Kernza: Perennial Crop with Perks
Agricultural systems have a major role to play in feeding the world while protecting the planet, and Valentin Picasso looks to new crops and new techniques that can further this monumental task.
Valentin Picasso’s career has taken him across two continents — and always from the ground up. His research as an assistant professor in the Department of Agronomy focuses on forage and grazing systems in the United States and around the world.
A native of Uruguay, Picasso earned his Ph.D. in sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University before returning home to teach for seven years at the University of Uruguay (UDELAR). Now back in the Midwest, he is intrigued by the ways sustainable agricultural methods, such as the use of perennial crops (those that can be harvested year after year), can build resilience to worldwide threats like climate change. Because perennials have deep roots, they hold soil in place, reduce water contamination, and rebound quicker from drought or extreme temperatures.
One such crop is Kernza, which was developed through selective breeding of a Eurasian forage grass related to wheat. In addition to its use as feed for livestock and its environmental benefits, it also serves as a grain crop, weed fighter, and money saver, all of which is boosting its popularity among farmers.
Picasso is excited to collaborate with his new colleagues at UW–Madison. “There are lots of opportunities to develop interdisciplinary projects to solve the most critical problems we are facing today in terms of agricultural sustainability,” he says.
And in an era of increasing globalization, Picasso has cast his gaze beyond the borders of Wisconsin. He maintains an international focus as he studies the agroecological intensification of grazing systems around the globe, especially in Latin America.
You’re working with Kernza. Can you tell us what that is?
Kernza is a perennial grain and forage crop, so it is a dualpurpose crop. You can harvest grain out of it, and you can harvest forage out of it. Once you plant it, you can harvest it for many years. The grain can be used as human food, just like wheat; you can use it for flour for making bread. You can ferment it and produce beer or other drinks. We’re also looking at weed management. This crop has the potential to really clean a field of weeds because it’s really competitive. Once it is established, it outcompetes a lot of weeds.
Where does it come from?
This plant is originally from central Europe and Asia. It was introduced as a forage crop to the U.S. in the early 1900s, and it’s been bred over the last 10 years by The Land Institute in Kansas. When you think about this, the breeding for grain of this crop started only 10 years ago. The breeding for grain for other crops started thousands of years ago and have been in modern breeding for hundreds of years.
And here in Wisconsin, which people are interested in Kernza?
The main interest here in Wisconsin comes from farmers who want to have a flexible crop that they can use for harvest grain, but at the same time they may have some dairy or beef — farmers who have cattle and want to be able to harvest forage or to graze this crop. So, we’re doing research on what the impact of grazing is on the grain production. You can either graze it in the spring or graze it in the fall, before or after the grain harvest. So, it produces a lot of forage and a lot of biomass, but at the same time you can harvest grain, which is what everybody wants.
How long will it last when it’s planted?
A crop of intermediate wheatgrass can last a long time. You can have it for 10 or 20 years. The grain production in the first two years is usually very good and then declines in the third year. We’re trying to understand why this happens. Every time we talk to farmers, they’re very interested in trying it both for forage and for grain. It would fit very nicely here in Wisconsin because we’re a dairy state, and dairy farmers have that unique set of skills as grain and livestock farmers. So that’s exactly what we need.
Is there any need for special equipment or agronomic practices?
Well, this is basically a forage grass, so anybody with machinery to plant forage grass can plant it. For harvesting, you can use a small grain combine. So, it’s just normal agricultural practices. The main issue now is the learning curve for farmers because every new crop requires learning new methods.
What is the market for the grain?
There’s a lot of interest right now in that grain. For instance, there’s Patagonia Provisions, which is a food company that has just produced what they call “Long Root Ale,” which is basically a beer brewed out of 15 percent Kernza grain. Recently, General Mills also announced that they are going to incorporate this perennial grain into some of their products in their organic Cascade Farms brand. And then there are a lot of restaurants and bakeries in the area where they are serving products with Kernza as part of their menu or as part of their baked goods.
So a farmer can market this grain if they grow it?
Absolutely. There’s a large demand for that. There’s a group called Plovgh [in Viroqua, Wisconsin] that a farmer should contact if they’re interested in growing Kernza, and they can provide the seed and the basic knowledge how to manage this crop in order to get a harvest. We’re very confident that the grain yields will increase. Because this is a new crop, there’s a lot of agronomic management issues that we haven’t figured out yet. What’s the proper harvesting method? What’s the proper harvesting time? What machine works best? What are the settings of the combine? All of these are things we’re still learning. And that’s what makes this really exciting. The research we’re doing, everything we learn makes a change in the way farmers can manage the crop, so that’s really exciting. And, really, commercial production started two years ago.
Any recommendations for a farmer who might want to try this?
The main thing is to start small. We recommend farmers try it in a small area and get familiar with the crop before deciding to go to larger acres. Ideally, we’re looking for farmers who are familiar with growing grains. But at the same time, it’s great if you have cattle. That way, you can either graze it or harvest the hay and give it to the cattle, and that’s what makes it profitable right now — the dual use. Dairy farmers who are very used to harvesting grain and have cattle are clearly a good target for this grain.
At what point can we expect perennial grain crops to be as productive as annual grain crops?
Yields of Kernza have been increasing rapidly and continue to grow. Kernza grain yields are between 400 and 900 pounds per acre in the first year. However, the productivity of Kernza is measured not only in terms of grain yield but also in terms of forage yield. Kernza can produce up to 5 tons per acre of forage on top of the grain yield, which can be grazed or hayed. And inputs like fertilizers, pesticides, and machinery passes are minimal, so costs are much lower than annual crops.
What are the other advantages to Kernza?
The main advantage of growing this perennial grain is the environmental benefits. Because it’s perennial, it covers the ground year-round for many years, so there’s no soil erosion, there’s no leaching of nutrients into the groundwater. It’s a great way of conserving soil and water quality. It also has very deep roots, so the amount of carbon that it can fix in the soil is important. In a way, it’s also reducing greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. The main reason you would want to develop this are the environmental benefits.This article was posted in Fall 2017, Living Science and tagged Agronomy, Grow Fall 2017, Living Science, Valentin Picasso.