Diversifying crops and crop rotations not only spreads out the farmer's workload, but it also helps spread fixed costs.

Paul Jasa, extension engineer at the Univ. of Nebraska-Lincoln, doesn’t believe that all of the recent talk of speeding up field operations is necessarily the best answer to improving farm productivity. “I can see the arguments on why speed is good, but they’re only doing it for the sake of covering a lot of acres quickly,” he says.

“My argument is if you’re too tight on getting your ground covered, maybe you need to change your crop rotation and have less acres of each crop and then you have more time to cover each crop.”

Jasa adds that if farmers are looking to spread out their workload, modifying the typical corn-soybean or corn-on-corn rotation can do that as well spreading the diversity and risk. “Crop insurance has sort of reduced the risk of all corn, for instance.  You know, back in my dad’s day, he had some corn, some oats, some beans, and some alfalfa. One crop may fail but, he had others that would carry him. But crop insurance made us lazy farmers when it comes to risk management.

“The other thing is, when people keep talking about getting bigger and faster, rather than getting bigger equipment, I would like to see us adopt a little bit more of the South American model where you add extra implements instead of bigger machines, where you can spread diversity as well,” he says.

“Maybe you have a corn planter and a soybean seeder going at the same time. Yes, it adds an extra operator.  Yes, it adds an extra tractor. But again, the larger implement to plant both crops in the same planter and same tractor means the tractor’s going to be much bigger and compaction’s more of an issue.  And it could be those two smaller tractors cost about the same as one big tractor anyway. And two smaller seeders might cost as much as one bigger seeder. The other thing is if your one bigger seeder breaks down, you’ve got nothing moving in the field. With two smaller seeders, if one breaks down, the other’s still moving.

It’s Being Done

According Jasa, there are farmers who are working with diverse crop rotations. He points to a producer and an agronomist in South Dakota that plant and harvest up to eight different crops in one growing season. “Basically, they do all their farming with one tractor. It’s a big four-wheel drive tractor and it pulls either a 42.5-foot air seeder or a 24-row planter and they farm 9,500 acres of crops about half of it gets cover crops.  They’re actually seeding in the neighborhood of about 14,000 acres. One tractor, two guys.”

He goes on to say that by planting eight different crops over 9,500 acres, they’re only planting about 1,200 acres of any one crop. “With a 24-row planter, you can cover 1,200 acres in the drop of a hat.”

Jasa says the same is true with their harvesting equipment. “For years, they ran only one combine. And again, you start looking at 9,500 acres, most people say for a combine, 3,000 acres is about the max for a typical corn/soybean producer. Well, they can do it, because they had eight different harvest periods.” More recently, he says, they’ve added a second combine.

When it comes to extra labor, Jasa says the only time they need it is during harvest time to drive the trucks and haul the crop away.

No Need for Higher Speeds

Jasa, who is not a proponent of the higher speeds and bigger equipment for planting that are being talked about currently, points out additional tradeoffs come by way of utilizing this type of equipment. “When you’re planting at 5 miles an hour, it’s less than a couple of horsepower per row. At 10 miles an hour, you’ll need almost three times the horsepower. The horsepower required more than doubles when you double the speed. This is another reason I don’t like operating at the higher speeds,” he says.

He adds that he’s seen the new Deere high speed planter and believes the belt that delivers the seed and the bowl-shape design of the seed disc are huge improvements, but it’s also going to need to handle the natural obstacles found in most farm fields, like clumps and rocks.

Another complicating factor to consider, Jasa says, is soil moisture and soil types. “You get in wet, sticky soil and try to plant at 10 miles an hour and get up to 10 -miles an hour, you’re going to throw a lot of mud and start really tearing up the soil.

So this is another reason why I don’t like the higher speeds.”

Spreading Fixed Costs

For Jasa, diversifying crop types and rotation not only helps spread the workload it also helps to spread out fixed costs. “With a narrow crop rotation, everything has to be done at once, thus we’ve come to think bigger and faster is necessary. Bigger equipment and more employees costs more money, but are only used part of the year. With a wider crop rotation, the workload is spread out and more acres can be farmed with the existing equipment and employees.”

He uses a question often posed by Dwayne Beck of the Dakota Lakes Research Farm to underline his point. “Why is McDonalds open for breakfast? It’s because they have the fixed costs of the building and adding more hours provides more profit potential. If they were only interested in the most profit per hour, they would be only open at noon for the lunch rush and would need a larger restaurant with a larger kitchen and more employees to handle the crowd. But then it would sit idle the rest of the day and the employees would be sent home. When you think of it that way, why don’t farmers add more crops to their rotation and spread out their workload and fixed costs?”