An old technique promises a new best management practice.
At the North Florida Research and Education Center (NFREC) in Marianna, a 160-acre site showcases how a sod-based rotation system can help increase profits, reduce risk, conserve water and build the soil by rotating livestock and grasses with row crops or by rotating grasses with row crops alone.
The idea is simple: Instead of planting the same row crops over and over again, plant perennial bahiagrass or bermudagrass in between harvests (grasses grow up to two years). While the grass is growing, cattle grazing atop of the grasses can then take place.
Although livestock do require some expense and work, using cattle actually helps make the rotation even more profitable due to the cattle's ability to recycle nutrients (up to 50 percent or more), which, in turn, helps limit the amount of commercial fertilizers. Furthermore, hoof traffic can benefit the soil. If not using cattle, the process still works well as the grasses can be harvested as hay or as seed crops.
The grasses help the soil in many ways. Planting grass assists the soils by adding nutrients, increasing water-holding capacities (allowing for deeper rooting of row crops, which means less irrigation), and helping to reduce nematode populations and other pests. The reduced irrigation, which can be up to a 50-70 percent reduction, actually produces equal or better crop yields.
At the NFREC site, where cattle are incorporated, the end results of sod-based rotation is marked.
"We have found that yields are often 30-50 percent higher; this results in two to seven times the profit of our standard row crop rotations," said David Wright, extension agronomist, UF. The NFREC site offers tours to interested parties who would like to see exactly how the system works and what the results can yield.
One can also go online to see what their results might be. An interactive business model at: http://nfrec.ifas.ufl.edu/, offers a chance for farmers to enter data for their own operations to see they might expect with a sod based rotation. According to the model, data collected by a UF for a 200-acre farm with 80 head of cattle (cow-calf pairs), shows that net profits after four years can be two to seven times higher. Even without cattle, the profits shown are noteworthy, since the biggest boost in profit is due to the higher peanut and cotton yields.
Cattle or no cattle, the row crops can be planted once again after the grass season comes to an end, which may be two years in Florida. In Northern Florida, the common rotation involves, planting bahiagrass for two years, then rotating to peanuts for one year, then planting cotton for another year, and finally returning to grass.
In central Florida, the sod-based rotation system makes sense for several crops in particular. "Some of the crops grown in rotation with bahia and bermudagrass are peanuts and watermelons," said Wright, who added that soybeans and corn would also work, as well as grain sorghum. "This system can be used anywhere in the world and especially where cattle and crops are both grown in the same locale," added Wright, who explained that the key to a sod-based rotation system is incorporating perennial grasses into the exact same fields that are used for row crops.
This practice has been used for hundreds of years, yet is not used nearly enough. This is partly due to the fact that much farmland is rented land (up to 80 percent under annual contracts), and oftentimes the land is used only for annual row crops, so longer-term thinking doesn't come to mind maybe as often as it should.
Sod-based rotation helps reduce the risk that southern farmers, in particular, face from extreme weather, and the dry, compacted and infertile soils. The system increases profitability, assists in risk management, and helps with natural resource conservation. It is also promising for young farmers who may have smaller acreage and/or may have limited farming equipment. Even at a smaller level, incremental increases in yields can show significant net returns.