Intercropping – the future of farming?

Kim Fundingsland/MDN One of the topics that drew interest at a recent Future of Farming seminar held in Crosby was intercropping – the planting of two crops in one field.

CROSBY – It’s not an entirely new idea, two crops in one field, but recent studies and advancements are well on the way toward promoting and expanding the practice.

Lana Shaw, research manager, Southeast Research Farm in Redvers, Saskatchewan, recently conducted a seminar on “intercropping” in front of interested farmers gathered at the Divide County courthouse. Some livestock producers have engaged in intercropping for several years, such as planting alfalfa and brome grass together to be used as feed.

Shaw says intercropping can be used for cash crops too, although she says her recommended technique for farmers is fairly new.

“I came to talk about mixed crop, the seeding of two crops together and harvesting them together,” said Shaw. “And the new technique we are using to increase profits and make a more healthy, sustainable cropping system.”

Gerard Fornwald, farmer, Lampman, Sask., also addressed the gathering. He has successfully grown two crops in one field. He explained the benefits of growing complementary crops in a single field, such as increased yields and fewer weeds.

“With intercrop you choose two crops that can work as companions in the same field,” explained Fornwald. “A lot of time one will benefit from the other, such as a shorter crop being shaded by a taller crop. That helps the shorter crop grow and also chokes out some of the weeds. It’s a way to grow higher value crops and, basically with less input costs. In the end that’s more money for the farmer.”

One of those in attendance was Dick Roland of Crosby. He has been involved in agricultural planning for several years, including the promotion of legumes as a cash crop that also benefits soil condition. To him, intercropping represents progress and part of the future of farming.

“This is a concept that’s really getting to be a hot topic,” remarked Roland. “Intercropping really is a way of planting two or three crops together to kind of do some of the similar things that multi-species cover crops do. It helps in terms of fertility and weed control and pest management. So, it’s a no-brainer if we can make the system work, finding compatible crops that complement each other. I think we can do it. It’ll just take some time to figure it out.”

Fornwald has experience in intercropping and found that farmers attending the Future of Farming seminar were very interested in the concept. Admittedly, he said, intercropping is on the “cutting edge.”

“It won’t be something everyone is going to do but it’s a way to make more efficient use of the land you have by growing two crops in one field,” said Fornwald. “Most guys are choosing crops like chick peas, lentils and peas, which are the pulses. They benefit the most in these situations, especially when they are grown alongside a taller crop like canola or mustard.”

Important to intercropping is choosing two or more crops that mature at approximately the same time. That allows for harvesting both crops at one time. Seeds will have to be separated prior to sale.

“Intercropping tends to go along with no-till,” said Shaw. “Maybe a farmer has a stripper header and is trying to reduce their tillage, keep their stubble standing. This idea is very compatible with that. Instead of having a pulse residue where there’s almost nothing left on the surface at the end of harvest, maybe have some standing stubble where they have stripped grain and left more residue in the field. It’s very compatible with no-till. Intercropping allows farmer to grow more successfully in more areas and that gives people more option to what the can grow.”

How quickly intercropping catches on and begins to be increasingly common in North Dakota depends on the success of those who decide to give it a try. Roland is among those who expects more advancements and acceptance of intercropping.

“The people that show up for these meetings are innovators to begin with,” said Roland shortly after the conclusion of the Future of Farming seminar. “You need to work with nature rather than against her.”