LANCASTER, Pa. — If you aren’t thrilled with the prices you’re getting for corn and soybeans, or if you just want to diversify your rotation, you might be in the market for an alternative field crop.
There’s one big question to answer before jumping into such crops.
“Where’s the market?” said Del Voight, a Penn State Extension educator.
Voight spoke at the Lancaster County crops conference on Jan. 15 at the Farm and Home Center.
Unlike corn and soybeans, alternative crops are often grown on contract.
This arrangement ensures there’s a buyer for the crop, but growers should double-check whether the buyer will take the entire crop or only a certain amount.
Based on the contracted price and expected yield, farmers can shop for seed, pesticides and fertilizer to gauge if they can make money growing the crop.
This planning is particularly important when transitioning to organic production.
Farms have to be managed organically for three years before they can be certified organic, and farmers shouldn’t expect to get the premium price for organic grain during the transition, Voight said.
From canola to tobacco, there are plenty of crops that could spice up a rotation.
With yields of 80 to 100 bushels per acre, grain sorghum might be attractive.
Sorghum is more drought tolerant than corn and can fit into a small-grain rotation.
The crop can be used for silage and the stover used for feed or bedding.
Voight said sorghum is worth about $4.50 per bushel, besting $3.40 corn.
Sunflowers, grown for bird seed or oil, are more drought-tolerant than soybeans.
Double-cropped varieties can produce 1,200 to 1,500 pounds of seed per acre.
Groundhogs and birds tend to do the most damage, Voight said.
Hemp can be used for many fiber, food and oil purposes. Commercial hemp production was legalized in the Farm Bill signed last month.
Camelina, a cousin of canola, is high in omega-3 fatty acids, which could be used in poultry feed.
Miscanthus, a perennial grass, produces high yields, Voight said.
To grow any of those crops, or just another field of corn, the fertility’s got to be right.
A crop’s yield potential is dictated by the nutrient in shortest supply, said Charles White, an Extension soil specialist.
For example, White found that the corn in one of his research projects had taken up almost all of the available nitrogen by mid-July.
Split nitrogen applications, rather than one big shot, can get the fertilizer to the plants more efficiently, White said.
Last year’s oppressively rainy weather also cut into yields via disease, ponding that starved the soil of oxygen, and lack of sunlight and heat.
“I think these were probably bigger impacts on crop yields this year than lack of nitrogen was,” White said.