Perennial wheat as a new grain

By Vicki Morrone, Center for Regional Food Systems
Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI

Farmers and environmentalists alike seek a crop that is economically and environmentally sound. A new crop ‘perennial wheat’ may have that potential. Perennial wheat is a crop that has been under development for almost 70 years, across the globe. It is currently being trialed on farmers’ organic fields in Michigan. Unfortunately, we still do not have a stable line that offers reliable harvest and reliable regrowth. The recent research that has been conducted at Michigan State University includes production on organic fields at Kellogg Biological Station (KBS), MSU in Southwest Michigan. The lines that are being field-tested were bred at Washington State University and the Land Use Institute in Salinas, Kansas. To date, some of the lines have survived for three years at the Kellogg Biological Research Station in southwest Michigan. This year, two of the most promising lines are being grown on organic farms.

This crop was developed by crossing winter wheat with several perennial grass relatives using conventional breeding and selecting for the perennial trait, the ability to regrow after grain is harvested. Multiple crosses were made with annual wheat. The newest crop ‘perennial wheat’ has about 75% genetic material from annual wheat, and about 25% from Intermediate Wheat Grass (Thinopyrum intermedium) and other perennial grasses. The goal is to have a crop that produces a grain, harvestable in the same manner as annual wheat and that regrows for at least three years. As a perennial crop, this plant offers multiple uses including grazing, soil coverage and grain yield. Growing the grain on-farm offers a means to try various combinations on well-established organically managed soils. Some management systems that will be tested include animal grazing combined with grain harvest, in different years. The best outcomes will be tested at the research site and replicated to test the results.

At Michigan State University (MSU) we have been growing perennial wheat for the last five years at Kellogg Biological Station to test how well it does under low organic matter and sandy soil conditions. The “p-wheat” (as it is called) lines, were developed at The Land Use Institute in Kansas and Washington State University in Pullman, Washington. The Snapp lab at MSU has been testing the top 15 lines to compare economic and ecological features including grain weight, heading uniformity, erosion control capacity, ability to prevent nitrogen loss, and regrowth potential. The greatest challenge farmers face is its poor regrowth vigor in the second year, following harvest. The plant is a bit slow to regain its “strength” and shade out weeds. It is important to be aware that the lines developed are experimental; they are not yet varieties, and sometimes they produce a variable crop, with grain heads that are inconsistent in size and maturity.

Through support from the Ceres Trust Foundation we are now starting to take this project to organic farmers. It is still an experimental crop, and the farmers that are going to test it are aware that there are potential risks, such as inconsistent regrowth. We are looking forward to testing this new type of crop in cooperation with different farmers, seeing how it performs on organically managed soils, and how it fits into different farmers’ operations. We are working with several Michigan organic farmers to grow this grain on their fields, along side intermediate wheatgrass and annual wheat, for comparison.

Farmers who are collaborating with us are not seeking a silver bullet but are keen to learn about the potential of perennial wheat. They are also interested to share their expertise to resolve production issues; there is a lot to learn about the agronomy of this new type of crop. At the on-farm experiment field sites, farmers will implement different management systems so at the end of the day everyone will learn not only about how the new perennial wheat lines perform in different soil types but also how management practices impact the growth and regrowth, grain, fodder, and overwintering capacity of perennial wheat lines. Examples of farm management practices farmers are considering include intercropping “p-wheat with white clover and under-sowing sorghum-sudan grass in the second year of p-wheat, to compete against weeds.” This type of experiment has the intention to prevent weeds from establishing. “The cover would then winter-kill to allow the wheat to regrow with less weed pressure. The killed sorghum-sudangrass residues could act as a mulch.” These are examples of innovations proposed by farmers who are participating in the on-farm research that was initiated in Fall ’13. We look forward to sharing results through field days in the future. If you want to keep up with our work you can visit periodically at this site. ( This website offers an opportunity to share your thoughts and questions. We hope you will contribute to this bank of knowledge and join us in future activities.

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