Organic Broadcaster


Researchers at South Dakota State University are trialing oat varieties at Charlie Johnson’s farm near Madison, S.D., to find those best suited to organic production. Photo by Chuck Anderas.

Researchers focus on oats, wheat varieties adapted to organic production

By Melanie Caffe-Treml and Jonathan Kleinjan

Corn and soybeans are, by far, the most dominant crops in the Northern Great Plains of the United States. In South Dakota alone, corn and soybean planted acres jumped from around 4 million in 1950 to close to 11 million in 2018, while the area planted to small grains declined from around 8.2 million acres in 1950 to 2.2 million in 2018.

Over time, the limitations of a cropping system with limited diversity (i.e., corn and soybeans) have become more and more evident. The lack of biodiversity has impacted soil health and beneficial insects. The systemic use of a limited number of herbicides has led to the development of herbicide-resistant weeds. The use of chemical inputs to mitigate problems caused by the lack of diversity has had a negative impact on both the environment and our health and has begun to affect the economic returns of producers.

The importance of using crop rotations as a tool to manage weeds and pests is well understood by organic farmers. Highly diverse crop rotations have been shown to improve soil health by favoring soil microorganisms and beneficial insects, decrease the prevalence of insect pests, and interrupt weed and disease cycles. The addition of a small grains crop into a corn and soybean rotation has been shown to provide these types of benefits. This is not new knowledge; an extension publication from South Dakota State University dating from 1928 reports that “a rotation including corn, oats, and a legume provides excellent yield.” Crop rotations tended more diverse at that time and South Dakota producers planted more small grains. For example, 76 million bushels of oats were produced annually in the state compared to 7.8 million bushels in 2018.

Small Grains Characteristics
Oats are grown for forage and grain production. The oat grain is highly nutritious and can be used for either human consumption or livestock feed. Oats contain higher levels of protein, oil and beta-glucan than other cereal grains. Beta-glucan is a soluble fiber which has been shown to reduce risks of heart disease, lower cholesterol, and reduce risks of type 2 diabetes. The protein in oats have a balanced amino acid composition. In addition, oats contain antioxidants that have been associated with various health benefits.

Producers appreciate the fact that oats require relatively low inputs. The oat plant’s fibrous root system is desirable to improve soil structure. Oats provide a quick-growing, weed-suppressing biomass. In organic systems, oats are a great nurse crop for alfalfa. Due to the grain’s soil-building and weed-suppression characteristics, oats are commonly used as a cover crop.

Winter wheat provides a cover in the fall and early spring that can help control weeds. Winter crops possess a few advantages over spring cereals that make them highly desirable in crop rotations. These advantages include higher water use efficiency, greater ability to compete with weeds, reduced soil erosion, and the ability for producers to spread out their workload. In addition, because the grain filling occurs earlier in the season (hopefully at lower temperatures), an increase in yield potential may be expected for fall-sown cereals in comparison to spring-sown cereals.

Spring wheat is grown primarily for the high protein content of its grain. It produces flour with desirable functionality for making bread, as well as a wide range of other food products. Domestic demand for organic spring wheat, oats, and winter wheat has been increasing as consumers are becoming more and more interested in products made with organically produced ingredients.

Breeding Organic Varieties
Organic farmers require small grains varieties that are well-adapted to their production system, able to resist potential pathogens and pests, and produce grain with good end-use quality and nutrition characteristics. Plant breeders strive to improve crops not only for grain yield, but also for diseases resistance, lodging resistance, processing characteristics, and nutritional characteristics.

The important role that plant breeding can play in making small grains production more economical is not always fully recognized by the consumer. In reality, net returns per acre for producers can vary significantly depending on the choice of the variety. For example, the oat variety trials performed by the South Dakota State University Crop Performance Testing program report an average difference of 42.8 bu/acre (over 3 years [2016-2019] of testing at three eastern South Dakota locations) between planting the oat variety Deon versus planting the oat variety Jerry. At a price of $5.50 for organic oats, this equates to a difference of $235.40 per acre. This example examines just differences in grain yield based on trials managed conventionally. The difference in return per acre may be even more pronounced under organic management as chemical inputs cannot be used to “balance out” the inherent drawbacks of certain varieties (e.g., crown rust resistance). Grain quality characteristics also become more important in the organic system.

Melanie Caffe-Treml (pictured on the right) explains the trial parameters to farmers at a field day at Johnson Farms in 2019. Photo by Chuck Anderas

Most small grain varieties have been developed and evaluated only under conventional management practices. Limited information is available to producers regarding the adaptation and performance of small grain varieties for organic production systems.

A team of researchers at South Dakota State University including breeders, extension specialists, agronomists, and a cereal chemist was granted multi-year support from General Mills Foundation to enhance the sustainability of farming systems in the Dakotas by improving small grains.

The grant is focused not only on organic management systems but also regenerative agriculture practices, and a portion of this grant requires evaluating small grain cultivars and breeding lines under organic management. The goal is to provide recommendations to organic farmers on which variety is best adapted to their system and to identify breeding lines adapted to organic production. Emphasis will be placed on identifying breeding lines and varieties that have good resistance to prevalent diseases, quick early growth to compete against weeds, and that can perform well with limited nitrogen availability. In addition, these varieties and breeding lines will be evaluated to determine if they produce grains with desirable milling and end-use characteristics so that they fit the various food markets available to producers and are nutritious for consumers.

The oat variety trials growing at Johnson Farms in Madison, S.D., will be included in the farm’s annual field tour Thurs- day, July 30 from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. The event starts at St. Peter on the Prairie, 24311 452nd Ave., Madison, S.D.
To reserve a spot, email
Photo by Melanie Caffe-Treml

In 2019, organic variety trials were conducted at the Southeast Research Farm in Beresford and Charlie Johnson’s farm near Madison, SD. In 2020, organic variety trials were planted again at the Beresford farm, the Johnson farm, and the BJ McNeal’s farm near Wessington, SD. The oat variety trials were showcased at the field tour organized by MOSES at Johnson’s farm in 2019.

When choosing a variety, it is important to study data across locations and years. A single season or location may not always provide an accurate picture of how a variety will perform. Results from the 2019 oat and spring wheat variety trials can be accessed at Future testing will provide more accurate recommendations for organic farmers.

This year, researchers are testing to see if a drone can quickly and precisely assess differences between breeding lines in term of ground cover/canopy closure. The goal is to use drone imagery to select breeding lines that have better ability to provide shade on the ground and therefore have a better ability to compete with weeds.


Melanie Caffe-Treml is the oat breeder in the Agron- omy, Horticulture, and Plant Science Department at South Dakota State University. Jonathan Kleinjan is an Extension agronomist with South Dakota State University.


From the July| August 2020 Issue


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