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Why boosting farm profits begins with the economics of crop selection

The age-old decision of crop selection has evolved. Here’s how rising costs and global events are influencing today's agronomic choices.

by Reid Weiland

In production agriculture, our decisions often sit at the intersection of agronomy and economics.

Choosing which crop to plant — a decision as old as farming itself — is a prime example. Today, this choice has new significance due to rising input costs, soaring land values and volatile commodity markets. 

Crop rotation: broadleaves vs. grasses

The first consideration for us “plant people” is crop rotation. In simple terms, we have two types of plants: broadleaves and grasses. If you try to plant a grass crop after another grass, you’ll find challenges. Pests like insects, diseases and weeds can "double down" on causing problems.

On the flip side, there can be benefits to rotating a broadleaf, like soybeans (a legume that fixates nitrogen), with a grass, like corn.

Another factor is the soil’s physical condition as we transition from one crop to another. 

Does the first crop leave a large root mass and plant material behind? 

Is the next crop finicky about its seedbed? 

How’s the weather when we’re transitioning the soil between crops?  

We can likely overcome these challenges — but at what cost? 

Farming and agronomic costs

Operational costs include things like the number of passes (think tractors burning fuel), time and tools required.

This leads to the financial push and pull of crop selection. 

If the market is telling us we need to plant cotton after sugarcane but we need five tillage tools, can we even afford to have that many tools in the toolbox? (Especially when a quarter of a million dollars may only buy one tool these days.)

And while no-till farming can work, it also poses challenges. Can we establish a solid stand for the crop? If not, we risk unmanageable weed pressure and reduced yields. In Iowa, we like to say that next year's crop starts with how well we harvest this year's crop.

Input costs are another factor. Some crops need more inputs. As an example, we always consider the “crush” — the amount of nutrients one crop unit buys — when purchasing fertilizer. 

Productivity, crop yields and global markets

Productivity and yields are another part of the financial equation. It’s widely known in the Corn Belt that corn after soybeans typically yields 10% more than corn after corn. But farming isn’t that simple — in my career I've seen corn after corn out-yield corn after soybeans at least twice!

Finally, we have to consider global markets. If Argentina, a major wheat exporter, has a drought that affects the world’s supply balance, should we plant wheat? Possibly, if the other factors are favorable. Can we lock in part of our wheat crop at today's beneficial economics? If so, that could be a smart move, because, by the time harvest comes around, the commodity markets will likely have shifted.

Essentially, the economics of crop selection requires a multi-year approach with an eye on short-term financial signals. 

And, of course, we have to be ready for Mother Nature to throw us a curveball that may require us to change our plans and start over. 

But that’s all part of the adventure of farming. 

Reid Weiland is the managing partner of Weiland Farms. He oversees the farm’s day-to-day operations and leads all land management and farmland acquisition efforts.