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Organic Farm Plan B: What to Plant When It’s Too Late for Small Grains

by Margaret Smith, PhD
Forage Agronomist

Weather patterns are shifting in the Upper Midwest, resulting in a trend the last several years of spring breaking late, with ample snow and cooler-than-average temperatures in southern Minnesota. Fortunately, this is not the case everywhere in the Upper Midwest, but in much of our area, small grain planting will be late this year. What if you can’t get small grains planted when you want to this spring?

When Is It Too Late?

Recommended planting dates for small grains have been well characterized by the University of Minnesota, North Dakota State University, and the University of Nebraska. But guidelines for optimal planting dates in other Midwestern states have been less well defined. (See our previous article, When Is It Too Late for Planting Spring Small Grains).

What is your optimal planting window? As a rule of thumb, consider over the last 15 years or so, when has been the earliest that oats, barley or spring wheat have been planted in your area? Consider a five-week time frame from those early dates for your window of opportunity to plant and produce an economically beneficial small grain crop. (But remember: this is only a rule of thumb.)

Optimum planting time in your area is likely within two weeks of that "earliest possible" date. Small grain yields decline about one percent per day as planting is delayed, largely due to increase temperatures during the time of crop development. Within five weeks delay, your potential for grain yield will be decreased by at least one-third of the initial potential yield. 

Beyond Small Grains: Alternative Planting Options for Organic Farms

If you have determined that it's too late for a small grain crop, you now need to make another decision: Do you need a cash crop or a forage crop? Cash crop alternatives may be more challenging in organic production systems than in conventional systems due to crop rotation considerations. Organic farmers: contact your organic certifier before you implement any change in your organic system for 2019.

Cash Crop Options for an Organic System

Conventional farmers easily can plant corn or soybeans after deciding against a late small grain planting, but organic farmers may need to consider other options for a viable cash crop in an organic rotation.

1. Corn

Considerations when corn follows corn:

  • Corn rootworms: If rootworm beetles laid eggs last year in your corn you will have some level of root feeding on a following corn corp. There are no viable organic-approved control options for corn rootworm.
  • Nitrogen fertility: Do you have a source of manure to provide N for optimal corn production? Can you get it delivered and spread in time following your decision to NOT plant small grains? Does this fit your budget? Corn yields in conventional systems, even with adequate fertilization, are reduced 5 to 15 percent when following corn compared to soybeans with good weed control.
  • Weed management will be a challenge in organic rotations as you increase the number of row crop years in sequence in your rotation.

Considerations when corn follows soybeans:

  • The same fertility considerations here are the same for following corn. Less N will needed to be supplied with manure.

2. Soybeans

  • If following corn, follow normal production guidelines for organic soybeans.
  • If following soybeans, plant a small grain cover crop as soon as possible, then pant soybeans three to four weeks after.

3. Buckwheat

Buckwheat is a warm-season, short-duration, indeterminate crop.

  • How will you market buckwheat? This is the critical question. The grain can be incorporated as a limited component of feed rations. There is a limited market available for buckwheat as a cover crop.
  • Do you have enough storage to accommodate another grain crop?
  • Weeks to harvest vary depending on planting date. Planted in May or June, it will take 11 to 12 weeks to harvest. Planting in late July (the typical planting window), it will mature in 9 to 10 weeks.
  • Buckwheat planted in June will face competition from warm-season summer annual weeds, such as pigweed and giant ragweed.

4. Dry, edible beans

  • Secure a market before planting. Most dry edible bean buyers have pre-contracted production, and they only infrequently purchase beans on the open market.
  • Typically have a shorter growing season than soybeans.
  • Dry beans are less competitive with weeds than soybeans. They require multiple field passes for adequate weed control.
  • Proper storage and handling are critical considerations for dry edible beans.

Forage Options

Forage options as alternative to small grains for grain harvest are similar for both conventional and organic farming systems.

  • Small Grains for Annual Forage

    • Plant the small grains that you have on hand and harvest for hay, baleage, or silage at boot to dough stage of development
    • Plant a forage-type small grain variety and harvest for hay, baleage, or silage. Adding forage peas will increase feed quality of the mix.
    • Later planting dates on underseeded grasses, clovers & alfalfa increase risk; it tends to reduce establishment success of underseeded perennial forages.
  • Warm Season Annual Grasses

    • Plant warm-season annual grasses such as sorghum/sudan, sudangrass, millet or teff when soils warm to 60o F in late May or early June.
    • Yield potential of warm-season grasses are highest for forage sorghum and sorghum x sudangrass hybrids, intermediate for various millet species and hybrid sudangrass, and lowest for teff grass.
    • These grasses can be cut for silage, baleage and some can be grazed. Finer-stemmed species like millets and teff can be dried for dry hay. Sudangrass & sorghum/sudan can be hayed with a hay conditioner or crimper at higher seeding rates.
    • Adequate fertility is needed for optimum yields.
    • Warm-season legumes like soybeans or cowpeas can be mixed with warm-season annual grasses for forage but grass seeding rates must be kept low to reduce competition with the legumes.
  • Perennial forages

    • Shift your rotation and establish a new hay or pasture seeding in late summer/early fall (August 1 – August 30, depending on your latitude).
    • Time your late-summer seeding with forecasted rains
    • It is not recommended to utilize a small grains cover crop when establishing perennial forages in the late-summer window
    • Consider increasing seeding rates slightly for your grasses and legumes when seeding in August.

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