Intercropping in arable systems

Interest in Intercropping has been growing amongst conventional and organic farmers for some time. This field lab will look at how farmers can use intercropping to make their arable systems more sustainable and productive.

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Field Lab Timeline

    6/5/2017 11:00:00 PM
  • Idea formation

    Idea formation
  • 6/6/2017 11:00:00 PM
  • Initial interest meeting

    Initial interest meeting
  • 11/23/2017 12:00:00 AM
  • Second topic discussion meeting

    Second topic discussion meeting
  • 12/15/2017 12:00:00 AM
  • Method development

    Method development
  • 1/10/2018 12:00:00 AM
  • Methods decided

    Methods decided
  • 2/1/2018 12:00:00 AM
  • Trial start

    Trial start
  • 3/1/2018 12:00:00 AM
  • Trial progression meeting

    Trial progression meeting
  • 5/31/2018 11:00:00 PM
  • Initial results gathered

    Initial results gathered
  • 6/9/2018 11:00:00 PM
  • Meeting to discuss initial results

    Meeting to discuss initial results
  • 1/1/2019 12:00:00 AM
  • Year 2 methods agreed

    Year 2 methods agreed
  • 3/1/2019 12:00:00 AM
  • Year 2 seed purchased

    Year 2 seed purchased
  • 3/31/2019 11:00:00 PM
  • Crop establishment

    Crop establishment
  • 4/23/2019 11:00:00 PM
  • Progress meeting

    Progress meeting
  • 5/14/2019 11:00:00 PM
  • Weed assessments

    Weed assessments
  • 7/31/2019 11:00:00 PM
  • Lodging assessments

    Lodging assessments
  • 8/14/2019 11:00:00 PM
  • Harvest; yield and separation

    Harvest; yield and separation
  • 9/12/2019 11:00:00 PM
  • Data analysis

    Data analysis
  • 11/7/2019 12:00:00 AM
  • Results meeting

    Results meeting
  • 12/19/2019 12:00:00 AM
  • Trial conclusion

    Trial conclusion
For further information hover over the above milestone marks
  • Discussion

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  • Achievements

    April 2020

    Final report published

    The final report has been published. To view the full report, please go to the 'Documents' section at the top of this page (sign-in is required but membership is free).

    Findings include:

    - An oat companion crop significantly increased linseed yield

    - Intercropping wheat with beans resulted in much lower weed biomass compared to the monocrop - 73% and 74% weed reduction in 2018 and 2019 respectively

    - The pea crop may have facilitated nutrient supply for oilseed rape when no artificial nitrogen was being applied. The peas provided insurance when the oilseed rape failed to make it to harvest

    - Linseed with oats was the only combination in which statistically significant yield differences were detected, but this may be due to a higher number of replicates and a higher sampling effort. More sampling at the other plots would increase the strength of the results

    Milestone: Trial conclusion

    March 2019

    Second year of trials going ahead

    In 2019 three trials are being established on two farms. The two field lab farmers have developed plant team trials to test a certain objective of their choice.
    T1: Test the effectiveness of oats in reducing linseed loss during establishment via reduction of pest and disease pressure.
    T2 (A): Test the effectiveness of oats in reducing spring oil seed rape (SOSR) losses (in a crop which is also intercropped with peas) via reduction in pest and disease pressure.
    T2 (B): Test the effectiveness of SOSR in supporting the pea crop and reducing lodging.
    T3: Test whether intercropping beans with wheat reduces the weed burden in the bean crop and increases the protein content in wheat.

    Plant teams will be drilled in winter/spring and harvested in summer 2019. Each trial has different data collection priorities to address the objective, as determined by the farmers, but yield will be collected from all field-scale strips by farmers using their combine monitors and separating a subsample to determine crop ratios. Quadrat sampling will be primarily undertaken by the farmers with support from ORC/LEAF researchers. Farmers will collect data such as crop establishment and yield data, whilst weed burden, pest and disease pressure and degree of lodging will be analysed by the researchers.

    Milestone: Year 2 methods agreed

    October 2018

    Reflections from the first year of trials

    “We are definitely doing this again next year, we’d be stupid not to! In fact, we’ve already ordered our seed.”

    “The beans were our main crop so any wheat we got was a bonus. We actually saw slightly lower bean yields where we intercropped but this was more than made up for by the wheat. Crucially, we saw 64% less weed biomass in the intercropped plots. With far fewer weeds, we should have a much cleaner field next year."

    “This is our first foray into intercropping and we are convinced it was worthwhile. Having the extra biomass in the form of a wheat crop - rather than weeds - is hugely beneficial. Next year, we’ll probably drop the wheat rate to around a third to try and boost our bean yield while still suppressing the weeds.”

    Milestone: Meeting to discuss initial results

    October 2018

    Next steps

    The group are deciding what intercropping to do following on from this initial year of trials.

    Plant team possibilities:
    • Cereal and legume
    • White clover

    • New triallist / observer: Current Winter OSR trial (As above)
    • Farmer D: Beans and wheat
    • Farmer B: Yellow trefoil, White clover
    • Farmer F: Linseed, lentils; peas and something

    • Soil N
    • Plant tissue analysis (of intercrop and following crop)
    • Pests/ beneficials

    Milestone: Meeting to discuss initial results

    October 2018

    Farmer B Results


    • Beans and wheat with 2 bean varieties used (Vertigo and Fanfare)
    • Poor establishment of the beans in the intercrop and monocrop plots.
    • Fanfare performed slightly better than Vertigo but not significantly different.
    • Drilled late and seed only had 65% establishment so would have effected how successful the beans establishment combined with this years weather.

    • Adjust seed weight in the intercrops (increase)
    • Adjust timings (Try to drill earlier)
    • Adjust variety (a winter bean variety may be more successful- Tundra?)

    Milestone: Meeting to discuss initial results

    October 2018

    Farmer F Results


    • Rain rotted some of crop (Mono and Inter) then had no rain meaning spring crops were awful this year.
    • Spring OSR very low due to slug damage, wetness, anything that did grow was eaten
    • Didn’t harvest any rape in trial, in another trial with sandy soil some Rape was harvested.
    • Big issue will Pollen Beetle which wouldn’t leave the S.OSR alone.
    • Next year, wouldn’t manage or spend any money on the OSR, just let it grow as it is.
    • In previous years with Peas and Rape intercrop no dry fertiliser was used but there was no nutrient deficiency.
    • Wasn’t any marked difference in beans in the mono and Inter plots. No N deficiency despite low N application.
    • Beans at Inter 245 kg/h rate out yielded the 345 Kg/ha Mono from the Quadrat samples but didn’t on the combine.
    • Foot rot present which will have effected yield on combine.
    • Less yield in the intercrops due to no OSR
    • Intercrops had more flowering of beans but the heat aborted any extra pods
    • Slightly more weeds in the intercrop (due to no OSR)
    • Beans were a bit further back compared to OSR in terms of moisture but there was not enough OSR for it to cause an issue. This could be due to a lower density of beans in intercrops.

    • Not enough OSR to know how the combine would go through the intercrop
    • Had a gross margin loss in the intercrop (Money used trying to keep pollen beetle back).

    • Reading trialled Mustard around crop to treat Flea beetle, which reduced prevalence on OSR. Beetle still prefers the OSR vs the mustard
    • Can’t do this on a field scale, could use mustard instead of OSR in the intercrop, but may struggle to destroy the mustard
    • There is experience in spraying for Pollen beetle before which removed the pollen beetle but the next day high prevalence of Pollen beetle was high again.

    Linseed, lentils intercrop
    • Lentils worked well, Linseed thinned out more than would

    Milestone: Meeting to discuss initial results

    October 2018

    Farmer D Results

    Farmer D
    • Used Wheat (which they already had) and Tundra Beans
    • They are convinced it was worthwhile and will do it again this year
    • Drilled in October (2 passes on the same day)
    • Ideally would use 50%:50% mix for yield but it is not best for weed suppression. This year used 25% beans and feel could do 30% beans and still get the weed suppression needed. It is a lot of wheat but no negative yield hit as being using for feed.

    • Slightly lower than normal, which was due to it being very wet and then very dry (also caused large cracks within the soil)
    Weed suppression
    • Has a big wild Oat problem and visually the intercrop had less wild oats present
    • Hoping the Seed return from wild oats will be lower in the intercrop plots this year (theory would be ½ than normal)
    • 63% reduction in wild oat biomass in Intercrop vs Monocrop
    • 1.9 t/ha for the intercrop, which is a slight yield hit on the beans but had a lot of wheat so together no yield hit.

    Protein analysis
    • No protein analysis done but could be as there are still samples of the Inter and Monocrop.
    • Did have to wait a little for the beans to ripen but no wheat dropped out. Not sure what would happen with more rain
    • Worry of intercrops would be 2 different harvest dates
    • Isn’t a problem for us as a slight loss in wheat isn’t a issue due to it being used as fodder.
    • Intercrop was a growth stage or 2 ahead of the monocrop, flowering was at least 2 days before monocrop.

    • Will try to drop the wheat rate to 1/3 of normal rate and increase beans
    • Overall happy with the intercrop, especially useful biomass vs weeds

    Milestone: Meeting to discuss initial results

    October 2018

    Farmer G Results

    Farmer G
    • Grows Carlin Peas for Hodmedod's. Traditional UK pea.
    • Previously struggled with Lodging so trials Peas, Triticale to help with this and for livestock Fodder
    • 10% Triticale plot: Some Thistles and lodging but better than Monocrop
    • 30% Triticale plot: Visibly less Lodging.
    • At harvest he favoured the 30% Triticale plot but before 10%-20% plots were more favoured.
    • No significant difference in yield
    • Not sure how representative this years data is due to weather
    • He is thinking of going higher with the % Triticale
    • Slight yield hit on Peas in intercrops but not enough to be significant
    • (PP) It is a lower yielding pea anyway, on my 2.6 ha organic system vs my neighbours conventional fields we yield the same.

    Key learnings & Economics
    • Plant team seems to work, will try higher rates (20-50%) Triticale but needs to consider the economics of this.
    • Could use seed from this year to save money (Split peas in the Triticale won’t grow anyway)
    • Yield penalty could be out weighed by combine costs.
    • Is there anyway to measure time of Intercrops VS Monocrop?
    • Using the intercrops for feed so don’t need to separate. No extra management time vs the monocrop beans

    Milestone: Meeting to discuss initial results

    October 2018

    First year results

    James Hutton Institute (as part of DIVERSify)
    • Pea and Barley, Wheat and Faba Bean
    • Higher yield in the mixtures due to over yielding of peas compared to monoculture
    • Elevated grain N in Barely, Pea Mixtures
    • Variety used is super important, project will look at traits of different varieties (How they perform, maturation etc).
    • Would be interesting to know pest suppression of the varieties
    • Did seem to separate the mixes at harvest/ post
    • (AH) biggest worry for me would be splitting split peas from Barley?
    • They may have kept the Split peas in the Barely
    • Would be an issue for a non-livestock farm not using it for fodder

    Grain N
    • Cannot say exactly how grain N was elevated but project looking at the Interactions/ traits of combinations. Combination greater than the Mono crop. Trial plots to get a better understanding of this.
    • If you force Peas or any legume to nodulate could be a cause

    Milestone: Meeting to discuss initial results

    August 2018

    Triallist observations

    One of the triallists (Farmer G) had the following important observations from this year's trial:

    "The pea trit mix trial has been successful - it hasn’t been a bad year for lodging but the Carlin’s were very keen indeed to lie down. The control was flat apart from where the thistles were, and the amount off the floor steadily increased across the 4 other plots. The highest (30%) trit rate was the best and combining was much easier than usual, although it was also much drier than usual too. The total yield off the combine was fairly level across the 5 plots suggesting that the increasing trit was replacing pea yield (competing)."

    Milestone: Initial results gathered

    August 2018

    Crop assessments of beans & wheat trial and beans & OSR trial

    Three triallists have collected their data which is now being analysed by the researcher. The remainder are waiting to harvest and collect their data for analysis. The intercropped mixes have been sampled as follows:

    • Beans and wheat = five 1 m2 quadrats were taken from the trial plot and five from the monoculture control on the 7th August. These will be assessed through biomass.

    • Beans and Spring OSR = three 1/4 m2 quadrats taken from each trial plot and monoculture control, (monoculture = 100% rate of beans x2, plot 1= rate of beans 62%, OSR 85% x2, plot 2 = rate of beans 71%, OSR 77% x2). Percentage seed rate is being used to compare to the farmers normal monocrop seed rate. These will be assessed through the grains.

    • The samples taken so far have been dried and threshed.

    Milestone: Initial results gathered

    July 2018

    Yield sampling

    The researchers from the Organic Research Centre and with help from LEAF will be going out to the triallists fields to take quadrat cuts for yield estimates of the wheat and bean trials over the next month until the end of August, after which the initial results of the trial will be available.

    Milestone: Initial results gathered

    May 2018

    Triallist intercropping mixes and areas

    A number of group members were successfully funded for the 2018 DIVERSify Intercropping trials looking at a range of plant teams. Plant teams include: Wheat and beans, Carlin peas and triticale, beans and Spring OSR, peas and barley.

    Each farmer will be trialling as follows:

    Farmer A - Spring barley with crimson & berseem clover (2.5 ha) vs Spring barley monoculture (2.8 ha)
    Farmer B – Spring beans with Spring wheat (2.8) vs Spring beans (2 varieties) (2.8 ha)
    Farmer C – Winter wheat with white clover, aslike clover & trefoil (7.5 ha) vs Winter wheat monoculture (0.5-1 ha)
    Farmer D – Winter beans & Spring wheat (1 ha) vs Winter beans monoculture (1 ha)
    Farmer E – Peas & barley with vetch & grass (5 ha) vs Pea and barley (2 ha)
    Farmer F – Spring beans with Spring OSR (4 ha) vs Spring beans (2 ha)
    Farmer G 1 – Carlin peas with Spring triticale (4 ha) vs Carlin peas (1.8 ha)
    Farmer G 2 – Fodder beat with buckwheat (3 ha) vs Fodder beat (0.23 ha)
    Farmer H – Rye with beans (4 ha) vs rye monoculture (1.4 ha) and bean monoculture (1.4 ha)

    Small trial plots have also been set up at the University of Reading Crops Research Unit. Four reps of x 6 treatments: Pea, Bean, OSR, Pea/OSR, Bean/OSR and an OSR/legume intercrop (to fill the 6th plot in the block) in 5m x 2m plots. There will also be 3 reps x 3 treatments of OSR, OSR/Barley and OSR/legume in 5m x 4m plots to look at the effect of intercropping on fleabeetle damage.

    The Organic Research Centre also have wheat and bean, and wheat and lupin intercropping trials at this site.

    Milestone: Trial start

    May 2018

    Data collection methods

    Protocol for data collection:
    The group agreed with using the data collection protocol provided by the DIVERSIfy project.
    Data will be predominantly collected by farmers. This will include establishment counts, harvest data and gross margin based on records of seeding rates, inputs etc.

    It was decided yield and harvest data collection will be collected by a researcher from the DIVERSIfy project due to the busy time of year for the farmers and this will also enable continuity in the data collection (1 person to collect all the harvest data from each farm). The group coordinator and researchers will liaise with individuals on this and preliminary results will be fed back at the next meeting.

    Milestone: Methods decided

    May 2018

    Trial progress and next steps

    The May meeting commenced with an introduction to the kit that has been used to address drilling and harvest complexity for intercropping at one of the trial farms. This includes a cross slot drill and a seed sorter that has been custom built. There was then a farm walk to some of the intercropped fields.

    Intercropping on the farm includes:
    Barley/ clover (small and medium white, alsike clover and yellow trefoil) planted 28/7/17
    Linseed/ lentils planted 24/4/18
    Fabola (Beans/ spring oilseed rape) at varying concentration/ quantities (being trialed as part of the DIVERSify EU project) planted 20/04/18
    Wheat into a clover mixture (white and alsike clover, yellow plus birdsfoot trefoil) planted 31/3/17
    Oats/ clover (trefoils and micro-clover) planted 21/4/18 "

    Milestone: Trial progression meeting

    May 2018

    Spring meeting

    The next meeting will be hosted by Andy Howard at Oaklands Farm, TN261ER, on May 2nd.

    We will start the day at 10 am and Andy will show us around including the cross-slot drill, and intercrop separator. There will hopefully be bean/OSR intercrop, spring oats undersown with clover and linseed/lentils to see in the field. We will discuss the group trials and potential ‘working groups’ that are coming out of the crop combos being tested, and have lunch in a local pub. A more detail agenda will be available nearer the date.

    Please let know if you wish to attend so that we have an idea of numbers for the day.

    Milestone: Trial start

    January 2018

    Methods discussion

    Potential methodologies were then discussed where the group identified the following outcome measurements:

    - Yield (quadrat cuts, total yield, registered biomass),
    - Weed pressure (plant counts, quadrat),
    - Insect pressure (visual assessment),
    - General observations (visual assessment),
    - Nutrients (tissue test and soil testing over time) and
    - Economics (cost- inputs and outputs).

    These traits were considered alongside protocols that are being developed as part of the DIVERSify project.

    Milestone: Method development

    January 2018

    Outcomes from second meeting

    This meeting identified the past experiences working with plant teams (complementary crops) within the group.

    Example plant teams tried and effectiveness are as follows:

    - Spring Wheat and Tundra Beans,
    - Spring Barley and Peas (Unsuccessful),
    - Peas and Oil Seed Rape (OSR),
    - Chickpeas and Linseed (Unsuccessful),
    - Clover and OSR alongside direct drilling.

    Plant teams of interest for further trials were selected and discussed. It was noted that the type of plant team will depend on the farm environment e.g. soil type and weed burden. Plant team success will likely be measured at a single farm scale but the group will consider options for cross-farm comparisons of different crop combination 'working groups' e.g. cereal and legumes.

    The group discussed what they would like to get out of the plant teams and why they are interested in trialling certain combinations. The first ideas are as follows:

    - Clover undersown / companion cropped with a cash crop (to supress weeds, improve soil health, improve yield, improve water infiltration and soil structure).

    - Beans and OSR (to increase yield, the two crops are easy to seperate and have similar harvest dates).

    - Clover with a cash crop (to improve soil health and reduce chemical usage).

    - Beans and wheat (Reduce weeds in bean crop, and the wheat should not outcompete the beans).

    - Legumes and buckwheat (To supress weeds and improve soil health and mineral availability).

    - Vetch and Westwold, linseed and peas and yellow trefoil and spring barley (to increase diversity on farm and spread risk).

    The group then dicussed a potential trial plot intercropping OSR with beans and other cash crops, to be held at the University of Reading (to reduce pest risk in OSR).

    Milestone: Second topic discussion meeting

    January 2018

    Second topic meeting

    The next meeting will take place on the 30th January at The Organic Research Centre, Elm Farm RG20 0HR.

    This meeting will give an opportunity to develop research questions, and identify synergies among group members in their interests and what they are testing in the field. The meeting will also allow anyone applying for funding from the DIVERSify project for on-farm trials and demonstration of ‘plant teams’ to bring along their applications where there will be a surgery to help with the process and explore trial design.

    Milestone: Second topic discussion meeting

    November 2017

    Workshop on intercropping

    Workshop at Rushall Organics on the theme of Organic Cereal Production. There was a range of attendees from both organic and conventional production systems as well as representation throughout the supply chain. The workshop looked to identifiy the motivations for intercropping and the past experiences of the group when intercropping; looking at both the successes and failures.

    The discussion also identifed the barriers farmers have faced when intercropping and the possible solutions to these barriers. Barriers identifed included the choice of varieties and how seed mixes/ variety could influence he successfulness of the crops, lack of market and the high cost of machinery. The group identified some possible solutions to barriers including the sharing of knowledge and experiences between farmers and others.

    Similar sessions where also held at Overbury Estates and Stockbridge Technology Centre in October. The group now has 25 members including 12 farmers, as well as researchers and agricultural advisors.

    Milestone: Idea formation

    November 2017

    Further idea discussion and farmer recruitment

    After the initial meeting, the field lab has 3 farmers - 2 organic and 1 conventional, and a total of 7 members. If you are interested in joining this group, please come along to the meeting on 23 November, details and booking information can be found here:

    Milestone: Second topic discussion meeting

    June 2017

    Initial interest meeting

    This field lab has recently been created in light of the Organic Research Centre's DIVERSify project, which stems from EU Horizon 2020 funding. Interested farmers first met on 7 June 2017 to discuss the opportunities for intercropping to provide more efficient resource use, reducing pest and disease pressure and provide better weed competition.

    The day included:

    Farm tour with John Pawsey (Shimpling Park Farm):
    Using System Cameleon combi drill and hoe for establishing and managing intercrops. Peas and barley, buckwheat in spring oat, wheat and beans.

    Researchers and farmers sharing learning's from the field, including Andy Howard,
    Nuffield Scholar on Intercropping, Dominic Amos, ORC.

    Farmers shared photos and learnings, with Q&A

    Topics included:

    Crop planning
    Species selection and combinations
    Establishment and management
    Harvest, separation and markets.

    Milestone: Initial interest meeting

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