Transition from Conventional Cash Crops to Organic

We recently purchased a 105 acre farm which a local farmer was farming conventionally. They use some for pasture which we’re very happy about and they use some for cash crops. We want to transition the farm to organic and don’t want to spray. My question is what can be done with the field that was corn for this season? The farmer says we have to go with soy and spray one more year. I’d like to go with hay or something else that doesn’t need spray at all but they said hay would be too difficult with the corn stalks. He also said it would be worse if we leave it fallow for a year.
Do I have any other good options apart from soy? In the future, my ideas are organic hay or straw or using it for more pasture for the cattle.

I would say that soil probably needs a good regenerative approach so as to bring it back to the land of the living. Have you considered cover cropping it for a bit instead of putting it right back into a production-focused cycle?

Thanks so much! I would love that. I found out today that they might lose some pasture for the 2022 season so if we cover crop this season, we could go to either hay or pasture next season.
Would you just disc it then seed it with the cover crop? Any recommendations on what cover crop to plant?

I’d use various green cover crops for the first year. Likely an oats-peas mix. If the soil is compacted, a deep-rooted radish works well. You want to have something that will not survive the winter. If you have weed concerns, rye varieties offer some allelopathic properties.

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I would also suggest cover cropping it if you can afford to have the area out of production for a year. Grazing a cover crop is a great way to help terminate it and add nutrients back into the soil.

There are lots of cover crop blends out there that are great for boosting soil. For instance General Seeds Seasonal Cocktail has oats, a mix of legumes, plus sorghum,sunflowers, and other good stuff.

That’s great! I’ve reached out to General Seeds. What kind of seeder/drill would be required to seed into corn residue and would you expect the soil to have to be worked up first?
Thanks so much!

Hey, we transitioned 40 acres to organic last year from a hay field we picked up. So we have experience with both organic and conventional. Just an FYI typical organic cash crop practices use heavy tillage to control weeds and are therefore actually harder on the soil and soil organisms than conventional no-till practices. My dad has been doing conventional no-till for 20 years and his soil tilth is quite good etc. There are pros and cons to both Organic and Conventional. Sounds like you want to transition away from cash crop too.

Anyway, if you are transitioning to organic there are two popular ways to do it- i) put everything into hay for those transition years. Fields must be free from non-permitted substances for 3 years, Hay is easy to get away with not putting substances on for the 3 years, plus it will help keep some of the weeds down, and obviously you can sell the hay (as non-organic). ii) Go straight into organic practices but sell as a conventional product. Sometimes you can find a premium in the market for non-gmo crops, such as IP soybeans (see below). If I were you, I would do a combination of both i), and transition into ii), to get some practice under your belt for managing organic crops but also having the hay in case of complete crop disaster. You might start all hay the first year, put 25 acres of field into crop next year, 50 the year after. Would help get a crop rotation going too. That is assuming you are cropping it yourself.

As to what you should do this year… with conventional corn and soybean prices the way they are (EXTREMELY high) you would be making a very nice gesture towards the farmer that used to crop the field if he could get one more year off of the field. The prices for IP soybeans are rivalling my organic soybean prices. You could crop share with him and make some good money. The last non-permitted substance use would be in July in that case (should be the last time crop is sprayed) and so the 3 year period would start then. That is what I would do, it makes the most sense economically, by far, and gives you some more time to think about what your plans are with the farm for the future. To put the corn stalks in hay would be harder, but not impossible, depending on what tillage equipment they have. (also, seeding the hay field is best done in early spring so you have kind of missed the window for that this year) Certainly don’t leave it fallow- no income, and you are just inviting more weeds.

Now, as far as cover cropping, they are a good idea, and should be implemented into any proper cropping rotation, but you won’t profit off of them, unless used properly. If you can afford to have fields in nothing but cover as you transition, that is good, but I would highly suggest inserting them in rotation instead. You can even have some cover crop seed put down to grow after the main crop comes off (small grains and even soybeans), and it will give you the same benefits, while getting money off of the main crop. It’s a lot of info to think about! I am happy to answer any more questions you have!

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Excellent input Dean! You really have me questioning being so dogmatic about not spraying immediately. I do really value the relationship with the neighbour.
Just so I know what we’re looking at, what is a typical split between landowner and farmer for soybeans? And, roughly speaking, how much profit would come from 30 acres of soy beans?
Even a range so I have a bit of an idea.
Thank you!

Yes, it’s not all quite as clear cut as it might seem from the outside. It is probably less important whether it is organic or not, but how it is produced. The golden grail would be organic no-till, but everybody is still trying to figure that one out on a large scale! Conventional no-till is a very good system, especially with cover crops rotated in, for now anyway. Sprays can be a very useful tool, when used appropriately (they aren’t always). Conventional w/ tillage and no cover crops is on the out. There are still some older farmers that do that because they always have, but the industry is shifting. Don’t be afraid to ask the farmer to implement certain practices, but make sure you’ve done your homework first!

Most often, a landowner will rent the land to the farmer on a per acre basis. I’m not sure where you are located, or what the fertility of your land looks like, but it could be up to $300 an acre for excellent land in SW Ontario, or as low as $50/acre up north or in marginal land around the Canadian shield. Landowner gets rent, farmer manages and keeps profit. Farmer gets most risk, but most reward.

Less typically, a landowner could ask the farmer to do custom work on their land. The landowner would have an idea of what they want done, they may even order seed/ fertilizer and get the farmer to do specific tasks- ‘custom work’- Farmer gets guaranteed pay/ acre depending on task (OMAFRA has a good pay table on this), and therefore less risk, but gets less pay. Landowner keeps profits from crop.

A crop share is where you both share some element of risk, but both share in the profits. You might pay for the seed/ fertilizer, while farmer pays for tractor work, spray etc. It is something that would need to be discussed, and should have a nice clear contract. A crop share should reflect proportionately on who has the most risk (financially/ time etc). If you are 50/50 for risk, crops should be shared for 50/50.

My dad has contracted some of his Food Grade IP soybeans for $20/bu this year. Comparitively, my food grade organic soybean contract is for $28/bu, but with much higher labour costs to get there. So the per acre net profit will probably end up being only slightly in my favour. Again, I don’t know your soil fertility, but if you can go 45bu/ac x 30 ac. You are looking at $27,000 gross profit. 45bu/ac is a good average, it was higher in SW Ontario last year (60 bu/ac), and well managed, shouldnt drop below 25bu/ac.

I haven’t met your neighbour, but a good relationship with a good neighbour is worth it’s weight in gold, and a slower transition with clear direction will definitely help with that. Congratulations on the purchase of the farm btw. It is an exciting time.

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I am gradually transitioning some areas with intent to do organic produce. I’ve spoken with numerous experienced small organic farmers - I would not spray. If possible it’s fabulous to do disc area and do cover crops and having 3 -4 rotations from spring until fall. A good one in before winter is winter rye - or as was suggested mix of oats. I love buckwheat which then feeds the pollinators and before going big time into seed is ploughed in and then another cover crop. However you are looking at a much large piece of land. I have over 100 acres but will only be doing a few acres of organic produce and herbs. An amazing large crop organic gardener is Paul - web site He is VERY knowledgeable. Good luck!

Completely agree. An oats/peas mix could also be used as forage next year.

Hi Dean, I took your advice which was awesome. The neighbour has their soybeans there now. I’d like to do hay next year on my own. I was wondering whether you think I could squeeze a cover crop in between the time that the soybeans come off and winter?
Thanks so much!

That’s great news! I’m not sure where you are located, but if it is Southern ON I suspect the beans will be ready to come off by the end of Sept. Things are drying up in a hurry. So that will leave plenty of time to get either some rye or winter wheat in (either of which would have to be terminated in the spring). Some choose to broadcast these into beans right before leaf-drop. Which can complicate harvest if the underseeded cover crop comes up too much before you can harvest. I would think after harvest this year is fine. Another choice would be something that winter kills. You might not get a lot of biomass before they frost though, but something is better than nothing. An oat/pea mix would be ok, or something with tillage radish or silver buckwheat.