The more the merrier ... rotations, that is
By rotating crops, cover crops and tillage practices, says Jeff, you can improve your soils, improve your yields and keep the weeds and the pests guessing.

By Jeff Moyer, The Rodale Institute® Farm Manager

Jeff Moyer is the farm manager at the 333-acre Rodale Institute research farm, and has been here for over 26 years, refining the farm's cover cropping and crop rotation systems. The farm has over 1,000 organic apple trees, a 3-acre CSA, 270 acres in a rotation of corn, small grains, hay, and edible soy beans for a Japanese market, and 25 acres of experimental research plots that have been used to test and compare the yield, soil health and environmental impact of organic and conventional systems for the last 22 years.

"It's been extremely rewarding to work at The Rodale Institute," says Jeff. "Working on projects and with people who are having a positive impact on family farm practices, economics, and environmental stewardship is very fulfilling. The positive changes I've seen on our own farm over the years—and farms around the world— convinces me that we're on the right road."

How to contact Jeff

Jeff's email:

Phone: 610-683-1420

Mailing address:
611 Siegfriedale Rd.
Kutztown, PA 19530


June 16, 2005: In real estate, experts say, there are three key factors: Location, location, location.

I like to say there are three key factors in sustainable farming: Rotation, rotation, rotation!

Rotate your crops, rotate your cover crops, and rotate your tillage. Sounds simple enough, but in practice it takes thought, planning and a mind open to observation.

I have a friend in Mississippi who says jokingly, “We have a long term rotation down here—one year of corn, then 99 years of cotton, then another year of corn.” But that's not exactly what I have in mind for this discussion.

A few years back I visited some friends in Argentina who were planting soybeans one fine November day. I asked them what their rotation was. They responded by asking me what I meant by the question. I said, “Well, you’re planting soybeans here today; what was here last year?" They said, “Soybeans.” Like a fool, I persisted: “And the year before?” By now I’m sure they thought I was just plain stupid because they said, “SOYBEANS – it’s a soybean field.”

They had been planting soybeans in that field for over 40 years. They were experiencing severe problems with insects and weeds. Nature had responded to the presence of soybeans on an annual basis. The micro-environment was very predictable, and insects, diseases and weeds that found that environment to their liking knew where to find it, year after year.

There are all types of rotations for all types of cropping sequences. For example, some folks in our area grow agronomic crops (corn, soybeans, small grains and hay) but also grow vegetables. They often rotate their vegetable production into and out of various parts of their farm, confusing insects and taking advantage of “clean spots” in the rotation where weed management will be less difficult. For other, smaller-scale growers, a rotation can be as simple as moving the tomatoes to another part of the garden.

I think the longer the rotation the better. Of course that means you need to grow a diversity of crops. Here on our farm I’d like to have a 10-year rotation but 5 to 7 years is more realistic given the crops we grow. I also like to rotate my cover crops into the mix.

All solid rotation plans have some basic principles in common. First, they all take into consideration the nutritional requirements of the crop. For example, corn in my rotation is a heavy user of nitrogen while soybeans will actually fix nitrogen from the air into the soil. Alfalfa removes phosphorous at a much higher rate than other crops in my rotation.

Second, a solid rotation should take into account the agronomic and cultural practices associated with the crop. For example, some crops are grown as row crops, planted in rows from 15 to 42 inches apart, while others like oats or wheat are drilled in rows that are only 7 or 8 inches apart. And others like hay grow in a thick stand, get mown as a harvest method, and may last several years. Third, cover crops can be used in the rotation to break weed cycles, supply nutrients and protect the soil. And finally, a solid rotation takes tillage into consideration.

Taking a closer look at tillage is as important as any other factor in your plan. For example, planting winter wheat entails late summer or early fall tillage, which helps break weed cycles. Consistent spring tillage encourages annual weeds to sprout and grow. Mixing up tillage dates can be a big help to your overall weed management program. There may even be points in the rotation where no tillage is required to establish a cash crop or cover crop, as with the no-till roller system I’ve been talking about lately.

While we use several crop rotations on our farm, the one we use most for agronomic crops goes something like this: CORN – RYE COVER CROP – OATS – SOYBEANS – RYE , OATS OR WHEAT – VETCH OR ALFALFA/TIMOTHY – CORN. I also grow potatoes and pumpkins, substituting them for corn in the rotation. For vegetables, things can get a little trickier due to the large diversity of crops. We often grow up to 20 different types of vegetables. The main thing to keep in mind is to separate vegetable families by time and distance.

The benefits to rotations are many – improved soil health, easier weed and insect management, and overall improved ecology of the farm. Add to those the benefit of increased yields and you have to ask, “Why wouldn’t I have a diverse rotation?”

Email me with your own rotations or rotation ideas. I’d like to learn more from you about how you’ve designed your own system so that we can all improve our farming operations.

From one farm to another,