FORT HALL, Idaho — Participants in an organization devoted to boosting Eastern Idaho wheat yields say they’re impressed by a Terreton, Idaho, farmer’s experiments with planting so-called companion crops.
Companion crops are intermingled with cash crops, growing along side them to increase soil health, nutrients and biodiversity.
The research, conducted with grower Steve Shively, was one of five trials the club attempted in 2016. The 200 Bushel Club — a partnership of Thresher Artisan Wheat, the Idaho Wheat Commission, University of Idaho, Bingham Cooperative, McGregor Co., WestBred, Silver K Farms and the Nature Conservancy formed in 2011 — shared its new data during Thresher’s recent spring meeting in Fort Hall.
For three years, Shively has mixed 4 to 6 pounds per acre of radish seed in with his fall wheat seed, following a potato crop. Radish’s deep taproot scavenges for the nitrogen missed by potatoes. The plants die during the winter, making nutrients available for wheat as they decompose and open pores in soil for wheat roots.
Carson Blakely, the 200 Bushel Club’s intern, said protein levels were slightly higher in wheat planted with radish, though there was no yield gain in the trial. Wheat with radish also produced more stems, and soil was less compact.
“I think overall, what we saw was soil health increased, which eventually, over years of doing it, will increase yield,” Blakely said.
Shively has found he needs 10 to 20 pounds per acre less nitrogen to raise fall wheat when he also plants radish, which more than offsets the cost of radish seed. Last fall, a late potato harvest and early frost prevented Shively from planting a companion crop.
Another 200 Bushel Club experiment studied responses in wheat crops to fertilizer placement. Club researchers expected to see a yield improvement when they placed fertilizer in the same row as wheat seed, believing the “starter fertilizer” would be available sooner to plants spur root growth, compared with broadcasting fertilizer on the surface. Results were inconclusive, as fields in the trial were limited by insufficient early season water.
However, Rexburg farmer Terry Wilcox also used a starter fertilizer to raise the same hard red spring wheat variety, WB9668. A 5-acre sample of that field produced the second highest overall yield in the National Wheat Foundation’s yield competition. Wilcox yielded 179.75 bushels per acre, compared with the county average of 87 bushels.
“You’re laying (fertilizer) right with the seed piece, and that seed piece grabs it right off the bat as it starts sprouting and makes the plant healthier,” Wilcox said.
Gary Farmer, with Valley Agronomics, said few growers use starter fertilizer, especially when they suspect there may be adequate residual fertilizer following row crops.
“A lot of times, (growers) just do what is most convenient, and they end up getting respectable, if not good, yields,” Farmer said. “With a little bit more effort, they could certainly get better yields.”
Farmer said salt in fertilizer can kill wheat seeds when too much is applied in furrow. The club has planted fall wheat with fertilizer bands 3 inches below the seed for the 2017 trials, allowing plants to grow a bit before they access fertilizer.