Growing two or more crops together in close proximity promotes plant resiliency and the natural suppression of pests and weeds. While intercropping has been practiced for hundreds of years, farmers’ interest in it has been renewed in recent years, according to research specialist Justin Jacobs.
“Its roots can be traced back to Native American cultures, with what was called the ‘Three Sisters’ — a mound of dirt was piled up, with corn planted in the middle, green beans surrounding the corn, and squash surrounding the green beans,” Jacobs says, with North Dakota State University’s Williston Research Extension Center.
Today, benefits from this crop management practice can be seen in conventional crops, such as forage and hay production, barley, peas, oats, and canola.
Modern Farm Combination
Peas and canola are an example of a successful intercropping system, Jacobs says. With this selection, the canola acts as the natural trellis to help hold the peas, reducing the lodging typically seen in a monoculture situation.
According to Jacobs, intercropping mixed grains into canola offers numerous production benefits, including increased field efficiency. “We can go from two planting passes to two harvest passes to a one planting pass and one harvest pass system while still achieving two different crops in one field,” he says.
One major benefit of mixed-grain intercropping is diversity. “We see an increase in both aboveground and belowground diversity with this practice,” he says. “Now, we have multiple root exudates as a result of having two different species.”
Rules to Making it Work
“There are a couple of rules that I think we need to adhere to when we’re trying to establish a successful intercrop scenario,” Jacobs says. “First, we should pick a primary crop and use this crop to manage all of our other decisions on this particular field and setting.”
If producers know they will be catering production toward canola, they know how to treat fertility and seeding rates, according to Jacobs. Size and maturity matter when intercropping, and the selected crops should have similar maturity but varying seed sizes.
“We do this because we want to be able to combine all at once, and we need different seed sizes so we can separate them easily,” Jacobs says.
Crop separation does not need to be a difficult process but is an important consideration in an intercropping system. “If we can’t separate at harvest, we’re doing nothing more than growing expensive cow feed,” he says.
“I truly believe that peas and canola are one of the easiest crop combinations to start intercropping with,” Jacobs says. “It can be customized very easily and can show a wealth of both economic and production benefits.”