Intercropping for rookies: Overcoming the unknown


Intercropping — the concept of growing multiple crops together (intentionally!) — can sound overwhelming, messy and complicated for many of us accustomed to growing one crop at a time.

Which crops should be grown together? How do we separate them after harvest? Hang on, how do we harvest them? And seeding? How do you manage a field to optimize the yield from more than one crop when there are so many more variables? And where can you find data or information on how to manage intercropped fields?

Despite this added complexity, the potential for higher total yields, an emphasis on soil health, and other factors are driving increased excitement about intercropping on the prairies.

Lana Shaw, manager of the South East Research Farm at Redvers, Saskatchewan, says intercropped acres in Saskatchewan have been doubling from one year to the next over the last few seasons. She estimates there were 50,000 acres in Saskatchewan in 2017, and expects that number could climb to 100,000 in 2018.

“Necessity being the mother of invention, I’m not convincing people to intercrop. I’m just trying to keep up with the people that are,” she says, referring to her intercropping research in southeast Saskatchewan.

There are some producers who have been intercropping for over a decade in Western Canada, but what about a conventional farmer who’s still exploring the idea of intercropping and the learning curve that comes with it? Where should they begin?

Lana Shaw (@SE_ResearchFarm on Twitter) shared her advice for getting into intercropping with us at the Manitoba Agronomists Conference in Winnipeg in December:

To start, Shaw has some unconventional advice.

“First off, right now, get on Twitter. It might sound strange, but this where our cutting edge is right now, where producers and researchers are connecting to share information,” she says.

She also recommends starting small, with limited acres and a crop combination that’s easy to separate.

“In general, the easiest ones tend to be some kind of pea with an oilseed, usually a brassica,” she says.

Crop selection depends on the area, but Shaw notes the area of adaptation can change when crops are grown in an intercrop situation. A chickpea-flax combo might work in lentil country where chickpeas aren’t normally grown, for example.

5 tips for getting into intercropping:

  1. Get on Twitter
  2. Start small
  3. Start with a crop mix that’s easy to separate (eg. a large pulse and an oilseed)
  4. Prioritize one crop (likely the pulse)
  5. Have a plan for separating seed and storing it

As for choosing seeding date, seeding rates, harvest timing and other management variables, Shaw suggests prioritizing one crop.

“A lot of farmers are finding that it makes more sense to have at least 75 percent of your harvested product being a single crop, oftentimes a pulse crop, and have an oilseed be your supporting actor, because it’s easier to separate a crop where the large seed is predominant. You’re basically dealing with a high dockage situation,” she says.

Focusing on one crop also makes marketing easier, as the outcome is more predictable than a 50/50 split “which can swing wildly either way.”

Related: Agronomy Geeks West — Ep.16: The Ins and Outs of Intercropping

On the cost side of getting into intercropping, seed cleaning equipment is critical, but Shaw says it’s not necessarily a large cost if a producer starts with a basic rotary grain cleaner. Equipment modifications might be needed to maintain one-pass seeding capability.

Access to aeration is also important, as not much is known about storing mixed grains which may only be separated after harvest is over.

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