The frequent tillage in annual cropping systems can degrade soil health and accelerate soil erosion, especially on sloped land, which is common throughout the northeast. Annual cropping systems suffer run-off, soil loss, water contamination from sediment and nutrients, and poor resilience to flooding (Helmers et al. 2012; Culman et al. 2013). Organic grain farmers who rely on mechanical cultivation for weed management are particularly susceptible to soil erosion. Soil loss in agriculture systems is 28 times greater than in natural systems (Wilkinson 2005). With 120,000 acres of annual wheat planted in New York (USDA 2014), and approximately 2.7 tons/acre of soil lost annually in the northeast (NRCS 2015), wheat production contributes to the annual loss of 324,000 tons of soil in New York alone.
The northeast is extremely well suited to launch this project to make perennial grain production a viable option for farmers, due to soil conditions and rainfall, proximity to vibrant markets and creative maltsters, distillers, and artisan bakers, and because of the high demand for local grain from consumers in our region (Brannen 2013). Research at the Land Institute has resulted in a perennial grain that is ready for widespread adoption, intermediate wheatgrass (Thinopyrum intermedium) (DeHaan 2014). In addition to intermediate wheatgrass, perennial rye cv. ‘ACE-1′, which is a cross between perennial wild rye (Secale montanum) and cereal rye (Secale cereal), is another perennial grain with potential (Acharya 2004).
Our project will introduce farmers in the northeast to the perennial grain crops intermediate wheatgrass and perennial rye. We will research and develop best management practices for perennial grain crop production, test products made with perennial grains, and facilitate market opportunities. On-farm research will focus on harvesting methods and agronomic practices identified by participating farmers. Research at the Cornell University Musgrave Research Farm will focus on evaluating the potential of perennial grain crops to regenerate soil health and provide both grain and forage.
We will distribute information about opportunities to learn about perennial grains to grain farmers in New York, Vermont, Pennsylvania, and Ohio through email networks, meetings, and newsletters. Multi-topic field days and meetings will include brief presentations about perennial grains to introduce farmers to the project. The three farmers involved in field research trials will also help recruit other farmers through their networks.
Twenty farmers establish perennial grain crops on a total of 400 acres, replacing conventionally tilled grains and thus reducing soil erosion by an average of 2 tons/acre/year, and contributing to the creation of a new niche market and sale of 150 tons of perennial grain in the Northeast.
We will test three hypotheses: 1) Transitioning fields used for annual grain crop production to perennial grain crop production increases soil health; 2) Intercropping legume forage crops with perennial grain crops reduces need for nitrogen inputs compared to perennial grain monocultures; and 3) Swathing increases perennial grain quality and reduces harvest losses compared to direct cut combine harvesting.
We will test the first two hypotheses at the Cornell University Musgrave Research Farm. This experiment will compare annual small grains to perennial grains and examine the influence of legume intercrops on intermediate wheatgrass and perennial rye yield and the effect of perennial grains on soil health. Four crops (intermediate wheatgrass, perennial rye, annual wheat, and malting barley) are grown with and without a forage legume intercrop (red clover). These treatments were selected to compare the two most promising perennial grain crops to two of the most popular annual grain crops that farmers are currently growing in the region.
On-farm research focuses on strip trials to test harvesting strategies and the effects of strategic placement in fields that are sloped or could benefit from field edge or waterway plantings. Swathing will be compared to direct-cut combining. Collaborating farmers also are testing the effect of mowing perennial grains the first year before the second harvest year, and different seeding rates.
Strip trials were planted on the three farms between Sept 9th and 21st 2016. On-farm strip trials are about half an acre to an acre each and compare seeding rate, fertilizer rate, or harvest technique (Table 1). Approximately 30 days after planting, emergence evaluations were conducted at all three farms, at 8 random meter-lengths in each strip trial. Between April 21st and 28th 2017, spring plant counts were conducted in the same manner.
Musgrave Research Farm
The experimental design for the Musgrave Research Farm trial is a split-plot randomized complete block with four replications. Grain crop is the main plot treatment and legume forage intercrop is the split-plot treatment. Plots are 80 feet by 20 feet. All crops were established in early September 2016 using a grain drill at 19 cm row spacing. Red clover was frost seeded in March 2017. Plots were fertilized with 450 kg/ha of 5-4-3 composted poultry manure at the time of planting and at spring green-up, for a total of ~45 kg/ha N applied. The Musgrave Research Farm trial will run two years with annual crops grown repeatedly in the same plots.
Weed biomass was collected July 17th and 18th, 2017 at estimated peak biomass. Two 0.5 m2 quadrats were sampled in each plot, with all weeds larger than 2.5 cm in diameter clipped at ground level and separated by species. Weed biomass was dried in a 65C oven for a minimum of 72 hours and weighed. Data were analyzed using ANOVA and NMDS methods (vegan package) and visualized using ggplot2 in R version 3.1.3.
Agronomic data includes crop vigor after establishment, weed abundance (density and biomass), crop biomass production, grain yield, and impacts on soil health indicators including total carbon and nitrogen, active carbon, aggregate stability, and water infiltration rates. In fall 2016 we collected baseline soil health at all research and demonstration sites before perennial grains were planted. Grain samples will be tested for grain quality including falling number and vomitoxin at the UVM Cereal Grain Testing Laboratory. Statistical methods will include analysis of variance and post-hoc tests to compare treatment means. We will interview collaborating farmers and ask them about their experiences in order to assess the overall impact of perennial grains.
Our first hypothesis relates to soil health. Baseline soil health data were collected both at our Musgrave research farm (data not shown) and on the three farms participating in on-farm research (Table 2). At the end of the study we will collect samples to compare with these baseline data.
The baseline soil health data for the on-farm study show that the greatest spread of values is for aggregate stability, with the highest being in the ACE1 field at Farm 3, and the lowest in the Kernza field at Farm 2 (Table 2). Organic matter ranged from 2.8% to 4.1%. At the end of the study, it will be interesting to see how the presence of perennial grains influence organic matter, and all the other soil health indicators, over time.
Kernza at Farm 2 had the lowest germination rate and at Farm 1 and 3 had the highest rate in the fall of the Kernza fields (Fig 1). By the spring, the average number of Kernza plants/m had diminished across all fields (Fig 2), likely due to winterkill.
ACE1 perennial rye at Farm 1 and 2 had the lowest germination in the fall, while Farm 3’s perennial rye had the highest germination rate (Fig 1). In the spring, the average number of ACE1 plants/m had diminished across all three farms (Fig 2). ACE1 at Farm 3 was the field with the highest plant counts by the spring.
Farm 1: The farmer mowed for forage both ACE1 and Kernza on July 6th 2017, at 4 to 6 in height, using a disc mower, which produced 8 round bales of forage from this 1.6 acre area.
Farm 2: The Kernza stand was too weedy to be harvested for grain, so the farmer mowed it in early June 2017 to try and reduce weed seed production. The Kernza stand was replanted with a grass drill on August 30th 2017. The ACE1 at Farm 2 was harvested August 9th with a CASE IH 1666 and yielded about 500 lbs (uncleaned) in total from the 0.83 acre, making for 602 lb/acre. In comparison, annual rye yields about 1,512 to 1,792 pounds per acre (27 to 32 bushels per acre, from https://www.usda.gov/nass/PUBS/TODAYRPT/cropan16.pdf).
Farm 3: The Kernza was too weedy to be harvested, and the farmer mowed it with a brush-hog on September 2nd 2017. Because Farmer 3 is the one who owns the swathing equipment, we will test Hypothesis Three in future seasons of this work. This stand of Kernza was not replanted, however, to see if it will have better success in the second season. The ACE1 perennial rye at Farm 3 was harvested September 2nd 2017 with a Gleaner F3 combine and was the most successful of all the on-farm trials, yielding 1,400 lb/ac. The rye totaled 670 lbs after being cleaned. Farmer 3 said the perennial rye was “super pretty” when harvested and commented on how easy it was to clean the grain.
Crop and weed biomass were collected at Farm 3 in mid-August before harvest and mowing (Fig 3). Biomass of the weeds and the crop were similar to each other in the Kernza, illustrating the poor nature of that stand. The ACE1 perennial rye performed vigorously and had much lower weed biomass.
The poor success of the Kernza at all three farms may be due to incorrect seeding depth and the drought conditions in early fall 2016 when the trials were planted. Ergot was also present in the trials at Farm 3, in addition to Puccinia graminis, a stem rust, on the Kernza. Additionally, in the next season we look forward to an improved communication strategy with the farmers, by checking in with them more frequently and making more field visits.
Musgrave Research Farm Results
Weed pressure was highest in Kernza plots and moderately high in barley plots, likely due to establishment issues with Kernza and winter kill of barley that reduced planting density and delayed canopy closure (Figure 4). Perennial rye and wheat both exhibited low weed pressure due to good establishment and early crop vigor that limited space for weeds to establish.
Intercropping red clover did not have a significant effect on weed biomass across all treatments, but there does appear to be a suppressive effect of red clover in the Kernza and barley plots where there was more space for weed establishment. The presence of clover did not impact yields, so using it as an intercrop may provide a net benefit of weed suppression in some situations. Work in future seasons will help us address Hypothesis 2 and the relationship between nitrogen inputs and the performance of perennial grains.
Despite the data being limited to a single growing season so far, it appears that distinct weed communities are already beginning to form (Figure 5). Wheat exhibited the most dissimilarity between plots within a species, perhaps indicating a broader range of potentially problematic weed species. Kernza and barley communities show the most overlap, possibly due to certain species such a common ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia) that were able to take advantage of open space.
Identification of weed species that thrive in perennial small grain systems will inform future research into both conventional and organic management. We anticipate that hardy perennial weeds such as canada thistle (Cirsium arvense) and yellow nutsedge (Cyperus esculentum) may pose challenges in perennial cropping systems that by nature prevent cultivation and crop rotation. Additional experiments to determine effective mechanical and chemical management options will be necessary to provide growers with guidance on how to produce these novel crops.
The main approach of our education program is to offer field-days and tasting events with farmer-to-farmer learning as the primary knowledge pathway. The three farmers involved in field research trials will also help recruit other farmers through their networks. We will also use email networks, meetings, field days, and newsletters to distribute information. Topics covered will include sowing, pest management, harvesting, and dehulling grain. We will also address soil health benefits, grain quality, economics of perennial grain crop production, harvesting and threshing/cleaning challenges, and lower grain yield compared with annual crops.
Farmers will be will be invited to try perennial grains on their farms and provided with perennial grain seed and management recommendations. We will be available to answer all questions about perennial grain management through telephone calls and email. Every effort will be made to reduce risk to farmers and make their involvement in the project hassle-free and rewarding.
1,000 grain farmers in New York, Vermont, Pennsylvania, and Ohio learn about our project and education opportunities with perennial grains through email networks, meetings, and newsletters.
- Our article, “Perennial Grain Crop Production in New York State” was published Dec 7 2016 in the ‘What’s Cropping Up’ Newsletter, which described research from our group on perennial grains, and introduced the project.
- As of 12-18-17 the article on the website received 142 page views.
- The true extent that the article reached is hard to estimate, because it was emailed to people related to perennial grains and sustainable agriculture stakeholders, who then may have passed it on themselves (including Franklin Egan of PASA, Kat Carestio of NOFA-NY, Jude Maul of USDA-ARS Beltsville, and the group at Plovgh, a group that handles distributing novel agriculture products). This article was shared as a link on the Perennial Grains Blog Site (http://pwheat.anr.msu.edu/).
- Project coordinators Sandra and Matt gave a field presentation in our field of Kernza, on perennial grains, “Perennial Grain Crop Production: Novel grain crops to regenerate soil and augment grain production in the Northeast”, at the Cornell Musgrave Research Farm Field day on July 14 2016. We provided attendees a handout about perennial grains, which included details about this project. 167 participants attended.
- Sandra gave a project update presentation,”Perennial Grains”, at the Love Lab Wheat Field Day at Cornell University, June 10 2016, to 40 attendees.
- Sandra and Eugene spoke about the work undertaken within this project at the “Small Grains Management Field Day” June 8 2017, at the Cornell University Musgrave Research Farm in Aurora, NY. A handout was also shared, in addition to plant and grain examples. There were 85 to 100 participants.
200 of these farmers are inspired to learn about perennial grain crop production in the northeast from a presentation at an organic farmer meeting and a distributed article reporting preliminary results from our field research.
Sandra presented both an introduction to perennial grains and this project, and reported preliminary results to New York State organic grain farmers at the NYCO (New York Certified Organic) Winter Meeting on Jan 10 2017, at the Geneva CUAES Experiment Station to 63 audience members.
After this meeting, a local organic grain farmer came forward and was interested to try planting perennial grains on his farm, so in August 2017, 8.4 acres of Kernza were planted on his farm.
100 of the 200 farmers learn about perennial grain crop production, observe mature intermediate wheatgrass and perennial rye ready to be harvested, and learn about market opportunities as part of a small grains workshop at the Cornell University Musgrave Research Farm annual field day. Based on research results, we advise farmers on optimal harvest windows and techniques, post-harvest handling, and economics.
It is not yet known in the Northeast the best time to harvest perennial grains for ease of combine management and sufficient grain maturation. Thus, before providing education on this topic, we completed a Harvest Timing Trial in August 2017 to help ourselves, our collaborating farmers, and our future farmer beneficiaries to better understand harvest management. This side-project is part of the process towards completing this milestone. The below chart shows the percentage of seeds and rachises at different maturation stages over time. This result which indicates that waiting later in the season may be the best harvest choice as far as crop moisture.
Milestone Activities and Participation Summary
Interest in planting perennial grains, Harvest management of perennial grains, Disease in perennial grains
Performance Target Outcomes
Additional Project Outcomes
The grant that was received was written by graduate student on the project, Eugene Law, to further the exploration of intercropping in perennial grains. The grant was a NESARE graduate student grant, project number GNE17-156-31064, titled “Increasing the profitability of Kernza perennial wheat with intercropped grain legumes”. The project term is 04/01/2018 through 12/31/2019.
Challenges: Harvesting, cleaning, and dehulling seed has presented challenges in this project. We’ve learned that a lot of care needs to go into combining a Kernza crop, because the seeds are so small. Thus far the harvested Kernza grain has needed a second grain-cleaning step after combining, and we have learned and developed grain-cleaning methods with our collaborating farmer, Thor Oechsner. Future projects about Kernza should take into account the complicated nature of preparing the grain post-harvest.
We also learned about ideal grain storage methods from Phil Atkins (NY Grain Improvement Project).