Dr. Greg Roth, between the rows, PA corn growers assoc

Another corn year is in the books and as I reflect on it I would have to say that this year I saw numerous examples of why having crop diversity can be a good thing to reduce costs, add revenues and increase yields. Mother Nature gave us a lot of challenges during the season including a cold spring, a wet planting season and then a dry summer in some areas. Having some diversity in crop rotation conditions helped us take advantage of some of the opportunities that developed throughout the season.

Conditions across the state varied considerably so it’s difficult to generalize for everyone but I think some of my examples from central Pennsylvania will help show what I mean. We were plagued by planting into less than ideal conditions due to the wet conditions in mid-May.

Some corn fields that did best in our area were those that were planted in the narrow window of dry conditions in late April. Most of these were corn following soybeans. The combination of a warmer, dryer seedbed and a rotation effect from the soybeans helped these fields establish well and tolerate the midsummer drought. And the soybean credit helped reduce our N inputs as well.

The dry conditions in June resulted in exceptional barley, wheat and rye yields and quality, so having some of these crops on the farm made up for some of the drought stress that the corn crop encountered and helped to offset those impacts financially. These crops also provided some opportunities for more diversity I am seeing on our research farm this week.

After barley, we have good double crop soybeans which is not common in this area. After wheat, we have some excellent frost seeded clover that probably has 2 tons of dry matter per acre going into the fall. Also on some fields following wheat, we have nice stands of buckwheat. Other fields have cover crop mixtures of oats and radish. Each of these options has some potential to provide a return and/or reduce the cost of corn production next year.

Including a small grain in rotation can help suppress weeds and weed seed production. A cover crop or double crop following the small grain can add to the suppression. In one of our studies, we studied the effect of various small grain silages on corn yields. After three years we terminated the experiment after the last small grain harvest. At harvest, we saw a remarkable reduction in the marestail population where we had grown the small grains. Likewise I see a tremendous reduction in weed seed production on fields with a red clover frost seeding or cover crop compared to those that are unmanaged.

Crop diversity is great but we need good markets to support their production. Unfortunately, good feed markets for small grains are limited and is something we need to develop more. We have made some progress with hulless barley, malting barley and rye, but there is much work to be done.

This was also a good year to have some soybeans in the rotation. They tolerated the July drought and then rebounded with the August rain in our area to produce average to above average yields. This was another example of how crop diversity eased the impacts of the midsummer drought.

The lesson from this year is that not all years will be like last year with record yields. On farms with less than ideal soil resources, having some crop diversity in the mix can help ease the pain of drought, reduce the need for fertilizer, and help to suppress weeds. So as you make your plans for 2017, think about the need for diversity in your cropping program and if there is a low-cost way you can increase it to reap some of the benefits.

Editor’s note: Greg Roth is the Penn State Extension grain specialist and professor of agronomy.

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