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Companion Cropping: The Next Big Thing
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Posted 11/27/2013 22:02 (#3475414)
Subject: Companion Cropping: The Next Big Thing

Central Kansas

Every year I try something new. This year I copied an idea that I learned about through a webinar. The idea was to grow a cash crop within a cover crop. The cover crop and the cash crop would work in tandem, cooperate and allow a cash crop to be harvested. The production would be cheaper and hopefully profits would be higher.

My 8 way blend cover crop was air seeded in 15” rows in early July. The next day I planted sunflowers in 30” rows. 2013 was my “learning” year so having just completed harvest, I’m still waiting on precise yield map data. Evidence suggested that the torrential rains damaged my yields. Terrain, drain ability and soil types drastically affected my sunflower yield outcomes this year. I had one conventional double crop flower field and it far out yielded the acres with companion crops. The flowers with companion crops were much cheaper to produce. I plan to have better data soon and right or wrong I have a plan for 2014, already.

Following wheat harvest I will take each of my double crop fields and split them in half. One half will have massive inputs and sunflowers planted. Another half will have fewer inputs and sunflowers planted. Obviously, the cover crop will be part of the low input acreage. This year I had no side by sides, thus, only assumptions could be made about the production. The 2013 production on the conventional field was on upland and was better able to drain off 20” of rain. Incidentally, I also chose to gamble on additional foliar fertilizer applications which further skyrocketed the costs. That skewed the comparisons. The 2013 production on the companion fields was on low lying, poorly drained soil and did not receive extra foliar fertilizer. The flowers looked healthier so no alarming measures seemed justified.

Besides having side by side comparisons in each field, I plan to slightly tweak the cover crop blend. The conventional flowers will incur an immediate burn down with preemerge herbicides, take 95 units of bulk nitrogen and get aerial sprayed for moths. The companion flowers will simply have the cover crop sewed ahead of planting. Both sides of the field will have starter fertilizer and grass control late in the season.

This plan is based on studying the crops and a learning curve which dictated a few changes.

Long term benefits of cover crops are hard to identify. Taking many of the perceived benefits on faith I enjoy the challenge of creating a different way of doing things and maybe making greater profit. Failure is always an option. Smashing success is always an option. More information will follow.

I strongly believe that shade may be the greatest benefit of cover crops. Shade lends itself to moisture conservation and weed suppression. We are utilizing soil and tissue sampling and yield mapping to track the progress or lack thereof between the two methods.

Does Kansas ever have a normal year? Some may argue that extreme wet or dry years may wreck the analysis. That is possible. I’m convinced that the abnormal rainfall wrecked the companion fields in 2013. I also made some mistakes and biased choices. This will be a long term study, initially. An open mind must be maintained.

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