Improving Kernza® + Alfalfa Bicultures by Developing a Kernza® Crop Calendar, Identifying Compatible Germplasm, and Monitoring Changes in Soil Health Properties

Project Overview

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2018: $11,891.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2020
Grant Recipient: The Land Institute
Region: North Central
State: Kansas
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Brandon Schlautman
The Land Institute


  • Agronomic: medics/alfalfa, Wheatgrass


  • Crop Production: cropping systems, intercropping
  • Soil Management: soil quality/health

    Proposal abstract:

    Kernza®, the perennial grain domesticated from intermediate wheatgrass (Thinopyrum intermedium), is a viable dual­purpose forage and grain crop for diversified farming operations. Commercialization of Kernza has already begun, but research is needed to ensure farmers can grow it profitably on a larger scale while bringing its environmental benefits to farmers, consumers, and the land. One possible way to achieve greater ecological intensification and profitability with Kernza is to plant it in bicultures with legumes to reduce or eliminate synthetic nitrogen requirements and increase the forage quantity and quality produced.

    Alfalfa is the most productive and familiar forage legume for many farmers and is likely the most adapted species for Kernza+legume bicultures in Kansas. Therefore, this project will compare grain yields, forage yields, and forage quality of Kernza monocultures and Kernza+alflalfa bicultures planted with multiple alfalfa varieties and managed as a dual-purpose forage and grain crop. Agronomic knowledge gained through this project will be incorporated into a Kernza Growers
    Guide being developed by the larger Kernza farmer and researcher community.

    Specific outputs of this project to be included in the guide are: a Kernza Crop Calendar that helps Kansas farmers utilizing growing degree days to predict Kernza growth stages and the appropriate times to graze, hay, or harvest grain from their fields; recommendations of compatible alfalfa varieties and/or germplasm types that optimize the balance between maintaining or increasing Kernza grain yields and forage production/quality while reducing the needs for nitrogen fertilizer applications; and ecological knowledge about the soil health impacts of Kernza and Kernza+alfalfa cropping systems, including changes in the soil organic nitrogen pool and nitrogen mineralization rates.

    Knowledge and results generated from this project will also be disseminated to farmers, researchers, and other audiences by hosting a farmer field day, through presentations at The Land Institute Prairie Festival, publication online, and through peer-reviewed publication in scientific journals. The ability of the proposed research and planned educational activities to assist and influence farmers growing or interested in growing Kernza and Kernza+alfalfa bicultures will be evaluated by
    tracking attendance at outreach events, using surveys to judge the levels of knowledge gained by farmers at the events and monitoring the increase in the number of acres planted to Kernza and intercropped Kernza in Kansas and the North Central SARE region. 

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Learning outcomes. Agronomic knowledge about the timing of important morphological stages of Kernza development when grown in monocultures under varying plant densities and fertilization rates and in bicultures with alfalfa. Awareness of the effects of alfalfa variety and germplasm types on Kernza+alfalfa compatibility in biculture cropping systems. Ecological knowledge of the potential changes in soil health properties by growing perennial crops such as Kernza, in monocultures or mixtures with legumes. Increased farmer awareness perennial species as viable crops within a long-term holistic management strategy. Training of a master's student in sustainable agriculture principles and emerging technologies and production practices.

    Action outcomes. Increase in farmed acres of Kernza in Kansas and the North Central Region (NCR). Incorporation of alfalfa as a companion species to limit the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers in Kernza fields and to fortify residues grazed or hayed on those acres. Selection of specific alfalfa germplasm types adapted to farmers' growing regions that are compatible with Kernza. Incorporation of Kernza growth and development in response to growing degree day accumulation into a Kernza crop calendar made available to farmers through a Kernza grower guide. Increased consumer demand and processor preference for Kernza sourced from farmers that use sound ecological principles, such as Kernza+alfalfa intercropping, on their farms. Inspiration of new research and breeding strategies to increase compatibility of Kernza and alfalfa germplasm when grown in bicultures. 

    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.