Providing Ecosystem Services Utilizing Companion Crops with Sorghum

Final report for ONC18-048

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2018: $25,077.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2019
Grant Recipient: No-till on the Plains
Region: North Central
State: Kansas
Project Coordinator:
Steve Swaffar
No-Till On The Plains Inc
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Project Information

Summary:

Grain Sorghum is a primary crop in the high plains in drought vulnerable areas. The crop is frequently planted in a no-till system, but herbicide and insecticide treatment is common place. In 2015 and 2016, Kansas grain sorghum crops were decimated by the incidence of the sugar cane aphid. The threat from this pest has not been eliminated, reduced acres being planted have alleviated the incidence in 2017, but those acres will increase again in the future; therefore, four Kansas famers will plant grain sorghum with a mix of companion crops to see the impact to economics, environment and sustainability of the practice. Each grower will plant 15 dryland acres of the sorghum/companion mix adjacent to a field of sorghum planted without companion crops. Companion crops will be designed to work in symbiosis with the cash crop to control weed populations, attract beneficial insects and provide nutrients. Plots with the sorghum/companion mix will have no additional treatment of herbicides or insecticides applied once in the ground. Adjacent fields with treatment of crop protection products will be used as a comparison. Soil health will also be analyzed on each plot by looking at several indicators that demonstrate improvement.

Project Objectives:
  • Demonstrate appropriate companion crops can be viable alternatives to crop protection products
  • Demonstrate which families of companion crops can benefit sorghum production
  • Provide demonstration plots available for others to observe as well as host field day
  • Document results of yield variance and economic differences between companion plots and non-companion fields along with soil health benefits ie: total carbon, infiltration, bulk density, penetration resistance, soil respiration and macro-invertebrate population counts
  • Share results of the project through the No-till on the Plains network of producers and professionals

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Candy Thomas (Educator)

Research

Materials and methods:

Sorghum will be planted with companion crop species to attract beneficial insects to control sugar can aphids.  The companion crop mix was designed to provide provide weed suppression and attract beneficial insects. No-till on the Plains will work with the participating producers and a cover crop seed provider to determine the best species to meet the needs of the project objectives. Most of the companion species/mixes will be kept consistent at all of the sites, but if there are particular species that are better adapted to the local area or moisture conditions, those may be substituted or added to the mix. 

The sorghum/companion plots were planted separately, but synchronized with (May/June 2018) the rest of the sorghum field. The plot acres will receive the same pre-plant treatments as the rest of the field. Once planted the plot did not receive any applications of herbicides, insecticides or post-plant fertility.

Collection of soil samples and analysis for improvement in soil health indicators were taken to determine the benefit of using the agro-ecological principles vs the conventional system and presented at the field day.  

Research results and discussion:

Site

Yield Inside Plot bu/acre

Yield Outside Plot bu/acre

Ford County*

76

82

Mitchell County

121.9

121.2

Osage County**

23.4

24.3

Saline County

107

119

 

*Field and plot had hail damage on July 29, sorghum without hail damage yielded 110 bu/acre

** No moisture from June 1 through Aug 20

 

Jun-18

Dec- 18

Sample

Management

Active Cabon

Management

Active Carbon

Mitchell Co. (DP)

Covers

558

Covers

520

 

No covers

637

No covers

340

Saline Co. (JK)

Covers

595

Covers

622

 

No covers

588

No covers

332

Osage Co. (KT)

Covers

519

Covers

603

 

No covers

425

No covers

511

Bucklin Co. (LF)

Covers

373

Covers

366

 

No covers

340

No covers

302

June-18

 

Dec-18

Sample

Management

Total Organic Carbon

Management

Total Organic Carbon

Mitchell Co. (DP)

Cover Crop

1.85

Cover crop

1.35

 

No Cover Crop

1.85

No cover Crop

1.85

Saline Co.  (JK)

Cover Crop

2.3

Crop Crop

2.15

 

No Cover Crop

2

 No Cover crop

1.6

Osage Co. (KT)

Cover Crop

2.5

Cover crop

2.6

 

No Cover Crop

2.35

No cover Crop

1.75

Bucklin Co. (LF)

Cover Crop

1.25

Cover crop

1.71

 

No Cover Crop

1.4

No cover Crop

1.35

 

Jun-18

Dec-18

Sample

Management

% Aggregates

Management

% Aggregates

Mitchell Co. (DP)

Cover Crops

4.67

Cover Crops

0

 

No Cover Crops

4.67

No cover crops

0

Saline Co. (JK)

Cover Crops

26.33

Cover Crops

9.33

 

No Cover Crops

25.33

No cover crops

17.67

Osage Co. (KT)

Cover Crops

68.33

Cover Crops

50.33

 

No Cover Crops

68

No cover crops

56.33

Bucklin Co. (LF)

Cover Crops

2

Cover Crops

2

 

No Cover Crops

0

No cover crops

0

Participation Summary
4 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

2 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
4 On-farm demonstrations
2 Workshop field days
1 Other educational activities: Presentation at No-till on the Plains annual Winter Conference.

Participation Summary:

90 Farmers
20 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

Field day in Bucklin, Kansas

55 individuals attended a field day featuring one of the sorghum/companion plots on Lance Feikert's farm. Participants were given the opportunity to view and walk in the 15 acre plot, along with the rest of the field. Each of the companion species was identified along with the differences in soil and insect communities. Despite some significant hail damage to the sorghum crop, the companions were in good shape. Other fields of sorghum and soybeans in the local area using soil health practices were also featured on the morning tour. Jimmy Emmons from Leedey, OK spoke to the group in the field about the importance of diversity in cropping systems, providing plants to attract beneficial insects and utilizing livestock in the full soil health system. NRCS regional soil specialist Candy Thomas presented several soils demonstrations showing the benefits of soil residue, soil structure and long-term no-till versus conventional tillage methods. 

Field day in Gypsum, Kansas

65 individuals attended a field day featuring one of the sorghum/companion plots on Justin Knopf's farm. Participants were given the opportunity to view and walk in the 15 acre plot, along with the rest of the field. Each of the companion species was identified along with the differences in soil and insect communities. Justin explained how the different soil types even within the plot appeared to have an impact on stand quality and potential yield. Other fields of sorghum and soybeans in the local area using soil health practices were also featured on the morning tour. All four of the participating farmers in the project attended at this field day. They spoke to the group in the field about the importance of diversity in cropping systems, providing plants to attract beneficial insects and utilizing livestock in the full soil health system. NRCS regional soil specialist Candy Thomas presented several soils demonstrations showing the benefits of soil residue, soil structure and long-term no-till versus conventional tillage methods. 

Learning Outcomes

90 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key changes:
  • Many of the attendees at the field day had never been exposed to the idea of companion crops. Almost none had actually seen companion crops growing with cash crops. None had seen companion crops growing with sorghum.

  • Several producers at each field day attended to see the companions in the field, but it was clear from the questions during the soils demonstrations given by Candy Thomas they were also surprised by the benefits of no-till and residue cover providing benefit for water infiltration.

Project Outcomes

1 Grant received that built upon this project
Project outcomes:

We continue to receive questions about this project from those interested in planting companion crops in the 2019 growing season. Insect and weed pressure are increasing driving interest in these types of systems. Economically, this project did not show significant yield decreases and with the exception of one plot, no additional insecticides were for the remainder of the fields. It is unclear whether 15 acres of companions created enough population of beneficial insects on 3 of the 4 fields or insect pressure did not reach a threshold for crop protection.  However, there were ample populations of beneficials in the plots to have controlled infestations on those 15 acres. 

Information Products

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.