Evaluating Modified Relay Intercropping (MRI) in Ingham County, Michigan

Final Report for FNC07-662

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2007: $17,925.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2008
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


Briefly describe operation: Hawkins Homestead consist of Tony Igl, my wife Jeanie and my mother-in-law and father-in-law. The farm has been in the Hawkins Family for 147 years. We farm around 2400 acres. 1100 acres of corn, 1100 acres of soybeans grown for seed production for DF Seeds, and the rest planted to wheat for seed. It is mainly a no-till operation.

I use no-till as a sustainable practice. We have been improving and adjusting to it for 16 years and it is profitable for us. I consider tiling ground in our area a sustainable practice also. It increases yields, makes better use of inputs and labor. We have our own tile plow and have been installing tile on our ground for over 16 years. Other sustainable practices we use include side dressing nitrogen, application and incorporation of manure from a neighbor’s dairy farm, using thresholds for soybean aphid control, and spraying the border of fields (rather than the whole thing) to control spider mites on soybeans.

The first thing that we did was to go to Ohio and talk to the Extension and farmers on how the system was done in their area. We saw the importance of the tram lines and spreaders for the row units to inter-seed wheat. The tram line are spaces in the 15” row wheat that are wide enough for a very narrow tired tractor to follow when planting soybeans. The spreaders are steel rods bent in a V shape to push the wheat aside in front of the row units and tractor tires because the soybeans are planted 20 to 30 days before the wheat is harvested. We looked at two drills that might work for the project, an old sunflower air drill that had not been used in ten years and an international drill because it had more clearance when planting in wheat. It was set up for 20 inch rows. New blades and some seed units were added and we configured 15 inch rows with 20 inch spacing for tram lines. One of the cooperators had a tractor that he switched to 12” tires in the summer for spraying that is what we set it up for planting the inter-seeding. In the fall, we tried to calibrate the drill to the same population as the 7.5” row wheat. What was planted with an ordinary tractor because space was not an issue. The wheat was fertilized and sprayed the same as the other fields of wheat. As the wheat got close to the flowering stage, the tractor crop dividers were manufactured and fitted. The drill was calibrated to 200,000 plants per acre. I think the actual time to plant the soybeans is dependent on the weather. They should be planted in moist ground and not grow big that they are clipped when harvesting wheat. One of the guidelines we were told was if you could just feel the grain starting in the wheat head then plant the soybeans. We had a good stand of soybeans but it was way too cool of a growing season to finish the crop.

Capital Area Innovative Farmers- helped to plan, promote, and deliver one field day and a winter meeting where the demonstration results were shown and discussed.

George Bauman-Time, modifying and repairing the drill, planting the soybeans

Steve Prochaska-Crawford County OSU Extension- Consultation, and hosting our visit to Ohio (prior to receiving the grant)

Asa (Doc) Kelley-allowed us to use his drill

Daniel Hudson, Ingham County MSU Extension-help writing the grant, reporting, planning,promoting and delivering programs at which this project was showcased.

Kevin Droscha-assisted with mechanical and planting processes

Hawkins Homestead-provided use of farm shop and equipment. Assisted in delivery of drill. Provided land for the plot.

Prior to receiving this grant, we wanted to see how much yield reduction we would experience as a result of planting wheat in 15” rows rather than the traditional 7.5” rows. This winter wheat was planted in early October of 2007. Every other hole in the drill was plugged so the number of seeds per food of row was the same for both row widths. Reports from Ohio suggested that the yield reduction would be between 10 and 15%, and that is what our 2008 study agreed with this generalization, demonstrating a 15% yield difference.

Row Spacing Average Yield (bu/ac) Std. Dev.
7.5” 1.51 a 11.5
15” 91.4 b 3.7
LSD 12.5
CV 8.7

The wheat planting in 2008 was so delayed that the other two farmers initially planning on cooperating decided that it was too late. Despite the lateness of the season, we decided to go ahead and plant on the Hawkins/Igl Farm, and put in about 10 acres of wheat on November 4, which is 48 days past the Hessian fly-free date in our county. As a general rule, we wexpect to lose one bu/ac of yield for each day that wheat planting is delayed past October 1. Another nearby field that was planted on time in the area (using intensive management and 7.5” rows) yielded between 100 and 120 bu/ac. The yield penalty for planting the MRI demonstration field so late was large and the wheat only yielded 76.7 bu/ac (standard deviation 6.2 bu/ac), based on four strips harvested. Assuming that the general rule about one bushel of yield potential being lost for each day planting is delayed beyond October 1, we can only estimate that the yield would have been about 110 bu/ac if it had been planted on time.

Because of the delay in soybean development caused by the record cool summer temperatures, the soybeans that we planted between wheat rows in June were killed by frost in early-October, prior to developing to the point that they could be harvested. While the results are disappointing, very little could have been done (even in hindsight) to anticipate and avoid the challenges we experienced.

What I learned from this grant is that sometimes things just will not go as planned. The drill turned out to be a problem to use being odd model, non-functioning for so long, hard to configure, and numerous other problems.

The weather in the fall was wet and hard to get wheat planted early. Weather in the growing season had way below normal growing conditions for wheat, delaying soybean planting and soybean growing conditions were also cool and wet. The weather was the biggest reason that we did not optimize the wheat cropping system in Michigan and probably lack of moisture will be another problem in some years.

The grant has made my farm very against trying other projects of this kind. It was a very stressful, unrewarding, and way more time consuming than ever thought possible because of equipment problems. Spending eight hours calibrating and planting 17 acres of soybeans with all the equipment problems of the past summer and fall made some mental road blocks I need to overcome.

The advantages of this project are that it has got people thinking and questioning how to make it work on their farm just by seeing what was done. The organic farms see it as a way to grow two different crops in one year, shorting rotations and increased income. Seed corn growers see it as a way to shorten the three year rotation in seed corn production thus increasing high income crop years.

Disadvantage is the specialized equipment, narrow tired tractors, a drill that doesn’t have tires that run over wheat when planting soybeans, a drill with easy spacing configuration, a sprayer that would fit tram lines, and auto-steer for straight rows has advantages

I think that the chances of harvesting a crop of soybeans is more likely to occur in relay planting than in double cropping because of the longer growing windows. Soft red wheat was used in the project. I think soft white wheat would be harvested one to two weeks before the red wheat increasing growing time. Having a normal to above normal temperature year would make a big difference as well. One thing that was noticed in the project was that the 15” row wheat stayed greener longer because the nitrogen per plant was more than conventional wheat for this year.

I would suggest using planting equipment that has good down pressure of the seed units so you are able to plant to moisture. Equipment should be simple in operation. A three point hitch carried and hydraulic driven drill would have advantages depending on acreage to cover.

It sounds painfully obvious to say that there will only be economic impacts from this project if people learn from it and make it work (assuming it is feasible). If it is not feasible (which we can’t say) they will benefit by recognizing that it is not a “slam dunk” and not bother trying it.

If we were able to get 27 bu/ac soybeans after 85 bushel wheat, the system would return $100/acre more than a single 100 bu/ac wheat crop and more than $70/acre more than a 45 bu/ac soybean crop. That said, we need to be aware that having soybeans appear too frequently in the rotation increases the risk of soybean cyst nematode problems.

The benefit from having soybean residue spread on wheat straw would increase the rate of decomposition of the wheat straw and stubble, allowing soils to dry out more quickly and increasing the availability of soil nitrogen to the subsequent corn crop. Further environmental benefits would result from having actively growing plants capturing sunlight during a time of year when most of that light is not captured, i.e., wheat straw reflects the light. This would have positive implications for soil microbial activity, soil health, and nutrient cycling. Also, the amount of pesticide used in this system is typically very low.

Socially, more labor and careful management is necessary for this system, which would have some limited impact. The increased intensity of the system and critical nature of proper timing on planting activities would be more stressful for many producers. An enterprise budget is attached in spreadsheet form.

July 14, 2009 – Ag Innovations Tour, 27 farmers in attendance
January 28, 2010- 2010 Farm Management Decisions Meeting and CAIF Annual Meeting; 60 in attendance
February 3, 2010- Pre-exam restricted-use pesticide exam review. This project was briefly described and discussed to attendees as a welcome change of pace during the review session; 17 in attendance
March 2, 2010- Livingston County Farmers Day- yet to come; typically about 40 people. 2008 and 2009 On-Farm Research and Demonstration Book-widely distributed throughout the state.
April 2008 AgNotes Newsletter- this introduced the project, but some serious health problems prevented us from doing the inter-seeding in the summer of 2008.
February-March 2010 AgNotes- Dan Hudson plans to summarize the project in this newsletter.

Information about this project has been communicated to farmers primarily through the Ingham County MSU Extension Office. This office sends out median releases about upcoming programs. Dan Hudson, MSUE Educator, sends newsletters and flyers to his clientele, notifying them of upcoming events and current issues.

The program is pretty good the way it is. I cannot think of any changes at the time.


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.