MADISON, Wis. – The current state of Kernza was the focus of a recent international conference hosted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Researchers and farmers from several states and countries attended.
Kernza is the trademarked name of an intermediate perennial wheatgrass developed by The Land Institute of Salina, Kansas. Plant breeders there and at the University of Minnesota have been breeding the perennial-grass species to be used as grain. Through years of selection for grain size, shatter resistance, yield and other traits, Kernza has reached the point where farmers are now experimenting with the crop. The conference addressed Kernza-breeding priorities as well as the perennial crop’s ecosystem-service attributes and agronomic practices.
John and Dorothy Priske of Fountain Prairie Farm hosted a group at their farm near Fall River, Wisconsin. They purchased the 286-acre farm in 1986, on which they graze beef cattle. About 60 acres of their land has been restored to a tallgrass prairie; a wetland has also been restored. The couple has been recognized for their efforts by the Wisconsin Land and Water Conservation Association. They are currently leasing several acres to the Madison Area Technical College for hands-on agricultural programs.
The Priskes in mid-September 2017 began testing Kernza on 12 acres of cattle-grazing land. That land was separated into six paddocks where they evaluated Kernza interseeded with red clover.
- In three paddocks they planted Kernza in 15-inch rows at a rate of 9.3 pounds per acre. The red clover was drilled at a rate of 7 pounds of pure-live seed per acre.
- In the other three paddocks that hadn’t been fall-seeded to red clover, they frost-seeded the following March. That red clover was planted with a broadcast seeder at a rate of 11.5 pounds pure-live seed per acre.
“Intercropping does a good job of suppressing weeds, and provides habitat for songbirds,” John Priske said.
In summer 2018 the Priskes baled 97 bales of hay, averaging 682 pounds. The hay’s nutritive value was 9.6 percent crude protein, 51 percent acid-detergent fiber, 77 percent neutral-detergent fiber and 23 percent neutral-detergent fiber digestibility. It had a relative feed value of 59.
With such values beef producers might consider mixing the hay with grain or additional forage, Nicholas Leete said. He managed field operations from 2016 to 2018 for the laboratory of Valentin Picasso, assistant professor in agronomy at UW-Madison. Leete now works as a gardens-network manager for Community Groundworks of Madison, Wisconsin.
Leete worked with the Priskes on the Kernza trials. They also harvested Kernza grain, using a 14- to 16-foot combine. Harvesting proved to be challenging. They recommended that growers pay close attention to combine calibration.
Carmen Fernholz of A-Frame Farm near Madison, Minnesota, farms about 500 acres of organic grain and forages. He first planted Kernza on two acres in fall 2011. A year later he mowed and baled the crop, which yielded about 3 tons per acre of biomass. He has been testing Kernza since.
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One of Fernholz’s questions for researchers was how to best dehull Kernza grain. He has shipped grain to the University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative so researchers there can work on dehulling solutions. Processing Kernza grain is one of the challenges noted in a 2019 research report published by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, Southwest Regional Sustainable Development Partnership and Rural Advantage.
The report, “Kernza in Southern Minnesota: Assessing Local Viability of Intermediate Wheatgrass,” was written by Erik Muckey, a former graduate research-assistant at the University of Minnesota for Urban and Regional Affairs.
“With a better understanding of the challenges involved with not only cleaning but dehulling Kernza, current processing players may stand a better chance to serve producers and, likewise, help producers secure seed more quickly,” Muckey wrote.
Brad Sirianni, who grows organic crops near Whitehall, Wisconsin, planted 22 acres of Kernza in 2018. But he experienced problems with ergot, he said.
Ergot infection is often greatest on upwind field edges that aren’t well-pollinated. Growers should avoid harvesting infected areas, according to a publication prepared by The Land Institute, the University of Minnesota, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, and Green Lands Blue Waters. The document, “Approaches to Managing Intermediate Wheatgrass for Dual-Use Forage and Kernza Perennial Grain Production,” is evolving with ongoing research and grower experience.
Uncertainties remain in the market for Kernza, but the crop offers opportunities to generate revenue on erodible land because of its extensive root structure, Sirianni said. More information needs to be developed about seeding rate and seed cleaning.
Erik Engellant from Square Butte Farms of Geraldine, Montana, farms 4,000 acres of crops and manages 1,000 acres of cattle pasture. He’s transitioning from conventional to organic crops; he planted about 1,000 acres of Kernza in fall 2018.
“We see a lot of potential,” Engellant said.
He said he’d like to see breeders develop larger seed. When he planted Kernza using an air seeder he found that the lightweight seed bridged inside his seeder’s tank.
Josh Svaty operates a cow-calf and grain farm near Ellsworth, Kansas. He planted 27 acres of Kernza in 2014. The Kernza field was weedy the first year but was clean the second year. Along with other forages, his cattle graze Kernza; the cattle seem to like it, he said.
“It also fits my farming philosophy, which is ‘set it and forget it,’” he said of Kernza.
Visit kernza.com for more information.