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Crop Rotation: All You Need to Know

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Crop Rotation: All You Need to Know

If you’re a professional farmer or even a hobbyist gardener, you may have heard the term ‘crop rotation’ before, if you don’t already practice it.

This is an incredibly useful and important step for any agriculturist or horticulturist to be familiar with during their time planting and nurturing crops for sufficient yield at the end of every season.

In case you don’t understand the concept, or even if you’re looking for a refresher and reasons to keep improving your practice of it, we’re going to go over the process of crop rotation for you here today.

The Meaning of Crop Rotation

Crop rotation is an important practice used by growers of all levels.

Farmers practice growing a varied series of different or dissimilar types of crops in the same area sequenced carefully by the changing seasons.

So if you spend one season growing a certain type of crop in one particular field, next season, you’re going to spend the same time growing a different kind of crop in the same field.

You can even have two fields and grow the same crops. Just make sure to alternate which field grows which crop every year, and you’re set. 

Purpose of Rotations

It may seem a bit odd to practice this technique, but there’s a very important and significant reason behind it. It all revolves around the process of monocropping.

This is where season after season, you plant the exact same type of crop in the same exact place every single time.

The reason monocropping isn’t the best idea is that the same types of nutrients that go best with that specific crop are used and used and used, draining the soil of them rapidly.

Replenishing the soil of lost nutrients, particularly in large acreage, can be tricky and expensive. To prevent this, you rotate the types of crops that are planted there.

The different crops leech different nutrients, allowing those that were drained the year before to replenish themselves in the soil in comfort while the new crop is growing without their assistance. 

Disadvantages of Planting the Same Crop in The Same Field Season After Season (Monocropping)

To some, it may seem like an unnecessary and annoying step that doesn’t need to be taken.

They may go the entire season without thinking much about it, planting the same thing again and again, year after year, without giving the fields a chance to rest.

Any farmer worth their salt understands the importance of rest, be it for people, animals, and especially their fields.

Planting the same thing all the time in one spot has multiple, potentially crippling disadvantages.

For one thing, as mentioned, certain crops drain certain specific nutrients.

Once they’re gone from the soil, used up by the crop of choice, they’re difficult to replenish quickly.

The soil can restore itself, but not fast enough for your purposes as a farmer. And you likely can’t afford to skip an entire season’s worth of planting for the soil to refresh itself for your favorite crop.

As the old saying goes, “if something can be achieved easily, it probably isn’t worth it.” That applies to life and especially to strong, flourishing fields. 

The Benefits of Crop Rotation

Crop rotation is a lot of extra effort, figuring out what crops are best suited to your needs and your fields, figuring out how to plant them and how to best utilize them for your requirements.

But the extra effort is worth it since crop rotation is a major protection source. These are the most outstanding benefits:

  • Improves the physical properties of the soil.
  • Enhances soil fertility and nutrients
  • Increases crop yield
    Minimizes the risk of nitrate leaching to surface and groundwater
  • Reduces soil erosion
  • Helps prevents pest and disease infestation
  • Helps control weeds

Not only does it protect the fragile nutrient system of the soil, all the different kinds of roots that grow through subsequent seasons strengthen the structure and fertility levels of the soil itself. This makes soil hold up even better for future planting.

Besides, crop rotation helps to prevent the buildup and spread of pathogens and annoying pests that can occur when a single species of crop is planted time after time after time.

Shaking up your crops effectively shakes up their world and makes it harder to get a reliable foothold for propagation.

Best of all, this technique is extremely versatile and can be used in a variety of farming styles, for optimal results. 

Crop Rotation Examples

In order to get the best use out of crop rotation, research is first required.

There are six factors you need to consider before selecting the crops you’re going to use and rotate year after year:

  • How it contributes to organic soil matter
  • How it provides for pest management
  • How it manages excess or deficient nutrients
  • How it manages or contributes to soil erosion
  • How it impacts and affects surrounding field ecosystems
  • How/If it interbreeds with other crops to create hybrids

Taking all these factors into account with each potential candidate greatly increases your chance of a successful rotation year after year with few complications.

It’s also important to take into account what nutrients your intended crops benefit the most from.

Using this information to figure out what your field produces regularly, as well as the best alignment of your crops within the field once planted.

Some grow better in rows, and these are often the market favorites, such as many kinds of vegetables.

Cereal and grasses go well together because they put in as much as they take out of the soil, strengthening the biomass and managing the weed population.

Many key market vegetables such as legumes also tend to do well in rows. The drawback is that row crops are depleting, so rotation is more important than ever.

Basic 3-Year Crop Rotation Example

Year 1:

Bed 1: Root and bulb crop – (e.g. potatoes, onions, carrots, turnips, beets, or etc.)

Bed 2: Fruit and seeds crop – (e.g. tomatoes, pumpkins, corn, peppers, beans, or etc.)

Bed 3: Leaf and stem crop – (e.g. spinach, cabbage, broccoli, asparagus, lettuce, or etc.)

Year 2:

Bed 1: Fruit and seeds crop

Bed 2: Leaf and stem crop

Bed 3: Root and bulb crop

Year 3:

Bed 1: Leaf and stem crop

Bed 2: Root and bulb crop

Bed 3: Fruit and seeds crop

In this example, there are three garden beds.

Each crop, for example, tomato, will be planted in the same bed for one year before rotating it with a neighbor crop that adds back the nutrients that it depleted from the soil.

Of course, you’ll still need to add organic fertilizers to improve soil quality and give plants an added boost throughout the year.

Planning a Rotation

So you’re ready to plan your rotation. Where do you start?

You need to factor in the fluctuating production factors, such as market, farm size, labor supply, climate, soil type, growing practices, types of crops, etc.

Once this is figured out, determine the type of soil you’ve got and in what condition it’ll be in once the growing season is over and harvest is completed.

If you have a crop that exudes nitrogen into the soil, then your next crop should be one that sucks nitrogen up.

Similarly, if you have a crop that produces a small biomass one year, the next year’s crop should be one that creates strong, sturdy biomass within the soil to provide structure to the field.

The different possibilities and combinations are nearly endless and while there are a ton of factors to take count of, there really isn’t one true formula for rotating your field.

Anything can work as long as you’re careful with the ecosystem of your land.

Challenges 

While it may be tempting to try to get ahead of the curve, don’t plant crops years in advance. This can screw up the rotation which can leave drastic consequences.

For instance, receiving green manure from beans or legumes can lead to decay for future crops, as well as lure in pests such as slugs and snails.

The punishment for a faulty rotation can be devastating, so pay close attention to what you’re doing.

This practice also does not allow farmers to specialize in a single type of crop as doing so over a long period will damage the soil. This can be frustrating for some.

Takeaway 

Crop rotation is ultimately a supremely healthy and beneficial practice to get into, as it’s a surefire way to obtain healthy crops in a routinely healthy, happy field year after year.

Your field is a living thing; treat it like one.

For more information on this farming technique, see the book Crop Rotation on Organic Farms.

Sasha Brown

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