Re-think crop production on marginal lands

Grassland and pastures are smart options for marginal lands, experts say, and can reap more benefits than crop production.

Marginal lands tend to be the riskiest to grow crops on, often due to moisture limitations or overabundance, notes Beef Cattle Research Council’s science director, Reynold Bergen.

They’re also more ecologically sensitive, and no better example of that exists than the 1930s, when a tremendous amount of topsoil and sequestered soil carbon was lost, Bergen explains.

“That’s one example of what can happen when land that is best suited for perennial pasture is converted to crop production,” Bergen says.

Minimum till

While minimum tillage practices have made crop production much more environmentally sustainable, the advantages for marginal land still mostly favour perennial grassland with properly managed grazing, he says.

They allow for the sustainable production of beef protein while building soil, preventing soil and water erosion, maintaining plant, bird, insect and wildlife diversity, and supporting watersheds, Bergen says.


Quantifying the economic differences of production choices is a tall order.

Variation in crop productivity from year-to-year and region-to-region makes it difficult to estimate yields per acre for forage versus annual crops, Bergen says. Further muddying the waters are potential large swings in input costs, as well as crop, forage and cattle prices from year to year.

But Ontario studies prepared by Douglas Yungblut, president of Yungblut & Associates Consulting, give some indications as to the dollars and cents benefits.

One study concluded forage crops can provide returns that are competitive with other cash crops.

The study found that producing an acre of hay cost roughly half that of producing corn on the same land: $242 versus $539. A hay yield of 3.5 tonnes provided a net return similar to that of a corn crop.

But the report added that a legume crop could additionally contribute up to $70 worth of nitrogen to a following corn crop, plus increase returns by $48 to $192 per acre in the first and second years of corn following forages.

Yungblut’s 2015 economic comparison report of pasture-based beef breeding herds and cash crops in southern Ontario estimated 2015 revenue from grazing averaged $366 an acre, versus $286 and $226 for corn and soybeans, respectively.

And those calculations didn’t even include soil health and environmental benefits, Yungblut points out.

Bottom line

Re-thinking crop production on sensitive and limited marginal land can provide environmental and economic rewards.

Article by: Richard Kamchen