Ceres Funded On-Farm Perennial Wheat Project

Year-end report for Ceres Trust Grant  (2013)

Title: Fostering complex soil food webs and building soil fertility with organic production: perennial wheat PHASE TWO

Principal Investigator: Sieglinde Snapp, Soil and Cropping Systems Ecologist, Professor, Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences and Kellogg Biological Station, Michigan State University, 3700 East Gull Lake Drive, Hickory Corners, MI 49060, snapp@msu.edu

Co-Principal Investigator: Vicki Morrone, Organic Vegetable and Field Crop Outreach Specialist, Michigan State University, sorrone@msu.edu


Lee and Linda Purdy, Farmer Educator, Westwind Milling and Organic Grain Farmers, West central Michigan

Howard Straub, Farmer Educator, Rotational Grazer Livestock Farmer Central Michigan


Vicki Morrone hand Planting Perennial Wheat and treatments on-farm near Battle Creek, MI. (photo by Sieg Snapp)

Four field locations in central and Southwest Michigan, ranging in size from 50-100 ft rows. Four rows of each crop: 2 lines of perennial wheat: P-15 and P-19, 3-4 varieties of annual wheat (Red Devil, Hopewell, Frankenmuth, and farmers choice), Intermediate wheat grass).


Objective 1. To expand farmer involvement through establishing on-farm experiments and expanded outreach through field days, website and educational materials.


The focus of this year’s work was to create the opportunity for organic field crop farmers to be encouraged and supported to grow perennial wheat on their farms. This expands engagement with farmers, to understand more about both potential benefits and constraints to adoption of this new type of crop. It also provides an opportunity to test performance of lines of perennial wheat and intermediate wheatgrass on a range of farms, including different soil types and management practices.


Organic Farmer Educational Meetings

Twenty five organic grain farmers were invited to participate in this study and asked to attend two workshops that included a visit to KBS perennial grain plots, discussion about protocol and expectations, and a brain storming session to identify possible solutions to potential challenges such as weed management and good stand establishment.

Of the twenty-five farmers a total of eight farmers were strongly interested in participating in the on-farm research. The primary reason that some farmers chose not to be involved in on-farm experiments, at this point in time, was the fear of inability to control weeds in this new crop type. Based on these responses we held a round table discussion with the farmers interested in trying out perennial wheat on-farm to discuss the challenges and identify possible options for land preparation and cover and inter crops to reduce weeds.


These best options put forward for weed control in perennial grain crops by farmers were synthesized and shared with each participating farmer. Farmers were all given the choice to implement the trial (comparing perennial wheat lines) as they felt was most appropriate for their farm, using an approach that matched their management practices.

  • Four Michigan certified organic farms have planted perennial wheat following the trial protocol.
  • Two lines of perennial wheat were included in all of the trials, the ones that have shown most promise for strong regrowth and production in Michigan. (P15, P 19)
  • Kernza (Intermediate wheatgrass) was included as well
  • Annual wheat: 2-3 varieties were chosen based on farmers’ selection from among those grown by organic farmers including Red Devil, Frankenmuth, Hopewell. All seed was untreated and Red Devil and Hopewell were certified organic varieties. Frankenmuth is no longer available commercially so had to be sourced from the MSU wheat plant breeding group.


Each farmer participant completed an intake interview with Morrone prior to planting of perennial wheat. The objective of the interview was to learn about the farmers’ management styles to establish the perennial wheat and what are each of their goals and expectations for this grain, as a trial and as a potential crop.


Objective 2.  Extend the on-farm field trials to conduct multi-year investigations of yield, forage and root growth of perennial grains.


On-farm Trial Sites

The four sites will allow us to evaluate perennial wheat on different soils and under various organic management regimes. Since all soil managed organically is NOT created equal we chose farmers that have been practicing organically for several years and who are savvy on how to building soil for the short and long term. We expect to see differences compared to Kellogg Biological Station, where the soil is sandy to sandy loam and has been managed organically for three years (it was just certified this past year by GOA).

This spring and summer (2014) we will compare the two lines of perennial wheat within each field and compare the trials to each based on emergence in spring, biomass of each crop and variety, yield of each per 20 ft row, date of maturity and grain size.


Characteristics of Perennial wheat sought by On-Farm Participants

The four participating farmers differ from one another in terms of their farming goals and we show here the key characteristics that farmers expressed interest in testing the grain for, from the lines grown in the on-farm trial:

  1. Pasture and some feed grain
  2. Milling for baking flour
  3. Wheat berries as a whole food (baking and wheat grass)
  4. Multipurpose use of the perennial grain (pasture and grain)


Each farmer will be asked to evaluate their perennial wheat crops based on their goals. Grain and fodder (hay) will be analyzed for the respective uses across all farms.  These analyses will include grain protein, hay protein and fiber for animal feed (what are these tests called), and baking quality evaluation.


Planned Field Days

In the summer the Perennial Wheat team, including the collaborating farmers will offer community field days. The four field sites will be used for field demonstrations and our MSU educators will be assisted to create a field day at each site. Note the enclosed map that indicates the farm sites, this will provide opportunities for farmers to see this crop growing on an organic farm, in the area.



Objective 3. Continue soil biology monitoring and add new measurements to assess soil microbial diversity under organic management.

Soil monitoring was carried out in the long-term experiment where we are comparing intermediate wheatgrass and annual wheat under organic management, and under conventional N fertilizer management. We took deep soil cores in order to measure soil organic matter at five depths from the topsoil to 1 meter deep in the soil, and froze samples for DNA analysis as well to understand soil microbial diversity. We also took soil quality measurements such as water stable aggregates and active carbon, so we will be able to understand how a perennial grain crop under organic management influences a wide range of soil biological properties, and soil health. The laboratory analyses have been initiated and preliminary results should be available next summer.


Outreach and Outputs


Symposium & Poster Session

During the 2013 American Society of Agronomy Meetings held in Tampa Florida, Nov 3-7 the Perennial Grain Work Group convened its first Symposium and Poster Session. Snapp and Morrone, co-chairs and initiators of the working group, established in 2012, organized this working group and presentations. The impetus for this working group was greatly driven by the Ceres Trust Grant and allowed up to not only present specifically on this work but also extend the research questions to our counterparts, across the globe. The symposium included our keynote, Len Wade from Charles Sturt University in Australia and several perennial grain research stars from key institutions across the United States. The sessions presented were as follows:


Perennial Grain Development Community-Presided by Dr Sieg Snapp-Michigan State University  held on Monday, November 4, 2013:

8:30 AM–Introductory Remarks–8:40 AM–Food Security, Productivity Tradeoffs and Benefits Beyond Yield With Perennial Grains. presented by Len J. Wade, Charles Sturt University

9:25 AM–Perennial Roots: A Key Driver to Ecosystem Stability and Long Term Yield.

S. Tianna DuPont, The Pennsylvania State University; Joshua Beniston, Ohio State University;Steven W. Culman, University California-Davis; Jerry Glover, US Agency for International Development; Amanda Hodson, University of California at Davis; Rattan Lal, The Ohio State University; Howard Ferris, University of California-Davis


9:55 AM–Progress in Developing Kernza Wheatgrass As a Perennial Grain.

Lee R. DeHaan, The Land Institute


10:15 AM–Selection Considerations for Polyculture Development.

Douglas J. Cattani, University of Manitoba


10:35 AM–Perennial Wheat: A Multipurpose Cover Crop for the Midwest.

Sieglinde S. Snapp, Michigan State University; Vicki L. Morrone, Michigan State University;Sienna Tinsley, Michigan State University; Steven W. Culman, University California-Davis; Nikhil jaikumar, Michigan State University


10:55 AM–Beyond Perennial Grain Feasibility and Proof-of-Concept: Next Steps.

Jerry Glover, US Agency for International Development


To compliment the oral presentations we hosted a poster symposium entitled, “Polyculture and Perennial Grains For Sustainable Agriculture.

**Poster Session Over 55 society members attended the session and asked questions that not only will help guide us to create the next symposium with this working group but also strengthen our research.

In addition to the symposium featuring perennial wheat research we also sponsored a Poster Session and New Scientist Round Table Discussion. Over twentyfive attended this session to share their experiences and ideas to further perennial grain research and development, across the globe. Note that Snapp presented the perennial wheat research funded by you during the symposium and Morrone presented work with perennial wheat and farmers perceptions in the perennial grain poster session.


Perennial Wheat Extension Bulletin

A perennial wheat extension bulletin is in its final phase of edits with MSU extension communication team so that it can be shared during the upcoming stream for this winter’s meetings, targeted at Michigan and Midwest Farmers. This bulletin will serve as an introduction to perennial wheat and its potential. We realized early in the project that given the high level of excitement about this crop type, it is important to provide information on initial performance which is a cautionary tale, as much improved lines are needed that are more stable and vigorous regrowing types as well as better yielding types.

Bulletin distribution

We will be sharing this bulletin at MOSES during Snapp and Morrone’s presentation entitled ‘Multipurpose Perennial Grains for Your Farm’. In addition, Morrone will provide this bulletin to Michigan’s Organic Farmer Group, Michigan Organic Food and Farm Alliance (MOFFA) and Michigan Food and Farming Systems (MIFFS) to share during their educational sessions with organic and sustainable farmers.


Breeding Perennial Grain Crops

ABSTRACT: One-third of the planet’s arable land has been lost to soil erosion in recent decades, and the pace of this degradation will increase as the limits of our food production capacities are stretched. The persistent problem of worldwide soil erosion has rekindled interest in perennial grain crops.

SOURCE: Cox et al, 2002. “Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences,” 21(2)59-91. 2002. Retrieved from http://www4.ncsu.edu/~jholland/Pubs/Cox,T.S.2002.PerennialGrain.CRPS21,59-61.pdf.

Ancient Grains: webinars by eOrganic

Take a look at this new webinar about ancient grains:

This webinar was recorded on January 8, 2013. In this webinar, a team of researchers from the NIFA OREI project Value-added grains for local and regional food systems  discuss the so-called ancient grains–einkorn , emmer and spelt–including their origins and attributes, current and potential uses and markets, and what we know so far about how to grow them.  The team will also give an overview of the project’s current work on developing best management practices for these grains, dehulling options, and identifying varieties and landraces with superior yield, flavor, or nutritional content. This webinar is for those interested in specialty grains, including farmers, consumers, bakers, chefs, millers, and other grain processors.

Learn the latest in organic farming practices and research by attending or watching an eOrganic Webinar. Sign up for upcoming Webinars to watch slides, listen to the presenter, and type in questions during the live event.

Nutritional and quality characteristics expressed in 31 perennial wheat breeding lines

Authors: Kevin M. Murphy, Lori A. Hoagland, Philip G. Reeves, Byung-Kee Baik and Stephen S. Jones
Date: Aug 2009
Abstract: Soil erosion due to annual cropping on highly erodible farmland is a major ecological concern in the wheat growing regions of Washington State. In response to requests from farmers, the winter wheat breeding program at Washington State University has been developing perennial wheat selected from crosses between wild wheatgrass species and commonly grown annual wheat cultivars. In 2005/06, we conducted field trials of the most promising perennial wheat breeding lines derived from interspecific crosses between tall wheatgrass (Thinopyrum elongatum ) and bread wheat (Triticum aestivum ). Thirtyone perennial breeding lines and two annual winter wheat cultivars were evaluated for nutritional value in the form of grain mineral concentration, multiple baking and milling quality traits, and ease of grain threshability. The objective of this study was to identify the strengths and weaknesses of these post-harvest traits in the perennial wheat lines derived from these interspecific crosses. Mineral nutrient concentrations in the perennial lines were 44, 40, 24, 23, 32, 30 and 33% higher than the annual control cultivars for calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus and zinc, respectively. The annual cultivars had a higher grain mineral content per unit area of land than the perennial lines, due primarily to the higher grain yields of the annual cultivars. Compared to the annual wheat cultivars, the perennial lines produced grain with smaller seed size, lower test weight and reduced flour yield, mix time and loaf volume. Protein content was 3.5–4.5% higher in the perennial lines than in the annual cultivars. The threshability index (TI) ranged from 0.63 to 0.89 in the perennials (m =  0.75); significantly lower than the mean TI of the annual cultivars (m =  0.97). The significant genotyper location interaction found for TI suggests that the variation in annual precipitation positively influenced some perennial lines to express greater threshability. In addition to transferring traits important to the perennial growth habit in wheat, the wild wheatgrass species also introduced beneficial characteristics (i.e. increased protein and mineral concentration) and deleterious traits (poor threshing grain and inferior baking qualities). This research gives researchers a platform from which to direct further research and selection in the development of perennial wheat.

Source: Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems: 24(4); 285–292

Click here to read full paper. 

Evaluating the Economic Feasibility of Environmentally Beneficial Agricultural Technologies Compared to Conventional Technologies

Author: Anne Weir
Date: June 2012
Abstract: Many farmers are willing to adopt new technologies only if they are at least as profitable as the ones they replace. For such farmers, an environmentally beneficial technology must offer comparable profitability to that of the established conventional technology. This framework was applied to perennial wheat and intermediate wheatgrass, two environmentally beneficial crops currently under development. None of the perennial grain lines from wheat trials in Australia had profits that were greater than or equal to those of annual wheat, the comparative conventional technology. To the adopted, the lines would thus require a change in price, yield, costs, subsidies or perenniality.

Read full thesis here. 

Traits for perennial wheat adaptation in Australia

Author: Len J. Wade
 November 2010
Abstract: Interest is increasing worldwide in developing perennial crops to improve sustainability of mixed-farming systems. Perennial wheat has prospects in Australia to contribute to both grazing and grain production, especially by providing timely autumn grazing to relieve pressure on other forages. Amphiploids from crosses between various wheats and perennial grasses have been imported into Australia for initial evaluation, and crosses between adapted Australian wheats and Australian native perennial grasses are proposed. Initial efforts have demonstrated that some imported amphiploids have a capacity to perenniate in the field with adequate water, but questions remain concerning appropriate phenology for a perennial wheat ideotype, and its capacity to tolerate the extremes of the Australian environment, especially the hot dry summer conditions encountered in southern Australia. This paper reviews trait requirements for successful perenniation, growth and performance of perennial wheat in contrasting environments, from north America to Australia, but especially from northern Australia (summer-dominant rainfall, heavy-textured soils) and south-western Australia (winter-dominant rainfall, light-textured soils), to south-eastern Australia (with a little summer rain and deep soils, but the likelihood of very hot-dry summers overall). The review concludes that appropriate phenology and summer dormancy will be desirable to escape exposure to summer drought, with avoidance and tolerance traits assisting plant performance and perenniation in different zones.

Source: http://www.regional.org.au/au/asa/2010/crop-production/physiology-breeding/7072_wadelj.htm#TopOfPage

Crop and Pasture Science 61(9) 679–690

Evaluation of perennial wheat germplasm in an Australian environment

Author: Matthew Newell, Philip Larkin, Richard Hayes and Mark Norton
Date: November 2010
Abstract:  There is interest in developing cereal plants with a perennial habit because of potential advantages in production stability and environmental sustainability. Breeding programs in the northern hemisphere have produced perennial wheats by crossing annual bread wheat lines (Triticum aestivum) with perennial wheatgrasses (Thinopyrum spp.). This study evaluated the performance of 67 of these hybrid derivatives in Australia compared to the annual winter wheat cv. EGA Wedgetail. The experiment was conducted at Cowra in the mixed cropping zone of NSW. All hybrid derivatives were significantly later in their maturity than cv. EGA Wedgetail (mean 123 days after sowing to flowering)(> 0.05), with 18 of the imported lines yielding as well or better than the control (mean 136.7 g/m row). Most lines containing Th. intermedium or Th. ponticum in their pedigree were highly resistant to wheat streak mosaic virus and most proved very resistant to stripe and leaf rust. Good resistance to current Australian races of stem rust was rare within the germplasm. Nine entries regrew and produced grain in the second season. These lines tended to be lower yielding in the first year. Although potential exists, ongoing research is required to strengthen perenniality, ensuring survival through the harsh Australian summers and guaranteeing adequate grain yields. Significantly, this germplasm is proving a rich resource of disease resistance.

Source: http://www.regional.org.au/au/asa/2010/crop-production/physiology-breeding/6906_newellmt.htm#TopOfPage 

Perennial Grain—Biggest Agriculture Breakthrough in 10,000 Years

PULLMAN, Wash. –Earth-friendly perennial grain crops, which grow with less fertilizer, herbicide, fuel, and erosion than grains planted annually, could be available in two decades, according to researchers writing in the current issue of the journal Science.

Perennial grains would be one of the largest innovations in the 10,000 year history of agriculture, and could arrive even sooner with the right breeding programs, said John Reganold, a Washington State University Regents professor of soil science and lead author of the paper with Jerry Glover, a WSU-trained soil scientist now at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas.

“It really depends on the breakthroughs,” said Reganold. “The more people involved in this, the more it cuts down the time.”

Published in Science’s influential policy forum, the paper is a call to action as half the world’s growing population lives off marginal land at risk of being degraded by annual grain production. Perennial grains, say the paper’s authors, expand farmers’ ability to sustain the ecological underpinnings of their crops.

“People talk about food security,” said Reganold. “That’s only half the issue. We need to talk about both food and ecosystem security.”

Perennial grains, say the authors, have longer growing seasons than annual crops and deeper roots that let the plants take greater advantage of precipitation. Their larger roots, which can reach ten to 12 feet down, reduce erosion, build soil and sequester carbon from the atmosphere.  They require fewer passes of farm equipment and less herbicide, key features in less developed regions.

By contrast, annual grains can lose five times as much water as perennial crops and 35 times as much nitrate, a valuable plant nutrient that can migrate from fields to pollute drinking water and create “dead zones” in surface waters.

“Developing perennial versions of our major grain crops would address many of the environmental limitations of annuals while helping to feed an increasingly hungry planet,” said Reganold.

Perennial grain research is underway in Argentina, Australia, China, India, Sweden and the United States. Washington State University has more than a decade of work on perennial wheat led by Stephen Jones, director WSU’s Mount Vernon Research Center. Jones is also a contributor to the Science paper, which has more than two dozen authors, mostly plant breeders and geneticists.

The authors say research into perennial grains can be accelerated by putting more personnel, land and technology into breeding programs. They call for a commitment similar to that underway for biologically based alternative fuels.

Source: http://researchnews.wsu.edu/physical/328.html 

Watch video on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xPpjGV3kvnw&lr=1

STRIPs at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge

Strategically integrating small amounts of perennial vegetation (in our case, reconstructed prairie) within row-cropped watersheds offers the opportunity to enhance the health and diversity of Midwestern agricultural landscapes. This project will explore this hypothesis through an integrated watershed-scale approach that uses field experimentation, spatial models, and tradeoff assessments to quantify changes in ecological functioning and economic outputs resulting from different configurations of perennial and annual plants. Integral to the project is the effective communication of project results in order to catalyze positive change on the landscape.

Read full research here. 

Seed-yield and yield components response to source–sink ratio in annual and perennial species of Lesquerella (Brassicaceae)

Author: W.J. Masnattaa, D.A. Ravettaa,
Date: May 2011
Abstract: Although the annual Lesquerella fendleri is the prime candidate for the development of a lesquerolic rich oil-seed crop, within this genus there are other species available to breeders, some of which are perennials. However, the feasibility of a perennial crop of Lesquerella is not clear because increases in seed-yield tend to reduce perennially. The objective of this work was to determine the effect of the source–sink ratio on seed yield and yield components in annual and perennial species of Lesquerella. We predicted that (i) due to differences in allocation patterns of annual and perennial species, seed-yield and yield components in perennials would be less affected by the source–sink ratio (higher stability) than in annuals and (ii) since seed-weight has been found to be the most stable yield component in other crops and their wild relatives, most of the variation in seed-yield as a consequence of source–sink ratios would be determined by changes in the number fruits per plant and the number of seeds per fruit. A field experiment was carried out in Chubut, Patagonia Argentina in a complete randomized design with four treatments to examine source–sink relationships in four species of Lesquerella, two annuals (L. angustifolia, L. gracilis) and two perennials (L. pinetorum, L. mendocina). We used either shading (reduction of source) or removal of flowerbuds (reduction of sink) to develop a range of source–sink relationships. All four species showed a similar yield response to source–sink variations. Seed-yield was lower in shaded plants, although the timing of shading influenced this response. Flower-bud removal resulted in a significant increase in seed-yield. Seed-yield differences among source–sink treatments were best explained by changes in the number of fruits per plant than by the number of seeds per fruit. Source–sink manipulations had no affect on seed weight. Flower-bud removal significantly increased the number of fruits per plant in all species except for L. mendocina. The number of seeds per fruits increased only in L. pinetorum. Our results show that carbon stored during pre-anthesis plays a key role in reproduction both in annual and perennial Lesquerella. The increase in the seed-yield components found with bud removal could potentially reduce longevity in perennial species. The results also show that the number of fruits per plant is a good proxy for seed-yield within a species.
Source: www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0926669011001178