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Where Do I Put My Crops? Planning a Crop Rotation from the Start

I like to do my initial crop plan in the winter. Planning takes time. It may be a part of farming that many of us avoid. But I find that having a good plan laid out in an easy-to-read map makes it possible to quickly do what needs to be done during the season, know what my contingency plans are, and avoid the major problems with pests, weeds, and fertility that are more common with haphazard plantings.

The steps below are a summary of two great publications, Crop Rotations on Organic Farms and chapter 7 from Sustainable Vegetable Production from Start Up to Market. Growing for Market also has a number of articles on crop planning steps, techniques, and software; see P. Dawling, ed., “How to Plan Crop Rotations,” and J. Volk, ed., “Mapping Crops on a Spreadsheet.” Take some time with these publications and then use the following steps when you sit down to make your crop rotation plan.

  1. Write down your goals. Describe what are you trying to achieve with your rotation. (See Table 1 for a list of common goals identified by experienced
    farmers.)
  2. Prioritize your goals. Which goals are most important for your farm?
  3. List crops you plan to grow and how much you plan to grow.
  4. Create rotational groups. Group crops by family, planting arrangement, nutrient needs, timing, or other important qualities. (See Tables 2 and 3.)
  5. Check for excessive acreage of one crop family.
  6. Make a map of your farm or garden. Make sure the map is drawn to scale. It helps to download a real map of your farm with soil types from a web soil survey that you can overlay field drawings onto (see the NRCS Web Soil Survey). They have a function where you can measure field sizes on their map.
  7. Divide your farm or garden into equal-size rotational units. It is much easier to plan your rotation in terms of fields of the same size or uniform strips within fields. For example, divide the farm into 2-acre fields or into beds 300 feet long by 5 feet wide. The size of the units will depend on the size of your farm and what you can “get your head around.” The size of your rotational units typically matches the smallest area planted to a single crop or rotational group.
  8. Define the land area (rotational units) needed for each grouping of crops. For example, you may devote several units to a certain crop, like pumpkins, and only one unit to other crops, like carrots.
  9. Identify conditions on your farm that will affect which crops are grown where on the farm. Few farms or even gardens have uniform conditions in each part of the farm. Some fields may be wet. Some fields may dry out and warm up earlier in the spring, making them good fields for early planting. Some fields may have problems with diseases or pests. Note these conditions on your farm map.
  10. Make multiple copies of your farm map.
  11. Using copies of the farm map, compare possible rotations. Keep the following in mind:
    1. Timing of field operations and equipment required for different rotational units
    2.  Inclusion of cover crops and their effect on subsequent crops
    3. Disease history and how long the rotation must be between crops/groups to avoid/ameliorate disease
    4. Inclusion of fallow periods, rotation between weed-prone and competitive crops, and rotation between crops grown in different seasons for weed management
    5. Rotation in time and space of susceptible crops to keep insect pests from returning to crops the next year or moving from crop to crop in the field
  12. Alternatively, use a field conditions/field futures worktable or a fields table with a time axis. (For detailed worktables, see Mohler and Johnson, eds., Crop Rotation on Organic Farms. See Table 4 for “field table with a time axis” blank forms.)

Table 1. Common goals for crop rotation.

  1. Conserve and build organic matter
  2. Add nitrogen
  3. Control diseases
  4. Reduce labor
  5. Reduce weed pressure
  6. Minimize off farm inputs
  7. Increase profits
  8. Capture solar energy
  9. Have a diverse product line
  10. Economic stability
  11. Control insects

Source: Mohler and Johnson, Crop Rotation on Organic Farms (2009).

Table 2. Crop features that may be the basis for rotation groups.
Crop Feature Examples
Botanical family Crucifers, cucurbits, nightshades
Harvested anatomical structure Roots, leaves, fruits, grains
Planting arrangement Multiple rows on raised beds, narrow single rows, wide row spacing
Cultivation practices Hilled crops, wheel-hoed crops, mulched crops
Timing of planting and harvest Early, mid-, late season; multiple
Nutrient demand Heavy, medium, light
Cultural practices Drip irrigation, overhead, row cover
Pest complex Fenced for deer, sprayed for Colorado potato beetle, etc.

Source: Grubinger, Sustainable Vegetable Production from Start Up to Market (1999), Table 7.1

Table 3. Example crop grouping.
Group Family Crop Planting Date Weeks in Field N Needs (lb/A) Rows/ 4-foot bed Cultural Practices Weed Competition Seedbed Required
1 Beet Beet Early Spring 7-9 130 3 cult. mod. fine
  Beet Spinach Early Spring 4-6 130 3 cult. mod. fine
  Beet Swiss Chard Early Spring 7-8 90 3 cult. mod. fine
  Carrot Carrot Early Spring 10-12 90 4 cult. low med.
2 Crucifer Broccoli Early Spring 7-9 130 2 cult. mod. med.
  Crucifer Cabbage Early Spring 10-12 130 2 cult. mod. med.
  Crucifer Cauliflower Early Spring 10-12 130 2 cult. mod. med.
  Crucifer Collard Early Spring 10-12 130 2 cult. mod. med.
  Crucifer Kale Early Spring 7-9 130 2 cult. mod. med.
  Crucifer Pac choi/ tat soi, etc Early Spring 7-9 45 4 cult. low fine
  Crucifer Radishes Early Spring 4-6 45 4 cult. low med.
  Crucifer Turnips Early Spring 4-6 45 4 cult. mod. fine
  Legume Peas Early Spring 7-9 0 2 cult. low med.
  Lettuce Lettuce Early Spring 4-6 45 4 cult. mod. med.
  Lily Green Onions Early Spring 4-6 45 4 cult. low fine
4 Cucurbit Cantaloupes Summer 10-12 90 1 plastic high med.
  Cucurbit Cucumbers Late Spring 7-9 90 1 plastic mod. med.
  Cucurbit Summer Squash Late Spring 7-9 90 1 plastic high med.
 5 Cucurbit Winter Squash Fall 10-12 90 1 straw high coarse
6 Cucurbit Watermelon Summer 10-12 45 1 plastic high med.
7 Grass Sweet corn Summer 10-12 130 2 cult. high med.
8 Legume Snap Beans
Late Spring
7-9
0
2
cult.
mod.
med.
  Legume Southern peas
Summer
7-9 0
2
cult.
mod.
med.
 9 Mallow
Okra
Summer
10-12
90
1
plastic
low
fine
  Nightshade
Bell Peppers
Summer
7-9
90
2
plastic
mod.
med.
  Nightshade 
Eggplant
Summer
10-12
90
2
plastic mod. med.
  Nightshade Tomatoes Summer 7-9 130 1 plastic mod. med.

Note: Planting date, weeks in field, fertility, row spacing, cultural practices, ability to compete with weeds, and seedbed required are all factors you might consider when deciding how to divide up crop groups. The number of groups and which factors are most important will vary from farm to farm.

Table 4. Field Map with a Time Axis
Field Name Block Number March April May June July August Sept. Oct. Nov. Dec. Jan. Feb.
                           
                           
                           
                           
                           
                           
                           
                           
                           
                           

Divide months into weeks

References

Dawling, P., ed. “How to Plan Crop Rotations.” Growing for Market. Lawrence, Kans.: Fairplain Publishing, 2007.

Grubinger, V. P. Sustainable Vegetable Production from Start Up to Market. Ithaca, N.Y.: National Resource Agricultural Engineering Service (NRAES) Cooperative Extension, 1999.

Mohler, C. L., and S. E. Johnson, eds. Crop Rotation on Organic Farms: A Planning Manual. Ithaca, N.Y.: Natural Resource Agricultural and Engineering Service (NRAES) Cooperative Extension, 2009.

USDA-NRCS. “Web Soil Survey.”

Volk, J., ed. “Mapping Crops on a Spreadsheet.” Growing for Market. Lawrence, Kans.: Fairplain Publishing, 2010.

Additional Resources

Coleman, E. The New Organic Grower. White River Junction, Vt.: Chelsea Green, 1995.

Jeavons, J. How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine. 7th ed. Willits, Calif.: Ecology Action, 2006.

Kroeck, S. Soil Resiliency and Health: Crop Rotation and Cover Cropping on the Organic Farm. Stevenson, Conn.: Northeast Organic Farming Association, 2004.

Prepared by Tianna DuPont, former sustainable agriculture educator, Penn State Extension. Reviewed by Lee Rinehart, Pennsylvania Certified Organic, and Elsa Sanchez, Penn State Department of Horticulture.

This publication was supported in part by funding from the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, USDA, Grant #2009-49400-05869.

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