Soil School: Relay cropping for healthy soils and profitability

Mark Burnham is doing his best to promote more wheat acres in Ontario. It can be a tough sell, but there’s no disputing the soil health benefits of having wheat in the rotation.

The Cobourg, Ont.- farmer, who runs a mixed farm with his family, believes a corn-soy-wheat rotation, with some hay and cover crops, is the best strategy for promoting long-term soil health on their farm. Burnham, a member of the Ontario Soil Network, also feels more farmers would grow wheat if the cereal could deliver a better economic return.

On this episode of the RealAgriculture Soil School, Burnham shares what he’s doing to help wheat shake its “poverty grass” tag. For the last two years he’s been field testing relay cropping on his farm. His philosophy is really quite simple: add a second crop to improve the per-acre economic return by inter-seeding soybeans into growing winter wheat. After two years of trials, the most successful approach appears to be twin-row winter wheat with 30-inch soybeans inter-seeded the following spring.

“We just get more sunlight down in the beans to allow them to grow. The beans were right up at the top of the wheat canopy,” says Burnham. Research will continue in 2020 to further refine the agronomic approach and assess economic return on relay cropping, but he’s already sold on the benefits of wheat.

“Wheat adds organic matter and a different dimension to soil structure, and the root mass below ground is really what we’re after,” say Burnham.

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