Cropland diversification: potential solution for unprofitable land

Katlyn Campbell

A new study shows that despite a constant input into some Iowa farmland, farmers aren’t receiving yields in crop growth.

Through the study conducted by ISU professors and researchers, they plan to target the areas where farmers can’t improve their yields with common agronomic practices.

Elke Brandes, postdoctoral research associate in agronomy was the lead author of the study, with contributor Lisa Schulte Moore, associate professor of natural resource ecology and management and Science-based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips, or STRIPS, researcher.

“The main metric that has been used in terms of farm success over time has been yield, but the inputs used in corn and soybean farming are very costly and so what we’re suggesting … that the main metric should be profitability …whether the farmers are actually getting a financial gain,” Schulte Moore said.

Schulte Moore said some farmland has better profitability compared to others, which drag on the overall finances of the farm. This is because of the soil content, she added.

“Basically, on some areas, the soil or organic matter is really good or there’s high nutrient value and has really good water-holding capacity during drier time periods,” Schulte Moore said.

Schulte Moore used an analogy to make this concept easier to understand.

“Not every single person has equal strength,” she said. “Some of us are stronger than others and some of us can do lots of exercise to improve our strength … some of us can do lots of exercise but we’re probably not going to get all that much stronger.”

The idea is to encourage farmers to stop inputs into acres where they won’t recoup their cost and instead ship those acres into lower cost perennial cover crops such as brome, switchgrass or miscanthus.

“They can potentially improve their profitability and at the same time address some of the other challenges we have with agriculture today,” Schulte Moore said.

Brandes said there is a huge problem with today’s agriculture and how fields are managed today.

The Midwest has an industrialized agriculture contributing to the pollutions of our world, Brandes said. One problem Brandes pointed out is the leaching of nutrients from the fields into surface waters and down through the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico, where algae blooms are formed that kill fish because of less oxygen in the water.

“The eyes are on the Midwest … where that actually happens,” Brandes said.

Further data needs to be collected to provide a potential solutions for this. However, one way to better manage fields sustainably is by seeding this unprofitable land into high diversity vegetation such as prairie, and to get government support through the Conservation Reserve Program, which would potentially recoup profitability for farmers, Brandes said.

Schulte Moore said she hopes farmers will consider devoting this unprofitable land to provide habitat for wildlife.

Schulte Moore said they’ll be careful not to attract wildlife that would be a detriment to the farmer’s crop production. By planting diversified native plants, crop production could actually benefit. These plants would provide habitat for natural enemies: insects that eat other insects.

“The potential is there that those kinds of insects would provide a boost to famers in terms of reducing the number of crop pests and improving the pollination of a crop like soybean that would improve overall yield for a farmer,” Schulte Moore said. 

Brandes agrees that by having these diverse prairies, crops would benefit along with wildlife, such as the monarch butterfly that is in decline, through the expansion of habitats for different species.

The only thing standing in the way now is showing these farmers the evidence that this kind of sustainable agriculture could benefit them and the environment.