Paper of the Month September 2016

A meta-analysis of relative crop yields in cereal/legume mixtures suggests options for management


Intercrops of cereals and legumes are grown worldwide, both in smallholder agriculture in develop-ing countries and in organic farming systems in developed countries. The competitive balance between species is a key factor determining productivity in mixtures. Management factors, e.g. sowing time, sow-ing density and rate of N fertilizer, affect the relative competitiveness and performance of intercropped species. There is a need for an overarching analysis to elucidate general principles governing the relative performance of legumes and cereals in mixtures. We therefore conducted a meta-analysis of published studies to explore how the relative yield of legumes and cereals in mixtures responds to relative sowingtime, relative density and nitrogen fertilizer.

An index for relative sowing time, RST, was developed to quantify the relative difference in sowing time between the intercropped species. RST is defined as the amount of time that a species is sown earlier orlater than its companion species, relative to the length of its own growing period. RST is smaller than zeroif a species is sown earlier than its companion species and greater than zero if it is sown later. Relative performance of a species was characterized by its relative yield (or partial land equivalent ratio, PLER) in the intercrop compared to the yield in the sole crop.

In 409 out of 552 cases, the cereal had a greater relative yield than the legume. Sowing a species earlier than its companion increased its relative yield, and vice versa. An increase in density of a species increased its relative yield and decreased the relative yield of the companion species. The relative yield of cereals increased and that of legumes decreased with the amount of N fertilizer. The negative effect of N on the relative yield of legumes was mitigated if the legume was sown before the cereal.

The study shows how the performance of cereals and legumes in an intercrop is affected by sowing densities, relative sowing times, and nitrogen fertilizer. Growers can exploit these relationships to manage competition between cereals and legumes in mixtures and enhance species complementarity, total productivity and economic profit.

Yang Yu, Tjeerd-Jan Stomph, David Makowski, Lizhen Zhang, Wopke van der Werf (2016) Fields Crops Research (online first 25 August 2016)

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