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February 28, 2011

Overcoming obstacles to organic farming

by Tim Wall

To produce organic milk, you need organic grain. And as more people switch to organic milk, farmers see a growing market for organic grain. But the switch to organic methods isn't an easy or cheap process for the farmer.

That's why a team of researchers at Penn State University and the University of New Hampshire performed a four-year study of the economics and agricultural practices involved in making that transition. By studying reduced tillage and cover crops the researchers shed light on some of the difficulties an organic farmer faces when producing feed grains.

What's more they suggested some possible solutions to the dilemmas.

One problem was that in a reduced tillage system, where the farmer doesn't plow up the ground as much, weeds started to take over. And some of the weeds were hard to control perennials, such as Canada thistle and bindweed.

Intensively tilling the soil every once in a while could knock down the population of weeds, suggested the researchers.

Another problem was the cost of manure and compost. The bulky fertilizers had to be trucked in at great expense. Not to mention all the fossil fuels burned up in transport.

To avoid those costs, farmers should try to integrate field crops with dairy production, the researchers suggested. A farmer that grew feed grain should either have his own dairy operation, or team up with a neighboring dairy farm. That way the fertilizer for the crops and food for the animals would be near each other. Less distance means less transport costs.

At the bottom line, the researchers didn't see huge differences in profits from reduced tillage or intensive tillage. But there did seem to be a trend towards higher returns from intensive tillage.

The experiment was carried out from 2003 to 2007 in central Pennsylvania. Two fields were used, one with intensive tillage and the other with reduced tillage. Changes in crop yields, weed populations, and economic returns were measured over a three year rotation. From year to year, the crops were switched, or rotated, between corn, soy, and cover crops.

The research was published in Agronomy Journal.

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