By Curt Reese, Agronomy and Soil Scientist
At the West Central Research and Outreach Center (WCROC), Morris, nearly 50% of our crop acres are on certified organic land. This allows us the opportunity to objectively compare organic and conventional systems. Currently, organic corn is trading above $9.00 per bushel and soybeans are trading above $21.00 per bushel. Similar to conventional crop prices, organic prices are down from several years ago. However, these numbers are still enticing farmers to look at converting their farm, or parts of their farm, to an organic system. Transitioning to an organic system can pose some unique challenges. The shift to an organic system needs careful consideration and planning.
In 2015, we averaged about 150 bushels per acre on our organic corn and 165 bushels per acre on our conventional corn. Our conventional corn yields may seem low, but there are few contributing factors to the low yield. First of all, our best land is in the organic system not the conventional system. Secondly, we had a wind storm in the summer of 2015 that damaged our conventional crops more than our organic crops. By comparison, the value of our corn crop per acre was $1350 (organic) and $536 (conventional), if you price conventional corn at $3.25 per bushel.
Corn is an easier crop to raise organically than soybeans. Weeds are more difficult to control in organic soybean fields, and little can be done to control soybean aphids. In the past, we have raised 25 bushel per acre soybeans in our organic system. Certainly not a stellar yield when compared to conventionally grown soybeans where fields can average 40 to 50 bushel per acre or more. If we use the current $21 per bushel rate, our estimated gross income would be $525 per acre on 25 bushel per acre yield. If we use $8.25/bushel for conventional soybeans and have a 45 bushel per acre yield, our gross income is $371.25 per acre.
While the organic numbers may look really good, there are costs and risks involved with organic crop farming. Organic certification requires at least three crops in a rotation. This means either a small grain or alfalfa crop which in turn means owning, or having access to, a grain drill and having the necessary equipment to harvest these crops. Another factor to consider is managing the fertility of the fields. At the WCROC, we have swine and dairy manure which we apply to the fields to enhance organic matter in the soil. We also plant alfalfa as a feed source for the WCROC organic dairy herd. This makes our organic system easier to manage as compared to someone that does not have livestock on their farm.
One of the biggest challenges with organic crop production is weed control. Weeds can be controlled by modifying planting dates, crop rotation, harrowing, and cultivation. This proves to be more time consuming than the conventional system; and there is a considerable learning curve for creating a successful organic cropping system.
Producers that are interested in learning more about organic crop production are welcome to visit the WCROC, talk with our staff, and take a look at our fields. We can be reached at 320-589-1711.