NC State Extension Publications


A cropping system is a group of components, methods, or procedures that are used in the act of growing plants for the production of food for fiber. Corn cropping systems are designed to allow the producer to reach certain goals. Therefore, the goals that the farmer sets will dictate what type of components will be used. In fact, given the number of component methods available for producing corn and the wide range of goals that a farming enterprise can have, it is not surprising that while corn cropping systems may appear similar, most systems are unique to an individual farm and sometimes to an individual field. Therefore, to understand corn cropping systems, it is important to understand the components that make up a system and how those components are often combined to reach production goals for a farm or farm field.

Components of a Cropping System

The key to successful cropping systems lies in the selection of the components. The components of a corn cropping system are outlined in Table 1-1 and discussed in detail later in this section. To better understand each component, they must be examined for their advantages and limitations. Only then will a manager have an idea of how that component will help meet specific objectives or goals.

Table 1–1. Components of cropping systems.
Components Category
Crop Sequence Monoculture
Crop Management Hybrid Selection
Seed Selection/Planting Depth
Planting Date
Plant Population
Row Width
Harvest and Storage
Soil Management Tillage Selection
Pest Management Weed Management
Insect Management
Disease Management
Marketing Open Markets
Closed Markets

Designing a Cropping System

First, the farmer must identify the goals for his farming enterprise. Does he/she focus on profit, on quality of life, on family priorities, on the sustainability of the enterprise, or on some combination of those? The description and ranking of priorities is important because they determine what crops are grown and which crop sequence to use.

Crop Sequence

There are many cropping sequences which are used in growing corn in North Carolina. In most areas of North Carolina corn pests such as billbugs and earworms eliminate the possibility of growing corn in monoculture. Furthermore, weed species adapt readily to corn systems in the state. Therefore, despite new hybrids and herbicide technologies, monocultures are not recommended for corn cropping systems. Crop rotations have become the most common type of corn cropping sequence. They have the advantages of reducing pest, disease, and weed problems. Rotations can improve the use and availability of nutrients, and with the proper selection of a rotation crop, the productivity of the system can be improved. Corn-soybean, cotton-corn, or corn-wheat-soybean cropping sequences work well in North Carolina; particularly, on highly productive soils. When soil conditions favor corn production, corn should be grown more frequently in the rotation. On droughty soils, the frequency of corn should be reduced so that corn is grown only once every 3 to 5 years. In sever conditions in extremely sandy soils, corn should not be grown.

Next, the farm manager must select components that will maximize efficiency and productivity. The keys to high net returns are to obtain maximum productivity and to do so in the most efficient manner. The cost of inputs in a corn cropping system can be quickly returned if productivity is high. Obtaining high productivity requires careful attention to corp, soil, pest, and management. Efficient use of inputs or resources is also important. Using the same planter to plant two different crops is an example of efficient use of resources. Using rotations to reduce the need for in-furrow insecticides at planting is another example of efficient use of inputs. The corn, weed, insect, and disease management sections of this corn production guide can be used to help identify those components that contribute to increased productivity and efficient use of resources.

Third, to maximize profit of the cropping system, the farm manager must identify his customers and take steps to meet their needs. Market management is one of the most important components of a corn cropping system and, yet, is often one of teh most neglected components. Selecting and managing crop production to target a specific market or customer leads to success in a farming enterprise. There are many customers of corn products. Food processors, livestock producers, export markets, specialty markets, and the general public. The trick to marketing is to identify your customer and take steps to meet his needs.

Today, most of the corn growers in North Carolina market their corn in an Open Market system. In this system, they sell their own corn to the highest bidder in the marketplace. This system has the advantage of giving the grower maximum flexibility in selecting management practices; however, the risk in this system is that customers will be disappointed by the quality of teh grain or will seek grain from producers who can sell at lower prices. The marketing section of this guide discusses pricing corn in an open market system. (See the Corn Marketing chapter.)

Contract markets are perhaps the best example of targeting the customer and tailoring a cropping system to meet his needs. Currently, contract markets only make up a small proportion of the corn grown in North Carolina. However, in the future, most of the corn will be grown under contracts for use in feed or for export. Future developments in crop breeding will lead to corn hybrids with special characteristics targeted to certain markets. For instance, high oil corn has been shown to increase livestock performance. In the near future, livestock producers will demand high oil corn. To meet this demand, corn producers will need to adjust the components in their cropping systems to produced high yields of a high oil corn hybrid.

Integrated markets in which a producer will feed his grain to his own livestock are becoming more scarce as livestock operations become larger and more specialized. Only a select few corn producers will raise corn for consumption by their own livestock; instead, corn producers will focus on a quality product for sale to a feeder or an integrator.

Finally, the farm manager must constantly evaluate all components in a cropping system and their role in meeting the needs of the customer and the goals of the farm enterprise. Customers change their tastes, farm goals may change in the cropping system. A producer who is not ready to change will soon find his system is unprofitable and unproductive. Keeping abreast of changes in crop management and using the information available to him from outside sources such as the Cooperative Extension Service or his input supplier is an important part in this evaluation process. Evaluation of system components based on yields, input cost, management time, and market returns is critical to making adjustments in the implementation of a cropping system. New technologies are giving the farm manager greater access to production information and are making the difficult task of record keeping easier. Most of these new information systems are based on technologies such as the global positioning system (GPS), geographic information systems (GIS), and the use of combine yield monitors and grid soil sampling. Producers who are using these technologies have the capability to continuously evaluate the role of each component in the corn cropping system. By comparing components within a field a grower can intelligently choose the right one to meet his goals. These information technologies will become even more important in the future as producers use information to develop nutrient management plans, crop management plans, and marketing plans all based on yield history and patterns.


A cropping systems approach to farm management provides the producer with the tools needed to meet his individual goals. Instead of following the leadership of others, a producer with a cropping systems approach can tailor his farm enterprise to meet his needs and the needs of those who depend on him/her for their sustenance.


Professor and Extension Specialist, Corn/Soybeans/Small Grains
Crop and Soil Sciences

Publication date: Jan. 1, 2003

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