BLOOMINGTON, Ill.– Farmers in the Midwest are part of social circles that are mostly comprised of individuals who, for a variety of legitimate reasons, grow two-crop monocultures. However, there is ample evidence that oats are a viable crop for Illinois farms and offer farmers an opportunity to create three- to four-year crop rotations that include legumes like red clover and alfalfa. So why aren’t more oats being grown?
The agronomic and economic benefits of longer, more diverse rotations are well documented, but it is important to acknowledge up front that the primary barrier to more farmers adopting diverse crop rotations is a social barrier.
Oats were more widely grown in Illinois up to the 1960s, but they have since declined to the point where only 35,000 acres were grown in Illinois in 2017. In other words, relatively few farmers grow oats in Illinois anymore. Thus, a farmer who chooses to grow oats is operating outside the norms of his or her social group, which is difficult and stressful, and can have serious ramifications beyond the farm. It is human nature to value and to work to maintain connections to friends, neighbors, and community members. However, we are in a period of rapid change in agriculture, and transitions to new ways of farming are becoming easier. More and more farmers are finding success with new farming strategies. For those able to change, opportunities are revealed. And while some connections are lost, new connections are made. The process is challenging, but many who take the leap benefit from the effort. Once the dust settles, they often do not regret making a change.
Embracing change is also getting easier due to market conditions. Frankly, there is a lot of uncertainty and low prices associated with the current approach to growing two-crop monocultures. Growing oats or other small grains gives farmers an opportunity to take control of their operations and to have their profitability linked with their management skills. This approach to farming fits within the framework of regenerative agriculture, and a growing number of organizations are working to ease the transition to this form of farming.
Regenerative agriculture sets out to build soil health, resilient farms, and net profitability for farmers by replacing inputs that are typically purchased with the management skills of the farmer. Examples of organizations involved in this effort include Practical Farmers of Iowa, Grain Millers, Oatly, The Grand Prairie Grain Guild, Regenerate Illinois, The Artisan Grain Collaborative, Ograin, University of Illinois, The Land Connection, The Illinois Stewardship Alliance, Albert Lea Seed, and Iowa State University, and the Idea Farm Network.
The IFN is an email Listserv that provides farmers an opportunity to ask questions and to share information within a large network of farms in the Midwest. Farmers that have engaged in learning a new way to farm are open to sharing ideas and information. Everyone benefits, and the nascent group gains market share and credibility through cooperation. This type of dynamic offers an opportunity to build new relationships with like-minded people.
The agronomic data for regenerative agriculture is compelling. Growing oats or other small grains is a form of farmer-controlled crop insurance for corn and soybeans. Recent research conducted by Iowa State, South Dakota State, and the Ecdysis Foundation show that it is possible to build soil organic matter relatively quickly by growing small grains and legumes as part of a three-year crop rotation. Increasing organic matter leads to improved soil health, but the value is not merely esoteric: the profitability of regenerative grain production is correlated with the percent organic matter in the soil. Profitability is not correlated with yield.
The profitability of regenerative corn production has been shown to be 80 percent higher than the profits derived from the conventional approach. Replacing purchased inputs with careful management of small grains and legumes creates positive feedback loops for the entire system. These include reducing insect pest populations, reducing herbicide-resistant weed populations and the incidence of resistance. Studies of wild oats in Canada have demonstrated that herbicide resistance drops from 42 percent under conventional management of two crops down to 3 percent when small grains and legumes are added to the rotation. Soil erosion is reduced by 22-40 percent. Purchased nitrogen can be reduced by 80-90 percent. Sudden death syndrome in soybeans is reduced, and soybean yields increase 19 percent. Earthworm abundance doubles and corn yields increase by 8 bushels per acre.
There is a real push by groups like Practical Farmers of Iowa that are trying to help farmers achieve these benefits. PFI is offering cost-share payments of $25 per acre for farmers in Illinois that grow small grains and under-seed them with legumes. They are supporting the development of infrastructure and knowledge with innovative programs and research. They are trialing oats in Iowa, and they have results from seven farms that grew 240 acres of oats in central Iowa in 2016. The average test weight was 36 pounds per bushel, and the average yield was 93 bushels per acre. All of the farmers that grew oats for this trial have continued to grow oats.
Some farmers in Illinois are achieving even better results. A recent workshop for farmers in Congerville featured a talk by an organic farmer from Gridley who gets up to 155 bushels per acre from his oats. He said his oat crop can be the most productive and profitable crop on his farm. In good years he makes food grade and exceeds the test weight requirements for Grain Millers, which allows him to sell his oats for around $6 per bushel. Simple cleaning and handling techniques like running oats through an auger can clip the glumes (the bracts that make up the husks of cereal grains) and add 2-3 pounds to the test weight. Adjustments to combines and running grain through rotary cleaners can also improve test weights and help farmers make food grade standards.
A good way for farmers to begin to realize the benefits of diverse rotations is to connect with other farmers that are doing it, perhaps beyond your normal social circles. From there, start small, learn as you go, and scale up production as your skills and markets develop. Interestingly, many farmers that choose to grow more diverse crops end up appreciating their new level of engagement with farming. A common sentiment among this group is that “farming has become fun again!”
Bill Davison is a University of Illinois Extension local food systems and small farms educator.