Conservation Tillage Systems in the Southeast


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Rotating perennial grasses with row crops adds economic value, increases yields and has environmental advantages when compared to standard conservation rotations. You can think of it as the next step after adopting conservation tillage. Cropping systems need to be flexible to take advantage of economic opportunities and to adapt to the environment. The sod-based system exemplifies this principle by growing plants year round and by using livestock to harvest forage grown opposite summer cash crops.

The diverse, sod-based system reduces risk due to the temperature and weather extremes that are normal in the Southeast. Developing cropping systems that recover quickly from climatic extremes has been and continues to be a major challenge to farmers in the region. Standard conservation row-crop rotations are less resilient when stressed by weather extremes and may limit opportunities to take advantage of market conditions or government programs. The sod-based system can help achieve agricultural sustainability and meet future challenges from increasing human population, fossil-fuel dependence, climate change and globalization.

Despite the apparent increase in profits, adoption of the sod-based rotation system is expected to be slow since many row-crop farmers consider themselves row-crop farmers and not livestock/row-crop farmers. This holistic approach to farming will be taken up first by those who currently have livestock, and others will follow as they see the value and benefit of a systems approach. Less than 5 percent of the peanuts produced in Florida are preceded by bahiagrass. With about 80 percent of the farmland being rented in Florida, as well as nationally, it is difficult for growers to rent land for $100–$175 per acre when they might not see a return from bahiagrass for a year or two if they do not have livestock. Growers are often forced to operate on short-term economic returns, but as they learn that profits can be two to six times greater in the sod-based system and that environmental benefits are increased, they will begin to adopt the system.

Put another way, assume that the profit for the sod-based rotation with livestock grazing is four times that of the standard rotation. A 250-acre farm with a sod-based rotation would plant 125 acres of cotton and peanuts. If establishment costs are $760 per acre, the farm is risking $95,000. To achieve the same profit with a standard rotation, 1,000 acres of cotton and peanuts would need to be planted, and the farm would risk $760,000 on these crops. The standard-rotation farm risks eight times more than the sod-based farm for the same profit. The sod-based system with livestock grazing is the ultimate in risk management. When weather extremes cause reduced yields, the financial loss is lower. Livestock use forages in most weather conditions year round.

Most growers will need to adopt the sod-based system slowly to become comfortable managing the diverse interactions in a crop/livestock system. As growers gain confidence in managing the system, the financial and environmental benefits will become evident.

Download the tables from Chapter 8.