Pros and Cons of Chem Fallow

Current pricing for crops and inability to deliver grain has left some growers wondering how they are going to afford their crop inputs this season. This has some producers considering using chem-fallow as a method to reduce costs on their farms. However, it is important to consider all the factors when deciding whether or not to use chem fallow. In the right place, it can be an effective management tool. However, what seems like a situation to save money may actually add more cost than you can afford.

Chem fallow can be attractive for a number of reasons, such as reduced fertilizer input costs, moisture conservation, and excellent weed control. A good choice for chem fallow would be on a piece of land that tends to be too dry, or has a weed problem that needs aggressive action. These are agronomic reasons to choose chem fallow, not economic reasons.

Given the choice between chem fallow and tillage, chem fallow is still the better option in most cases.  It takes far less horsepower (and therefore less fuel and time) to get a sprayer across a field than a large tractor pulling tillage equipment.  Chem fallow also allows for better moisture, nitrogen, and carbon retention vs. tillage. However, on very wet fields, chem fallow will not help to alleviate moisture problems for the following year. A better choice for these fields would be to grow a crop on them to help use up some moisture, and gain some returns from the sale of the crop.

Chem fallow does not provide crop competition to help shade out weeds and compete for nutrients and moisture. This means that spray applications must be timely to prevent the weeds from robbing the moisture and nutrients you are intending to save for your next crop. Besides a reduced fertilizer bill, the benefits of chem fallow likely won’t be seen until the following year, when you are able to capitalize on banked nutrients and moisture stored in the soil. However, fertilization will more than likely be necessary the year following chem fallow.

Consider how frequently you’ll need to spray chem fallow to keep the weeds under control. Likely, it will take at least 3 passes of herbicide to keep weeds controlled throughout the season. Chemicals like glyphosate are relatively cheap (about $4/ac for a 1 REL application). If you’re concerned about herbicide resistance (and you should be), throw in an additive to sharpen up weed control. We can estimate that cost at approximately $3/ac for 2,4-D.  If you spray with your own equipment, a rough guess at fuel/machinery wear and tear will cost you approx.. $5/ac. If you need to hire a custom spray applicator that cost will likely be closer to $7/ac. Count on spending at least $36/ac throughout the year. On a 160 ac field, that’s $5760 just in operating costs.

Keep in mind the fixed costs of running a farm – things like your land rent, taxes, and equipment payments. A farmer spreads his fixed costs over his total farm acres. A $10,000 combine payment on 1000 acres of crop costs $10/per acre. Reducing the acres to 500 increases the cost per acre on the remaining seeded acres to $20/acre.

There is zero potential to recover those costs from chem fallowed land. Cost recovery must come from other acres, whose profit must be stretched thinner to cover the costs of chem fallow. When a farmer buys inputs for land with a crop on it, it’s with the intent that the inputs will have a favorable return that will make him more money than he spends (or at least break even). When a farmer buys inputs for chem fallow, that potential for return disappears – it’s all cost, no profit.

Cost reduction is one way to help conserve money in times where crop prices are not favorable. However, cost reduction should not come in the form of reducing your potential for profit. Perhaps a better way to cut costs is to reduce other farm expenditures, like new equipment or “perks” that we enjoyed in years where prices were better. If you feel you simply must chem fallow to reduce your expenditures this year, consider carefully how much land you can afford to chem fallow, and which pieces of land will gain you the most benefit from doing so. Do the math on your fixed costs, and get a good estimate from your Cavalier Agrow agronomist about what your crop inputs will cost you vs. what you expect them to return. This should help you to decide what your best plan of attack is to get through this year!

 

Amber Bernauer
Business Agronomist,
Cavalier Agrow, Meadow Lake, SK