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Intercropping winter and spring crops with pulses

It’s complicated, but intercropping pulses with oilseeds could be viable and profitable in southern Alberta. A three-year research project will sweat the details.

Improvements in farm productivity tend to be made in small increments: a seed variety that promises 2% more yield, a herbicide that offers slightly sharper weed control or a grain auger that lets you work 5% faster.

Now, let’s think really big. What would you say to increasing your per-acre crop production by up to 40%? It could be possible using a crop production technique you might’ve heard of, but which only a handful of growers are currently practising.

Eric Bremer started a three-year project in 2018 to study the feasibility and economics of intercropping. His team will plant a variety of canola/pulse combinations, including spring and winter canola and spring and winter field peas and lentils.

“Putting two crops together usually means you get less yield for each crop, but when you have two crops with different needs, they can be quite complementary,” said Bremer, Head of R&D at Western Ag Innovations. “We’re interested in seeing if you can get more productivity overall.”

Previous studies give intercropping a promising thumbs-up

Bremer cites studies indicating intercropping can result in an overall per-acre crop production boost of around 50%. He thinks there may also be other benefits.

“You often get diseases when it’s wet, but if you have two crops using up the water better and keeping the canopy open, we think that could help reduce disease,” Bremer said.

There are potential complications, too, with weed control being one of them. A grower practising intercropping may have challenges finding a product that can be used on both crops.

“A potential benefit with weed control is that intercropping provides a more competitive stand than either apart,” Bremer noted. “Many growers find it’s competitive enough to just need pre-seed weed control.”

If you’ve ever struggled getting a pea crop harvested, now imagine harvesting your canola at the same time. As Bremer explained it, growers who are intercropping go through with one pass of the combine and separate the seeds when unloading the truck before storage. In the case of peas and canola, the large difference in seed size makes that straightforward.

Bremer admits adjustments will be needed depending on a farmer’s location, soil type and crop combinations. It’s a concept with lots of moving parts, but he believes it could deliver immense dividends.

Winter canola growing in the same field as winter peas or spring lentils? Flax plus chickpeas? A lentil/mustard combination? As Bremer kicks off this intriguing project, he’s as full of questions as anyone.

“It’s a more complicated system, so we’ll need to try a lot of things to make it work,” he said. “It will involve large changes to cropping practice, but if there’s a large payback, then growers will figure it out. Some growers have already been intercropping routinely. We’re just trying to help that along and see if it can work in southern Alberta.”