Outlook •  9/30/2022

Double Cropping is Being Adopted Globally Due to its High Value

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This October, conditions permitting, Illinois farmer Scott Eversgerd will sow his soybean fields with winter wheat. That wheat will mature the following June, and the same day he cuts it, he’ll drill soybeans directly into the residue. Later that season, in September, he’ll harvest the soybeans, thereby profiting from two cash crops in one year. This is known as “double-cropping.”

 

This practice is expanding throughout the world, in part because market pressures such as the war in Ukraine, drought in India, and inflation have increased commodity prices. But due to economic risks as well as agronomic limitations to the practice, double-cropping is not a fit for every farmer and every field. Here’s what farmers should know before doubling down on a second crop.

 

What’s grown where—and why

In the past, Eversgerd’s Illinois land wouldn’t have been suited to double-cropping since climate has long determined who can double-crop (or even multicrop). Wherever there is abundant sunlight, adequate rainfall, and above-freezing temperatures year-round—historically, the Global South—farmers have multicropped as a matter of course. Today, the most intensively cultivated farmland is in East Asia and South Asia, where 63 percent of the world’s multicroppers farm. Farmers there can sow and harvest upwards of three crops (typically rice) on the same acreage every year.

Farmer seeding crops
Farmer seeding crops

This October, conditions permitting, Illinois farmer Scott Eversgerd will sow his soybean fields with winter wheat. That wheat will mature the following June, and the same day he cuts it, he’ll drill soybeans directly into the residue. Later that season, in September, he’ll harvest the soybeans, thereby profiting from two cash crops in one year. This is known as “double-cropping.”

 

This practice is expanding throughout the world, in part because market pressures such as the war in Ukraine, drought in India, and inflation have increased commodity prices. But due to economic risks as well as agronomic limitations to the practice, double-cropping is not a fit for every farmer and every field. Here’s what farmers should know before doubling down on a second crop.

 

What’s grown where—and why

In the past, Eversgerd’s Illinois land wouldn’t have been suited to double-cropping since climate has long determined who can double-crop (or even multicrop). Wherever there is abundant sunlight, adequate rainfall, and above-freezing temperatures year-round—historically, the Global South—farmers have multicropped as a matter of course. Today, the most intensively cultivated farmland is in East Asia and South Asia, where 63 percent of the world’s multicroppers farm. Farmers there can sow and harvest upwards of three crops (typically rice) on the same acreage every year.

Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa together account for another 20 percent of the world’s multicroppers. The Middle East and North Africa, Oceania, and South America account for about 13 percent, with Europe, Central America, and North America around 4 percent.1

 


Pushing the envelope

Advances in agronomy promise to expand the area multicropped worldwide, easing food shortages without accelerating climate change. Research indicates that double-cropping could increase world food supplies by upwards of 31 percent,2 while decreasing the conversion of forest to farmland.3

Green rice fields at sunset
Green rice fields at sunset

Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa together account for another 20 percent of the world’s multicroppers. The Middle East and North Africa, Oceania, and South America account for about 13 percent, with Europe, Central America, and North America around 4 percent.1

 


Pushing the envelope

Advances in agronomy promise to expand the area multicropped worldwide, easing food shortages without accelerating climate change. Research indicates that double-cropping could increase world food supplies by upwards of 31 percent,2 while decreasing the conversion of forest to farmland.3

Research indicates that double-cropping could increase world food supplies by upwards of 31 percent while decreasing the conversion of forest to farmland.”

The most important of these advances is high-tech seed. Today’s hybrids and varieties are enabling today’s farmers not only to plant a second crop, but also to increase productivity overall and profit from it.

For example, since 1995, early-maturing soy varieties and corn hybrids have turned Brazil’s vast savanna into bountiful fields of double-cropped soybeans and corn—so much so that the nation is now the world’s largest exporter of soybeans and the second-largest of corn.1 In Mozambique, corn hybrids developed for drought tolerance and short-season maturation make it possible for farmers to plant a second crop of corn hybrids or cowpeas within one season. This defends the farmers from crop failure and increases their food security.5 In the United States, herbicide-resistant varieties of soybeans permit wheat farmers like Eversgerd to sow soybeans as soon as the wheat is harvested, without threat of the soybeans succumbing to residual herbicides from the wheat crop.6 Frost-hardy winter canola biotypes are helping farmers in Ontario, Canada, suppress the weeds that endanger their summer soybean crop and also allow them to profit from the oilseed’s yields in June.7

Other high-quality inputs ensure that the seed investment pays off, but double-cropping also helps farmers get more from each of those inputs. Double-cropping keeps soils protected by retaining and building soil structure and maintaining fertility, reducing the need for enhancements.8 No-till double-crop systems can require fewer herbicide and pesticide applications, as the first-crop residue naturally suppresses weeds, and serial crop rotation disrupts pest cycles9 But in other respects, double-crop systems may require investments that full-season crops do not. In no-till systems, the need for fungicide is greater, as late-season moisture makes first-crop residue a breeding ground for disease. Fertilizer needs can also be one and a half times as great, to compensate for nutrients removed by the first crop or for the stress associated with the shorter season.10 And pest populations can shift from one crop to another.11

 

Fortunately, agriscience is keeping pace. Like all farmers, those who are double-cropping soybeans have increased yields by selecting seeds bred for disease tolerance or resistance,12 treating seeds with nitrogen-fixing bacteria,13 applying nitrogen to the soil during pod fill,14 and applying a late-season foliar fungicide deep in the canopy.15

 

Reaping the dividends

African footpath through corn field
African footpath through corn field

Other high-quality inputs ensure that the seed investment pays off, but double-cropping also helps farmers get more from each of those inputs. Double-cropping keeps soils protected by retaining and building soil structure and maintaining fertility, reducing the need for enhancements.8 No-till double-crop systems can require fewer herbicide and pesticide applications, as the first-crop residue naturally suppresses weeds, and serial crop rotation disrupts pest cycles9 But in other respects, double-crop systems may require investments that full-season crops do not. In no-till systems, the need for fungicide is greater, as late-season moisture makes first-crop residue a breeding ground for disease. Fertilizer needs can also be one and a half times as great, to compensate for nutrients removed by the first crop or for the stress associated with the shorter season.10 And pest populations can shift from one crop to another.11

 

Fortunately, agriscience is keeping pace. Like all farmers, those who are double-cropping soybeans have increased yields by selecting seeds bred for disease tolerance or resistance,12 treating seeds with nitrogen-fixing bacteria,13 applying nitrogen to the soil during pod fill,14 and applying a late-season foliar fungicide deep in the canopy.15

 

Reaping the dividends

Aside from the cost of an extra fungicide application, Eversgerd says, his input investment for double-cropped soybeans is about the same as for full-season soybeans. While the second crop does require fertilizer, the wheat straw that the soybeans emerge from suppresses weed pressure, allowing Eversgerd to get good yields with one instead of two postemergence herbicide applications. With second-crop insurance available in his county, the risk incurred for the second crop is about the same as for the first.

 

“With this high-touch approach, we know we can get two cash crops a year, or three crops—corn, wheat, [soy]beans—every two years,” he says. “Agronomically and economically, it works very well.”

Single row of young soybean plant
Single row of young soybean plant

Aside from the cost of an extra fungicide application, Eversgerd says, his input investment for double-cropped soybeans is about the same as for full-season soybeans. While the second crop does require fertilizer, the wheat straw that the soybeans emerge from suppresses weed pressure, allowing Eversgerd to get good yields with one instead of two postemergence herbicide applications. With second-crop insurance available in his county, the risk incurred for the second crop is about the same as for the first.

 

“With this high-touch approach, we know we can get two cash crops a year, or three crops—corn, wheat, [soy]beans—every two years,” he says. “Agronomically and economically, it works very well.”