Researchers hope grazing can increase yields of new grain crop

By Andrea Johnson

Originally appeared in Farm & Ranch Guide

MORRIS, Minn. – Many consumers are looking for alternative foods that taste great, are healthy and help improve soil health.

Because of this great interest, researchers are studying Kernza®, a new perennial grain crop. They want to see if this crop offers something that consumers will buy while hopefully providing profitability and benefits to farmers and ranchers.

“The seed is really long and looks like a wheat…it can be used for many different products on the market, breads, beer,” said Brad Heins, West Central Research and Outreach Center, Morris.

Kernza is trademarked by The Land Institute of Salina, Kan., and is an intermediate wheatgrass. In 2009, Kernza domestication was a part-time project of one The Land Institute scientist. It showed amazing potential, and the project was assigned to Lee DeHaan, Ph.D. at the institute in 2010. He accelerated domestication work and began working with other research institutions around the world.

These include a University of Minnesota research team. Wheat Breeder Jim Anderson, Ph.D. is leading a team that is developing new Kernza varieties.

Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics Professors Craig Sheaffer and Jake Jungers are leading another team looking at boosting and maintaining Kernza yields while maximizing the ecosystem benefits of the crop.

Heins works with the organic dairy herd at Morris, so studying Kernza is a good fit for potential grazing.

“If we go out and clip Kernza by hand, it can improve the yields,” he said. “Our thought was maybe we could sort of mimic that clipping with livestock and get some benefits there, as well.”

As a perennial crop, Kernza can grow 2-3 years without any sort of tillage. That makes Kernza a potential cover crop that will hold valuable soil in place all winter long.

It can grow to 5-6 feet tall. It produces 20-30 bushels of seed per acre, so greater yields are desired if someone wants to raise Kernza commercially. Breeding programs have been able to increase the grain yield by 5-10 percent per year – that’s an astoundingly quick pace given the use of traditional plant breeding methods.

“We’ve been looking at it from a ‘dual-use’ type system, where we can graze it, get some forage off the land for livestock, and also harvest the Kernza for grain, and maybe get some straw off the land,” Heins said.

At the West Central Research and Outreach Center, there are 14 acres of Kernza. The research team has found that row spacing is important with the crop – it doesn’t compete well with other plants and weed pressure can be an issue.

The Morris site also planted red clover with Kernza. It was interesting to note that adding another crop to Kernza caused more lodging than a pure Kernza stand. One benefit of adding red clover anyway was less weed pressure, he said.

“We do have some weed pressure with our Kernza, and we did wind up just baling some of the field (because of heavy rain),” he said. “Some of it, we just baled for straw, but that is part of the learning experience. We can figure out the mistakes and learn from it vs. trying to have a famer do it and wreck their crop.”

When the crop is swathed and combined in mid-August it will regrow, and the forage can be grazed, he added.

In 2018, the University of Minnesota organic dairy heifers grazed Kernza through Thanksgiving without detriment.

Springtime grazing provided 400 pounds of dry matter per acre, Heins said, but that really set back the grain yields. Using mob grazing and defoliating the plants to the ground in the spring hurt yields, they found.

Now with spring 2019 here, Heins and others will be checking to see how the Kernza comes back after it was grazed for about four weeks last fall.

The Land Institute project will continue for a couple more years, and in that time, University of Minnesota researchers hope to find ways to make Kernza a good crop for farmers to grow because of its many benefits.

Kernza produces a heavy root mass that goes down many feet into the soil profile. This root mass could help store nitrogen and carbon.

In addition to all of the agronomic benefits, they say that Kernza makes delicious food that is high in protein and fiber with lower levels of gluten than traditional wheat flour.

“It is a little bit darker flour than what we may be traditionally used to,” Heins said, adding that large food companies are interested in getting Kernza into the market and will pay a premium for people to be willing to grow it.