Relay Crop Trial Results
December 16, 2019

The idea to execute this trial came about because we’ve been using cover crops on our farm for the last couple of years. However, seed can be an issue in terms of availability and price. So, I said, “Dad, why don’t we try to harvest some of this?” and he said, “Okay, not a bad idea!” The economics don’t fully work out just to be able to raise rye, wheat or oats in Southeast Iowa because the land cost is so high, so we decided to relay crop. This means harvesting the cereal crop from a standing cash crop. 

  • We started in the fall of 2018 by planting winter wheat across the entire farm, as our normal cover crop.  However, in a specific 10-acre spot, where we have hills and poor soil, we upped the rate of wheat to about a bushel/ac. 
  • On April 25, we drilled beans directly into this wheat cover crop. 
  • On July 5, we came back and harvested the wheat, over the top of the growing soybeans.

This is what it looked like when we drilled soybeans into the wheat on April 25th

The plan was to have a trial and plant soybeans on April 25. Then we were going to come back about three weeks later, in May, to plant a few more strips of soybeans into the wheat, both drilled and planted in 30” rows. Because of too much rain in May, the later planting never happened, so we ended up double-cropping those strips.

  • In July, the wheat was about 30 inches tall and the beans were 20 inches tall. On July 5, we harvested the wheat over the top of the soybeans. We left the beans in the field but of course, did end up running over some. We ended up with 30 bushels per acre wheat, which isn’t great, but there were zero inputs in that wheat. Plus, it was our first try, so give us a break. 

relay crop soybeansHere are the beans growing and healthy in the wheat crop.

relay crop wheatKind of like giving the field a haircut. We didn’t want to clip the soybeans, so we left a couple of wheat seed heads in the field.

Looking back, we probably could have used a little bit of fungicide, nitrogen, and sulfur to gain more yield. The fungicide would have also helped to get a better quality crop. Everything was standing great, but the harvested wheat seed germination wasn’t perfect. 

Right after harvesting wheat:

  • We drilled soybeans into the stubble where we were not able to do the late-planted soybean relay crop so those beans got planted on July 5, which was late for around here. 
  • We did run a pass of herbicide (Liberty) around the edges of this field after we harvested, but that’s all this field had on it for chemistry. 
  • We came back in October and harvested the soybeans that were in the initial relay crop and those beans did well at 44 bushels. The double-crop beans were still very green when we had our first frost and didn’t do all that well at around 20 bushels. Better than nothing! 

relay crop soybeansHarvesting some of the relay crop soybeans. Lots of volunteer wheat coming through!

Soybeans and wheat growing together really accelerated our soil health gains! We measured 17 worms per cubic foot and better than 2” of water infiltration in under 20 minutes!

Overall, all we had going into this field was plant wheat, plant soybeans, harvest wheat, a little shot of herbicide, then harvest the beans. That’s it! At the end of the day, 44-bushel soybeans and 30-bushel wheat with not much expense going into it were pretty profitable. Now going forward, we definitely think this is a good option to continue to expand. Relay cropping offers real potential to improve the economics of cover cropping, and there are other farmers who are trying this too!  Keeping a living root and fostering diversity are key principles of soil health. Relay cropping can make this work profitably for our farms. 

More volunteer wheat! Really cranking on improving our soils.

Now we seeded wheat with crimson clover and hairy vetch ahead of 2020 corn.

Watch below to see the field and learn about Multi-Cropping Iowa, which helps farmers to diversify their operations and do experiments similar to ours!

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