Kernza® in Wyoming: Evaluating Perennial Grains to Revitalize Wyoming Dryland Agriculture

Progress report for OW21-363

Project Type: Professional + Producer
Funds awarded in 2021: $74,804.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2024
Host Institution Award ID: G314-21-W8614
Grant Recipient: University of Wyoming
Region: Western
State: Wyoming
Principal Investigator:
Linda Van Diepen
University of Wyoming
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Project Information

Summary:

    Production of Kernza intermediate wheatgrass for grain promises to provide a sustainable alternative to wheat-fallow while producing food for a growing population. Winter wheat constitutes 135,000 acres in Wyoming, yet degraded soils, climate change, and weak markets threaten farming in this region. Kernza has not yet been planted in Wyoming, where the drier climate presents unique challenges, yet the High Plains Region stands to particularly benefit from the adoption of a perennial crop. We plan to plant Kernza at five farms across southeast Wyoming and at SAREC extension center under a variety of different management strategies, and to collect economic, soil health, and water use data. Our research will address the questions: “Can Kernza be profitably grown in eastern Wyoming?” and “What can soil health and water use data tell us about Kernza’s long term viability in this climate?”

    All project members will collaborate to bring information about perennial agriculture and our project to the local community, and to support farmers interested in trialing Kernza. Findings will be shared through on-farm field days, extension meetings, and alternative venues such as social media, youth groups, and the state fair. Eventually, we hope to equip more producers with the knowledge to grow and sell this novel grain. We expect that despite lower yields, reduced input costs and higher market prices will make Kernza a viable option for Wyoming wheat farmers that can sustain the agricultural productivity of this area in the long-term.

Project Objectives:

Kernza Viability: Determine agroecological viability of Kernza intermediate wheatgrass in eastern Wyoming under different farming strategies.

  1. Economic Analysis: Evaluate Kernza profitability under different farming strategies.
  2. Soil Health: Evaluate effects of Kernza on soil health and carbon sequestration compared to wheat-fallow and CRP land. 
  3. Drought Response: Predict and compare Kernza and wheat-fallow yields across the Central High Plains ecoregion using a model for water use.

Outreach

  1. Maintain stakeholder engagement and cooperation.
  2. Host events to engage with the local community about perennial grain agriculture.
  3. Publish our findings on Kernza profitability, soil health, and drought response.
Timeline:

Year 1 will focus on the establishment of Kernza on five farms as well as taking baseline soil and water use data. In Years 2 and 3 of the project, we will continue gathering agroeconomic, soil, and water use data, which will be sent out to all stakeholders in yearly reports and discussed in stakeholder meetings. Other outreach activities will begin in Year 2 and will be the focus of Year 3. From winter 2022 onwards, we will organize outreach through 4H groups, the Wyoming State Fair, extension meetings, and other media forms including radio, local newspaper, and social media. After data collection is finished in fall of 2023, we will spend the winter and spring of 2023-2024 producing and distributing educational materials.

As stated above, initial on-farm planting costs will be covered by J. Norton’s Soil Resource Lab at the University of Wyoming because planning and ground preparation will need to begin as early as February, 2021, before the grant is announced. In the event that we do not receive the grant award, we intend to continue with a much scaled-back project without soil health, water use, or outreach objectives.

Milestones

  1. Kernza planting.
  2. Begin community outreach activities (youth engagement, field days, state fair, extension meetings).
  3. First Kernza harvest.
  4. Begin building expanded drought response model.
  5. End of data collection for Objectives 1-3.
  6. Finish publishing all materials.
[caption id="attachment_712041" align="alignnone" width="1024"] Table 1: Project Gantt Chart[/caption]

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Thomas Foulke
  • Alexander Fox
  • Gregor Goertz - Producer
  • Rob Hellbaum - Producer
  • Clint Jessen - Producer
  • Tessa Peters
  • Hannah Rodgers
  • Newton Russell - Producer
  • Brian Sebade
  • John Watson - Producer

Research

Materials and methods:

Kernza Viability: Determine Agroecological Viability of Kernza Intermediate Wheatgrass in Eastern Wyoming Under Different Farming Management Strategies.

Summary & Justification:  Kernza will be planted at five dryland farms using various management strategies as well as at The James C. Hageman Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension Center (SAREC) under irrigation. Since Kernza has never been grown in this environment, the best management practices are unknown. However, farmers in our region have extensive knowledge and experience growing both dryland wheat and intermediate wheatgrass. Therefore, farmer knowledge along with advice from Tessa Peters will guide Kernza management. Objectives 1-3 will be used to analyze Kernza viability using data from these plots.

As of March 2022, Kernza was planted at two farms and at SAREC. Two additional farmers plant to plant this spring.

Study Design: Research activities took place at Kernza, wheat-fallow, and CRP fields on each of the 3 participating farms. Three small plots (5x30ft) serve as replications at each field (Fig. 2). All yield, soil health, and water use analyses will occur in these plots. Additionally, two Kernza fields under different irrigation treatments were established at SAREC. We want replicated data within each study location because each farm represents a different management strategy.

(3 farms x 3 fields) + 2 SAREC fields = 11 fields 

11 fields x 3 replicate plots = 33 plots in total. Next year, we will sample at the two additional farms that have not yet planted Kernza.

Site Description: The Central High Plains ecoregion that comprises Wyoming’s wheat growing region experiences 12-17 inches annual precipitation, 100-125 frost-free days, and a mesic temperature regime (8-40°F average January min/max, 52-88°F average July min/max). Soils are mainly silty and loamy mollisols (agiustolls, haplustolls) and entisols (torriorthents, torripsamments, ustorthents) (Chapman et al., 2004).

Figure 2. Each farm will include matched Kernza, wheat-fallow, and CRP fields, with 3 replicate plots per field.

Materials & Methods:

Planting & Management: 

In spring 2021, Kernza was planted by two participating farmers.

Rob Hellbaum planted 17 acres in two fields previously under wheat-fallow, and has been managing Kernza conventionally. 

Clint Jessen planted between 10 and 20 acres into a conventionally-managed, irrigated field previously in a crop rotation including wheat, corn, and alfalfa. After a hailstorm in August 2021, Jessen will no longer be growing Kernza.

Gregor Goertz  and Newton Russel plan on managing Kernza conventionally, and will graze Kernza after harvest with their cattle. However, Watson and Russel have yet to purchase Kernza seed.

An additional farmer, Monte Lerwick, joined the project in Summer 2021. Lerwick plans to seed 40ac to a 70/30 mix of Kernza and Alfalfa into a field previously under hay. Lerwick plans to manage his Kernza as conventional no-till for three years before haying it.

The project covers planting costs (at $50/ac) seed costs for up to 10ac per participating farmer.

 

SAREC: SAREC is located in a major wheat-growing area in Lingle, Wyoming. Kernza was planted in 6 small (5ft x 30ft) irrigated research plots. Half is being irrigated up to average precipitation monthly, and half is being fully irrigated, in order to evaluate Kernza growth with average and with non-water-limiting conditions. 

 

Figure 3. Part of Rob Hellbaum’s farm. Proposed Kernza plots for Spring 2021 are highlighted in green.

Harvest: For yield analyses, we collected biomass and grain samples by hand in three 50 x 50cm sections of each 5 x 30ft plot in Kernza, CRP, and wheat on the Hellbaum and Jessen farms in summer 2021. In future years (2 and 3), we will use the SAREC research combine to harvest each 5x30ft plot for both Kernza and wheat. 

Expected Results: We expect Kernza yields around 100-300 lb/acre on dryland farms due to highly variable precipitation, and around 500 lb/acre under full irrigation. 

Accountability: Producers will be responsible for Kernza management on their farms, and Jay Norton will be responsible for managing Kernza at SAREC. Tessa Peters is managing seed acquisition and helping to connect farmers with buyers. Caitlin Younquist will facilitate processing the grain at the new University-owned de-huller.

Initial on-farm seed costs were be covered by J. Norton’s Soil Resource Lab at the University of Wyoming because planning and ground preparation began in February, 2021, before the grant was announced.

OBJECTIVE 1: Economic: Evaluate Kernza profitability under different farming strategies.

Summary & Justification: We recognize that in order to promote establishment of Kernza in this area, it needs to be competitive with wheat-fallow when considering input costs, returns, markets, and effects on soil health. We will develop effective economic data collection and analysis tools to determine the level of profitability under different management practices and uses. 

Materials & Methods: Planting, growing and harvesting cost data will be transmitted to Tom Foulke for analysis and development of cost and return schedules that can be compared with traditional wheat production budgets for the region to determine relative profitability. We will estimate costs and returns for both dryland and irrigated sources and look at the economics of how intermediate wheatgrass fits into the usual rotational scheme for farmers in eastern Wyoming, including soil health considerations. We will also investigate what uses intermediate wheatgrass might best be suited for, including hay and forage, for the best returns to farmers. This will include an estimated sale price that farmers might need in order to adopt intermediate wheatgrass on their farms. We acknowledge that the eastern Wyoming growing region is extremely variable, and we may have to adjust estimates based on yearly precipitation, extreme weather events, and growing season length during the study period.

As of March 2022, planting and Kernza management costs have been collected, but we have not begun an economic analysis of Kernza yet, since we have not yet had our first harvest.

Expected Results: We expect that despite lower yields of Kernza, profitability will be higher over time due to higher market price and lower yearly input costs. 

Accountability: Tom Foulke is in charge of all economic analyses.

OBJECTIVE 2: Soil Health: Evaluate effects of Kernza on soil health and carbon sequestration compared to wheat-fallow and CRP land.

Summary & Justification: We are yearly sampling the soil at 2 depths at each of the plots, and analyzing samples for structure, soil organic carbon, nutrients, and microbial indicators using methods based on NRCS Recommended Soil Health Indicators (Stott, 2019). Intermediate wheatgrass has been planted in this area as a primary constituent of CRP land to rebuild vulnerable semiarid soils degraded by wheat-fallow agriculture. We believe that Kernza, a domesticated intermediate wheatgrass, can supply some of the soil health benefits of CRP land, such as better water and nutrient supply and resistance to erosion, while maintaining agricultural productivity. 

Materials & Methods: 

Soil Sampling: Composite soil samples were taken from each plot at 2 depths (0-5cm and 5-20 cm), along with bulk density samples. Samples were taken around peak growth, in June of 2021, 2022, and 2023. In year 3, deeper samples (20-40cm, 40-70cm, and 70-100cm) will be taken at one replicate plot per field to use for soil characterization (soil texture and soil C and N).

Sample Analyses: Soil samples were analyzed for the following indicators. Procedures 1-6 and 10-11 are taken from the NRCS Recommended Measures for Soil Health (Stott, 2019).

  1. Aggregate Stability using a Yoder-style wet sieving apparatus.

  2. Bioavailable Nitrogen using autoclaved citrate extractable (ACE) protein analysis.

  3. Short-Term Carbon Mineralization by quantifying CO2 concentration after a 4-day incubation in a closed container.

  4. Active Carbon by reacting with a potassium permanganate solution.

  5. Gravimetric Moisture by oven-drying.

  6. Total Carbon and Nitrogen by combustion analysis on air-dried ground samples on a Leco TruSpec CN Analyzer.

  7. Soil Inorganic Carbon by pressure calcimeter (Sherrod et al., 2002).

  8. Nitrate and Ammonium by extraction using potassium sulfate solution and quantification on a microplate reader (Doane & Horwáth, 2003; Weatherburn, 1967).

  9.  Bulk Density using soil cores. Bulk density will be used to calculate porosity and to estimate carbon and nitrogen stocks in kg ha-1.

Microbial Analyses:

  1. Enzyme Activities using assays for β-glucosidase, N-acetyl-β-D-glucosaminidase, Phosphomonoesterases, and Arylsulfatase

  2. Microbial Biomass and Community Composition using Phospholipid Fatty Acid (PLFA) analysis.

Data was analyzed using 2-factor ANOVA in R to compare: 1) Kernza under different farming strategies and 2) Kernza to wheat-fallow and CRP land. Data was also analyzed using principal component analysis.

Expected Results: We expect to see soil health indicators, especially microbial activity and labile carbon pools, to be intermediate in Kernza compared to wheat-fallow and CRP land. Though SOM can be slow to change, responsive indicators such as labile carbon pools and microbial activity can show significant effects in only the first few years.

Accountability: Hannah Rodgers is responsible for soil collection and analyses. She will be advised by Professor Jay Norton for all soil analyses except the microbial analyses (10 and 11), for which she will be advised by Professor Linda Van Diepen.

OBJECTIVE 3: Drought Response: Predict and compare Kernza and wheat-fallow yields across the Central High Plains ecoregion using a model for water use.

Summary & Justification: Water is the limiting resource in eastern Wyoming, and precipitation is highly variable, so understanding how Kernza reacts to drought stress beyond the three years of our study is crucial. Prior studies have shown promise for Kernza’s water use efficiency (Culman et al., 2013; de Oliveira et al., 2018), but it is unknown how Kernza’s deep roots will impact yields in a climate this dry. We will use the Terrestrial Regional Ecosystem Exchange Simulator (TREES) model to characterize differences between Kernza and wheat-fallow in this region. TREES is a process-based ecophysiological model that describes carbon, nitrogen, and water cycling in a variety of plants (Mackay et al., 2015; Mitra et al., 2016; Wang et al., 2019), and will provide a framework to predict how Kernza will respond to increasingly unpredictable climate conditions in the Central High Plains.

Materials & Methods: 

Hellbaum Farm: We will first test the model using data from the Hellbaum farm, which is among the driest of the five farms. TREES requires the following parameters as one-time inputs (Mackay et al., 2015), which we collected in 2021 and will collect in 2022 for wheat and CRP, and will collect in 2022 for Kernza. Parameters 1-5 are measured for 10 plants per plot.

  1. Leaf Water Potential at predawn and midday in spring using a PMS-610 Pressure chamber (PMS Instrument Company)

  2. Transpiration at midday in spring using a LI-COR-6400 Portable Photosynthesis System (LI-COR Biosciences))

  3. Hydraulic Vulnerability Curves using the bench-drying method (Resco et al., 2009).

  4. Nonstructural Carbohydrate Content analyzed in above- and below-ground biomass using a spectrophotometer (Guadagno et al., 2017).

  5. Specific Leaf/Root Area using images of leaves and roots taken at harvest time and during the spring.

  6. Leaf Area Index using images of leaves collected on 10 plants per plot in the early spring. Once the canopy is tall enough, a plant canopy analyzer was used instead (LAI-2000 Plant Canopy Analyzer, LI-COR Biosciences).
  7. Soil Texture taken from Objective 2 analyses.

To provide continuous input data for the model, we established three meteorological stations in 2021 at the Hellbaum farm.

We established two stations in April 2021, one in wheat (fig. 3, field 6) at 41.7875°, -104.7546°, and one in CRP (not visible in fig. 3) at 41.7904, -104.7474, to log bio-meteorological data at 30-minute intervals. Both towers were equipped with a wind gauge (ATMOS 22 Ultrasonic Anemometer, METER Group), a humidity/temperature/pressure sensor (ATMOS 14 Gen 2, METER Group), a photosynthetic radiation sensor (LI-190 Quantum Sensor, LI-COR Biosciences), and 12 soil temperature and volumetric moisture sensors (TEROS 11, METER Group). In July 2021, two infrared radiometers were installed at each tower to measure canopy and surface temperature (SI-111, Apogee Instruments). Also in July 2021, a tipping bucket rain gauge was installed on the CRP tower. The wheat tower was surrounded by a wire exclosure fence with a radius of approximately 1.5m to protect it from farm equipment. The anemometer and humidity sensors were installed 2m above the ground surface. The soil sensors stacked vertically at depths 13, 25, 51, and 76cm in three separate pits separated by 6-10ft (in the wheat field, sensors were placed outside of the exclosure).

In November 2021, we established a similar station in Kernza (fig. 3, field 8) at 41.7868, -104.7575. The tower was equipped identically to the other two, except for  differences in the wind gauge (Wind Monitor 05103, R.M. Young Company) and humidity and temperature sensor (unknown manufacturer). No rain gauge was installed. Additionally, a 4-channel net radiometer was installed on the tower (CNR1, Kipp and Zonen, OTT Hydromet Corp.).

In spring 2022, we will install two eddy covariance systems in the wheat and kernza plots (LI-7500 open path CO2/H2O Gas Analyzer, LI-COR Biosciences; CSAT3 3-D Sonic Anemometer, Campbell Scientific) in order to collect the ecosystem-level carbon and water flux data needed to validate the TREES model findings.

We will analyze below- and above-ground carbon and nitrogen content at the UW stable isotope facility for wheat and Kernza samples collected in the spring and at  at harvest time (year 2). This data will be used to calibrate the soil water budget and total yearly carbon and nitrogen budgets predicted by TREES. 

To evaluate yield, we will correlate modeled carbon, nitrogen, and water uptake in harvest years with spatial yield data collected at each plot using the SAREC research combine. 

Central High Plains Ecoregion: We will expand the model to use publicly available NRCS soil data and PRISM climate data as inputs (PRISM Climate Group, Oregon State U.; Web Soil Survey). We will corroborate this data using tipping bucket rain gauges on all five farms and soil texture and gravimetric moisture data from Objective 2. We will validate the model by comparing predicted yields at all five farms with observed yield data collected using the SAREC combine.

We will use this validated, expanded model to predict annual carbon uptake and yield of wheat-fallow and Kernza cropping systems in different microclimates and years within the Central High Plains ecoregion, and we will produce maps to inform potential growers.

Expected Results: We expect that Kernza’s extensive root system and its ability to improve soil water holding capacity will provide it with more water compared to annual wheat, which will allow it to produce yield even under prolonged drought conditions.

Timeline and accountability: Alex Fox will be responsible for data collection, maintenance, analysis and presentation of results. He will be advised by Professor Brent Ewers and assisted by technicians from the Ewers Lab.

Research results and discussion:

For objective 2 results, see attached poster to see baseline soil sample data for CRP, wheat, and fallow.

Objectives 1 and 2 do not yet have results, since Kernza has not yet been harvested, but some preliminary soil moisture data is shown in the uploaded slides.

Participation Summary
4 Producers participating in research

Research Outcomes

2 Grants received that built upon this project
1 New working collaborations

Education and Outreach

2 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
3 Published press articles, newsletters
1 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary:

5 Farmers participated
5 Ag professionals participated
Education and outreach methods and analyses:

We have made an instagram account (@kernzawyoming) and a website (kernzawyoming.org), both of which have received a lot of interest.

Since Fall 2021, we have been collaborating with the Land Institute on their "Kernza in Context" educational project to design a series of educational modules to be taught in American high schools. The projects center around the theme of increasing science literacy and the science behind sustainable agriculture and perennial crops. To date, these modules are still being drafted, and will enter a beta-testing period some time during Summer 2022.

Additionally, articles have been published by Mongabay, Western Ag Reporter, and UW Ag News (linked below)

Scientists look to wheatgrass to save dryland farming and capture carbon

Some eastern Wyoming farmers testing new intermediate wheatgrass

 

3 Farmers intend/plan to change their practice(s)
2 Farmers changed or adopted a practice

Education and Outreach Outcomes

2 Producers reported gaining knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness as a result of the project

Success Stories

No participants

Information Products

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.