To help save southern heritage, uf experts help develop new crop rotation system for peanut, cotton farmers
QUINCY, Fla. — Low profits are driving many small peanut and cotton farmers out of business in the Southeast, but University of Florida experts say the downward spiral could be halted — and some of the region’s heritage saved — if farmers adopt a “less-is-more” approach to farming.
By growing peanuts and cotton less often and growing pasture grass instead, farmers could increase peanut and cotton yields 50 to 100 percent, said Jim Marois, a plant pathology professor with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
“Conventional wisdom says if you want to succeed in growing peanuts and cotton, don’t grow anything else,” said Marois at UF’s North Florida Research and Education Center in Quincy. “Most Southeastern peanut acreage is in a peanut/cotton rotation. But under present economic conditions this isn’t profitable for many growers.”
In the early 1990s, peanut yields in Northwest Florida, Southern Georgia and Southeast Alabama declined from an average of about 3,000 pounds per acre to 2,500 pounds per acre, and have remained there ever since, he said.
“Researchers believe the decrease was caused by continuous farming of these same crops,” he said. “Pest populations increased, diseases occurred more frequently, and soil became compacted from loss of organic matter.”
As a result, farmers now spend more for irrigation and chemicals yet harvest smaller crops, Marois said. Many of them are simply giving up. In Jackson County, Florida’s leading peanut and cotton farming area, the number of producers has declined 80 percent since 1985, from more than 4,000 to about 800 today.
“Total acreage has remained steady, but the land is held by fewer people, and many farmers have had to look for other work,” he said. “We’re losing part of our heritage.”
Marois and other UF faculty are working with researchers from Auburn University, the University of Georgia and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop a “sod-based rotation system” using bahiagrass, the region’s most popular cattle forage, to complement peanut and cotton production. The system should be suitable for farms in the 100- to 800-acre range.
USDA is supporting the project with a $544,000 grant, said Dallas Hartzog, an extension agronomist and professor with Auburn’s agronomy and soils department.
“It’s money well spent,” said Hartzog, at Auburn’s Wiregrass Research and Extension Center in Headland, Ala. “Bahiagrass improves soil quality and simultaneously reduces production costs.”
Much of the benefit comes from bahiagrass’ extensive root network, which adds organic matter to the soil and establishes “channels” that help peanut and cotton plants obtain more water and nutrients. The grass can reduce pesticide use because it doesn’t attract nematodes, worm-like microscopic pests that feed on peanut and cotton roots.
And while bahiagrass is less valuable than the other crops, it’s also cheaper to grow, Hartzog said. The grass can be harvested for hay and seed or used to graze cattle.
“Since the mid-1990s, livestock production has been the one aspect of Southeastern agriculture that’s remained profitable,” he said. “So we want to add cattle to the system.”
The researchers developed a four-year cycle beginning with two years of bahiagrass followed by a year of peanuts and a year of cotton, said John Baldwin, extension agronomist at the University of Georgia. Farmers should divide their land into quarters and start the cycle on one quarter each year.
While rotation between row crops and grass sounds unlikely, the idea is widely accepted by farmers and researchers, said Baldwin, at the Tifton campus of the UGA College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences.
“Peanut farmers like to replant bahiagrass pasture because they get great harvests the first couple of years,” he said. “Agronomists have tested sod-based rotations since the 1970s, but we’re the first to test a specific system.”
Last year, researchers at Tifton and Quincy started the crop rotation cycle on experimental fields and will compare it to standard peanut/cotton rotations, said David Wright, UF agronomy professor. This summer, cows will be grazed on second-year bahiagrass at sites in Marianna and Headland to learn more about their potential in the system.
“We need to generate hard data, so that’s what we’re focusing on now,” Wright said. “Many farmers have expressed interest in the system, but they want proof that it’s profitable.”
To help farmers determine whether sod-based rotation could work for them, Wright and Marois developed a computer spreadsheet program that can be accessed at http://nfrec.ifas.ufl.edu/marois/index.html. By entering data on acreage, yield, expenses and other variables, users can develop profit estimates.
“Ultimately, we believe this type of rotation could be adapted to work in other parts of the country, using appropriate local crops and grasses,” Wright said.
The United States is not the only nation investigating sod-based rotation, said Wayne Reeves, lead scientist of conservation systems research at the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s Soil Dynamics Laboratory in Auburn.
“Many of our major agricultural competitors, such as Chile, Argentina and Brazil, are heavily researching sustainable agriculture using grasses,” said Reeves, an affiliate professor with Auburn University’s agronomy and soils department. “So there is some urgency on our part, trying to get this system up and running before the other guy does.”