Sod-based rotation adds cattle, row crops

The Wiregrass region of southeast Alabama once dominated the state's peanut production. However, due to changes in the government peanut program and poor rotations, much of the peanut acreage has shifted to counties in southwest Alabama, wreaking havoc on the economies of some of the small towns and communities in the southeastern corner of the state. In this and the next two issues, Southeast Farm Press will take a closer look at how rural communities are affected by the loss of peanut farming and what is being done to help row-crop farmers stay in business and sustain their yields.

Depleted soil organic matter, muddy runoff, limited root development, increased nematode populations — these and other problems continue to plague many peanut producers in the Southeast, causing low yields and driving some farmers out of business.

But there may be a sod-based solution, according to researchers involved in a multi-state project to increase peanut and cotton yields by incorporating cattle into a bahiagrass rotation.

“Our goal is to restore high yields back to row crops in Alabama, Georgia and Florida,” says Dallas Hartzog, Extension agronomist and professor at Auburn University. “In order to preserve our remaining peanut acres, we need a better rotation.”

The four-year rotation, proposed by researchers from Auburn University, the University of Florida, the University of Georgia and the United States Department of Agriculture, consists of two years of bahiagrass followed by a year of peanuts and a year of cotton.

Most vital to the success of the rotation is bahiagrass, says Hartzog, who pioneers the research in Headland, Ala., one of the four research sites in Alabama, Georgia and Florida.

“The reason the Southeast has not seen peanut yields increase is because the soil organic matter has been depleted. Planting bahiagrass increases the organic matter content, which affects root penetration and crop yield.”

The increased organic matter also translates to better water quality, Hartzog says. “For the past century, streams have been filling up with soil. Once the soil is eroded, it is difficult to establish profitable yields. Our goal is to reduce soil loss and produce cleaner water.”

Another of the benefits of planting bahiagrass is increased earthworm numbers, a characteristic of healthy soil, Hartzog says. “We have found that organic matter is moved through earthworm tunnels, and more earthworms follow long-term grass rotations.”

Bahiagrass also reduces the number of soil-borne diseases and nematodes and breaks up the hardpan, or compacted soil layer, says Jim Marois, professor of plant pathology at the University of Florida and researcher at the Quincy, Fla., test site.

“The rotation is such that the crops don't support the same pests. Bahiagrass also prepares the soil for the next crop with better water retention, better fertilizer retention and better root systems that penetrate the compaction layer for the peanut and cotton roots to follow.”

At the Headland site, Hartzog and his colleagues harvest the bahiagrass as hay in the summer and graze stocker cattle in the winter. Hartzog says he's satisfied with the process so far.

“What's unique about this land is that it has not been tilled. We grew bahiagrass, cut the hay off, over-seeded with winter oats and rye, grazed stockers, came back in the spring and killed it with a herbicide, took one pass with the strip-till machine and planted twin rows of peanuts.”

Hartzog is proud of the results. His hay field netted nearly 5 tons of hay in the summer, and his stockers gained almost 3 pounds per day. He also expects his peanut yields to increase. “These peanuts are extraordinarily healthy and almost free of disease. They are developing very well.”

David Wright, University of Florida Extension agronomist and professor, is tweaking the program to include a more popular Southeast cattle operation: brood cows.

Wright and his associates graze 32 cow-calf pairs at the 160-acre research site in Marianna, Fla., but he says the land has not reached its potential. “We are way under-utilized. We could double the number of pairs, because we end up with excess forage.”

Wright says that even if hay is not cut, the system is still more profitable than other rotations because of the yield increase from peanuts and cotton. “Peanut yields increase at least 50 percent with the bahia rotation. Once growers see it will work, more will be interested in it.”

While positive results from the project have exceeded researchers expectations, their biggest challenge may be convincing farmers to implement the rotation.

Some peanut farmers, like Joe Hall of Haleburg, Ala., say the system will be harder to utilize for farmers who rent land. “You just don't have much of a cash crop with bahiagrass. If you're renting that land, you need that money every year.”

Marois says one option renters have is acquiring long-term land leases. “It will be a change for farmers, and it's not going to fit for everybody. The interested farmers with long-term investments will be more willing to try this.”

Farmers underestimate the potential of bahiagrass as a cash crop, Hartzog says. “Many farmers have found that with a bahia rotation, cattle are not just a crop to invest peanut profits in, but rather they are a crop that complements peanut farming.”

The biggest obstacle producers face is getting the first-year bahiagrass established, according to Marois. “Even though it may cost money the first year, there will be good income from cattle and hay the second year, and increased peanut yields the third year. With this system, those who are willing to put money into it will get the most return for it.”

Marois says the diversified operation also benefits farmers economically. “With cattle, peanuts and cotton, you diversify your risks. It's an opportunity for farmers to look at operations in a little different perspective.”

Researchers know they can rely on at least one selling point of the program: farmers already know that better peanut yields follow bahiagrass.

“We're not shifting their mindsets radically,” Marois says. “We just want them to see that they can get more money from less land with this system.”

Rebecca Bearden is a senior at Auburn University majoring in agricultural communications. She is completing her internship with Southeast Farm Press.

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