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Increasing Cropping System Diversity Balances Productivity, Profitability and Environmental Health

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Environment and Climate Resource Center page, Farm Issues page and our Organic Transitions page.


Balancing productivity, profitability, and environmental health is a key challenge for agricultural sustainability. Most crop production systems in the United States are characterized by low species and management diversity, high use of fossil energy and agrichemicals, and large negative impacts on the environment. We hypothesized that cropping system diversification would promote ecosystem services that would supplement, and eventually displace, synthetic external inputs used to maintain crop productivity. To test this, we conducted a field study from 2003-2011 in Iowa that included three contrasting systems varying in length of crop sequence and inputs. We compared a conventionally managed 2-yr rotation (maize-soybean) that received fertilizers and herbicides at rates comparable to those used on nearby farms with two more diverse cropping systems: a 3-yr rotation (maize-soybean-small grain + red clover) and a 4-yr rotation (maize-soybean-small grain + alfalfa-alfalfa) managed with lower synthetic N fertilizer and herbicide inputs and periodic applications of cattle manure. Grain yields, mass of harvested products, and profit in the more diverse systems were similar to, or greater than, those in the conventional system, despite reductions of agrichemical inputs. Weeds were suppressed effectively in all systems, but freshwater toxicity of the more diverse systems was two orders of magnitude lower than in the conventional system. Results of our study indicate that more diverse cropping systems can use small amounts of synthetic agrichemical inputs as powerful tools with which to tune, rather than drive, agroecosystem performance, while meeting or exceeding the performance of less diverse systems.


One of the key challenges of the 21st century is developing ways of producing sufficient amounts of food while protecting both environmental quality and the economic well-being of rural communities. Over the last half century, conventional approaches to crop production have relied heavily on manufactured fertilizers and pesticides to increase yields, but they have also degraded water quality and posed threats to human health and wildlife. Consequently, attention is now being directed toward the development of crop production systems with improved resource use efficiencies and more benign effects on the environment. Less attention has been paid to developing better methods of pest management, especially for weeds. Here we explore the potential benefits of diversifying cropping systems as a means of controlling weed population dynamics while simultaneously enhancing other desirable agroecosystem processes. We focus on crop rotation, an approach to cropping system diversification whereby different species are placed in the same field at different times.

Rotation systems have been used for millennia to maintain soil fertility and productivity and to suppress pests, and can increase yields even in situations where substantial amounts of fertilizers and pesticides are applied. Rotation systems also foster spatial diversity, since different crops within the rotation sequence are typically grown in different fields on a farm in the same year. Diversification through crop rotation can be an especially useful strategy in farming systems that integrate crop and livestock production. The addition of forage crops, including turnips and clovers, to cereal-based systems in northwestern Europe and England in the 1600s and 1700s enhanced nitrogen supply through fixation by legumes, and increased nutrient cycling due to greater livestock density and manure production. These changes allowed the intensification of both crop and livestock production and increased yields substantially. Integrated crop-livestock systems remained widespread in northern Europe, England, and much of the humid, temperate regions of North America until the 1950s and 1960s, when increased availability of relatively low-cost synthetic fertilizers made mixed farming and nutrient recycling biologically unnecessary and specialized crop and livestock production more economically attractive. In recent years, there has been interest in reintegrating crop and livestock systems as a strategy for reducing reliance on fossil fuels, minimizing the use of increasingly expensive fertilizers, and limiting water pollution by nutrients, pathogens, and antibiotics.

Weeds are a ubiquitous and recurrent problem in essentially all crop production systems, and chemicals applied for weed control dominate the world market for pesticides. With the introduction of crop genotypes engineered to tolerate herbicides, especially glyphosate, and with the continuing availability of older, relatively inexpensive herbicides, such as atrazine, successful weed management in conventional crop production systems has been largely taken for granted since the mid-1990s. Now, however, with expanded recognition of herbicides as environmental contaminants and the increasing prevalence of herbicide resistant weeds, there is an important need to develop weed management strategies that are less reliant on herbicides and that subject weeds to a wide range of stress and mortality factors. We believe that cropping system diversification may play an important role in the development of such strategies.

Here, we report the results of a large-scale, long-term experiment examining the consequences of cropping system diversification on agronomic, economic, and environmental measures of system performance. The experiment was conducted during 2003-2011 in Boone County, Iowa, within the central U.S. maize production region, and comprised three contrasting cropping systems varying in length of crop sequence, levels of chemical inputs, and use of manure. We compared a conventionally managed 2-yr rotation (maize-soybean) that received fertilizers and herbicides at rates comparable to those used on surrounding commercial farms with two more diverse cropping systems: a 3-yr rotation (maize-soybean-small grain + red clover) and a 4-yr rotation (maize-soybean-small grain + alfalfa-alfalfa) managed with reduced N fertilizer and herbicide inputs and periodic applications of composted cattle manure. Triticale was used as the small grain crop in 2003-2005; oat was used in 2006-2011. The 2-yr rotation is typical of cash grain farming systems in the region, whereas the 3-yr and 4-yr rotations are representative of farming systems in the region that include livestock. Details of the experimental site, management practices, sampling procedures, and data analyses are provided in the online SI section (Text S1, Figure S1, Tables S1-S4).

A central hypothesis framing our study was that cropping system diversification would result in the development of ecosystem services over time that would supplement, or eventually displace, the role of synthetic external inputs in maintaining crop productivity and profitability. Based on this hypothesis, we predicted that input requirements of the more diverse systems would initially be similar to that of the less diverse system, but would increasingly diverge from the less diverse system over time as the systems matured. We also predicted that crop yields, weed suppression, and economic performance of the three systems would be similar throughout the study. Finally, we predicted that reduced requirements for external synthetic inputs for pest management would result in a lower toxicological profile of the more diverse systems compared to the less diverse system.

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