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Divide County Farmer Experiments with Companion Cropping

"I haven’t been this excited about farming since we quit summer fallow,” says Harlan Johnson, who in 2018 is marking 42 years of farming near Crosby, N.D., in the northwest corner of the state along the Canadian border.

Kindra Gordon writes from Whitewood, S.D.

His son Phil joined the operation three years ago after graduating with an engineering degree from Montana State University.

sunflower, monarch

What has the Johnson’s so excited about farming? It’s their interest in companion crops, also called intercropping. Harlan says Phil was instrumental in researching the concept, which has been growing in popularity in Canada over the past decade and convincing him to explore it for their farm.

Phil explains that companion cropping puts two crops together – such as flax and chickpeas, and this ultimately provides a boost to soil microbes and fertility which then boosts crop production. “An oil seed and legume work well together, and the research suggests instead of 1 plus 1 equaling 2 you get 2.2 – or an extra 20% in yield,” says Phil.

The father-son duo experimented with about 10% of their acres planted to companion crops in 2017 and intend to try more intercropping in the 2018 growing season. Crops traditionally grown on their Divide County farm include durum wheat, hard red spring wheat, flax, oats, sunflowers, corn, millet, and canola. Companion crop combinations they are trying to include flax and chickpeas, peas and canola (often called peaola by Canadian farmers), and yellow mustard and green lentils.

Willing to improve

In reflecting on his more than four decades farming, Harlan says he has seen the benefits of conservation practices firsthand. “I grew up summer fallowing; we saw big gullies and our land was wearing out. It wasn’t any fun,” he says.

Twenty years ago, Johnson stopped using summer fallow and transitioned to no-till. About a decade ago, he credits Rob Casteel, District Conservationist at the Crosby Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Field Office for introducing him to cover crops. Johnson received technical assistance in planning his cover crops as well as cost-share assistance through an Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) contract and Conservation Stewardship Plan (CSP) contract.

Casteel credits the Johnsons with being dedicated to conservation to find ways to improve their resources. Casteel shares, “Harlan and Phil have been open to new and innovative ideas for conservation on their farm. As a result, the improvement of resources on the farm has increased the long-term sustainability of the farming operation.”

field, crops

Of the cover crops planted after harvest, Johnson says, “Cover crops don’t cost much, and it really helps the soil. Having a live root in the ground keeps the bacteria and fungi working.”

Now, their next conservation focus is on bringing more diversity to their soils with the intercropping concept. Harlan explains, “I grew up just growing wheat, but in nature a monoculture is not natural, so intercropping makes more sense…the two crops help each other and require less fertilizer.”

He adds, “We are trying to be diverse and get cool season and warm season grasses and broadleaves into our crop rotations.” Harlan notes that research he and Phil have reviewed suggests soil microbes can become lazy without plant diversity, whereas a live root in the ground, especially one that fixes Nitrogen, offers benefits to soil activity. He and Phil estimate that through this approach, they may achieve a 30 lb. Nitrogen credit simply from the plants used.

The Johnson’s attended an intercropping meeting in Regina, Saskatchewan this past December and were excited by the ideas shared among the 150 farmers in attendance.

That said, they do advise others exploring intercropping to realize there is a steep learning curve.

 “We are experimenting on a small scale. There is an aggressive learning curve, so it is best to start small,” says Phil. He notes that in 2017, their first year of intercropping, they planted when the soil was too cold, and the drought through the summer made for other challenges. An additional drawback is that the two crops must be separated at the bin site.

Harlan says, “It requires more management, so pick a small seed and a large seed, to make the separating process easier.”

In spite of that, this father-son pair is still excited by the fact that their fertilizer costs are less, and they have less need for herbicides than with a single crop. They’ve also found that GPS auto steer helps them seed between old rows, which seems to enhance plant viability.

“Our goal is to keep living roots in the ground, so we never let the roots go into sleep mode and we can recycle nutrients faster…We hope it will help us be more profitable,” Phil concludes.