Bringing Small-Grain Variety Development and Selection onto Organic Farms

2003 Annual Report for LNC02-201

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2002: $72,953.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2004
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $33,069.00
Region: North Central
State: North Dakota
Project Coordinator:
Dr. Patrick Carr
Montana State University

Bringing Small-Grain Variety Development and Selection onto Organic Farms


Spring wheat and oat cultivars were compared on two certified organic farms in Minnesota and two certified organic farms in North Dakota. Organic producers worked with cereal crop breeders and other crop scientists from land grant institutions in identifying cultivars that were adapted to growing conditions on the farms and the growth traits that were most important in determining adaptation. A working group of organic producers and land grant scientists formed to further efforts at developing and selecting cereal cultivars for production in organic environments.

Objectives/Performance Targets

1. Develop scoring tools and skills needed for cooperating farmer and university researcher/educator teams to assess small-grain cultivar performance in purchased low input/organic environments.
2. Identify small grain cultivars from existing germplasm that are best adapted to purchased low-input/organic environments.
3. Form a multi-state farmer-to-researcher working group on breeding and selecting small grain cultivars for purchased low-input/organic environments.


Objective 1.
Fifty organic producers and four scientists representing two land grant institutions (North Dakota State University and the University of Minnesota) were asked to compare 18 spring wheat and 13 oat cultivars for adaptation in a certified organic field on a commercial farm near Richardton, ND, on 18 July 2003. Prior to making the comparisons, producers and scientists were given a questionnaire asking their opinion about the importance of cultivar adaptation studies in organic environments and how the studies should be managed. The questionnaire was completed and collected.

The producers and scientists were divided into four groups and led to the spring wheat adaptation study. Eighteen cultivars had been planted in plots arranged randomly with the cultivar treatments replicated four times. The cultivar identities were not revealed. Each group was assigned to one replicate (block) of cultivar treatments and directed to rate each of the cultivar plots visually for growth and reproductive potential using a relative ranking system (1 = poorest growth and reproductive potential, 9 = greatest growth and reproductive potential; letters could be used more than once or not at all). Groups were given approximately 40 minutes to complete their ranking and then numbers were tabulated.

The groups then received a questionnaire that asked for the ranking of 13 different growth traits along with grain yield, grain quality, straw/stubble production, and the impact of succeeding crops in order of importance (1 = unimportant, 5 = very important with no more than five traits receiving the same number) when selecting a cereal cultivar. Group members were encouraged to walk through the adaptation study and compare different cultivar entries while determining the ranking of growth traits and other factors. The questionnaire was collected when all groups had completing the rankings.

Finally, the identities of the cultivars ranked in plots were provided. Growth characteristics, grain yield, and other factors that were attributed to the cultivars by plant breeders and other scientists also were presented and compared with the four group rankings. A final questionnaire was given to producers and scientists that again asked about the importance of cultivar adaptation studies in organic environments and how the studies should be managed.

Ranking the spring wheat cultivars and associated exercises took producers and scientists approximately three hours to complete. Most were too tired to compare cultivar entries in the oat adaptation study that was located nearby. Still, producers (and scientists) indicated that the field exercise was very educational and helped them understand the proper strategy to use when developing criterion suited to cereal cultivar selection in organic environments.

Producers and scientists also identified spring wheat and oat cultivars that appeared best adapted to organic environments in western Minnesota. Some of the methods used at Richardton, ND also were used during the evaluations in Minnesota to determine the value of selected growth traits when selecting cereal cultivars for production on certified organic farms. However, the process used in Minnesota was less intensive than that used at Richardton.

These efforts will be repeated in 2004 with a focused tour at a Minnesota location similar to that which occurred during the on-site tour at Richardton in 2003. Results of this two-year project will include training less than 100 organic producers in how to evaluate cereal cultivars for on-farm adaptation and developing proficiency in less than 10 producers in cultivar selection. We also believe that analyses and interpretations of responses recorded on questionnaires obtained during the focused tour at Richardton, ND in 2003 and at a Minnesota location in 2004 will be publishable (probably in “Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems”).

Objective 2.
A cultivar x location interaction was observed for both spring wheat and oats in adaptation experiments in 2003. However, trends in data were observed for plant growth and reproductive traits at each of the four locations. For example, grain yield of the modern cultivar Walworth was equal or greater than yields of other spring wheat cultivars at all four locations. Similarly, grain yield of the modern cultivar HiFi was equal or similar to yields produced by other oat cultivars. Old cultivars (i.e., developed and released prior to 1970) generally were lower yielding than high-yielding modern cultivars in each of the organic fields. These preliminary data suggest that modern cultivars may be better adapted than old cultivars to environments managed organically if grain yield is an indication of adaptation.

A seed lot produced under organic management and a seed lot produced under conventional management were compared for two spring wheat cultivars at all four locations and two oat cultivars at two locations. Grain yield was greater for both spring wheat cultivars when organic seed lots were used at both North Dakota locations. Conversely, grain yield was equal or greater when the conventional seed lots were used in Minnesota. Grain yield differences were not detected when seed lots produced organically and conventionally were compared for oats at any location. These data indicate that seed lot selection is an important criterion in determining cereal cultivar performance in some environments. However, no trend in seed lot type (organic vs. conventional) for yield was detected across all four locations.

Eight field experiments (four spring wheat and four oats) will be conducted again in 2004. Results of these efforts will be published; the spring wheat study published in one refereed journal and the oat study in another.

Objective 3.
A working group of organic producers and crop scientists at two land grant institutions has formed and is dedicated to successful execution of this project. Two plant breeders (one from North Dakota State University and one from the University of Minnesota) have met regularly with the project coordinator and collaborators (both crop scientists and organic producers) to discuss and interpret results generated by the project. The foundation seedstocks program director at North Dakota State University also has asked for regular updates on progress in the project.

The relationships between organic producers and crop scientists involved in this project and the director of the Foundation Seedstocks Program at North Dakota State University and the Crop Improvement Association in Minnesota should be strengthened since these two entities have expressed an interest in using results of this project in seed increase decisions.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

Results of this project will provide organic cereal producers with cultivar recommendations in Minnesota and North Dakota (along with South Dakota). Already, some organic growers are basing selection criteria on preliminary results generated by this project. Likewise, results of the project are being used by the director of the Foundations Seedstocks Program at North Dakota State University to identify spring wheat cultivars for increase under organic management.

Significant training of organic producers in cereal cultivar selection is occurring because of this project. A cadre of organic producers with knowledge about the proper design and management of cultivar adaptation studies will result. Knowledge will be generated on growth traits that are most important when determining which cereal cultivars are adapted to fields under organic management.

Results of this effort will be published in refereed journals. Among other things, publication of the results will legitimize the practice of selecting cereal cultivars in environments managed organically in the USA. Selecting cereal cultivars for adaptation in organic environments based on results of studies in organic environments may expand among plant breeding programs at land grant institutions in the north central region of the USA because of the precedent established by this project.