Dakota Farmer

2 crops, 1 field — the rise of intercropping on the Great Plains

North Dakota research specialist offers tips on how to increase field efficiency by harvesting two crops at once.

Sarah McNaughton, Editor, Dakota Farmer

March 28, 2023

2 Min Read
canola crop in a field
BRING THE BENEFITS: Mixed-grain intercropping can lead to increased profits and productivity. Peas and canola are a common pair planted when starting to intercrop on an operation.Joanna McCarthy/Getty Images

Growing two or more crops together in close proximity promotes plant resiliency and 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,” says Jacobs, 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 rules that I think we need to adhere to when we’re trying to establish a successful intercrop scenario,” Jacobs explains. “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 size.

“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.”

Producers interested in canola research and management practices can find more information from NDSU Extension.

About the Author(s)

Sarah McNaughton

Editor, Dakota Farmer, Farm Progress

Sarah McNaughton of Bismarck, N.D., has been editor of Dakota Farmer since 2021. Before working at Farm Progress, she was an NDSU 4-H Extension agent in Cass County, N.D. Prior to that, she was a farm and ranch reporter at KFGO Radio in Fargo.

McNaughton is a graduate of North Dakota State University, with a bachelor’s degree in ag communications and a master’s in Extension education and youth development.

She is involved in agriculture in both her professional and personal life, as a member of North Dakota Agri-Women, Agriculture Communicators Network Sigma Alpha Professional Agriculture Sorority Alumni and Professional Women in Agri-business. As a life-long 4-H’er, she is a regular volunteer for North Dakota 4-H programs and events.

In her free time, she is an avid backpacker and hiker, and can be found most summer weekends at rodeos around the Midwest.

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