Rotations can be quite particular. What may work well in one place may not work well in another, or may work only in certain years. The key to finding a rotation that works well for you is putting together certain combinations, beginning with pairs, that seem to work well, and then fitting them together into a workable, reliable whole, and then finally simplifying it down to what works consistently the best. A good source of insight and guidance will be historical information, either from aged farmers (who’s grandparents may have had living memory) in your area or from USDA census data.
I knew from historical documentation that the common rotation used by ordinary farmers in the county where I live, in Southern Indiana with the odd combination of being a windy, upland site with wet silt-clay loam soil that hold water like a lowland site, was this:
corn > field peas (cow peas) > winter wheat > red clover / timothy hay for 2-3 years and then back to corn again.
This works would well, and sometimes, the field peas were omitted or substituted for something like Sweetclover. Today, the substitute would be soybeans. Corn would be planted in the Spring harvested in the fall. The field would sit over the winter with corn trash on it and would be plowed the next spring and planted to field peas (cowpeas). In the fall after the peas were harvested, which would take place a bit earlier than corn, usually at the end of September or early October, winter wheat would be planted which would over winter and be harvested as grain the following June. Straw would be collected and stacked for bedding. This wheat was a major cash crop, whereas the corn would be the animal feed crop. The wheat stubble would be sewn, by broadcasting, with red clover and timothy, which would only make minimal growth that year, since they were planted so late and if the summer was dry, may not even germinate until fall. Hay would be collected for 2 or 3 years following, until the red clover began to decline. Sometimes, a year would be simply timothy hay with little in the way of red clover for that reason, and it was the hayfield in its last year that received the manuring. Then it would all be plowed under and planted to corn again in the following spring, the hayfield having enriched the soil and caught the manure preventing it from running off. Nothing holds surface applied nutrients better than the living, shallow, and fibrous roots of perennial grasses like Timothy. This system was fairly sustainable and worked well with the economy of those days, when all that hay was needed for the millions of horses that provided the primary means of transportation.
Easter (April 1st) snowstorm
Sometimes oats were planted in the spring, but oats were never as important as winter wheat where I live, and were basically a high-quality grain feed for working horses. According the 1900 census of Agriculture where I live, they accounted for 4% of the acreage, whereas hay and pastures accounted for about half, and corn wheat and peas made up the difference. But oats do grow where I live, both Spring planted and Fall planted. Fall planted oats, however, are not much good as hay. The weather is too cool and wet when it comes time to harvest fall planted oats, whereas Spring planted oats are ready in late May or June. If you are going to graze Oats, fall planted makes good sense, but straight oats are an inadequate feed for lactating dairy cattle, and my cattle are lactating in the Fall. In short, Fall planting oats makes sense for beef or sheep, but not for dairy cattle. I use oat hay as a dry cattle feed for this time of year, though I will be using wheat hay this way in the future, as it is nutritionally similar.
The problem with spring planted Oats where I live is that they are not very reliable. Oats have a relatively narrow window of optimal planting. Though Oats are a relatively hardy plant, suffering drought or extreme wetness better than one would think, they need a lot of moisture to germinate, and must germinate quickly or time will run out, as there are only around 60 days for oats before the Sun instructs them to go to seed, even if they are just a few inches tall. Furthermore, temperatures below 30 degrees or so can easily kill a young oat plant, whereas wheat, barley or rye would just shrug a snowfall off like the one we received on April 1st this year. If I had planted Oats when I normally do, at the end of March, this may have been a disaster.
This year we had both an unusually early Winter, getting underway in late October, unusually bitterly cold temperatures in December and early January, then a relatively dry and mild February and early March. Then late March came with more unusually cold and rainy weather, and we received accumulating show in April. This kind of stuff drives a farmer mad. While I did get out there in February and frost seed red clover into my baby wheat plants, like I usually do, there was no way I was going to be able to till in these conditions, and Spring oats, and really all grains, need some tillage for good germination. In my experience only small seeded broadleaved plants, like clovers and and brassicas, do well straight broadcast onto the ground. Things like grass seeds do OK, particularly the bunch grasses (Timothy, Orchardrass, Ryegrasses, Fescues) as opposed to the sod-formers (Bromegrasses, Canarygrass, Bluegrass). But the large seeded grain grain grasses like Rye, Oats, Wheat, and Barley and even plants like Corn and Buckwheat, seem to need tillage, broadcasting, then rolling/culti-packing to ensure the good soil to seed contact necessary to soften their seed coats and promote germination. Drilling works even better of course, but you need a drill, which isn’t justified at the scale I am working at (single digit acreage).
I have experimented with other plants, some of which are not historically used in my area, and I found out why. Buckwheat grows where I live. Buckwheat will grow in a gravel wasteland. But Buckwheat is a pretty useless plant. It makes poor forage or green chop, becoming slightly toxic with maturity, and makes very little grain which doesn’t re-seed very well at all and is time consuming and aggravating to harvest. It doesn’t grow nearly as vigorously as red clover does, and doesn’t fix its own nitrogen like red clover does, and the seed is ridiculously expensive. So I just stopped. People go on singing the praises of Buckwheat, and it may yet be the best grain on hand in an apocalyptic scenario because it grows anywhere and is the most nutritionally complete of all grain-like plants, but it just isn’t worth the trouble for me.
Crimson clover and Sainfoin and Birdsfoot trefoil, a trio of oddball legumes, are all abysmal failures at my place. Can’t hold a candle to Red or White clover where I live, or even Alfalfa or Sweetclover. Not cold hardy, don’t germinate well, and the seed is expensive for how much coverage you get. $20 will buy enough white clover to cover 10 acres. $20 of Crimson clover is hardly noticeable on the 1/8th acre plot I planted, and after spending about a hundred dollars just trying to get Trefoil to grow, all I have to show for it are a few solitary scattered pretty yellow flowers dotting the pastures in high summer. When I found about three Sainfoin plants in an entire field that I planted one year, even using Oats as nurse crop, as many do with Alfalfa, I knew that Sainfoin was a mistake. Sweetclover beats it any day of the week!
I’ve been disappointed by Barley. In humid climates most barley is susceptible to Loose Smut fungus. The seed companies insist on growing it in humid climates anyway, and unless the seed is heat-treated, the crop may develop smut. Heat-treatment of course reduces the germination rate and costs money. Why not use Rye or especially Wheat, which is better adapted to clayey, wet soil than is Rye, and is cheaper to seed by far? A bushel of Rye costs about $17 dollars where I live. A bushel of winter wheat costs about $3. True, wheat doesn’t grow as tall as rye, but to my thinking, this is an advantage, since I under sew my winter wheat with red clover. The tallness of rye casts more shade on the struggling baby red clover plants, and it seems to delay them several weeks compared to wheat.
I stubbornly continue to keep chickens outdoors over winter, incorporating them into a rotation with crops and the garden, mainly to capture their manure and because chickens DO seem to me much healthier when kept outdoors. This is difficult though, because if you rotate chickens, their coop must be portable. Portable coops are flimsy and blow over in high wind sites like mine, and offer little protection from severe winter storms or from predators. If you “harden” your chicken coop, it becomes too heavy to move. Another thing we’ve noticed, is that chickens are more productive under confinement. While I think that total-confinement and battery cages are horrific and unhealthy, I have no doubt that you get the most eggs per unit of feed this way. Finding a balance between chicken health and well-being with efficient productivity I think is best served by a static coup, deep bedded, with warm-season day ranging, and chickens being fed commercial rations with naturally foraged feeds as a supplement. Chickens are also hard to work into a rotation. You want a solid year or more for chickens to be off an area before you’d eat any vegetable from that soil. And having the chicken coop distant from the house is difficult in the winter time, so the tendency is to keep it near the house. And this means you get too much chicken poop in some areas and not enough in others. When you confine chickens, deep bed them, and compost litter-bedding, then you control how it is deposited on the fields. It’s more work, but work that I think is worth it. We deep bed our dairy cattle, too. So it is hardly any more work to deep bed the chickens.
So, as the seasons have passed me by, I have gradually abandoned and whittled down my rotations to something very analogous to what 1900 farmers did in my area. The big difference is that instead of corn, I grow a garden in that part of the rotation, and omit the field peas. And instead of using red-clover as hay, I use it as mulch for the garden. I gather all the hay I need from spring and early summer-pastures, and I do not till my pastures.
It goes like this, starting with the garden.
Garden > winter wheat > red clover for two years > garden
A very simple rotation, and many would maintain that it is not long enough, though I’ve never observed a disease or pest-build up problem attributable to the rotation.
And it works very well in my area. Heavy tillage only occurs once every three years, before the garden is planted, usually in late April (which is a better time than late March).
I usually roto-till the garden under and sew and roll the winter wheat, so at no point does an area overwinter without living plants on the surface to reduce erosion. In February or March I then broadcast (“frost seed”) red clover into the baby wheat plants, which are low enough that sun will warm up the cold soil and promote germination.
It is hygienic as I apply compost and manure to the red clover field (after mowing for use as mulch) a full year or more before I eat a vegetable from that soil. None of the compost or manure gets much of an opportunity to run off because it goes into that red clover hayfield, which overwinters. Red clover both fixes nitrogen, improves soil tilth with its branched taproots, and casts pretty solid shade out-competeting most weeds. It is also unrelated to most garden plants, so you don’t have much disease or pest crossover to the garden (red clover is a legume, so it is somewhat close to garden peas and green beans, but they are more like distant cousins than close relatives).
Also, since it is a three year rotation, a given plot is always adjacent to at least one clover field. The clover field is a source of mulch for the garden, so it is not much movement that occurs. Just mow the clover and rake it into big windrow alongside the garden, then distribute it as needed. This is far more efficient process than if there is a field BETWEEN the garden and the clover field. I have my fields laid out in rectangular blocks in a square field, like most people. If you had a four-year rotation, in some years, the wheat and the boundary would be alongside the garden and NOT the clover, making it necessary to carry it over a wheat field. Towards the end of the year, when mulch is less useful to the garden, you can just mow the red clover and let it rot down to enrich that plot.
The garden is going into a plowed legume hayfield that has had manure/compost application. There is perhaps no better place to plant a garden than this, and it requires no nitrogenous fertilizer, and the mineral fertilizer is provided mainly by the animals. I rotary plow, so it isn’t moldboard plowing, which inverts the soil. Rotary plowing is rather gentle, doesn’t create plow-pan, and doesn’t really invert so much as it mixes and crumbles. It also utterly destroys weeds and the red-clover, providing better termination in my opinion than either herbicide or propane “burn downs.”