Swinging the Balance of Nature in My Direction

Tom Larson

As some of you may know, I use narrow strip cropping on my farm. A 4-row strip of corn with a 4-row strip of beans and a 4-row wide strip of oats with a fall crop of forage turnips is a pattern that I use on all of my row crop acres.

Why the heck do I use such a seemingly complicated system? Basically, I want to grow a feed grain (corn), a legume (beans) and a small grain (oats) in close proximity to each other. Nature does not produce monocultures, and this is as close as I can come to natural diversity and still be able to plant, cultivate and harvest with machinery.

Since this system is set up for ridge tillage, it is a simple matter to rotate the crops. I just plant beans where the oats were, corn where the beans were and oats into the former corn strips. This seems to confuse the insects, diseases and weed species along with some of my neighbors.

As a side benefit of this system, I notice a lot more wildlife in the fields. Deer are seen darting in and out of the strips along with birds and other creatures.

Sounds too good, doesn't it? Well, it was. I provided such good habitat for the wildlife that the 13-striped ground squirrel population exploded! These creatures have a habit of digging up the corn that has just been planted, causing large gaps where no corn grows. Weeds are more than happy to fill in these bare, open spaces. Last year I replanted more than 60 patches where the seed had been dug out, and only managed to successfully establish a stand in about a dozen areas. Bummer!

What to do? What to do? . . .

Well, last fall I ran across an article that said the State of Nebraska has on staff a rodent control specialist. Yeah! I contacted this person and we discussed all sorts of options, most of which I couldn't use because of organic certification standards. But he sent me a lot of information on the habits of this little creature. Seems they eat a lot of insects and wire worms, and that they were digging up my seed corn not to eat, but to store. Once the corn emerges they are seldom a problem.

I figured that if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. I took four old plate-type planter boxes and added them to my planter so they would drop bin run corn in the row middles, on top of the ground. The ground squirrels, being the lazy little rodents they are, busied themselves gathering the bin run seed off the soil surface and left my planted corn alone! It cost about $4/acre for the bin run corn and I got to swing that "balance of nature" in my direction for a change.

Moral of the story? It's usually cheaper and less frustrating to work with nature than against it.

Tom Larson farms in St. Edward, Nebraska.

Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society: Home        Features