Research studies benefits of mixing things up

Farmers in Alberta’s Peace region are interested in intercropping but need to know the practice works before they try it

FAIRVIEW, Alta. — Researchers in Alberta’s Peace region hope to show that intercropping improves yield, potentially providing farmers in the area with an alternative rotation.

The new project, taking place near Fairview at the Peace Country Beef and Forage Association plots, is mixing oats with peas, peas with canola, canola with oats and one with all three crops.

Alan Lee, who’s conducting the study as part of his University of Alberta graduate project, said he suspects intercropping will essentially bolster yields while saving cash on fertilizer, but he won’t know the results until the study is completed.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen but I’m pretty excited,” he said.

“It dawned on me that with forages, we know cocktail mixes can increase yield, so we thought we could implement this with grain production.”

Farmers in the area have been extremely interested in the project, said Katie McLachlan, environmental and communications co-ordinator with the association.

She said they are looking at intercropping as a way to improve yields while saving on inputs but need to know it works in their area before embracing the practice.

“Speakers have come here and shown us the benefits in other regions,” she said.

“You have to do a bit more work at the end of the day, but it has worked out to be more profitable than a monocrop.”

Lee said intercropping could also help farmers feed the growing population with less land.

“If we want to keep food prices the same by 2050, we have to increase food production by a lot,” he said.

“Maybe intercropping could help with this.”

This is the first year of a two-year project.

Since he seeded the crops, Lee has been monitoring moisture and photosynthesis levels, doing soil fertility tests and analyzing the micro-organisms.

Lee is looking to see if the soil and crops in the intercropping system outperform monocrops and is also interested in which mixes do best.

As well, he wants to figure out how the micro-organisms are interacting in the soil. He suspects they are helping the plants develop a beneficial relationship with one another, or that more nutrients are being released.

“For the most part, we’re looking for that nutrient increase,” he said.

“If possible and if time permits, we want to look at every single aspect on what might be pushing the yield to increase.”

Once he gets his results, Lee will enter the data into a statistical program to find conclusions.

He’ll repeat the process again next year to see if the numbers hold up.

“If it works out, then we’ll be confident with the results,” he said.

“This could really let farmers mix things up, increasing their rotations if they want to.”

Liisa Jeffrey, manager of the research association, said she’s excited about the project. It’s the first time the group has partnered with the U of A.

“Students get so much real world practical experience when they are doing a project here versus on campus,” she said.

“We hope to continue with this partnership.”

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