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Mixed academic assessment
“It would not surprise me, in a short period of time, to drive down the road and see corn and soybeans planted in strips,” says University of Illinois Ag Economist David Bullock after evaluating two years of strip-intercropping data. He evaluated about three football fields’ worth of experimental strips planted in eight-row swaths (30-in. rows). He and two colleagues will be publishing a full evaluation soon, he says. “What we see is very encouraging.”
Don Bullock, the study’s University of Illinois ag statistician, says the increased revenue could be as high as $80-90/acre when corn is $5-6 and beans around $13 and you use higher seeding rates.”
Roger Elmore, Iowa State University corn agronomist, summarizes strips’ tradeoffs as he sees them: “Our limited work with these kinds of systems in Nebraska indicates that although the outer rows of corn had increased yields and the inner rows lower, soybean yields responded in the opposite way. So it will come down to how much you’ll gain in corn vs. how much you’ll lose in soybeans, plus the economics of corn vs. bean prices. Management, too, is more difficult, at least if herbicide mode of actions are rotated, etc.”
Twelve years ago, a strip-intercropping assessment by Iowa State University Agronomist Richard Cruse called strip intercropping too management-intensive. That was in 1999, before guidance technology, variable-rate planting and glyphosate resistance.
Today, Cruse dismisses strip intercropping for the average grower for “reasons of scale. It restricts the number of acres you can farm,” he says. “Growers these days focus on large expanses of land, rather than adding more bushels per-acre on smaller tracts.”
Not so, says 140-acre Fairbank, IA, farmer and retired John Deere Engineer Ben Witte. “The most capital-efficient profits originate from multiplying yields on existing ground, rather than adding new acres to cover,” he says.
This logic of higher profits and fewer acres also makes sense to Herb Recker, a three-year strip-intercrop veteran and longtime seed dealer in Dyersville, IA. “Strip intercropping could be one way for beginning farmers to become more efficient without adding acres. A young farmer with a good deal on a 12-row planter would save big money on his power needs no-tilling corn in bean stubble and moving six rows over each year,” he says.
Overall, “in my mind, the system is plausible but requires greater management and attention to detail since the crops grow at different rates and require different management inputs,” says Iowa State University’s Lori Abendroth, project manager, climate and sustainable corn-based systems. “The concept of higher yields on the outer rows of corn makes perfect sense.”