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Wheat & Small Grains January 2014

Profitable Transition Strategies

Before being certified organic and being able to receive an attractive organic premium for their crops, growers must undergo a three-year period of transition that can be financially challenging. For three years, they must adopt organic production practices, which can be expensive to set up and result in lower yield. During that time however, they do not receive an organic premium price for their crops. With diminished yields, investment requirements, and low crop prices, is there a profitable way to approach the transition period?

The first step is to understand that the transition period is temporary: the losses incurred during that time do not necessarily reflect the profitability of your system. “You must consider the transition period as an investment, a loan you are taking out at the bank”, says Kathleen Painter from the University of Idaho. With that in mind, you can set two objectives for your transition period:

1. Minimize financial losses during the transition period

2. Use the transition period to maximize gains for the first years of certified organic production (for example, by building soil nitrogen)

Researchers from Idaho and Washington examined 9 different organic systems over 5 years. The first three years were a transition period, different for each system. Year 4 and 5 (both certified organic) were spring wheat followed by winter wheat for all systems.

System 1 had exclusively cereals during the transition periods, while System 9 relied on an alfalfa-oat mix for the entire three years. All other systems included a mix of legumes (for grain or plowed down for green manure) and cereals.

The lesson from the experiment? Stay away from grains during the transition period. The system relying on three years of alfalfa not only minimized losses, but also increased revenue during the certified organic years. Alfalfa increased nitrogen levels and provided weed control, which resulted in greater wheat yields during years 4 and 5, right when the crop could be sold with the organic price premium.

To learn more about alternative transition systems, take a look at this poster: Profitable Strategies for Transitioning to Organic.


Does Organic Production Result in Lower Protein Content?

Environmental conditions impact grain quality parameters. For example, soil available nitrogen can affect protein content. Do organic management practices result in lower protein content? If that’s the case, is the end product quality at risk? Researchers from Washington State University and Montana State University compared quality of organic versus conventional wheat. Their findings on protein content are presented in this post.

In Montana, scientists looked at hard red spring wheat. Protein content of hard red wheat tended to be lower in organic than in conventional systems, but that was a consequence of fertility regime: if the organic crop was preceded by winter pea instead of spring pea, the gain of soil nitrogen was enough to bridge the protein % gap with conventionally grown wheat. Researchers also looked at bread loaf volume, which is directly related to protein content. Again, it tended to be lower (a sign of low protein content) for organically grown wheat, but bread loaf volume from high-fertility organic systems was as high as bread loaf volume from conventional systems.

In Washington, researchers compared soft white winter wheat produced under conventional and organic systems. Protein content was lower for wheat grown in low-fertility organic systems. It was equivalent for conventionally grown wheat and wheat grown under a high-fertility organic regime. Low protein content is desirable in soft wheat, as it results in higher sponge cake volume (a typical end-product of soft white wheat flour). For soft white wheat, low-fertility organic practices had the advantage: they resulted in a low protein wheat which produced a high volume sponge cake.

To bank on highest quality for all class of wheat, sound organic practices should supply as much nitrogen as possible for a  hard red wheat crop, and less so for a soft white wheat year. Use your rotation to achieve this tough challenge: if using cover crop to supply nitrogen to your organic system, follow the cover crop with hard red wheat to capture a maximum of the protein and the premium. Have a soft white following the hard red to take advantage of the diminished nitrogen supply.

To learn more about grain quality under organic management, consult these posters: Pat Fuerst Tilth poster 2011 and Wheat Quality in Organic, No-till and Conventional Cropping Systems

You can also consult the Soil Management page for more information on cover crops and soil nitrogen in organic systems.

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Building Soil N during the Transition Period: Is More Green Manure Best?

In our region where manure is hard to find, legumes are necessary to build soil fertility in organic production. But water can be scarce and the lack of moisture make it challenging to use cover crops (planting a legume then go into a small grain the same year) or intercropping (planting a legume between the wheat rows for example, and take out the legume later in the season).

Ideally, the first crop that is certifiable organic should have the best yield potential to reap the benefits of the organic price premium. One way to achieve good levels of soil nitrogen on that first certified year is to make sure to build it up during the transition period. Using legumes plowed into the soil instead of being harvested, or “green manure” is an efficient way to achieve that.

So is it preferable to maximize legumes on the transition period? Are three years under green manure better than two or one?

Kristy Borelli and other researchers compared different transition phase rotations: out of 9 different systems, two included 3 years of grain, two included two years of grain followed by one year of green manure, two included one year of grain followed by two years of green manure and one included three straight years of green manure.

At the end of the transition period, the researchers compared the total gain in nitrogen: it was higher for any rotation that had at least one year of green manure. Three years of green manure resulted in slightly higher levels of N than rotations with only one or two years of green manure. More importantly, spring wheat in the first certified organic year was higher after three years of green manure than after one or two; but winter wheat yield on the second year of the certified organic phase was no different whether the transition had had one, two or three years of green manure. Protein levels in spring or winter wheat were the highest in any rotation than had had one, two or three years of green manure.

Bottom line: successive years of green manure in the rotation to transition to organic are likely not necessary. A transition phase rotation should plan on a green manure legume for at least its last year: rotations that only had small grain translated in lower soil N levels, lower yields and lower protein content in the certified organic phase.

To go further: read more about this study here and here.


Table from Kristy Borelli
Rotation systems experimented for transitioning to organic. Table from Kristy Borelli
Washington State University