Growing Profitable Small Grains
This article was first printed in the May-June 2008 issue of the Organic Broadcaster, published by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service.
Adding small grains to the crop rotation on your farm has multiple benefits, claims Mary-Howell Martens, who with her husband, Klaas, spoke recently on small grain production at the MOSES Organic Farming Conference, Feb 21-23, 2008 in La Crosse, WI. “Organic farmers need to be careful to not duplicate the rut conventional farmers have fallen into with growing only two crops: corn and soybeans.” Klaas notes. “There are not only a lot of good market opportunities for small grains, but the addition of small grains is also your best defense against bad weather and fluctuating markets.” “Any grain you put in the ground this year will make money,” he adds, due to universally high grain prices.
“The organic farmer’s salvation is in the number of crops they can grow, and they are limited only by habit,” Klaas goes on to say. He sees crop diversification as one of the organic farmers’ most effective tools to success. Klaas points out that the commodity program has worked to discourage small grain production, but that corn-soybean rotations have severely depleted soil quality. Small grains can put very high quality carbon back into the soil, and are valuable in improving soil tilth.
Klaas and Mary-Howell produce a diversity of small grains on their 1400-acre organic crop farm in upstate New York, which has weather and crop seasons similar to those experienced here in the upper Midwest. On their family farm they grow corn, soybeans (for feed and food), spelt, barley, oats and wheat (all for organic “certified” seed), oats for feed, red kidney beans for human consumption, cabbage for sauerkraut, sweet corn and green beans for processing and edamame soybeans. They have been certified organic (NOFA) for 15 years and have no non-organic parallel production. They also own and manage a certified organic feed mill, with a mission to try and keep livestock feed production and consumption regionally focused and closely tied in a sustainable, local system.
Europe Leads the Way
The addition of small grains adds a lot of choices to a rotation. Each type of crop has a distinctive effect on the soil, though exactly what these effects are and how they affect later crops is not at all well understood. The Martens point out that crop rotations need to not only address the immediate needs of each crop, but also will affect the long-term productivity and health of the soil, the farm and the farmers. With no pesticide residue to worry about, there are no limitations of carryover effects from one crop to the next. Even mixed plantings and crop combinations are feasible and desirable in some situations. Mary-Howell points out that small grains can really relieve workflow, too. At the February workshop, she noted that they already had a third of their fields planted, with no more work planned in these fields until the July and August harvest. “By planting winter grains in the fall, we save on a lot of spring stress,” she notes.
The particular grain planted in any given year will be a decision based on spring or fall planting conditions, access to seed, compatibility with previous crops and time available to plant. The Martens point out that not all grains will work on all farms, you will have to decide what grains are the best fit for your soils, your climate, your time demands and your overall system.
Most small grains are available in either a winter variety or a spring variety. Klaas notes that it is critical that you clearly identify if your seed is a winter or spring variety. Winter grains will need a certain number of days below 32 degrees in order to send up the shoots that make seed heads. Spring crops will send up seed heads without this chilling period. Winter crops are generally planted in September or October here in the Midwest, so seeds can sprout and plants stabilize for the winter dormant season. It is ideal if they are covered with snow for the winter, and some loss may be experienced if there is no snow cover. Most grains also have the advantage of yielding not only grain for feed or seed, but also straw which can be used for bedding or tilled in for organic matter.
Mary-Howell cautions that for their operation, which at this point does not include livestock, they want to be very careful to not export too many nutrients off the farm by selling straw (vs tilling stems in.) She observes that if you have a dairy operation, straw can be used in your barns, then spread back onto the fields with the manure, bringing most of the nutrients back into the system.
Barley is the heaviest feeder of the small grains. Klaas says that to raise 150 bushel/acre barley he needs fertility of the equivalent needed to produce 200 bushel corn. He has been able to produce 100 bushel barley in New York by applying liquid manure, and has found that the barley is very demanding of potash. Barley likes to have “dry feet” and also, Klaas thinks, is very sensitive to sodium levels. Barley should be planted as early as possible, but Klaas notes that if the soil is very cold and wet there may be germination problems due to low active phosphorus levels, slow mineralization of nitrogen and low microbial activity till the soil warms. He has found the addition of pelletized chicken manure when planting barley in cold soils really improves later plant density. He speculates that the nitrogen is aiding the microbial activity and helping to free up phosphorus. He cautions that this deficiency is a very temperature related situation, if you soil test once the soils warm up you may see much higher levels of available nutrients. The addition of chicken manure while planting in cold ground has produced 25% more tillering and 25% more yield potential in spring barley for the Martens.
Winter triticale in also a favorite of the Martens. Barley and triticale seed tend to cost about the same, but triticale will thrive in colder, wetter conditions. The Marten’s have gotten great yields with their winter triticale crops. A dairy neighbor of theirs planted winter triticale on very heavy, poor soils with liquid manure application, and was able to harvest 3 tons of triticale grain per acre and get 2 tons of straw, with no cultivation. The neighbor said he made way more money on the triticale than he would have done with corn on that poor land.
Oats are one of the most tolerant grains and can thrive in low field fertility, and also will tolerate wet feet. Oats grow quickly, particularly in the spring and fall and can tolerate light frosts. They are used for grain, as a green manure, for forage and for improving soil organic matter by incorporating straw after grain harvest. Klaas noted that when he has planted spring oats in the fall as a forage crop that the swards grew very differently- very wide and flat, very vegetative, with high palatability and protein levels for grazing. Klaas adds that he really likes the oat varieties bred in both Wisconsin and Minnesota in recent years.
Rye, once a very popular crop, has generally fallen out of favor. However, markets have recently blossomed for organic cover crop seed. Organic vegetable farmers really like rye as a cover crop. With the advent of organic no-till, rye is also coming back into favor as a winter crop for late spring crimping. Rye has a natural alleopathy that is helpful in some situations for weed control. Klaas has experimented with planting winter rye (1-2 bushels per acre) with soybeans with good success. The rye will be a low-growing plant that helps keep weeds in check. The rye will, however, compete for water, and so Klaas doesn’t recommend this technique in limited water situations.
Grains as Forage
A Little on Weed Control
As a last note in weed control, Klaas notes that too many minerals and nutrients can be as limiting as not enough. At a certain point, the nutritional needs of a grain crop will be met, and additional fertility will only feed the weeds and increase competition for light and water.
With so much to talk about in relation to small grains, we had to be content with just scratching the surface in the 90 minutes that Klaas and Mary-Howell shared their knowledge at the recent Organic Farming Conference workshop. If this collection of thoughts has perked your interest, I recommend you read their series of articles on the NewFarm website. Another good resource for growing organic small grains is the Organic Field Crop Handbook, published by the Canadian Organic Growers and available from MOSES.
Jody Padgham has been with MOSES since 2002. She is the organization's Financial Manager, the editor of the Organic Broadcaster newspaper and co-coordinator of the Organic University. Jody raises poultry and sheep organically on a 60-acre farm in west-central Wisconsin.Return to TOP