When Aneta, ND, farmer Fred Lukens suggested to his landlord, Rodney Brudvig, that they switch to canola as a nurse crop for alfalfa, Brudvig was skeptical.
“I was a little leery about it,” Brudvig says of planting the oilseed crop instead of a more common nurse crop such as oats or barley. “But I thought, well, why not? We’ll give it a try.”
Lukens’ plan worked like a charm. Not only did they get the benefits of superior weed control, they were able to harvest a canola crop off the 45-acre field the first year – a clear advantage over other nurse crops that won’t allow broadleaf weed control.
As with other alfalfa crops, Lukens applied preplant Treflan herbicide for pre-emergence grass control. But by interseeding Clearfield canola, Lukens increased his postemergent weed control.
Beyond herbicide, which is labeled for both Clearfield canola and alfalfa, gave Lukens a tool to suppress broadleaves later in the season.
“Clearfield offers a fairly broad spectrum of weed control,” he notes. “It’s effective on grasses and broadleaves. You can tell from looking at the field there was canola and alfalfa and not much else.”
That directly benefited the alfalfa crop that Brudvig will feed to his 100-head beef-cow herd. In addition to suppressing weeds, Brudvig says, the tall canola stubble that remained after swathing last fall caught more winter snow to prevent winterkill and boost spring growth.
But planting nurse crops with alfalfa is no easy business, Lukens explains. It’s a juggling act if the two crops require different planting depths and a timely rain. Barley, for instance, is planted 1½” deep with alfalfa harrowed in afterward – and right before a rain.
“As you can imagine, that’s more complex and chancy,” he says.
The light bulb turned on when Lukens realized that, by planting canola with alfalfa at the same time by mixing the seed in the drill, he would simplify the process during his hectic spring schedule. Both crops have similar seed sizes and require the same planting depth.
“When you’re putting both the alfalfa and canola in the ground at half to three-quarters of an inch, both are at the depth they’re supposed to be,” he says. “And it saves another trip through the field and a lot of management headaches.”
Lukens planted 5 lbs of canola and 10 lbs of alfalfa per acre.
Marisol Berti, a North Dakota State University forage specialist currently studying alfalfa-grass mixtures, says she’s eager to try a test plot of alfalfa and canola this spring.
“I’m really interested to see if there is a drag on alfalfa yield,” Berti says. “Alfalfa is also very competitive for water. Would this perform in a low-rainfall year? The alfalfa may overcompete with the canola.”
Lukens and Brudvig admit that ample rainfall last year supported their success. But the planting simplicity and increased weed control are benefits that are hard to argue with. “It’s a better, more solid agronomic plan for alfalfa,” says Lukens.