock can graze the forages in the rain instead of waiting for three consecutive sunny days for making hay.

More resilient cropping systems require a good deal of planning, and it takes a certain amount of time, money, and patience to implement them. You’ll need to take a look at your farm layout, your soils, and your feed inventory needs in order to make thoughtful decisions. While reduced tillage and increased nutrient conservation can result in significant savings for fuel, labor or fertilizer, you’ll still need to invest in seed and possibly equipment.

While making these changes will give you greater flexibility, you’ll need to commit to getting things done on time – getting equipment tuned up in time for when you need it, and harvesting crops early enough to get the next one sown on time. But if you’re tired of contending with delayed planting and harvesting, unacceptable yields, or being thwarted by flooding rain or droughts you may find that investing in some changes will pay great dividends.