Kernza Research is in Full Swing at Cornell University

By Dana Christel

Last week I spoke with Sandra Wayman, Research Technician with the Sustainable Cropping Systems Lab at Cornell University about emergent research on Kernza in the state of New York.  The lab’s first project was established in 2014 with long-term intentions, as part of a multi-state project focusing on grain and forage yields of Kernza. Wayman said that some of the main things she’s learned from this project is that Kernza has a very high forage quality in the spring cut of the first year, though cutting in the spring does seem to compromise grain yield.  She acknowledged that Kernza grain yields in general are low in comparison to their annual counterpart; they found it was 23-25% of annual wheat in their studies. Yet she and other researchers in their lab remain optimistic as the Kernza breeding program at The Land Institute is making rapid progress, and this crop offers more than just grain.

Kernza, a perennial grain, prior to grain harvest at the Cornell Musgrave Research Farm in Aurora, NY, on August 11, 2016. Photo credit: Sandra Wayman

They’ve also been doing some work on the side with looking at different ways of harvesting, swathing first followed by the combine, for example, as well as exploring the seed cleaning and de-hulling process. When asked about the big challenges that remain with Kernza, Wayman said that the harvesting process remains a challenge, as the seed is so light and as a result they’ve noticed a lot of harvest losses.

The farmers whom Wayman has worked with in New York express both interest and skepticism in perennial grains. She said farmers have concerns over disease, since the Northeast has a moist climate and the perennial nature of Kernza means you don’t rotate as often as with other crops.  Farmers also express concern about weed management in a perennial crop, but she said their research group hasn’t had overwhelming weed problems in their experimental plots yet.

Farmer advisors and Cornell University researchers evaluate a plot of Kernza at the Musgrave Research Farm, July 19, 2016. Photo credit: Matthew Ryan

The Sustainable Cropping Systems Lab will continue to work with three farmers on a new three year project that began in September of 2016, in which grain yield, soil health and weed competition will be evaluated.  They also hope to begin consulting with brewers, distillers and bakers who will test grain from the project.

The results of these projects are particularly valuable as Cornell University is one of the few institutions in the Northeast conducting research on Kernza.  You can read more and see results from their research in this Newsletter, or check out their lab website.

For more information contact Sandra Wayman, sw783@cornell.edu.

De-hulled Kernza grain (left), harvested from plots in Aurora, NY and a can of the first commercially available product made from Kernza grain (right). Photo credit: Chris Pelzer

Soil>Oil

Founder of The Land Institute Wes Jackson talks about the importance of conserving our precious soil resources and how the work at The Land Institute contributes to those efforts.

“If you imagine the periodic chart of the elements that we see in our chemistry classrooms, in the upper third of that chart are [20-something] elements that go into life. There are only four of those in the atmospheric commons, the [others] are in that soil- the stuff of which we’re made. And so, soil is more important than oil and as much of a non-renewable resource as oil.”
-Wes Jackson, Founder of The Land Institute

Perennial Wheat: Updates from Italy

Laura Gazza

Researchers in Italy have been looking into qualitative traits of different perennial wheat lines, and have a recent publication in Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution. This research has been conducted by the Council for Research in Agriculture and Economics- Research Unit for Cereal Quality.

A field experiment in Central Italy has been set up to compare four perennial wheat genotypes (see below) to a common variety of Italian wheat to assess performance of above and below ground biomass and quantity and quality of grain productions.  

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WSU= Washington State University, TLI= The Land Institute

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Experimental fields at “Inviolatella” station (CREA-QCE) in March 2015

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Experimental fields at “Inviolatella” station (CREA-QCE) in May 2015

The goal of these studies is to select perennial wheat genotypes with desirable agronomical, technological and nutritional traits in order to supply breeders with genotypes that possess commercially valid characteristics.

Intermediate wheatgrass Kernza® established in the SITES Agroecological Field Experiment (SAFE) for long-term agroecosystems research in Sweden

Linda-Maria Mårtensson, Maria Ernfors and Erik Steen Jensen
Cropping Systems Ecology
, Department of Biosystems and Technology
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU)
P.O. Box 103, SE-23053 Alnarp, Sweden

The Swedish Infrastructure for Ecosystem Science (SITES) was established in 2013, with the aim of promoting long-term, field-based ecosystem research at world-class level in Sweden for interested scientists globally. The infrastructure consists of nine research stations, covering terrestrial and limnic systems in a climatic range from alpine sites in the north to temperate sites in the south. One of the participating research stations, SITES Lönnstorp (SLU campus Alnarp between Lund and Malmö in southern Sweden) is a resource for agricultural research in conventional and organic cropping systems. At SITES Lönnstorp a new long-term field experiment; the SITES Agroecological Field Experiment (SAFE) has been established, focusing on cropping system diversification, agroecological systems, biodiversity, biogeochemistry and research on ecosystem services in agroecosystems. The SAFE experiment consists of four replicated cropping systems with large plots to allow for experiments and manipulations within the different systems. The long-term approach and the contrasts between the cropping systems will provide unique possibilities for research within ecology, agronomy, agroecology, environmental research and other disciplines, particularly for projects related to climate change, sustainability and ecosystem resilience. The SAFE at Lönnstorp is accessible for any researcher from all over the world. Basic running costs of the facility are covered by the Swedish Research Council and SLU and scientists interested in doing experiment within the systems will have to cover the cost of their specific studies, but will have access to basic data from the SAFE experiment.

At Lönnstorp the SAFE agroecosystems are: (1) a reference cropping  system corresponding to a contemporary conventional crop rotation with winter sown wheat, sugar beet, oil seed rape and spring barley followed by grass-legume ley as cover crop; (2) an organic 8-year crop rotation corresponding to Swedish/EU organic agricultural certification with spring barley/lupine intercrop – winter rye in-sown with ley – grass-legume ley – reed beet – phacelia – faba bean/spring wheat intercrop, winter oil seed rape, winter wheat in-sown with ley – grass-legume ley; (3) an agroforestry and more diversified  system following the crop rotation in the organic system in alleys between hedgerows with a mix of perennial species and rows of Apple trees; and (4) a perennial cropping system with intermediate  wheat grass (Kernza®) with and without alfalfa (Medicago sativa, Lucerne) as intercrop. The Cropping Systems Ecology Research group at SLU is collaborating with The Land Institute in Kansas.

Kernza before maturity, August 2015. Photo: Linda-Maria Mårtensson

An ongoing project on N dynamics in perennial cereal based cropping system, where Kernza is used as a model plant, studies

  • the total N acquisition,
  • allocation of N and C between reproductive and vegetative parts,
  • the relative N acquisition from soil and biological N2 fixation in intercrops of Kernza and Lucerne, incl. the potential transfer of N from Lucerne to Kernza, and
  • potential soil inorganic N leaching during the autumn and winter after harvest of Kernza, with winter wheat used for comparison.

For more information and access to SAFE, please contact:
Linda.Maria.Martensson@slu.se
Maria.Ernfors@slu.se
Erik.Steen.Jensen@slu.se

Kernza field in August 2015 at Lönnstorp, Sweden. Photo: Linda-Maria Mårtensson

Perennials as a tool to combat climate change

As we watched the first snow of the year quickly melt away on a balmy 40 degree December day here in Michigan, you might be filled with the urge to reminisce about the winters of your younger years.  “I remember when I went trick-or-treating in a snow storm at the end of October!” Or, “I remember there was always snow on the ground for the opening day of gun season!”  The climate is changing and here in the Upper Midwest a delay in the first familiar snowfall  is one result of this, others include drought and flood.  Parts of the state of Michigan were declared to be in a state of drought this past summer, having detrimental effects on yields of certain crops. States around the country share similar sentiments. As climate change continues to threaten agriculture nationally and globally, scientists have identified farming practices that might lessen the blow of these extreme weather events, allowing the farmer to better adapt to the changes. A conversion of annual crops to perennials, which more closely align with natural systems, has been recognized and discussed as one possible solution to climate change not only in scientific journals, but also in the popular press. Perennial grains, particularly Kernza, have been gaining a lot of attention recently.

The article “How farmers can get to the root of climate response – literally” published by Christian Science Monitor includes comments from  researcher Jerry Glover of USAID, Matthew Ryan from Cornell University, and Timothy Crews from the Land Institute about how perennials reduce soil erosion during extreme weather events and sequester carbon. Moreover, National Public Radio published an article featuring Kernza, as several other articles have recently, as a sustainable crop to face climate change.  Comments from bakers, brewers and others in the food industry indicate that there is a demand for Kernza.  Rapid advancements are being made in developing Kernza into a crop that may be adopted by farmers, but it is still a work in progress.  Nonetheless we are excited to see the potential of this grain recognized in popular news articles!