Farming Systems Trial

The Farming Systems


Throughout its long history, the FST has contained three core farming systems, each of which features diverse management practices: a manure-based organic system, a legume-based organic system, and a synthetic input-based conventional system. We selected corn and soybean production as our research focus because large tracts of land, particularly in our region and the Midwest, are devoted to the production of these crops. Corn and soybean acreage comprised 49% of the total cropland in the U.S. in 2007. Other grains made up 21%, forages 22% and vegetables just 1.5%.

Organic Manure: This system represents an organic dairy or beef operation. It features a long rotation including both annual feed grain crops and perennial forage crops. The system’s fertility is provided by leguminous cover crops and periodic applications of manure or composted manure. This diverse rotation is also the primary line of defense against pests.

Organic Legume: This system represents an organic cash grain system. It features a mid-length rotation consisting of annual grain crops and cover crops. The system’s sole source of fertility is leguminous cover crops and the rotation provides the primary line of defense against pests.

Conventional Synthetic: This system represents the majority of grain farms in the U.S. It relies on synthetic nitrogen for fertility, and weeds are controlled by synthetic herbicides selected by and applied at rates recommended by Penn State University Cooperative Extension. In 2008, genetically modified (GM) corn and soybeans were added to this system.

No-Till Systems: Each of the major systems was divided into two in 2008 to compare traditional tillage with no-till practices. The organic systems utilize our innovative no-till roller/crimper, and the no-till conventional system relies on current, widespread practices of herbicide applications and no-till specific equipment.

A note on crop rotations

The crop rotations in the organic systems are more diverse than in the conventional systems, including up to seven crops in eight years (compared to two conventional crops in two years). While this means that conventional systems produce more corn or soybeans because they occur more often in the rotation, organic systems produce a more diverse array of food and nutrients and are better positioned to produce yields, even in adverse conditions.