Companion crops in sorghum featured at soil health field day

Lance Feikert had a mess on his hands. 

The Bucklin, Kansas, farmer and president of the board of directors of No Till on the Plains, was trying to remediate one of his irrigated circles.

“Basically it’s been abused the last 20 years,” he said. “It’s a weedy mess. It was either disked or worked all the time.”

The particular circle Feikert discussed was part of the Soil Health Field Day, July 31, near Bucklin. Currently the irrigated circle has soybeans planted into cover crops on it, while the corners around the field feature sorghum with companion crops. He’s trying to take advantage of the particularly wet year he’s been given and make the most of the water he’s got available. 

The sorghum with companion crops is part of a SARE grant, or Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education project. The companions include mung beans, guar, crimson clover, flax and buckwheat. Feikert said going into this project the pigweeds in this particular field were terrible. He used a pre-emerge chemical on the sorghum/companion plot, and he planted using an air seeder. When it came up, everything was looking good for the first week.

“You could see the flax, you could see the mung bean,” Feikert said. “Then, about 10 days into it, I came out here and looked. From day 7 to day 17, everything had almost disappeared out here because the chemical was working on all this stuff.”

The neighboring soybeans were sprayed and some over drift had hurt the plants in the edges of the companion plot. That was one of his main concerns—what was going to survive and where to go from there.

“Basically what we’re trying to do with this field of companions is to see if we can get away with trying putting out a few other plants—having this crop out here without it hurting yield,” Feikert said. “But also trying to see if that will help out with sugarcane aphids. Just to see if there’s some synergy underneath the roots and activity underneath.”

No-Till on the Plains Executive Director Steve Swaffar said this method with the companion crops allows Feikert to do what he needs to in the rest of the field in the way of crop protection chemicals. The grant restricts what can be done in the milo and companion acres. They’re hoping the companions help restrict the introduction of sugarcane aphids, and Feikert is already seeing beneficial insects in the plot.

Swaffar said this combination of sorghum/companions did a decent job of handling a normal infection rate of sugarcane aphids.

“Lance has obviously been blessed with moisture this year,” Swaffar said. “Probably not going to find out whether these companions really take any moisture away from his sorghum crop.”

Another grant site in Osage City, Kansas, and a few others are deficient of moisture this year and Swaffar hopes to see the true effect of having the companions with the sorghum. 

“The idea is to see can we get the benefit without the downside from these companions,” Swaffar said. 

Results of the experimental plot will come at harvest time, and Swaffar hopes to have more information about Feikert’s and other cooperator’s plots at the NTOP winter conference in January 2019.

Feikert also has water-monitoring systems—CropMetrics monitors—in the fields. Morgan Meyers, an irrigation specialist with CropMetrics said the units they have in Feikert’s fields have a 3-foot probe in the ground. The probe has sensors every 4 inches; nine sensors total. It measures the soil moisture, salinity, temperature and other factors every 30 minutes.

The sensors show how deep the water is and where it’s pulling from.

“It’s really great about telling you when to water, but also not to water,” Meyers said. “We’re saving you money on water. Helping you increase your yield. And once again, saving your time.”

Feikert said he’s noticed when it rains the monitor readings will spike up and when the day heats up, they will go down.

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“It’s been interesting to see what’s actually going on down in the soil,” he said. 

Picking companion varieties

Jimmy Emmons, vice president of the NTOP board of directors, said to pick the variety that fits the situation, but also complements the sorghum without being competitive. For example, buckwheat. It helps with phosphorus, and its flowers attract beneficial insects. Beans, peas and guar help with nitrogen.

“You’ve got to select those species that will grow in your area,” Emmons said. “Then you want to get this canopy up as quick as you can to help with those weeds.”

Once you get into a good system, whether it’s a good rotation, or an appropriate variety, the weed pressure is going to go away.

Rye, for example, can help reduce weed pressure as it gets growing quickly and covers the ground. And with sorghum, management of weeds is important.

“You’ve got to be in a rotation—something different than milo if you want to be successful with the weeds,” Emmons said. “We’re all challenged with weeds.”

Emmons, especially since he’s in a dry area, is challenged with weeds and he’s found the companions have helped. He prefers drilling because he can close the canopy up quicker and reduce the weeds’ opportunity to grow. 

Emmons said even though Feikert is still using some chemical weed control, and seeing results for the past two years, he’s also starting to build the soil. And that’s important. 

“It’s going to take about three to five years to really see the benefits,” Emmons said.

He’s also using the moisture probes, and it’s helping him to watch how much water is in the profile. 

“You want to get where you put a lot of water on and move that water down in the profile and get it secure from the sun,” Emmons said. “That’s made me a lot better irrigator.”

Emmons also uses the probes on dryland so he knows how much water he’s got to work with or how little. 

“That then helps me make decisions on what I want to plant,” Emmons said.

Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-227-1804 or [email protected].