NDSU Extension - Burke County


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Organic or Conventional pt 2

County Agent News
Dan Folske
November 19, 2018

Organic or Conventional (continued)

            It is easy to talk about stereotypes and while you can usually find at least one out of any group of people who does fit a stereotype for that group it is usually easier to find people who don’t match a stereotype. There are also often multiple stereotypes for different groups of people. For example: Ask a small farmer about very large farmers, you may hear that very large farmers don’t care about the land or about wildlife.  On the other hand I know some large farmers who have planted many trees for wildlife and do many other conservation practices to protect their natural resources. Ask a group of large farmers about small farmers and at least some of them will tell you that small farmers are lazy or are just too poor of managers to grow their operations. Some organic farmers may say that conventional producers are just raping the land and killing the soils. I’ve heard conventional producers say that all organic farms are just big weed patches.

            Within any group of people, I often see both people who may fit some of the stereotypes and those who are almost exact opposites. Amongst conventional producers today, I see a rapidly increasing concern for soil health. I see increasing use of cover crops, more diverse crop rotations, and intercropping. Yes, I know that some cover crop planting is just for government payments and our short window between harvest and winter makes post-harvest cover cropping very difficult and often a complete failure. However I have also seen some successful fall cover crops and many livestock producers who have been very successful with planting cover crops on areas which were too wet to seed when the spring crops were planted or areas that drowned out after spring seeding. Getting cover crops growing on these areas can help them dry out through transpiration instead of evaporation which can be a key to limiting the spread of saline areas and even reclaiming some of those areas which are now too salty to produce good crops.

            Are all organic fields big weed patches? That is one stereotype, which I often hear. I have seen some very weedy organic fields, I have also seen many very clean organic fields. I have also seen extremely weedy conventional fields. On the average, I would say you are more likely to find organic fields with light to medium weed populations than you would conventional fields. Conventional fields tend to be very clean or very bad because of a miss timed, completely missed or wrong herbicide application. Herbicide resistance is rapidly causing an increase in conventional fields with weed issues.

            Organic fields have lower yields. That one is a little tougher to get a good answer either way. I have visited several organic farms who have told me their yields are equal to their neighbors and the crops I saw in the field certainly looked good.  I’ve heard some claim corn yields well above county averages for conventional producers. I have also seen some organic fields which looked very poor. It is really hard to find good data about long term yield differences. The most common number I can find in articles comparing systems is that organic yields are about 80% of conventional yields. One common theme that I have found over a wide range of crops and over many years is that conventionally produced crops with high fertility programs seem better able to take advantage of years with excellent growing conditions to produce maximum yields, while well managed, long term organic fields seem to manage drought and other poor growing conditions without as great a yield drop.

            The NDSU Research Center at Carrington does both conventional and organic crop variety testing. When I was looking for data that might substantiate or repudiate  the 80% yield drag theory I found some surprising results. The first crop I looked at was winter rye, just because it was the first organic research I found. The high yielding variety in 2018 for both conventional and organic was Rymin, yielding 61.2 bu/acre conventional, and 74.7 bu/ acre organic. Yes, the organic did significantly out yield the conventional. Rymin was also the top yielder for the two year average at 79.2 bu/acre organic and 61.1 bu/acre conventional. Two more common varieties, ND Dylan and Dacold also yielded better under the organic system than the conventional.  ND Dylan was  71.3 bu/acre organic and 60.2 bu/acre conventional in 2018. Dacold was 66.8 bu/acre organic and 52.9 bu/acre conventional in 2018. In fact every variety tested was higher yielding in the organic plots than in the conventional plots in 2018 and those varieties which had two year averages were all higher for the two year average in the organic versus the conventional.

            Durum trials were more like most producers would expect. The top organic yielder was ND Riveland at 40.8 bu/acre. Very respectable but ND Riveland under conventional production was significantly higher at 59.7 bu/ per acre. Divide durum, another popular variety was 32.7 bu/acre organic and 54.2 bu/acre conventional.

            Next week I will compare Hard Red Spring Wheat, and Field Pea yields and then look at organic versus conventional crop budgets.

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