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Poly Cropping with Multiple Cash Crops

Axten Farms • Minton, Saskatchewan

The act of poly cropping is the concept of growing two or more crops at one time to harvest. There are multiple benefits to this technique including:

Reduced fertilizer use (when one crop is a legume).

Higher combined profit per acre than monoculture crops.

Reduce or eliminate some herbicide, insecticide, and fungicide passes. 

Plants can synergistically assist one another for improved performance.

Ability to market two crops from each acre, providing more marketing potential.

Utilize species to maximize varying soil series within a field.

Better harvestability of crops (crops prone to lodging are supported by more erect crops).

Derek and Tannis Axten from Minton, Saskatchewan, are pioneers in this concept. Their first farm scale poly crop was a pea/canola combination in 2011. Several seasons of success got them to try new combinations including lentils/flax, mustard/maple peas, sunflowers/hairy vetch, chickpeas/flax, canola/chickling vetch, and canola/winter peas. Their cereals (oats and durum) are not seeded as an intercrop but are seeded with clovers as a companion crop. Axten’s personal experiences has shown that poly cropping has the potential to yield more profit per acre and gives the farmer two products to market. Green Cover Seed routinely buys both the chickpeas and the flax that the Axtens grow.

The caveat to this system is that harvested crops need to be separated prior to marketing. On-farm cleaning systems can be utilized for separation, but it is important to choose species that are different enough in seed size, shape, and density, so they can be easily separated. Chickpeas/flax are great, but mustard /canola (both small, round, and dense) would be almost impossible to separate. 

Many producers who are poly cropping got their start by making a mistake in termination or planting, but then observed and learned about plant synergism and now try to harness the power of diversity. To get started, we recommend that you start small and determine what species will work within your region. If herbicides will be used, start with diverse crop labeled products like Spartan to give maximum flexibility of approved species. Determining the seeding rates of each species may take some experimentation and research, but starting with a 75% rate of each species is a good place to begin. 

Learn more about the Axten’s farming operation

at their website: http://www.axtenfarms.ca/

Cereals Back in the Rotation

Dan DeSutter of Attica, Indiana, is doing something almost sacrilegious in his area: he has quit the corn-soybean only rotation and has added cereal grains back into his rotation, as was done 70 years ago in the Corn Belt. 

We caught Dan at a rare moment in his busy schedule when he had time to answer a few questions.

 

Why do you think putting cereal crops back into the rotation is important?

Dan: We have identified that a lack of diversity is a major limiting factor to increasing the health and function of our soils. Most of the agronomic problems that we face are due to lack of diversity. Unfortunately, with a limited growing season, there are not meaningful opportunities to introduce diversity into a corn and soybean alternation. Cereal crops not only bring diversity as a cash crop, but more importantly, they give us a window after harvest to inject diversity in the form of cover crop cocktails. On the acres that we have initiated this change, we see significantly less weed pressure as well as a marked increase in plant health.

What is your current crop rotation?

We don’t have a single rotation as we are constantly trying different combinations to see where the greatest synergies lie. A set rotation implies predictability which is the opposite of what we want. Our goal is to become more unpredictable to keep pests guessing. We are headed in the direction of identifying combinations of companion perennial plants that will provide fertility as well as mycorrhizal and biological support to the cash crop we would like to harvest.

What kind of results and benefits have you seen so far?

As we try to assimilate the five principles of soil health into all our management decisions, the results are predictable. Organic matter is increasing. Weed pressure is decreasing as is our dependence on all outside inputs. Water infiltration is improving along with the soil’s ability to feed our crops without our help.

What problems and challenges have you run into so far? 

Big surprise here, things don’t always work out as planned. The first year we employed a complex cover crop mix it was absolutely beautiful in terms of diversity and biomass. The next year we used a very similar mix, but planting was delayed almost 3 weeks after wheat harvest. In an effort to eliminate glyphosate and 24d from our system, we planted as soon as it was fit without a burn down. However, the volunteer wheat had a good head start and this proved detrimental to several species in our mix resulting in less diversity and biomass. Timing becomes even more crucial when you try to operate without band-aids. We have learned that when you try to eliminate chemical disturbance you have to always be planning three steps ahead.

 

What new practices do you plan to try going forward,

and why?

While it is not necessarily a new practice, we are working diligently to re-introduce livestock into our land-management toolbox. This involves installing fence and water systems on every acre that we wish to have the ability to graze. We believe that we can build soil health much faster with managed ruminant impact than without. Next year, we plan to seed pollinator habitat throughout the farm, especially where we are still employing mono cash crops. The key to avoiding economically damaging insect infestations and/or pressure to resort to insecticide use is enhancing the number and diversity of our predator species by providing them food and habitat. We can solve almost every problem that faces agriculture today if we would employ the Five Principles of Soil Health. Think about it!

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