When you’re only getting 12-14 inches of precipitation each year, it would be easy to lower expectations and just raise wheat or do what you’ve always done.
But that hasn’t been the strategy for Steve and Becky Camp of LaCrosse, Wash., who’ve made it their goal to keep something growing on their land as much of the growing season as possible by working with a diversified annual cropping system, made possible but shifting to no-till or “direct seeding.”
According to a Farmer to Farmer Case Study published by Washington State University Extension, one rotation they found works is winter wheat in year 1 followed by camelina in year 2 and spring peas in the third year.
By contrast, almost all farmers in the arid western dryland wheat growing area of the Palouse use a crop rotation of winter wheat–summer fallow or winter wheat–spring grain–summer fallow, the university says.
The Camps achieved winter wheat yields of 54 bushels per acre, which is actually a 10% yield reduction relative to winter wheat planted after a fallow year. Camelina yielded 1,120 pounds per acre, while spring peas yielded 1,680 pounds.
When comparing a traditional cereal rotation for the Camps’ area to the annual diversified no-till system, average revenue per acre was 15% higher for the annually cropped rotation, but production costs were also higher.
Returns over variable costs were 20% higher for the cereal rotation with fallow, but returns over total costs were slightly higher for the annual rotation, averaging $23 per acre over the three crops, compared to $21 per acre averaged over the three crops in the cereal rotation.
This result can be explained by the cost of summer fallow in the cereal rotation, at $102 per acre, which is carried over to the following winter wheat crop as a fixed cost, the university says.
The Camps found the economic performance of the diversified no-till rotation is very similar to the traditional, conventional tillage system, with $2 per acre higher returns, while reducing soil erosion, increasing soil quality, and improving overall resiliency.
They note direct seeding has allowed them to use soil water more efficiently and crop their land more intensively than when they used conventional tillage on their farm.
I think this shows that eliminating tillage and moving toward a more diverse rotation isn’t about instant gratification, but what you can achieve in terms of soil health in the long run without losing ground at harvest.