organic transition

organic corn

A smaller than usual corn harvest is underway in Ohio. A smaller than needed portion of the harvest continues to be organic. 

According to annual acreage reports from Mercaris, a company specializing in market data and services for organic and non-GMO, the 2019 harvest will see a record number of organic grain acres, despite the notoriously poor spring planting season (1). But the firm also predicted a 12% decrease in actual organic corn yields, compared to 2018, which will lead to increased imports and costs for organic livestock farmers.(2)

For decades, consumer demand for organic food has grown annually by double-digits (3). While still a comparatively small portion of overall agricultural production, organic corn acreage in the U.S. increased by more than 55% between 2011 and 2016, driven mainly by demand from organic dairy farms (4). Despite the large increase in production, organic grain was imported to the U.S. in 2016, indicating the potential for future growth (5, 6). Currently, Ohio ranks in the top 5 states for number of certified organic corn growers, and in the top ten for acres harvested (7). However, relatively little is known about the management practices of these farms.

As part of an interdisciplinary study on soil balancing, Ohio State researchers surveyed certified organic corn growers in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Indiana in the spring of 2018. These four states collectively represent one-third of all U.S. organic corn growers and produce about 20% of the nation’s organic corn.

Corn Growers

54% of organic corn growers were primarily dairy farms, 27% were cash grain operations.

Responses show the majority of organic corn growers in this region are dairy farmers. More than half of the organic corn grown in 2017 was used as on-farm livestock feed. Most (70%) respondents harvested corn as grain corn; 36% harvested corn as silage (with some doing both). Other uses were rare. A surprisingly large number (nearly 2/3) of the growers use horse-powered equipment, indicating they are likely members of Old Order Amish or similar Plain communities.

The survey examined the use of soil amendments, crop rotations, cover crops, various tillage and cultivation strategies, yields, selling costs, and management priorities. Manure and compost were by far the most common practice, used by 89% of all organic corn growers. Other amendments were used by fewer than half the growers. Tillage practices were chosen for weed management, but most other management decisions focused on soil health.

Reported yields varied widely, ranging from 25 to 250 bushels per acre for grain and 5-34 tons per acre for silage. According to the data collected and estimated from survey responses, very few farmers lost money on the fields reported on for this study.

Farmers with more years of experience raising crops organically tended to have higher net returns on average, suggesting that economic performance can be expected to improve over time for transitioning farms. About 40% of respondents had less than five years of experience farming organically.Average yields, prices, and total revenues

Researchers received a 57% response rate (859 responses), yielding a margin of error of 2%.

This work is supported by Organic Agriculture Research & Extension funding grant no. 2014-51300-22331/project accession no. 1003905 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Read more at go.osu.edu/orgcorn.

Posted In: dairy, research, organic transition, field crops
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The organic system in this comparative study benefited beneficial nematodes over harmful ones like this soybean cyst nematode. (Photo: USDA-ARS)

written by Andrea Leiva Soto, Horticulture and Crop Science

Quick Summary
Ohio State researchers compared an organic system to a conventional one, looking at several soil quality indicators such as bulk density, organic matter content, and nematode populations. After four years, the organic system had fewer harmful nematodes, especially during the hay phase of the rotation. Mineral nitrogen was more abundant in the conventional system, while microbial nitrogen prevailed in the organic system. Soil bulk density did not differ between systems, even though intensive tillage was done in the organically managed fields. However, despite the high carbon inputs added to the organic system, organic matter was only slightly higher compared to the conventional system.


Nematodes have a bad reputation for damaging crops and garden plants, but some can be quite important for plant growth. Certain kinds of nematodes eat bacteria and fungi that cause plant diseases. Others decompose organic matter, providing plant nutrients. Studies indicate that nematodes supply 27% of the soil nitrogen that is available to plants. Today, nematodes are increasingly used as an indicator of the status of the soil food web. The soil food web is a complex network with organisms that provide services to the farm ecosystem like regulating pests, nutrient recycling, modifying soil structure, or even breaking down man-made chemicals.

Organic matter additions have been shown to influence nematode populations. Adding green manure cover crops or decomposed animal waste can decrease root-feeding nematodes. Additionally, organic amendments are known to increase soil nitrogen, organic matter and microbial biomass, and reduce soil bulk density, leading to less soil compaction. As a result, roots explore deeper and have more oxygen available leading to more vigorous growth.

However, the intensive tillage practices used to incorporate amendments or control weeds, disrupt the soil ecosystem, affecting the populations of beneficial microbes and nematodes. Synthetic fertilizers, insecticides, and soil compaction can also cause similar undesirable effects.

To better understand these kinds of interactions and develop insights into how best to manage them, a study at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC) in Wooster, Ohio, compared conventional and organic farming systems and how soil characteristics, nitrogen cycling, and nematode populations are affected by each system.

The conventional system used chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and reduced tillage in a corn–soybean rotation. The organic system incorporated fresh straw, beef manure, poultry compost, and intensive tillage in a corn–oat–hay rotation. Soil samples were taken in the spring before soil inputs, and in autumn after crop harvest. Samples were taken from between and within the crop rows. Then for each sample, the nematodes were counted and identified, and soil bulk density, organic matter, and nitrogen were measured.

Results: After four years, the organic system had fewer harmful nematodes, especially for the hay phase of the rotation. Mineral nitrogen was more abundant in the conventional system, while microbial nitrogen prevailed in the organic system. Soil bulk density did not differ between systems, even though intensive tillage was done in the organically managed fields. And despite the high carbon inputs added to the organic system, organic matter was only slightly higher compared to the conventional system.

Take Home Messages

  • When you are transitioning to organic, it is important to reduce synthetic inputs gradually. The soil system needs time to build different sources of nutrients to be sustainable in the long-term. It is known that after the transition period, organic farms have more nitrogen in the soil compared to conventional farms, mainly due to a build-up of the microbial nitrogen pool, but these benefits will not be available immediately.
  • Organic amendments and crop rotations can decrease harmful root-feeding nematodes in the soil. And by including hay in the rotation cycle, you can decrease these nematode populations even more.
  • Intensive tillage can reduce the soil-related benefits of organic farming. On the other hand, organic inputs should significantly increase soil organic matter and decrease soil bulk density. In the organic farming system discussed above, the benefits of the large organic inputs were diminished by the intensive tillage routine. Rather than seeing a decrease in compaction level, the soil bulk density remained the same. And there was only a minor boost in soil organic matter. Decreased use of tillage in organic farming would better take advantage of the benefits that an organic system can provide. 

Read more about it:
This study was conducted at Ohio State in the early 2000s. Published results are availabe online.
Briar, Shabeg S.; Grewal, Parwinder S.; Somasekhar, Nethi; Stinner, D.; Miller, Sally A. 2007. Soil nematode community, organic matter, microbial biomass and nitrogen dynamics in field plots transitioning from conventional to organic management. Applied Soil Ecology 37: 256-266.

Read more news and information on organic agriculture research at offer.osu.edu.

Posted In: soils, research, pests, organic transition
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tomato in test plot

Use of compost and a mixed species hay crop are recommended.

For farmers transitioning from a conventional to an organic farming system, decisions made during the three-year transition period can influence important factors of future production, such as soil-borne pathogens, soil fertility, and soil structure. In this study, compost incorporation strongly affected physical, chemical, and biological soil health factors and, overall, the soil food web. Using a mix of perennial hay during the transition was most successful in reducing disease-causing pathogens in the soil. Highest available N and yields occurred in the plots using high tunnel vegetable production.

Materials and Methods

A three-year study was conducted in Wooster, Ohio, to evaluate four common rotational strategies used during transition from a conventional to an organic farming system. The four organic transition strategies evaluated were: 1) tilled fallow, 2) a single planting of mixed species perennial hay, 3) low intensity open field vegetable production, and 4) intensive vegetable production under a high tunnel.

Each transition strategy plot was split in half with 15,000 lbs./ac composted manure applied each year to one half.

At the year of certification, the fields were planted to tomato, with two smaller plots of soybean.

Key Findings

  • Compost treatment increased organic matter of soils in all treatments, lowered bulk density, and increased NO3-N, and microbial biomass-N.
  • The addition of compost boosted plant vigor for tomatoes for all transition strategies, but had an inconsistent effect on suppression of soil-borne diseases.
  • Transition cropping strategy was the main factor influencing bacterial community structure in the soil and the rhizosphere.
  • Bacterial communities involved in disease suppression were more abundant in soil previously cropped with hay compared to tilled fallow and low-intensity vegetable production. This was true for both tomato and soybean crops.
  • Overall, the mixed hay was the most effective in decreasing damping-off for both tomato and soybean crops.
  • Tomato yield during year four was much higher in the high tunnel plot. The hay treatment also showed better yield than the tilled fallow and open field vegetable production.

Why Researchers Think the Hay and High Tunnel Treatments Did Better

Disease suppression might happen in two ways. One involves specific action against pathogen populations. For example, brassicas (cauliflower, kale, turnip, radish, cabbage) suppress soil-borne diseases by exuding sulfur-rich substances that are toxic to many pathogenic soil organisms. And certain species of nematodes eat bacteria and fungi that cause plant diseases. Disease suppression can also occur from high competition for available resources. In both cases, the disease suppression is associated with the overall composition of the microbial community (bacteria, fungi) present in the soil and the rhizosphere.

The hay crop used in this experiment was a combination of Festulolium (a rye fescue hybrid) under-sown with alfalfa, red and white clover, timothy, chicory, orchardgrass, and plantain in equal proportions. Researchers concluded that the above-ground diversity of the hay mix supported an increase in beneficial soil organisms that compete or interfere with pathogens, thus, reducing incidence of disease in future crops.

The highest yields in this study were from the high tunnel plots. While some of the increase resulted from extending the growing season, soil analyses also found a higher level of available N in the high tunnel plots. Researchers think this was a result of maintaining the soil food web in a biologically-active state during the cold early spring months in northern Ohio. The monthly mean soil temperature inside the high tunnels was warmer by 35–41°C from January to May while from July to September it was marginally lower than the outside soil temperature. (Based on top 4 inches.)

For more information on using tunnels in vegetable production, visit the Vegetable Production Systems Laboratory’s Crop Enivronments page.


Prepared by Louceline Fleuridor and Cassandra Brown

Based on summaries of the following papers:

Benítez, MS; Baysal, F.; Rotenberg, D.; Kleinhenz, M.D.; Cardina, J.; Stinner, D.; Miller, S.A.; Gardner, B. B. 2007. Multiple statistical approaches of community fingerprint data reveal bacterial populations associated with general disease suppression arising from the application of different organic field management strategiesSoil Biology and Biochemistry Volume 39, Issue 9, September 2007, Pages 2289-2301

Briar, S.S., Miller, S.A., Stinner, D., Kleinhenz, M.D., & Grewal, P.S. 2011. Effect of different organic transition strategies for peri-urban vegetable production on soil properties, nematode community, and tomato yield. Applied Soil Ecology, 47, pgs 84-91.

Baysal, F; Benitez, MS; Kleinhenz, MD; Miller S.A.; Gardner B.B. 2008. Field management effects on damping-off and early season vigor of crops in a transitional organic cropping system. Phytopathology, Vol. 98, No. 5.