BUCYRUS, Ohio -- An alternative agricultural production system that supports two crops within the same growing season is winning favor among Ohio farmers for its risk management and conservation benefits.



Modified Relay Intercropping (MRI) is the practice of interseeding soybeans into standing wheat in late May or early June. As a result, two crops are grown and harvested from the same field during the season.



The move to MRI has been greatest in Crawford County where two decades of Ohio State University Extension research has shown that the system not only works, but it also can be profitable for the farmer. Today, MRI systems account for nearly 25 percent of the wheat acres in the county.



Steve Prochaska, a OSU Extension educator in agriculture, horticulture and natural resources for Crawford County, said that with the state of today's economy, MRI can hedge grain market and crop production risk associated with growing only one crop in a field per season.



"Hedging can be very a useful tool to mitigate risk and the MRI system is a way to mitigate that risk because of the elements it offers. In the MRI system, two crops are harvested in the same year. Because of the differences in crop growth requirements and grain markets, farmers can effectively hedge production and price risk," said Prochaska.



Prochaska said that returns for MRI systems in the county have often been higher than conventional wheat, corn or soybean returns. Based on OSU Extension field research conducted in Crawford County in 2008, the gross return of MRI was 6 percent greater than monocrop corn, 29 percent greater than monocrop soybeans and 45 percent greater than monocrop wheat based on bushels produced and market prices at the time of July wheat harvest.



In addition to its profitability, MRI is an attractive system because of its conservation benefits.



"The system is highly responsive in terms of addressing what is probably the major pollution issue on the farm: soil erosion. Soil erosion is directly responsible for water quality issues. It's soil erosion that carries fertilizers and pesticides into water sources. Further, soil erosion may result in a direct loss to soil productivity," said Prochaska. "This system is very good from the standpoint of preserving soil because a crop is growing in the field for at least 12 consecutive months. MRI is one of the best conservation systems on the farm."



Based on the USDA-NRCS Revised Universal Soil Loss Equation calculation for Crawford County, the traditional tilled corn followed by no-till soybeans rotation system generates 3.2 tons of soil loss per acre a year. With an MRI system, soil loss is only 1.3 tons per acre per year.



Prochaska will offer tips on how MRI can work on a farm at the Conservation Tillage and Technology Conference in Ada, Ohio. "Intercropping Soybeans into Wheat" will be presented at 10:30 a.m. on Feb. 27. The conference will be held Feb. 26-27 at the McIntosh Center of Ohio Northern University.



Prochaska said that the reason why modified relay intercropping seems to be successful is because of the wheat crop.



"Wheat is such an adaptable, flexible plant. There is no standard row-spacing system. You can have two 6-inch wheat rows and a 14-inch skip. You can have a 12-inch row spacing or two 8-inch wheat rows and a 12-inch row skip, and it all seems to work," said Prochaska. "The narrower wheat rows seem to increase wheat yields and produce more consistent soybean yields because they capture more sunlight."



In six years of replicated field trials in Crawford County, Prochaska found that under the MRI system soybeans averaged 30 bushels per acre and wheat yields averaged 73 bushels per acre. By comparison, conventional monocrop soybeans and wheat averaged 42 and 62 bushels per acre, respectively.



"The good thing about MRI is that it brings wheat back into the rotation picture," said Prochaska. "It's been a declining commodity because as a monocrop, it's the least profitable enterprise on the farm."



Despite all of its positive attributes, the biggest downside to modified relay intercropping is the intensive planning and management inputs.



"You can't start the system in midstream. It takes quite a bit of planning, simply because of the interaction between the two crops. There really is no ideal date to interseed soybeans. Is the wheat early or late, tall or short, thick or heavy? What is the row spacing? All of these things enter in as to when you sow your soybeans," said Prochaska. "But for those people who are willing to learn, MRI can work very well. It can be a nice, profitable system that can better utilize your land, labor and equipment."



Prochaska said modified relay intercropping was the most profitable enterprise on the farm in Crawford County in 2008.



SOURCE: Ohio State.