A Farmer's Profile: Organic Crop Rotations
The Challenge: To develop a rotation to suit the soil, climate, crop and financial targets for the farm.
Producer Story: Steven, Robert & Rosemary Snider, Little Red Hen Mills, New Norway, AB
Cash crops: rye, hard red spring wheat, oats, barley, peas, triticale, buckwheat, hay
Green manure crops: faba beans, legume/cereal
Processing: Seed plant, flour mill
Soil: black chernozem, some solonetzic
Average precipitation: 12”
Frost free days: 90-100
Farm size: 2000 acres, 1420 tillable (80-100 acre fields), 280 hay, 240 native pasture, 50 riparian ecological reserve
History: reduced chemicals from 1976, 1st certified 1988, transition complete 1993
Outreach: annual field day; Steven talks at colleges, universities and conferences, and in 2005 became president of Alberta’s Going Organic network
Personal health problems with chemicals motivated this fourth-generation farm family to go organic. In 1976, Rosemary Snider encouraged her husband Robert, who was bothered by swollen glands, to attend a presentation on health issues. When he followed advice to give up the seed treatments he was using, the condition cleared up. Their son Steven also suffered from chemical poisoning. They decided to cut out the farm chemicals.
At agricultural college, Steven didn’t admit until his third year that the family farm was organic. Reactions that “You’re crazy, you’re going to go broke!” backfired, he said. “The more people challenge you, the more you want to try it – sometimes crazy makes more profit!” Thanks to Steven’s perseverance, as well as his hard work and innovative approach to farming, Steven won Alberta’s Outstanding Young Farmer Award in 2003.
In the transition, “Our first focus was clean fields”. The Sniders used late seeding, plowdowns and a rodweeder. “You evolve into doing it right with a whole series of interconnecting factors.”
Robert had moved from summer fallow–wheat–barley–oats to a five-year rotation, using a legume plowdown in the fourth year. They now use a six-year rotation that combines successful sequences for soil-building and weed competitiveness, balancing crop diversity for income consistency, timing crops for labour availability, and practicalities like wanting to grow wheat and peas together but not being able to get the pea chips cleaned out.
Year one: Green manure (mix of faba beans, peas, barley and oats) or hay breaking. Fall rye seeded in early September.
Year two: Rye harvested in mid-August.
Year three: Spring seeding of oats intercropped with green or yellow peas, harvested together, and separated for sale for human consumption or seed. (A special indent for the gravity table helps remove the chips and split peas from the oats.)
Year four: Legume/cereal green manure, plowed down in late July.
Year five: Wheat seeded and harvested.
Year six: Peas and barley intercropped, to be sold as feed, with the option of plowdown.
Wheat is typically the weediest crop because of its long growing season. Peas and barley follow wheat and if the field is too weedy, they are plowed under. The Sniders feel a responsibility towards their neighbours and don’t want weed infestations. Peas intercropped with barley after wheat works well because their barley is for feed and it doesn’t matter if it has volunteer wheat or pea chips in it.
The Sniders emphasize that their rotation isn’t set in stone – they adjust according to markets and weather conditions. If a field comes up too weedy, they do a plowdown and go back to rye or wheat. Also, there is always the option to seed land to hay if it is not performing or has problem weeds like Canada thistle. Steven says that rye in the rotation is excellent for soil improvement and weed control, and “knocks out wild oats”. Faba beans fix double or triple the nitrogen that peas do, but require good moisture.
On the solonetzic soil of their poorer land, permanent hay is rotated out periodically for reconditioning with oats or barley underseeded with hay.
They are experimenting with a rotation of a green manure once every three years; this has resulted in cleaner crops. “Some fields are even in a one in two-year plan to test financial sustainability when cutting saleable production so drastically. The benefits to the soil are obvious,” Steven says.
Yields dropped by 30% at the start of transition, and then gradually increased to 85% to 120% of the area’s average. Being pedigreed seed producers helped to tide them through the transition years.
Steven recommends alfalfa or mixed hay for the transition years if there is sufficient moisture, to produce income and build soil, leaving good, clean, productive land. However, in drought years, he recommends a legume green manure at least one year in three, and cautions not to cut harvest the crop as silage. “If you silage or bale the crop instead of plowing it in, it will be a mess the following year.”
The Sniders brought the soil back to life by sticking to their rotation. It now tills better, smells better, has no more hardpan or powdery pulverization. The clod size is 3-4” versus 6-12” when they started their transition. Their green manures have built the soil tilth and fertility. “The more plant species in the green manure mix, the better - more competition with weeds and more biomass. The legumes provide nitrogen and the cereals add a lot of bulk.”
Steven has seen land turn around in two years; some in five years. He says, “All of a sudden something clicks, I don’t know what it is, it’s not one thing, it’s multiple factors – some fields are a mess and all of a sudden, bang, it’s a beautiful crop. Once the land breaks its dependence on chemicals, you might have a bad year but never again a total wreck.”
For more from Farmer Profiles and more information about Canadian farmer experiences, order Gaining Ground: Making a Successful Transition to Organic Farming from the publications page.