Sod Rotation

 

 

Introduction

The use of crop rotation is a fundamental principle of sound crop production. The rotation of bahiagrass sod, which can be used as pasture or cut for hay, is a proven method to increase yields of peanut and cotton crops.

This multi-state project has research sites in Alabama, Florida and Georgia and involves cooperation from state and federal agenciesand several conservation groups. In Alabama and at one Florida site, cattle are used to harvest the grass produced as cow-calf operations. At the second Florida site and in Georgia, the grass is harvested as hay and seed crops.

Objectives

The primary objective of this project is to develop an economically and environmentally sustainable sod based cattle-row crop production system appropriate for the biological and social conditions of the southeastern United States. This project is delivering a viable production system for small farms in the 100 to 1000-acre range. These farms include family farms, as well as a large number of minority and presently under funded farmers. Larger farms will also benefit from the project outcomes.

  1. Develop and compare the economic and environmental benefits of conventional and sod based farming systems using conservation tillage systems.
  2. Quantify the positive impact that sod based rotations have on soil health, pest reduction, water use, and sustainable farm production.
  3. Refine and promote production practices in a sod based rotation which result in significant yield increases associated with decreased inputs and ultimately, better economic with lower risks.

Justification

Main production limitations in the Southeast are infertile, compacted, droughty soils and pests. There is a low cost way to markedly reduce the impact of each of these limitations, and that is using a sod based rotation of bahia or bermuda grass in the cropping system.

Bahia or bermuda grass adds organic matter to infertile soils for better nutrient and water holding capacity, while grass roots grow through the compacted soil layer allowing subsequent row crop roots to move through the compacted layer for access to more water and nutrients. These grasses also reduce nematode populations and other pests. Water in the soil profile is conserved and utilized by subsequent crops, since rooting depth of row crops is often 10 times deeper following bahia or bermuda grass as in conventional cropping systems. This could result in as little as one-tenth the current water use for irrigation, alleviating some of the water problems currently being debated in Tri-state water talks.

Most growers will agree that sod based rotations with bahia or bermuda grass will increase yield of crops by 30-100%. State average yield of peanut in the Southeast is about 3200 pounds per acre and is often increased to 4500 or more pounds per acre after bahiagrass. When economic analyses are done on cotton and peanut in a sod based rotation, profits are about 2-7 times greater as in a conventional peanut-cotton rotation. The increased farm profitability would create jobs in smaller rural towns making them a viable place for young people to stay and live and work

Integrated Pest Management (IPM)

By incorporating cultural control strategies into the row crop production system, the IPM of several plant pests will be dramatically altered. First, on any specific farm the use of pesticides on cotton will be reduced by at least two-thirds, since only one quarter of the farm will be in cotton rather than the conventional three quarters. Second, the bahiagrass is expected to eliminate the need for nematicides on cotton and peanuts. Finally, the use of herbicides may be reduced because of the pasture-row crop rotation not allowing any specific weed to reach pest levels. This is especially important when morning glory or pig weed becomes a problem in glyphosate resistant crops. Due to the reduction in total area treated and the reduction in what is applied to a specific area, we expect that the pesticide load on an individual farm will be 25% less for fungicides, 100% less for nematicides, and 50% less for herbicides.

Impact

This is a multi-disciplinary project requiring a team of scientists with a wide range of expertise. Agronomists, soil scientists, entomologists, plant pathologists, weed scientists, animal scientists sociologists and economists have all come together in the development and establishment of this project.

The impact of the project will be felt throughout the southeastern United States, especially in the rural communities that are still dependent upon farm production and other natural resources. This project will significantly enhance the economic value of row crop production in the Southeast by increasing yields while decreasing production costs. It will reduce runoff and increase water use efficiency by allowing the row crops to establish deeper roots in the soils following bahiagrass. Finally, it will reduce the need for many pesticides as the bahiagrass will reduce harmful plant parasitic nematodes. Other pests including insects, pathogens, and weeds will also be reduced due to the rotation.  Cattle have been shown to recycle from 50-70 % of the applied nutrients resulting in lower amounts of commercial fertilizer being needed. 

Economics

Economic models developed thus far indicate that a 200-acre farm can increase its net profit from less than $50,000 per year, under the present peanut-cotton-cotton rotation, to over $90,000 per year with the bahiagrass rotation. There is also a reduction in pesticide costs of over $6,000 on the farm practicing the rotation. All of these add up to an economically viable and sustainable production system.

A simple spread sheet model can be used by interested producers to see how their particular farming operation may benefit from a bahiagrass rotation with either cattle or hay production as compared to a conventional cotton-peanut cropping system:

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Principle Investigators

  • Julie Howe, Assistant Professor, Agronomy and Soils, Auburn University. Email: jah0020@auburn.edu
  • John Beasley, Extension Agronomist and Professor, Crop and Soil Science, University of Georgia. Email: jbeasley@uga.edu
  • Kris Balkcom, Program Associate, Agronomy and Soils, Auburn University
  • Ann R. Blount, Assistant Professor, Agronomy, University of Florida. Email: paspalum@ufl.edu
  • Scott Tubbs, Assistant Professor and REIC, Crop and Soil Sciences, University of Georgia. Email: tubbs@uga.edu
  • James J. Marois, Professor, Plant Pathology, University of Florida. Email: jmarois@ufl.edu
  • Cheryl Mackowiak, Associate Professor, Soil and Water Science, University of Florida. Email: echo13@ufl.edu
  • Joey Shaw, Assosiate Professor, Agronomy and Soils, Auburn University. Email: shawjo1@auburn.edu
  • David L. Wright, Extension Agronomist and Professor, Agronomy, University of Florida. Email: wright@ufl.edu

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