By Vicki Morrone, Michigan State University
Organic farmers know there is no silver bullet to address all crop and soil needs. But, what if you planted a crop that one year produced grain and straw and the next year provided grazing for your sheep–without having to replant? A new crop, ‘perennial wheat,’ may have that potential.
Perennial wheat is a crop now under development by plant breeders. Winter wheat that is commonly grown is an annual crop. This new crop was developed by crossing annual winter wheat with several perennial grass relatives using conventional breeding and selecting techniques. Multiple crosses were made with annual wheat, introducing the ability to regrow after the grain is harvested. The new crop, ‘perennial wheat,’ has about 75% genetic material from annual wheat, and about 25% from Intermediate Wheat Grass (Thinopyrum intermedium) and other perennial grasses.
At Michigan State University (MSU) we have grown perennial wheat for the last five years at Kellogg Biological Station to test how well it does under low organic matter and sandy soil conditions. The “p-wheat” (as it is called) lines were developed at The Land Use Institute in Kansas and at Washington State University in Pullman, Wash. The Snapp lab at MSU, which focuses on systems to provide agro-ecological services, has been testing the top 15 lines to compare economic and ecological features including grain weight, heading uniformity, erosion control capacity, ability to prevent nitrogen loss, and regrowth potential.
Thus far, the greatest challenge farmers face with p-wheat is its regrowth vigor in the second year. Following harvest, the p-wheat lacks ability to outcompete weeds. The plant is a bit slow to regain its “strength” and shade out weeds.
It is important to be aware that the lines developed are experimental; they are not yet varieties, and sometimes they produce a variable crop, with grain heads that are inconsistent in size, shape and maturity.
The Ceres Trust Foundation is supporting MSU to move this project on-farm, working with organic farmers to study p-wheat. Since it is still an experimental crop, the farmers that test it may see some less desirable characteristics, such as inconsistent regrowth. We are looking forward to testing this new type of crop, seeing how it performs on organically managed soils and how it fits into different farmers’ operations. Several Michigan organic farmers have agreed to grow this grain on their fields alongside intermediate wheatgrass and annual wheat for comparison.
Farmers who are collaborating with us are not seeking a silver bullet, but are keen to share their expertise to resolve production issues and learn about the potential of this new crop. Farmers will implement different management systems on test fields so everyone will learn how the new perennial wheat lines perform in different soil types, and how management practices impact the growth and regrowth, grain, fodder, and overwintering capacity of perennial wheat lines.
Cooperating farmers are considering intercropping p-wheat with white clover, and under-sowing sorghum-sudan grass in the second year of p-wheat to prevent weeds from establishing. The cover would winter-kill, allowing the wheat to regrow with less weed pressure. The killed sorghum-sudangrass residue acts as a mulch. These are just two examples of innovations proposed by farmers who will participate in the on-farm research beginning this fall.
We look forward to sharing results through field days in the future. If you want to keep up with this work, you can visit us at www.pwheat.anr.msu.edu. This website offers an opportunity to share your thoughts and questions.
Vicki Morrone is the organic farming specialist at the Center for Regional Food Systems at Michigan State University, East Lansing, Mich.