For the 2018 growing season, Dave McEachren decided to revisit the past with something old and something new. A dozen years ago, he had tried relay cropping after hearing about it and reading the research that had been done on it at Ohio State University.
The practice involves planting soybeans into a wheat crop as early as possible in spring, harvesting the wheat in June or July, and then harvesting the soybeans that emerge and mature through the stubble.
Initially, his goal was to derive more value out of his soil, but McEachren, who farms just outside of Glencoe, Ont., found that the soybeans on his first attempt were so spindly and sparse, he didn’t bother to harvest them. In fact, he forgot about the concept until early 2017, when he heard Wisconsin farmer John Kutz speak at the annual meeting of the Innovative Farmers’ Association of Ontario (IFAO) in London.
“John and his family have been doing this for a number of years and have it figured out, 100 per cent,” he now says, adding that Kutz went through the trial-and-error process and learned to harvest the wheat without damaging the soybeans. “They’ve made some fairly heavy capital investments in a different track system and different tires for their combine just for harvesting the wheat with the beans growing in it. They’ve also invested in a specialized header to harvest the wheat without touching the soybeans.”
That was the inspiration for McEachren and he turned his focus to relay cropping on his own farm. Last fall, he committed a 50-acre field to the practice and set up his drill to plant twin rows of wheat at roughly 7-1/2 inches, then blocked off the adjacent two rows, alternating that configuration along the width of his drill.
“It’s the exact same setup as I use for what people refer to as the bio-strip cropping that I use for my cover crops after wheat,” adds McEachren. “It’s the exact same planter setup with our air seeder, which is a 30-foot model, and it’s really easy to do with our planter.”
His biggest concern last fall was determining what to do about his plant population. Since he would be shutting off half of his rows, if he left his settings the same, he’d be planting half of the amount of seed per acre.
He spoke with various advisers and reasoned that if he increased the population within the row, he’d be shrinking his in-row plant spacing, essentially squeezing those wheat plants.
As a result, McEachren left the plant population in his wheat at the same setting. That became less of a concern — it’s essentially left him with half the seeding cost on his wheat — and yet the expectations on yield are still about 75 to 80 per cent of a regular crop.
“That number comes from those who’ve been doing this, and they’ve said that when you first start, you’re going to take a 25 to 30 per cent yield hit off the top, until you get things figured out,” he says. “Cutting my seed costs in half and still coming up with a 75 or 80 per cent crop as a goal, that’s a win for me.”
Much of that boost in yield comes from increased tillering in the wheat plants. With space open between the wheat rows, there’s more room for the crop to compensate for the lower population. McEachren also carried out the same starter fertilizer program that he’s done in the fall in past years, and then earlier this spring, he applied his full nutrient program of top-dressed or liquid-streamed nitrogen on to the wheat, and then planted his soybeans about a week later on May 1.
With his twin-row drill setup, McEachren planted his soybeans on 30-inch rows with a regular corn planter that he’s been using no till into his corn stalks for years. His populations with that row spacing have ranged from 125,000 to 180,000 seeds per acre. His regular solid-seeded soybeans that they put through the drill were usually seeded at 210,000 seeds per acre, so there’s a considerable cost savings in seed while getting yields that are as good or better than the solid seeding.
“My goals with this relay cropping are very similar to a regular crop of beans — I don’t expect to grow less,” says McEachren. “In fact, planting them as early as I did I’m hoping that they may actually be some of our highest-yielding beans.”
He did several different seeding rates on his 50-acre test field: 140,000 was the average with a few experimental strips at 175,000 and one at 115,000, just to see what the extremes look like.
Better than double cropping?
The difference between relay cropping and double cropping is how the timing of planting the second crop dovetails with the season. In short, the soybean relay is planted closer to the normal time for a soybean crop compared to a double-crop scenario planted after wheat harvest.
McEachren says the only concern when planting his relay crop of soybeans is soil moisture and whether soil conditions are too wet for planting. He’s less concerned with competition between crops, simply because of the staging and physiologies of the plants.
Where a relay crop behaves like a cover crop is in the bid to capture sunlight and convert carbon in the soil. That’s actually one of the notions that McEachren likes about relay cropping: it’s keeping the soil active and growing for longer, and that’s one of his primary goals.
“Come July when the wheat starts turning, there’s not really any more sunlight capture,” he says. “The sun’s not really penetrating to the soil, to deplete the soil of nutrients, but there’s no greenery capturing the sunlight. Having those soybeans there, we can capture more of that sunlight.”
Joanna Follings has been following the relay cropping practice since attending the same IFAO session in 2017 with John Kutz. Like McEachren, she believes it opens the door to improved profitability. The stated goal in Kutz’s presentation was to have three harvestable crops in a two-year period (without necessarily double cropping soybeans) and to maintain a no-till cropping system that promotes building soil health.
The two key differences that Follings took from Kutz’s presentation were that Wisconsin soils are considerably different than Ontario soils, and growers in Wisconsin — as well as other parts of the U.S. Midwest — do not include winter wheat in their rotation, or they’re transitioning from a three-crop rotation to a corn-soybean plan.
“They’re also looking at another way from a soil health perspective to get cereals in the rotation, and from an economic perspective, this is an opportunity to do that,” says Follings, the cereal specialist for the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA). “In Ontario, we still like to say that the gold standard is the corn-soybeans-wheat rotation.”
Like McEachren, Follings has followed some of the research on relay cropping from the U.S. and agrees that wheat yields don’t decrease significantly, and that soybean yields can be variable. In Ohio, Follings notes the figures from 15 years of research indicate an average of 76 bu./ac. on wheat and 30 bu./ac. on soybeans. Under ideal growing conditions those numbers can jump considerably — to 90 bu./ac. on wheat and 40 to 45 bu./ac. in soybeans.
“Again, it just depends on the growing season, but it seems as though the wheat isn’t suffering as much as perhaps the soybeans might,” says Follings, although she adds, “there have been a number of comments in some of the studies, that when harvesting the wheat, it’s really important to manage the straw and make sure it’s spread evenly and thin to avoid smothering the soybeans.”
Another important factor to keep in mind with relay cropping is managing one crop at a time: maintain the focus on wheat, whether it’s at planting with a fall-applied herbicide program followed by the usual regimen of nitrogen, or by scouting and making appropriate fungicide applications.
The addition of soybeans should not come at the cost of the wheat crop, and it’s important to do all that’s possible for the wheat while adding in that soybean stand.
“You also want to be thinking about similar measures in a regular wheat crop,” says Follings, who’s part of a group called the Great Lakes Wheat Workers that discusses the value of wheat in growers’ rotations. “You want to be thinking about scouting for diseases and the need for fungicide applications, and to make sure you’re timing your nitrogen properly. None of those management practices goes away — they still have to be taken into consideration with this relay cropping system.”
Back at his farm near Glencoe, McEachren understands that there are a lot of “moving parts” with relay cropping. He wants to maximize his wheat stand without sacrificing his soybeans. At the same time, he’s concerned about the setup of his tires on his planting system: he can justify early planting of soybeans because he has to drive over some of his wheat. The earlier he can get that done, the better for both crops.
“The wheat at that time (on May 1) wasn’t very big and driving on it at that stage is much better than driving on it where it’s at in late May,” says McEachren.
When it comes time to harvest, he knows he’ll be challenged by the height of the soybeans, and that’ll be another part of this learning curve that he’s on. According to a YouTube video on John Kutz, he and his family use a row-crop header, which looks like a corn head but instead of a roller that breaks the corn stalk, it has a small spinning knife that cuts the plant at ground level. Kutz has taken two six-row row-crop heads and placed them side-by-side to create a 12-row unit. The twin rows of wheat feed into the harvester and pass over the top of the soybeans.
For now, McEachren can’t justify the investment for such a header unit, so he’s trying to devise a way to block off sections of the cutter bar on his grain head to line up with the soybean rows. The cutter bar won’t have an exposed knife over the section where the soybeans will be standing.
Although the number of growers engaged in relay cropping soybeans isn’t large, there’s still plenty of discussion around Ontario about the practice.
And come this year’s wheat and soybean harvest, there’ll be plenty of growers watching for the results.
Additional information on twin row relay cropping can be found on YouTube.