Over the past 40-plus years, many producers have moved from a wheat/fallow production system to an eco-fallow system that includes a summer crop, and finally to a continuous no-till system.
Each system adds intensity, with wheat/fallow having a wheat crop every other year, to eco fallow with crops grown two out of three years, to continuous no-till where a crop is grown every year.
As the intensity of these production systems increases, the diversity of the crops produced also increases. With a continuous no-till system on dryland acres we adopt crop rotations similar to the rotations irrigated producers have used over the years.
Farmers have moved from a wheat/fallow, where the only crop grown is a cool-season grass, to eco fallow, where there’s a cool-season grass with the winter wheat followed by a warm-season grass such as corn or proso millet.
In a continuous no-till system we have a cool-season grass with wheat, followed by a warm-season grass with corn or proso millet, followed by a cool-season legume such as field peas. As you move through the progression of the systems you’re adding more crop diversity into the mix.
There are numerous crop combinations that can be used to achieve this added diversity. Each producer chooses their own rotation to fit the needs of their farming operation. Some producers may include forage crops as part of their rotation. A typical rotation including forage may be a winter wheat, corn and oat-pea forage.
No-tillers who include forage in their rotation are now using even more diverse forage mixtures than the pea-oat forage. Spring forage mixes include cool-season grasses such as oats with cool-season legumes like peas, and adding forage turnips, radishes and sunflower.
These mixes include cool-season grasses and legumes along with the brassicas and warm-season broadleaves, creating even more diversity in the forage above ground and the soil beneath.
These forage crops are then grazed rather than hayed, which should add to the soil quality since the forage isn’t removed from the field.
Additional diversity can be added by including warm-season forages such as sorghum-sudan, soybeans, forage turnips, radishes and sunflower. When we planted this forage mix in the summer of 2015 we even included pearl millet, corn and edible beans in the mix. We used the warm-season forage as a way to clean out the quonset.
An example of adding lots of diversity into the rotation, by including the different forages, may be a rotation like winter wheat, corn, spring forage, winter wheat, summer forage, field pea, and back to winter wheat.
The possibilities of adding diversity to rotations are wide ranging and the decision of how much diversity to add is totally up to the individual producer and the needs of their operation.
The use of forages and crops in diverse mixes may be more in line with what Mother Nature intended when she designed her own mixes with our native prairies. It makes sense to me that as we add diverse crop rotations into our operations we’re moving in the direction of improved soil quality.
Mother Nature intended for her soil to have diverse plant mixes growing above so the quality of the soil could be maintained. With our monoculture farming practices and intense tillage we’ve have damaged the soil Mother Nature produced.
As we move to more no-till crop production with improved diversity in rotations, I have to feel we’re headed in a positive direction.