Intercropping in practice: insufficient data and a positive trend in NRW (Germany)?

If you look at the world of science, mixed crops – also called intercrops – are one of the hot topics at the interface between agriculture and ecology. Great hopes are being placed in this cultivation system. The topic of intercrops has also made it into the top scientific journals, e.g. with an exciting study on yield performance in PNAS by a colleague from Wageningen University.

But what is actually going on in agricultural practice? Is any of the hype in the scientific community actually being put into practice? Or is science researching a system that does not meet the economic and technical requirements of agriculture and the value chain? Can intercrops really be established well in our different farms, soils, climates and regional markets?

At this point, it would be extremely exciting not just to speculate wildly but to have a good data basis. To my knowledge, this does not yet seem to exist, neither at regional, national nor European level.

However, there is certainly some sparse data that can be seen as an indication of a development. For example, farmers have to report the crops they are planning for their crop rotation and for which they want to apply for funding to the authorities. And this data is available – albeit still very limited. I recently pulled data for NRW from the open data portal. This data contains various categories of agricultural crops that fall under the definition of intercrops. According to the database, the data is for the years 2023 and 2024. In any case, the data should be treated with caution because it is only reports of cultivation plans and not the actual areas under cultivation.

According to this data, the total area of intercrops increased from 6,246 hectares (2023) to more than double that at 13,981 hectares (2024). The area under cultivation increased in all categories except for clover mixtures, for which data is only available for 2023. The reported acreage increased the most for cereal-legume mixtures and clover-grass. Clover grass increased from 3,554 (2023) to 7,825 (2024) hectares, more than double the planned acreage.

For cereal-legume mixtures with a high proportion of cereals, the planned cultivation area more than tripled from 901 (2023) to 3037 hectares (2024).

The cultivation category of mixtures is particularly interesting, as two main crops are mixed together here. Further processing is often more challenging in such cases than when, for example, clover and grasses are mixed. The latter are either mulched directly onto the field, dried into hay or ensiled (fermented).

Mixtures of legumes and cereals are mostly used in animal feed, either without technical separation or with technical separation in order to produce precisely dosed compound feed. Incidentally, there is already a value chain that extends from the farms, the trading companies and the feed manufacturers in NRW. Lentils are also typically grown in mixtures but only play a very minor role in NRW. Agroforestry systems are of course also extremely exciting, albeit still an absolute niche with 0.7 hectares in 2023 and 2 hectares in 2020.

It would be desirable to have better data to determine the spread of intercrops in practice. This could help to better strategically develop intercropping in practical farming. It would be desirable to combine agronomic and ecological research on intercrops with a mixed methods approach from the social sciences combining quantitative and qualitative research methods.

Cite this blog post
Johannes Timaeus (2024, March 11). Intercropping in practice: insufficient data and a positive trend in NRW (Germany)? Bioculture. Retrieved June 13, 2024, from

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