Perennial grain’s promise for food, forage, soil

CFAES scientist Steve Culman, pictured, will give a workshop on “Dual Use Perennial Grain Crops: Grain for Humans and Forage for Livestock” from 3:30 to 5 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 17, at the annual conference of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association. Here are some details about his research from a story slated for our next CFAES Impact newsletter.

Imagine a field crop that grows for many years, not just one year.

A crop that yields grain for making bread, cookies and other foods for people, including, say, a beer called Long Root Ale.

A crop that does even more than that, serves double duty, by yielding abundant, high-quality forage for livestock.

A crop whose massive, sod-forming root system grows as deep as a person is tall, great for grabbing nutrients and water, a boon to soil health and water quality.

CFAES’s Steve Culman is helping study that crop. Called Kernza, it’s a domesticated version of intermediate wheatgrass, a wheat-like perennial grain. The Salina, Kansas-based Land Institute developed it.

‘It’s really uncharted territory’

Culman, a soil fertility specialist in CFAES’s School of Environment and Natural Resources, is leading a multistate pilot study evaluating Kernza’s potential as a sustainable, dual-use crop, including in Ohio.

Ten scientists and 11 sites in the United States and Canada are involved in the work, with CFAES managing two of the sites, in Wooster and South Charleston.

“It’s an exciting group to be a part of because it’s really uncharted territory,” Culman said.

Ohio’s big three grain crops, soybeans, corn and wheat, are grown as annual crops, of course. But growing perennial Kernza is a whole other ballgame.

“It’s almost like we’re managing a hayfield for grain,” Culman said.

Yields both grain and forage

Kernza has another difference: it yields a lot less grain than annual wheat does — for now, about 15 bushels per acre compared to 70-80 bushels. So getting good livestock forage from it, too, is key to making it worth growing.

“You need an animal in the system to make it work economically,” Culman said.

The study has evaluated, among other things, the impact of haying on Kernza’s grain yield and forage quality. When and how often should you hay it?

Future research, pending the securing of funding, will dig into questions such as Kernza’s nitrogen needs and environmental benefits, including possible big reductions in nitrate leaching into water compared to that of annual grains.

Also ahead, it is hoped, will be on-farm trials with growers. (Contact Culman at culman.2@osu.edu if you’re interested.)

Demand exceeds supply

For now, U.S. farmers grow only about 400 acres of Kernza, Culman said. But companies such as General Mills and Patagonia Provisions, a partner in brewing the aforementioned Long Root Ale, are exploring new ways to use it.

“Right now, the demand is far in excess of the supply,” Culman said.

Much more research is needed. But Culman said Kernza and other perennial grains show promise in at least two ways: as a way to integrate livestock with crops, and as a way to make such systems even more sustainable.

Comes down to roots

Kernza’s best feature, it seems, is out of sight. Its deep, dense roots “fundamentally change” the energy and nutrient cycling that go on below the ground, Culman said. Its roots grow twice as deep and are far denser than those of annual wheat, according to the Land Institute. And they keep growing from year to year — they’re not churned up by tilling.

The benefits, among many, include better soil structure, greater fertility and more efficient water use.

Learn more on the website of Culman’s Soil Fertility Lab and at go.osu.edu/ASA (click the arrow to see and hear Culman’s presentation).

4 thoughts on “Perennial grain’s promise for food, forage, soil

  1. Hi, Laurel. I checked with Steve Culman, who said he is asked about this from time to time. This is what he said:

    “Kernza is a sod-forming grass and is weed competitive. This is a desirable characteristic, as long as it is easy to terminate. Similar to cover crops, we want productive growth, but a crop that doesn’t get out of hand easily. In our experience, Kernza can be easily controlled with herbicides or with mechanical tillage and doesn’t represent a significant threat to being invasive.”

  2. will kemza compete in low land overgrown with canary grass?
    possible use as food plot for deer and turkey?

    • Thanks for the questions, Richard. Here’s what Steve Culman has to say:

      “I don’t have any experience planting this in low lying, wet ground. According to the NRCS plant production guide, ‘It performs poorly on wet, poorly drained, and moderately saline to alkaline soils with prolonged inundation.’ This same guide states, ‘Intermediate wheatgrass is palatable to all classes of livestock and wildlife. It is a preferred feed for cattle, sheep, horses, deer, antelope and elk in spring, early summer and fall. It is considered a desirable feed for cattle, sheep, horses and elk in summer and winter.’

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