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Extension > Agriculture > Crops > Corn Production >Cropping systems > Adding alfalfa benefits corn-soybean rotations

Adding alfalfa benefits corn-soybean rotations

Jeff Coulter, Extension Corn Agronomist

large alfalfa field

Photo by Jeff Coulter

There are many advantages to including forage legumes in the crop rotation. A primary advantage is the nitrogen (N) credits provided to subsequent grain crops.

Perennial forage legumes also disrupt the life-cycles of pests, such as corn rootworm and weeds, thereby protecting against crop yield losses while reducing crop-protection input expenses. Forage legumes also enhance soil structure and tilth, while reducing soil erosion and organic matter loss. Under dry conditions, however, deep-rooted forage legumes such as alfalfa can reduce the amount of subsoil moisture available for the following grain crop.

Rotation study

From 1992-2007 at the University of Minnesota Southwest Research and Outreach Center near Lamberton, a 4-year oat/alfalfa-alfalfa-corn-soybean rotation was compared with a 2-year corn-soybean rotation within "zero-input," organic, "low-input," and "high-input" crop-management systems. This trial was established at every stage in both rotations, so each crop was present every year.

Averaged across years, soybean yield was 7 percent higher with the 4-year rotation than the 2-year rotation, regardless of crop-management system. For corn, however, the yield advantage due to the 4-year rotation varied with management system and declined as the amount of agronomic inputs increased (Table 1). Corn yield within the 4-year rotation was greatest and similar under high-input, low-input, and organic-management systems; however, greatest corn yield in the 2-year rotation occurred only with the high-input system.

Table 1. Corn yields in two- and four-year rotations under various management systems.

Average corn yield
Management system Weed management Nutrient application 2-yr rotation 4-yr rotation Yield increase with 4-yr rotation
bushels/acre percent (%)
Zero-input Tillage only None 55 77 41
Organic Tillage only Manure 113 142 25
Low-input Tillage + banded herbicide Banded fertilizer 123 139 13
High-input Tillage + broadcast herbicide Broadcast fertilizer 151 146 0†
†Corn yields in the 2-year and 4-year rotations were not statistically different at the 5% probability level.


Results demonstrate the potential to increase soybean and corn yields with a longer crop rotation that includes alfalfa, and that such rotations provide more options for reducing agronomic inputs without sacrificing corn yield.


J.A. Coulter, C.C. Sheaffer, D.L. Wyse, M.J. Haar, P.M. Porter, S.R. Quiring, and L.D. Klossner. 2011. Agronomic performance of cropping systems with contrasting crop rotations and external inputs. Agronomy Journal 103:182-192.

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