Organic Grain Production

for a Sustainable Future
Steven Mirsky
Agro-ecologist
USDA-ARS
Sustainable Agricultural Systems Lab
Beltsville Agricultural Research Center
Beltsville, MD

Factors driving focus on soil health
The Dust Bowl Days
(1930's-40s)
Soil Conservation
Nurseries are formed
to grow plants for
windbreaks and soil
conservation

modified 2
from John Engler

Soil management

Environmental costs of weed
No-till
Dust Bowl
control
grain
producti
on

Organic grain production

Soil
conservation
focus

Soil
Health
Soil
building/regenerativ
e focus

Soil Health
The capacity of a soil to
function, within
ecosystem and land use
boundaries, to:
- sustain productivity,
- maintain environmental
quality,
- promote plant and
animal health

oran and Parkin 1994

Organic Grain
Farming
• Crop rotations
• Cover crops
• Animal
manures
• Primary and
secondary
cultivation

The Farming Systems Project
• Plots established 1996
• 4 replicated blocks
NO TILL and CHISEL TILL Corn-rye-Soybean-Wheat/Soybean
ORGANIC, 2-YEAR

Corn-rye-Soybean-vetch

ORGANIC, 3-YEAR

Corn-rye-Soybean-Wheat/vetch

ORGANIC, 6-YEAR

Corn-rye-Soybean-Wheat/Alfalfa

The Farming Systems Project
Organic Matter (%)

3
2.5
2
1.5
1
0.5
0

b

a
b

a

a

a

The Farming Systems Project
Active Carbon (ppm)
600
500

b

b

CT

NT

ab

a

a

Org3

Org6

400
300
200
100
0
Org2

16
14
12
10
8
6
4
2
0

Potentially Mineralizable
Nitrogen (ug N/g soil)
a

a

ab

b
c

CT

NT

Org2

Org3

Org6

The Farming Systems Project

Spargo et al. 2011

seed m-2

Seedbank of major weed
Mean,1997-2002
species

Teasdale et al. 2004

Longer, more
phenologically
diverse organic
rotations reduce
the weed
seedbank

Field crop production energy requirements
(Farming Systems Project; ARS-BARC)

Hoffman et al. in preparation

Organic feed corn shortages
throughout the US

(Dimitri and Oberholtzer 2009; 2012 Organic Agriculture in Wisconsin: 2012 Status
Report)

What are the barriers to increasing organic grain
production?
1. Existing organic grain farmers (scale up)
• Labor intensive weed management
2. New farmer adoption
• Soil conservation minded and/or risk averse (climate
sensitive)
• Concerns with returning to intensive tillage-based
systems

Corn production
year
- Crop rotation planning
- Cover crops
- Plowing in the spring
- Disking 2X; additional disking?
- Manure application
- Cultimulching
- Planting
- Rotary hoeing (3-5X)
- Interrow cultivation (2-4X)
- Irrigate?
- Harvest

Weed management
1. Healthy, fast-growing cash crop
2. Crop rotation
3. RTK technology/auto-steer for
cultivation
4. Precise fertility management
5. Cover crop-based reduced tillage
systems
6. Weed seed bank management

N and P Management in Organic
Systems?

Multi-functional approach:
-legume cover crops + organic amendments
-apply amendments at N vs. P removal rates
-soil reserves as “buffer”

Legumes
When compared to:
1. Mineral fertilizers
• Slower release rates
• Lower energy use
• Renewable resource
2. Animal Waste
•No new P
•No transport costs
•Low volatility

FSP Phosphorous levels
Phosphorou
s (ppm)

CT

NT

Org2

Org3

Org6

mes are critical for successful nutrient manage

Manure subsurface band applicator

In Summary

• The future of organic grain production
is bright

• Conventional ag. draws from organic
practices
(multi-tactic weed management and
cover crops)

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