Sask. researcher sees intercropping on the rise

Three of last year’s top crop combinations were canola and peas, peas and oats (for silage), and flax and chickpeas

An old farming practice is winning new adherents across the Prairies.

Intercropping — the growing of two or more types of plants in the same row or field, such as peas and canola — is catching on as good yields and lower production costs improve the bottom line. Crop specialists say healthier soils are another benefit.

“It is a trend,” said Lana Shaw, manager of the Southwest Research Farm in Redvers, Sask. “Recently it feels like a kind of exponential growth in interest and acres,” a result, she said, of its proven profitability.

Insurance data shows that Saskatchewan had 72,000 acres intercropped in 2019, while Manitoba had 13,600, far more than a decade ago, she said.

“It’s really been since 2016 that farmer interest started to build,” said Shaw.

“There’s been meetings and a lot more media or events.”

There is also more research. Scott Chalmers, who runs the Westman Agriculture Diversification Organization, the research farm in Melita, Man., said intercropping can increase yields and reduce pests and disease. He’s done a number of trials and has more planned.

“Now we know that nature does have an influence,” he said, which is sometimes greater than that of technology.

Three of the top crop combinations used by farmers last year were canola and peas, peas and oats (for better silage), and flax and chickpeas.

The practice is old. Chalmers said the Mandans in pre-settlement times intercropped corn, beans and squash. The Mayans also intercropped, in part to imitate nature, where diversity produces harmony. In the wild, many types of plants often grow close together, assisting each other more than competing.

Chalmers said field trials show that canola, peas and alfalfa do well. Canola holds up the peas, improving their quality and reducing disease; the peas are easier to harvest and farmers can cut higher, leaving valuable stubble for snow retention and erosion reduction. The alfalfa grows in the shoulder seasons and helps make early field work possible; such land can also be grazed by cattle and naturally fertilized.

Results are best when canola and peas are grown in the same row, he said.

A suspected benefit is the transfer of nitrogen from the peas to canola, the equivalent of 15 pounds per acre, he said, worth about $7 per acre. For regenerative farmers, this means a reduction in nitrogen inputs, which not only keeps costs down but benefits the land. A portion of nitrogen inputs is generally lost to creeks and lakes, contributing to algae blooms.

A further benefit is a sharp drop in pea aphids, Chalmers said, “significantly less with canola present, even six feet between crops. We don’t know why.”

Again, this can reduce the need for insecticide inputs.

Shaw said farmers in Saskatchewan began small a few years ago and then expanded their intercropped acres after successful harvests and lower production costs. Soil health tends also to be enhanced, she said, appealing to many who want to reduce chemical inputs.

Trials testing intercropping methods are ongoing, Chalmers said.

“We’re doing this type of publicly applied research to help farmers.”

Manitoba contributes two-thirds of the $150,000 annual budget for the trials in Melita, with private companies like General Mills and groups like the Canola Council of Canada helping with the rest. His salary is paid by the province, but his three full-time staff are funded by the WADO program.

Chalmers, who has been 13 years in Melita, likens the work his research farm is doing to “thinking outside the box. The whole purpose is, let’s do something different to deal with the problems we have.”

Another promising mix, he said, is yellow mustard and peas to reduce weed problems and possibly root rots.

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