For more than 10 growing seasons, some fields around Midale, Saskatchewan, have looked just a little different. Instead of solid fields of yellow canola or green pea stands, those traveling through might think they’re seeing both.
And that’s because they are. Intercropping — the practice of growing two or more crops at the same time on the same acre — is something Colin Rosengren has been doing for over a decade.
While there are about 10 different crops being grown at any time, Rosengren says it’s most commonly a pulse and oilseed that get intercropped. Canola and pea (peaola) is typical, but lentils, flax, and others have found their way in to mixes.
The original impetus to try it came during a time of really low crop prices. The farm was looking at ways to seek out extra bushels and reduce input costs at the same time. Rosengren says that observing volunteer plants in crops that seemed to do just find tweaked him to wonder, “Why do we think we should only grow just one [crop at a time]?”
Rosengren says that by planting two crops at time, the plants can make better use of nutrients and water through different rooting depths and input demand curves. Plus, plant architecture plays a role: peas climb on canola and keep the stand thick and knitted, decreasing shatter risk and making harvest easier. It also helps to take advantage or mitigate risk in the field — peas thrive in lower spots where lentils perhaps would do best on a knoll in the same field.
Weed control is a consideration, too, as any product used must be approved for all crops in the mix. Rosengren says that Clearfield canola is one of the options they choose, but that much of the weed management comes in the form of plant competition.
“We’ve got a one-and-a-half times a plant count in this field, basically one-and-a-half to one-and two-thirds times of normal plants down here. That gives us extra competition over what you would get in a monoculture, but if you seeded your peas at one-and-a-half times, then you’d get lodging and disease and those type of problems,” he explains. (Story continues below video)
Having different plants in the mix can also out-compete weeds in tough areas. For example, canola is more saline tolerant than peas. In a pea crop, a saline area may die out and the dreaded kochia can move in, but in an intercrop, the peas may die out but the canola will continue to grow and take up that space.
Harvest is challenge, but not an insurmountable one. Rosengren says they’ve expanded the harvest separating and handling system since the original drum separator set up. They eventually built a cleaning plant at home with a centralized handling system, and are now in to the third stage of expansion where they are moving to a mobile cleaner.
When it comes to profitability, Rosengren says every year they run the cropping systems through a spreadsheet and focus on the net return. “The long term benefits that that we like to talk about are the soil health [but] they’re really hard to quantify…there’s nothing I can really put down on paper to tell you that. But the net returns are are pretty solid and indisputable, I guess. So that’s our main driver.”
Profitable Practices is a video series highlighting farmers and ranchers across Canada choosing money-making management options that benefit people and the planet. See more videos here.