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Monoculture Crop vs. Crop Rotation Systems

Which system is best for you?

Farming is a holistic endeavor. For example, the crops planted in the ground this year have multiple effects on the crops planted in the next year and the years beyond. What type of effect depends on the type of crop planted and a number of other circumstances.

Throughout history, growers have used one of two methods when planning their farming systems: either monoculture or crop rotation.

Growers, when deciding which method to employ, consider a large number of factors beforehand: desired yields; any physical, chemical, and biological soil properties; insects; disease; nematodes; weed pressure; labor and equipment availability; fertilization; irrigation availability; environmental issues; sustainability; and economics. In a rotation system, growers must also consider the length of the rotation and their ability to rotate with high-value crops.

Crop rotation is more common and typically has more long-term benefits, but advantages and disadvantages exist for each farming method.

Monoculture methods

The monoculture farming method, or single crop system, involves the repeated planting of one type of crop on the same field. Mono-cropping is not common, except for certain high-value specialty crops, but there are a few advantages to this way of farming.

First of all, monoculture farming may not require a high level of planning or management. Growing only one type of plant requires knowledge and practical experience of that plant alone, versus the know-how needed for many different crops in a crop rotation method. Having only one crop to plan for can simplify things.

In addition, mono-cropping requires a smaller variety of equipment, which could cut costs. Also, the chance of soil compaction tends to decrease with monoculture crops. In most farming situations, however, the benefits of monoculture systems are short-term.

Crop rotation systems

The United States Department of Agriculture defines crop rotation as the growing of multiple crops in a planned sequence on the same field. Research has proven many benefits exist for this method of farming, including increasing pest resistance, improving soil health and nutrient levels, and reducing effects on the environment.

First, crop rotation greatly improves a field's pest resistance. Insect pests and diseases have a tendency to brutally attack some types of plants while completely ignoring others. Growing one crop in the same field repeatedly often means inadvertently nurturing pests associated with that crop. Planting other types of crops helps to ward off diseases and insects specific to one plant. And there’s a cost benefit: Growers save money with crop rotation by not having to purchase as many chemicals as their only way to battle pests.

Crop rotation also promotes soil health. For instance, soil tends to erode less on rotated fields because rotated crops produce more biomass, or crop residue, compared with monoculture systems.

Also, nutrient levels remain higher on fields that have been rotated. One type of crop takes up the same set of nutrients year after year. In a crop rotation system, different varieties take different nutrients out of the soil, leaving some for the next crop, or in the case of legumes, even adding the nutrient nitrogen.

Take peanuts for example. Peanuts have high calcium needs. Growing only peanuts will require growers to supply additional calcium to the soil each year since last year’s peanuts will have consumed most of the calcium already. Adding corn to the rotation would benefit the soil as corn does not use as much calcium. The residues left by the corn will help to replenish some of the calcium in the soil for future peanut crops.

Rotating crops in a field also helps to reduce the environmental effects on the land. Using fewer chemicals for insect control, disease control and fertilization means less chance for adverse affects such as runoff or drift. In addition, less erosion from increased soil health means less water runoff.

Putting it all together

Yield can vary depending on the farming method employed. In a crop rotation, one or more rotated plants could actually yield less than in a monoculture system, while the other rotated would in turn yield more. Growers need to decide from which crop they need their highest yield.

For more information on monoculture crop and crop rotation, please consult your Southern States Agronomy Professional or local extension agency.

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