Crop productivity and economics during the transition to alternative cropping systems

Many environmental benefits accrue from reducing tillage and increasing crop diversity; however, economic factors often encourage the continued use of intensive tillage and specialized crop production. This study examined crop yields, input costs, and economic returns during the transition to a range of cropping system alternatives in the northern Corn Belt region, including different system (organic, conventional), tillage (conventional, strip-tillage), rotation (corn–soybean, corn–soybean–wheat/alfalfa–alfalfa) [Zea mays L., Glycine max (L.) Merr., Triticum aestivum L., Medicago sativa L.], and fertility (no fertilizer/manure, fertilizer/manure applied at recommended rates) treatments. Increasing crop diversity and reducing tillage intensity reduced total costs by $24–102 ha–1 within conventional treatments, and $16–107 ha–1 within organic treatments. Yields of corn, soybean, and wheat were more than 15% lower when using organic vs. the highest yielding conventional practices. Treatments receiving fertilizer or manure had wheat yields more than 0.3 Mg ha–1 and alfalfa yields 2.7 Mg ha–1 higher than treatments that did not receive fertilizer or manure. Within conventional systems, no significant differences in the 4-yr net present value of net returns were detected for tillage and rotation alternatives. Net present values for the organic systems without organic price premiums were at least $692 ha–1 lower than for the best conventional systems suggesting a barrier to the adoption of these systems should organic price premiums decline. However, when organic price premiums were included, most organic treatments had net present values comparable to or exceeding those from conventional treatments.

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