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Can kernza sustain food production?

By Staff | Mar 16, 2016

LEE DE HAAN, left, a kernza breeder at The Land Institute, from Salina, Kansas, taught a workshop about a new product being developed, which would create healthy soils and protect water quality. He said the characteristics of kernsa, a wheatgrass grain, are still being developed, but that it offers hope for a sustainable agriculture.

By KAREN SCHWALLER

“mailto:kschwaller@evertek.net”>kschwaller@evertek.net

SIOUX CENTER – Tillage or no tillage has been the kingpin question when it comes to deciding how to protect soil health and water quality in the world of agriculture.

Lee De Haan, a plant researcher and breeder at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, spoke at the Global Ag Summit in Sioux Center March 4 about a single perennial crop that could address several agricultural and ecological global concerns.

He introduced “intermediate wheat grass,” a relative of wheat that looks like forage grass. It features long roots to sustain soil health and moisture, plant structure to act as a natural water filter and grains to feed people and animals.

“By tilling up that soil we reduce the soil carbons by about half ... a tremendous decrease in water holding capacity.” —Lee De Haan Plant breeder, Land Institute

It’s planted like any grass, and would be harvested when the time arrived, much like alfalfa.

The plants are still in the research stage, De Haan said.

Intermediate wheat grass is a perennial plant, and since it doesn’t get tilled, the soil stays wetter and healthier. Roots go down about 10 feet, compared to roots of regular wheat plants, which are less than half as deep.

Although it’s been grown in the U.S. since the 1930s, researchers are looking for ways to make it yield more and find more ways in which its grains and the plant itself can be used for human and animal consumption and for ecological improvement purposes.

Grains harvested from the intermediate wheat grass could be used to make beer, breads and muffins, pancakes and anything that wheat can be used to make.

De Haan said after it’s harvested there is much residue, which can be baled and sold as biofuel or fed to cattle.

Yields for intermediate wheat grass are not great at present, only filling a semi load with about 30 acres of crop.

De Haan said researchers are working on making the seeds larger and improving anti-lodging characteristics, hoping to create an end product that stands stronger and longer, and has shatter-resistant seeds that stay on the stem until they can be harvested.

A major factor in soil health with intermediate wheat grass is all residue can be removed from the top of the ground without damaging soil health, which is not the case with most annual crops, according to De Haan.

“(Soil destruction or erosion problems are) not just a few fields here and there, it’s a global issue,” De Haan said of the need to protect both soil and water supplies. “Twenty-seven percent of the land is tilled, and we’re getting massive scale problems as a result of it.”

“It’s not all because of tillage either,” he added. “Some of the damage is from over-grazing, too.”

De Haan said there are many reasons to protect soil and water, including the availability of clean drinking water, wildlife existence, carbon sequestration and increasing soil carbons.

“By tilling up that soil we reduce the soil carbons by about half, all over the planet,” said De Haan. “That is a tremendous decrease in water holding capacity. If you want certain functions out of agriculture you have to have the structures to do it.”

De Haan said The Land Institute has been contacted by several companies wanting to make a product out of intermediate wheat grass at this point, but it has not happened yet because there are still genetic improvements to be made.

Small field trials have begun around the Midwest to see how it performs. Research has grown to include areas all around the world.

Researchers are also looking into creating some kind of perennial sorghum in Africa, along with a perennial sunflower relative and, with partners in China, perennial rice.

But it’s a slow process, De Haan said, adding that researchers have been talking about perennial grains since 1976.

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