Intercropping advantage is not just yield

Intercropping has garnered a significant amount of interest in recent years. The jury is still out on whether this practice will grow to be hundreds of thousands or even a million or two acres across Western Canada, but there can be significant advantages to growing two crops together and separating the seeds after harvest.

For successful intercropping, you need crop combinations where good weed control can be accomplished and the seeds need to be easily separable after harvest. The advantages aren’t necessarily more total yield from the crop combination. You can hope for “over yielding,” and that can occur, but crop combinations can provide other advantages.

At a recent intercropping workshop in Regina, research results as well as practical experience from growers indicated the best results typically come from picking a dominant crop and a helper crop with a clear reason for the combination.

If you have rocky, hilly land, perhaps you want to grow peas in combination with canola or mustard to make harvest easier. The advantage is magnified if you’re growing a higher value type of pea that’s more prone to lodging.

Another popular intercrop combination is chickpea-flax with disease control being a prime consideration. The aim is to reduce the number of fungicide applications needed for the chickpeas and to perhaps hasten their maturity.

In both of these combinations, planting the crops together in the same row seems to be working better in many cases than seeding in alternating rows. Typically, you’d like to seed small-seeded crops at a shallower depth, but often you can hit a compromise depth that works for both.

Lana Shaw had done a lot of research on intercrops at the South East Research Farm near Redvers in southeast Saskatchewan. She has found the flax seeding rate dramatically influences chickpea yields.

As a result, she recommends keeping the chickpea seeding rate similar to what you’d use for chickpea monocrop and then adding only 10 to 20 pounds per acre of flax. The low flax plant population provides benefits while not substantially cutting the chickpea yield potential.

Michelle Hubbard’s research work at Agriculture Canada in Swift Current confirms that even low amounts of flax within chickpeas help reduce disease. In her 2018 trials, the highest yield was a chickpea monocrop followed by chickpeas with a low rate of flax seeded in the same rows. However, the intercrop had lower disease.

If you can grow chickpeas with one application of fungicide rather than multiple applications, that’s a huge benefit.

More than 38,000 acres of intercrops were insured this year under Saskatchewan Crop Insurance. The most common combination at 5,880 acres was canola-pea followed closely by chickpea-flax at 5,680 acres.

Mustard-pea combinations accounted for 2,000 acres, pea-oat was 2,600 acres and pea-barley another 2,000 acres. Three-crop combinations accounted for 11,400 acres.

Under its Diversification Option, SCI averages premiums and any payouts from your other crops and applies them to your uninsurable crops as well as intercrop combinations. Acreage insured under the Diversification Option cannot exceed 30 per cent of your other acreage.

SCI is collecting data to develop a more suitable program, but that may be a tough task given different seeding rates and fertility regimes.

However, with the range of crops we grow and market in Western Canada, intercropping makes more sense here than in most other regions of the world.

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