One downside of our current production of grain crops such as corn, soybeans, wheat, oats and barley is that these crops are annual crops, meaning that they need to be planted each year. This also means that many of the fields where these crops are grown will spend at least some of the year with no plant cover protecting the soil from water and wind erosion.

According to researchers, a new perennial crop could solve those problems and provide farmers with grain and animal feed while also keeping the soil covered. Two farmers in the Cannon River Watershed are helping to study Kernza (an intermediate wheatgrass) this year.

In September 2018, two local farmers, Dan Honken and Kaleb Anderson, planted Kernza on their farms. Kernza is the registered trade name for an intermediate wheatgrass (scientific name Thinopyrum intermedium), that was developed by The Land Institute located in Salinas, Kansas – despite the common name, it is not a species of wheat but rather a grass species related to wheat.

The grain has a sweet, nutty flavor making it a good fit for cereals, snacks and brewing. The kernel is smaller than wheat and has more bran and fiber, but fewer carbohydrates. Kernza also produces vegetative forage (biomass) for livestock, and because it’s a perennial it regrows year after year without having to be planted annually. It also provides year-round soil coverage, reducing erosion.

Through a Minnesota Department of Agriculture Sustainable Agriculture demonstration grant, the Cannon River Watershed Partnership and the University of Minnesota will be working with Dan Honken, a Rice County farmer, and Kaleb Anderson in Goodhue County to study how grazing the biomass of Kernza in the fall will affect the next year’s grain production of this perennial crop.

Information from this study will help farmers learn about the financial benefits available to them from the grain and forage production of Kernza. This project began with planting in 2018 and will end in 2021.

Alan Kraus is conservation program manager, Cannon River Watershed Partnership.

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