Profitability Tool for Growers Considering Alternative Rotations in Dryland Systems

By Rob Clark near PCFC Farm in Pullman, Washington.

Growers who are considering alternatives to fallow, such as legumes or forage crops, can use a new profitability tool to understand the impact on their bottom line, including impacts to the profitability of their main wheat crop. The Economic Model to Compare Crop Rotations is a new excel spreadsheet that assists dryland growers of the inland Pacific Northwest in comparing the whole-farm net returns of an alternative crop rotation, compared to their Business as Usual (BAU) rotation.

Why explore alternative rotations? In precipitation limited areas, farmers have often relied on rotations that include summer fallow to conserve precipitation in the soil profile. The drawback of summer fallow is that it leads to wind erosion, soil degradation, and limited crop diversity that contributes to disease issues.

Alternative rotations are also potentially relevant in the wetter annual cropping zone, where a crop is normally grown every year.  While these areas have greater crop diversity, wet springs in recent years have prevented planting of spring crops. When this happens, the land remains fallow and is vulnerable to water erosion.

Wind Erosion.
Wind erosion on fallow land, Ritzville, WA.

Photo credit: Georgine YorgeyThese challenges in dryland systems will likely become compounded given a changing climate. We expect to experience wetter springs, and dryer, hotter summers, more often than in the past. We have seen this in recent years, such as the droughts in 2015 and 2021 and a wet spring in 2019, that prevented planting almost 53,000 acres across Washington, Idaho, and Montana.

As one strategy aimed at addressing these challenges for dryland wheat systems, researchers with the Landscapes in Transition project are studying two alternatives to summer fallow, specifically for the inland Pacific Northwest. The first alternative is fall-seeded peas. The second is growing a forage cover crop that is baled for hay or grazed by livestock. Economic barriers have historically stalled adoption of many alternative rotations. However, new USDA food grade winter pea varieties may improve economics for winter pea – while forage cover crop generates an income from the cows or baled hay.The economic tool being introduced here is intended for use by farmers to explore the conditions under which these alternative rotations may make sense for their operation. The model, or tool, is in spreadsheet form and should be familiar to anyone who has a basic knowledge of spreadsheets. The Profitability Decision Tool spreadsheet can be downloaded and includes short instructional videos that walk you through how to use it.

For questions or comments, contact Karie Boone, OSU, via email at or contact Clark Seavert, OSU, via email at