Improving winter grain yields, grain quality, and nitrogen use efficiency in New England using adaptive management

2014 Annual Report for LNE13-325

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2013: $236,931.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2016
Grant Recipient: University of Maine
Region: Northeast
State: Maine
Project Leader:
Ellen Mallory
UMaine Coop Extension

Improving winter grain yields, grain quality, and nitrogen use efficiency in New England using adaptive management


Baseline information about winter grain farmers’ current fertility practices was collected in a survey. Seven farmers conducted a total of ten on-farm strip trials of in-season diagnostic testing for winter grains (3 winter wheat, 3 winter rye, 3 winter spelt, and 1 winter triticale). Trial design and measurements were decided upon in winter meetings of the advisory teams, which are comprised of the farmers, crop advisors, and project staff and PIs. These teams will meet again in early winter 2015 to discuss first year results and plan for second year trials. Results from the subset of sites that have been analyzed support the use of tiller counts to guide N applications for winter rye. Three extensive on-station trials were competed to evaluate and calibrate in-season N diagnostic tests, and repeat trials were established in fall 2014. Results have not yet been analyzed. A number of the participating farmers indicated that they intend to make changes based on their observations in the trial, including changing planting methods to improve stand establishment, and topdressing nitrogen to improve yields but using moderate rates to avoid lodging. This project with well timed. An increasing demand for winter rye for food grade markets and cover crop seed had prompted farmers to increase acreage and put greater emphasis on management practices that maximize yield, nitrogen use efficiency, and quality.

Objectives/Performance Targets

50 farmers adopt in-season diagnostic testing for winter grain production on 800 acres, and thus improve N use efficiency by 30% or more, for bread wheat meet the 12% grain protein standard on 600 acres, and increase the value of their grain by an average of $300/ton, or $180,000/year.


  1. 500 producers and crop advisors in New England learn about the project through grower meetings, advisor meetings, websites, and newsletters (fall 2013).
Completed March 2014.

  1. 120 grain producers participate in a survey (online or at meetings) of current fertility practices for winter wheat (fall 2013/winter 2014).

Partially completed. A survey was distributed at the Maine Grain Conference and online to Vermont grain growers. Twenty-eight farmers returned the survey. The survey will be administered again at 2015 grain meetings held throughout the region.

  1. 7-10 person advisory teams composed of farmers, millers, bakers, service providers, and project PIs will meet in each state to develop outreach events and discuss research plans, results, and needs (Nov/Dec 2013, 2014, and 2015).

Completed for 2014. In Maine, an advisory team comprised of 3 farmers, 1 miller, 1 crop advisor, and 2 project PIs was formed and met on March 27, 2014. In Vermont, the advisory team is comprised of 6 famers, 3 millers, 2 bakers, 2 service providers, and 1 project PI. This group met multiple times as part of the Northern Grain Growers Association meetings (January 21st, April 16th, October 28th and December 3rd). In Massachusetts, project PIs met individually with the one participating farmer on March 13, 2014.

  1. 3 research station trials (NY, ME, VT) are conducted to evaluate and calibrate in-season N diagnostic tests and recommendations are developed for growers and service providers (2014 and 2015 growing seasons).

Completed for 2014. Research trials were implemented in the fall of 2013 and completed in July of 2014 at the UMaine Rogers Research Farm, Old Town, Maine; Borderview Research Farm, Alburgh, Vermont, and the Cornell Willsboro Research Farm, Willsboro, New York. Repeat trials were established in the fall of 2014 at these same sites.

  1. At least 9 farmer collaborators implement strip trials of in-season diagnostic testing for winter grains (2014 and 2015 growing seasons).

Completed for 2014. Seven collaborating farmers implemented ten strip trials: 2 winter rye, 1 winter wheat, 1 winter spelt in Maine; 1 winter rye, 1 winter triticale, 1 winter wheat, and 1 winter spelt in Vermont; and 1 winter wheat and 1 winter spelt.

  1. 3 farmers host on-farm N management field days (each summer, 2014, 2015, and 2016).

Completed for 2014. Field days were hosted at the Rogers Research Farm, Old Town, Maine on June 26; Beidler Family Farm, Randolph, Vermont on July 17; July 24, Borderview Research Farm, Alburgh, Vermont on July 24; and August 28, Butterworks Farms, Westfield, Vermont on August 28; and Cornell Willsboro Research Farm, Willsboro, New York on July 9.

  1. 300 grain producers and agricultural service providers attend on-farm demonstrations, field days, and winter workshops where they increase their knowledge of winter grain N management and how to use in-season diagnostic testing to improve N-use efficiency, reduce N loss and increase grain protein (July 2014 – July 2016).

Progress to date: Attendance totaled 569 for 6 events held in Maine, Vermont, and New York. These were the Maine Grain Conference (83); the Rogers Farm Field Day (44); Vermont’s Annual Grain Growers Conference (125); the Beidler Family Farm Field Day (42); the Borderview Research Farm Annual Field Day (225); and the Willsboro Research Farm Field Day (50).

  1. 500 grain producers and agricultural service providers will learn in-season diagnostic testing procedures and results from web resources including videos, factsheets, and a topdress N-rate calculator (Jan 2014 and Aug 2016).


  1. 50 farmers will report having implemented in-season diagnostic tests and document changes in N applications, yields, grain protein levels (for bread wheat), and revenue (by July 2016).

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

Project advisory groups (participating farmers, crop advisors, and project staff and PIs) met before the 2014 field season to plan the farmers’ strip trials. In response to their input, we adapted our original design for the conventional sites to include several nitrogen rates so that we could generate yield response curves, and we added two grain quality parameters (germination and thousand kernel weight) to the data to be collected.

Winterkill was a major setback this field season at all of our research station sites. Ice covered parts of our plots for extended periods of time due, in Vermont and New York, due to insufficient snow cover combined with an ice storm and in Maine, due to a mid-winter thaw followed by cold temperatures. In some cases, we had to redesign the trials with fewer treatments. In Maine we also lost one on-farm site and others had high variability in plant stands, whereas all on-farm sites in New York and Vermont survived the winter well. Winter grains offer many benefits for farmers, but poor winter survival is a risk. The tiller count test we are evaluating can help farmers decide when poor plant stands are worth keeping and trying to improve with a topdress application, and when it is best to start over and reseed to a spring grain. This was summarized in an article in the spring edition of the UMaine Grain and Oilseed Newsletter distributed to 530 farmers and agricultural service providers.

In Maine, on-farm trials have been summarized and a report was shared with participating farmers. The two conventional winter rye sites that had tiller levels below the 50 tillers/sqft critical level showed a strong response to topdress nitrogen, with maximum yields achieved with 40-60 lbs/acre of topdress N. The other two sites had tiller counts well above the 50 tillers/sqft critical level and showed little to no yield increase at 20 lbs/acre of topdress N and increased lodging at higher rates. These results support the use of tiller counts to guide N application for winter rye, but additional sites and years are needed to determine critical tiller number. There were no measurable effects on grain yield at the organic spelt and winter wheat sites. This was likely due to highly variable plant populations, as well as the relatively low topdress rate (20 lbs N/acre) for organic sites. Results from the station trials and the other on-farm sites are still being analyzed. We will meet with participating farmers in early winter to share results and plan for next year’s trials.

One of the participating farmers in Maine indicated that the yield results from this year’s trial convinced him to apply spring topdress nitrogen to his future winter rye crops. He grows 900 acres of winter rye, typically following broccoli, and his standard practice has been to apply little to no preplant N fertility and no topdress. This farmer will also change how he plants winter grains as a result of the plant stand we collected that showed that their current method of broadcasting seed followed by disking had very poor stand establishment and wasted a lot of seed, as compared with the other winter rye farmer who uses almost half as much seed and a grain drill. The other two Maine farmers are not planning any changes to their programs until more data has been collected. All of the participating farmers in Vermont and Massachusetts noted increased lodging with high nitrogen rates, and one farmer decided to reduce N application rates in fall application based on these observations.

One interesting development in Maine is that our growers have seen an increasing demand for winter rye in the human grade and cover crop seed markets. Consequently they are increasing acreage and putting greater emphasis on management practices to maximize yield, nitrogen use efficiency, and quality. This project is well timed to help them address N management in winter rye, and it has also facilitated additional trials with this group of growers to address other production issues of interest to them including variety selection, planting rates, and species choice and timing for undersowing clover.


Dr. Heather Darby
Extension Agronomist and Nutrient Management Specialist
University of Vermont Extension
278 S. Main Street
St. Albans, VT 05478
Office Phone: 8025246501