Getting the most out of every acre, whether organic or conventional, was the theme out of one-day workshop on intercropping at the Brandon, Man., Keystone Centre, last November.
Approximately 130 registered for the event, including 70 conventional farmers, 30 ‘industry’ people and 30 people doing or entering organic farming.
Sponsors included the Manitoba Agriculture, Manitoba Pulse Soybean Growers, Prairie Organic Grain Alliance, Manitoba Organic Alliance, Westman Agricultural Diversification Organization (WADO), Interlake Agri Ltd., and FBC tax specialists.
In a producer panel, organic growers Joe Wrecker and Andrew Harris spoke about their experience with intercropping in the transition to fully certified organic production. Panel facilitator was Scott Chalmers, Diversification Specialist, Manitoba Agriculture.
The intercropping workshop, Chalmers said, was a place of ‘common ground’ between organic and conventional farming. “Both farming systems can benefit, and that’s why both were in the room,” Chalmers said.
“Intercropping is a term for growing two or more crops together,” he said. The two are planted ‘together’ on the same field in the same season, but within that there is diversity. They may be harvested at the same time, or one may be ‘under’ the cover of the taller-growing crop until it is removed and then begin to fulfill its purpose for the farm.
“By intercropping we can use the resources needed for plant growth better” Chalmers said. “It’s not a game-changer; it’s just one of those tools we haven’t practiced in maybe100 years.”
For an established organic farm that is struggling, he suggested, it may make things more complex to move to intercropping practices.
“Like anything in agriculture, you can’t just crash into something and expect it to work perfectly. Diversity is probably a good thing, (but) we can complicate things to the point where it doesn’t make economic sense. For example, growing peas and canola together is going to give about 120% of normal yield. Adding a third species may only add five percent. Sorting a third crop out would be unreasonable for that minimal benefit.”
However, for farms in transition to organic production, intercropping practices may look pretty attractive. They offers the possibility of keeping fields green and covered until the snow flies; they can aid in building organic matter and nutrients and aid in weed control when herbicides are no longer an option.
Near Stoney Mountain, north of Winnipeg, Andrew and Patty Harris farm 1,400 acres with his father Paul Harris. They began a transition to organic production in 2014. Only 260 acres remain in conventional production.
In a telephone interview after the workshop, Andrew said, “We farm with my Dad and we both live off the farm’s 1,400 acres. It’s lots more work than conventional but it is lots more profitable, too.”
Intercropping by growing a legume ‘under’ an annual crop began with their first year of organic farming.
“When we plant wheat we usually plant clover with it,” Andrew said. “The grain will overtake the clover but the clover will keep growing below the wheat (or barley). Once we cut the wheat off, the clover gets sunlight and it will start growing. As a cover crop, it gives us nitrogen, weed control, organic matter and keeps the soil covered at all times with something that’s growing.”
Harris seeds with a 33-foot Concord air drill that’s about 25 years old, fed by a Flexicoil air tank. At first, the wheat and clover seed was mixed together.
More recently, he has broadcast the clover behind the wheat, then used a harrow behind the air drill to get a little soil over the clover seed. “It’s a long train, but it works quite well. It saves me a pass and some time,” he said.
As for intercropping by growing two annual crops together, Harris said he had two hundred acres of it in 2018. The fields all had flax. With the flax, in different fields, he planted soybean, lentils and wheat.
“I think we’ll try to do the whole farm this year, all 1400 acres, with intercropping. Some will be clover, with wheat, to keep growing next season, to minimize tillage and produce nitrogen. We could underseed the clover with barley, too.”
Harris enjoys trying new crops. He has tried organic oats, spelt, chickpeas, corn and soybeans.
“We grow organic corn, so we’re going to try broadcasting flax between the rows of corn and then try cultivating between the rows to have the flax come up underneath the corn. One grower in Saskatchewan has done that with good results. That’s an idea we picked up at the workshop,” he said.
The Wecker family farm at Sedley, southeast of Regina, began transitioning to organic farming in 2014. Six thousand acres are certified organic and 3,000 acres will be in transition for another two years, said Joe Wecker in a telephone interview.
“We intercrop all the acres,” Joe said. “I also call an underseeded clover or alfalfa an intercrop or a companion crop. We did that from the start.”
The Wecker family traces its farming roots to 18th Century Germany. Hans and Joe Wecker moved to Alberta to farm in 1999, and then Saskatchewan in 2007. Today they grow as many as 16 different crops and have a state-of-the-art seed plant that will clean, size and color sort grain to specifications.
Crops include amber durum wheat, soft white wheat, spelt, fall rye, kamut, oats, mustard, flax, peas, lentils, soybeans, pinto beans and cover crops plus clover and ryegrass seed. Transition land is in alfalfa seed production. (www.weckerfarms.com)
“I’m glad we are into organic already for three years,” Joe said. “I don’t think it ever is worse than a monocrop and, the possibility is that it turns out better.”
For three years, equipment has been on a 60-foot tramline system for seeding and tillage. They do as little tillage as possible, usually after harvest for weed control. They also use a 120-foot sprayer to apply nutrients and foliar biological products in organic and conventional fields.
Soil health and risk management are Wecker’s reasons for using intercropping practices.
“My biggest reason is the diversity, above ground and below ground. Having a legume with a grass gives the grass more access to nutrients. The root pH is different, so they go hand in hand,” he said.
“When it comes to risk like rain, one crop always shines more than the other. You can see it in the field every year. There are spots where one crop does better one year, and the other does better the next year.”
Wecker believes intercropping saved the farm a thousand acres of reseeding in 2017. Frost killed mustard that was near a creek but the peas on those fields were good. On other fields, they had peas die out but the mustard was fine.
He has learned to like growing cereals with a legume.
“I can use my legume to bump up the nitrogen for the cereal. At the end of the day it will give me a higher yield of cereal and higher protein,” he said. “Sometimes we don’t have to understand what’s going on, just watch. We can see that the yield is higher, so there has to be something happening.”
He has come to believe that the farm needs to have roots growing all the time, from spring to fall to freezeup.
Wecker said: “Ultimately we need to be feeding our soil life and biology. That can only be done with living roots. We need to focus on that more. No-till is fine, but no-till is not any better unless you use it with cover crops. That’s when you start the system going, with pumping sugars into the root zone. No-till doesn’t cut it anymore, and just tilling the land, on the organic side, doesn’t cut it anymore either. We’re past that. We need to keep the soil going as long as we can; that’s our main focus.”