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Companion Crops: Seed Production’s Best Friend

To establish a forage or turf crop for seed production, it’s common to under seed it to a companion crop. Perennial and biennial crops like perennial ryegrass, tall fescue, alfalfa, and clover are often established under companion crops like wheat, canola, oats, and more.

The companion crop will help to nurse the young forage and turf seedlings throughout the growing season by providing them with shade to conserve soil moisture and with competition against weeds that would otherwise steal their moisture and sunlight. BrettYoung Seed Production Specialist Jason Henderson said you want your companion crop to be competitive enough to protect your seedlings but not so competitive that it hinders their development.

One of the most common combinations used in establishing a new perennial ryegrass or tall fescue seed production field is under seeding it with wheat. Henderson said wheat has historically been the go-to companion crop.

“It’s probably the least competitive of all the cereals,” he said. “And it’s commonly grown on most farms.”

Planting wheat as a companion crop for perennial ryegrass or tall fescue also gives you a long list of strong broadleaf herbicide options to use. For things like wild oats, green foxtail, and barnyard grass there are also a few grassy herbicide options available.

Henderson said when it comes down to actually under seeding wheat to the grass, it’s typically done in two passes with the grass or the wheat on a slight angle. This places much of the grass outside of the wheat row, leaving less competition for the small grass seedlings.

“Wheat also provides ideal stubble to catch snow and reduces the potential for winter damage,” said Henderson. “Take care to manage excess straw and chaff so you don’t bury the grass seedlings completely — growers often bale the straw and remove them.”

Another common companion crop for perennial ryegrass or tall fescue is LibertyLink® canola.

“This method is much newer but quickly becoming one of the main ways we establish these grasses,” said Henderson.

Canola is widely grown on most farms and the plant produces an idyllic environment for the grasses to establish in. The canola canopy retains dew and humidity, benefitting the small grass seedlings.

Seeding this crop on a good, clean field is important for getting the most out of it. Henderson recommends growers plan for one in-crop application of herbicide. To seed this one, growers typically seed the canola and grass in the same row in a one pass. The planting depths are similar for both crops so obtaining good seed placement and germination is easier too.

“There also seems to be better synergy between the shallow fibrous roots of the grass seedlings and the deep tap root of the canola,” he said. “It also usually provides a good stubble for snow catch and winter protection.”

The other common crop combination is under seeding wheat or oats to alfalfa. Henderson said using a cereal as the companion crop when establishing alfalfa is quite common and works especially well when lots of moisture is available. Growers typically seed these crops in a two-pass system or they use drills specially equipped for a one pass operation.

“All the grassy herbicide options are still available,” said Henderson. “However, there are less broadleaf control options so selecting a clean field with low broadleaf pressure helps.”

Henderson reminds growers that keeping the cereal from lodging, especially early on, is very important as that can kill the under seeded alfalfa.

“We also want to manage the residue in a way that minimizes clumping and burying the small seedlings post-harvest,” he said.

Like wheat and canola, oats provide ideal stubble for snow catch and winter protection.

To learn more about BrettYoung Seed Production and which companion crops will work best in your field, contact your BrettYoung Seed Production Specialist.

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