soil health 2021

Greg Busch, left, and Keith Brown, right, talk to a group of farmers about soil health and intercropping during a Soil Health Tour Thursday night put on by the Williams County Soil Conservation District.

There’s a little love affair going on under the sun in one of Greg Busch’s intercropped fields. The maple peas and mustard are growing beautifully together this year, reaching near waist height despite the drought conditions, on a mere 5 inches or so of what has been timely rain.

The maple peas, worth $9 to $10 a bushel, are loaded with lots of bulging pods everywhere you look. And the plants are also all nice and upright, having trellised on sturdy stems of yellow-flowered mustard — pretty clouds whose seeds will be worth $18.50 a bushel. That’s based on a contract taken out during the winter, less than what’s now available.

In other years, Busch has tried to grow a monoculture of peas for comparison on various fields including the one where the pea-mustard intercrop is sown. But root rot got the monoculture instead. He wound up producing no more peas than the intercrop will produce.

Mustards are full of glucosinolates, which have bio-fumigant properties. That seems to keep the root rot at bay, he noted.

“Now I’m not saying you can go into something and expect to see zero root,” he added, gesturing to the healthy looking field of peas and mustard. “But it’s really been helping me out.”

Busch started his intercropping adventures with canola and peas, but what he found was that his anxious peas just wouldn’t wait for dawdling dreamy canola to mature.

“The reason we were looking at Clearfield canola in the first place is because it would give us a chance, if we saw weed pressure, to use some raptor to control any broadleaf weeds,” he explained.

After two years, however, he realized that they hadn’t really needed to use raptor for good enough control of weeds. Not that there isn’t any kochia or other weeds out there, but the dual crop, whether mustard or canola with peas has been better able to outcompete the weeds.

So he decided to switch from Clearfield canola in the intercrop to mustard instead. The two crops maturation is much closer together. It’s so near, in fact, that he can use a stripper instead of a typical sickle header to harvest.

“It’ll leave peas and mustard out here standing that are almost waist high,” Busch said. “So we didn’t get much snow last winter, but any time it did, it didn’t go anywhere. It stayed right where it was supposed to. And we hope to do that again this year.”

Next time, Busch thinks perhaps he will seed the mustard a bit more thickly than he did this year mainly from the standpoint of competition, but also given that prices for mustard are higher than for peas.

He has been tracking fertilizer use, and estimates he’s using a half to two-thirds of what he used to put on as his soil as its health improves. That’s helping him slow the rate of soil acidification.

“We’re still struggling with salinity issues because we’re holding more moisture,” he added. “But any time we can keep a crop growing, we’re seeing the salinity diminish.”

He was not able to get great insurance for the combined crop yet. He has to have a certain number of years data proving out the two crops and how well they work together. But he feels that in some ways the two crops self-insure.

“You know right along the road, you see the peas are thicker than when you get further out,” he said. “And I think what happened is, we had quite a mess of flea beetles really hammering us in the spring.”

That hurt the mustard, but the peas filled in the blanks, giving the field a buffer zone of peas surrounding mustard that appears untouched.

The field was seeded at three-quarters of an inch depth, but not rolled. Busch has stopped rolling fields, and he has also adopted no-till practices.

Over time, that has been boosting soil organic matter.

“It’s getting to the point of being, you know, that consistency of cottage cheese,” he said. “That’s kind of what we want to shoot for.”

Separating the pea and mustard or canola seeds is accomplished using a seed cleaner. The mustard seeds are quite a bit different in size than the pea, making them easier to separate by a typical seed cleaner.

“I am going to try a quick screen,” Busch said. “It’s kind of like a No. 10 round. And I think the mustard should fit through it pretty well.”

Storing the two crops in the bin together for later separation does not seem to cause any problems, Busch added. In fact, the peas seem to make it easier to aerate things than a mustard or canola crop alone.

“The other thing I’m noticing the grasshoppers just don’t seem to like — I mean there’s a few around — but I’m not really seeing damage,” Busch said. “Hopefully they’re chewing on the kochia out here or something else. But they just don’t seem to be attracted to either species, and we’re far enough along now that they shouldn’t do any damage.”

Not so the flax field, he added. Plenty of grass hoppers in the thick of that.

Busch, and a fellow farmer in the region Morgan Jacobs, are also working on chickpea-flax as an intercrop, but that little match is still in the adjustment phase.

Jacobs has also been trying things like bale grazing, and is finding it a fast way to repair troublesome spots in the field.

“Coming up the highway from Noonan, where those big salt flats are, we have some pastures in there,” he said. “We just set out mature hay on a few of those barren white spots in the pasture there.”

The next spring, he found some grass growing in those circles, despite the fact nothing had grown there for a year or so.

“That’s something where you can see a change very quickly to some spots in your pasture land,” he said.

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