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The word Kernza — an amalgamation of the words “kernel” and “Konza,” in recognition of the Konza Prairie Biological Station in Kansas — may not be familiar to many no-tillers yet, but chances are it will be before long.

A dual-purpose perennial wheatgrass, the cool-season crop that has been in development for more than 20 years can be managed for both grazing and grain harvest while the deep-growing roots provide soil health benefits. 
 
For this episode of the No-Till Farmer podcast, brought to you by Yetter Farm Equipment, Contributing Editor Dan Crummett speaks with plant biologist Lee DeHaan of The Land Institute where the breeding of Kernza and other perennial crops has been underway since 2003. Listen in as Dan and Lee discuss the characteristics of Kernza, how to grow it, the potential of the developing markets and more. 
 

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Full Transcript

Julia Gerlach:

Welcome to No-Till Farmer podcast brought to you today by Yetter Farm Equipment. I'm Julia Gerlach, executive editor for No-Till Farmer. I encourage you to subscribe to the series which is available in iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, SoundCloud, Stitcher Radio, and TuneIn Radio. Subscribing will allow you to receive an alert about new episodes when they're released.

Julia Gerlach:

I'd like to take a moment to thank Yetter Farm Equipment for sponsoring today's episode. Yetter farm equipment has been providing farmers with solutions since 1930. Today, Yetter is your answer for finding the tools and equipment you need to face today's production agriculture demands. The Yetter lineup includes a wide range of planter attachments for different planting conditions, several equipment options for fertilizer placement and products that meet harvest time challenges. Yetter delivers a return on investment and equipment that meets your needs and maximizes inputs. Visit them at yetterco.com that's Y-E-T-T-E-R-C-o.com.

Julia Gerlach:

The word Kernza, an amalgamation of the words kernel and Konza in recognition of the Konza Prairie Biological Station in Kansas may not be familiar to many no-tillers yet, but chances are it will be before long. A dual purpose perennial wheat grass, the cool season crop that's been in development for more than 20 years. Can be managed for both grazing and grain harvest, while the deep grown roots provide soil health benefits.

Julia Gerlach:

For this episode of the No-Till Farmer podcast brought to you by Yetter Farm Equipment, contributing editor, Dan Crummett, speaks with plant biologist Lee DeHaan of the Land Institute, where the breeding of Kernza and other perennial crops has been underway since 2003. Listen in as Dan and Lee discussed the characteristics of Kernza, how to grow it, the potential of the developing markets and more.

Dan Crummett:

We're here today with Dr. Lee. Dehaan, a plant biologist with the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. For the past 20 years, Dr. DeHaan has been working on what might be termed a pillars dream come true, a cool season perennial small grain that affords winter grazing, plus a grain crop. Dr. DeHaan, tell us about the Land Institute and its mission and how this alternative crop, Kernza, plays into that vision.

Dr.Lee DeHaan:

Well, the Land Institute is a nonprofit organization based in Salina, Kansas that's been working for decades now to develop more sustainable practices for agriculture. And the unique vision that we have is inspired by our co-founder, who looked at our native prairie grasses growing the region and was taken by the sustainability of grassland systems to hold the soil, preventive erosion that we see in our grain production systems.

Dr.Lee DeHaan:

And perennial grass is building soil quality. We see that as we reestablish CRP to bring perennials back in and protect soils, the dream would be to have a system that could do that, but also provide food for humans. We don't have this trade off between either growing grass or grain. If we could grow a grass that would also produce grain for us.

Dr.Lee DeHaan:

That's the vision to have all those benefits of longer lived plants and be able to eat seed as well. The job, it really becomes a plant breeding one. To take those plants that are perennials and coax them into producing bigger seeds, more seeds, seeds that are held on the plant that don't shed on the ground. Essentially doing domestication in some senses of wild grasses and other perennials that will allow them to become grain crops that are also long-lived plants.

Dan Crummett:

Okay. And there is a release from the Land Institute called Kernza. I believe it's an intermediate wheat grass that you've been working with and it works into that vision. Can you tell us where it's being grown?

Dr.Lee DeHaan:

Exactly. The work on identifying one, a perennial grass that might be a good candidate began in the 1980s with the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania. They picked intermediate wheat grass, which at that time was a common forage grass being grown throughout the western half of the United States.

Dr.Lee DeHaan:

They found that it had seed that would be good tasting. It could be used for food. It had some properties of seed production that were real promising. They began to select it, and then had a cooperative project with the United States department of agriculture in New York and worked on it until about 2000. After that point, I started working on it and have been working with it the last 20 years as a plant breeder, increasing those traits that will make it into a acceptable grain crop.

Dr.Lee DeHaan:

Over the past about eight years, we've been doing experimental movement of the crop on the farms to understand how it would fit into farming systems. Benefits that farmers see that the challenges that they have and how we can address them with research. And then, moving that grain into supply chains as well. How are we going to process it, distribute it? What kind of products does it fit well into?

Dr.Lee DeHaan:

We're now entering the phase where there's production in some regions throughout the country, and very small scale commercialization efforts to make products out of that grain for the first time. We have a perennial grain crop being grown for human use, and people can now purchase products for the first time. It's very exciting for us.

Dan Crummett:

What kind of uses is Kernza grain being utilized for?

Dr.Lee DeHaan:

Some of the first items were actually beer products, because it was found that, given these small seed lots we had being grown in many different places, it's hard to control the quality parameters on a grain that's going to go into say bread products. It was being used as a replacement for barley or for wheat in a wheat beer. Several beers released a limited scale around the country.

Dr.Lee DeHaan:

And then since then, it's moved into noodle products, pancake mixes, and just flour that people can take home or buy and make a wide array of bread products out of. It doesn't have the same gluten strength as wheat, so it's useful in about a 20% mix with a normal bread wheat to make a nice raised loaf. Or you can make a dense, rye bread type loaf if you want to use 100%.

Dan Crummett:

I understand there are a couple of major players that are purchasing and using Kernza for some of their products. Can you tell us about those?

Dr.Lee DeHaan:

Yeah. The first company to really get excited about the idea of releasing a product was a company called Patagonia Provisions. People know Patagonia as a clothing company. Some years back, they started a branch of Patagonia called Patagonia Provisions, aiming to bring sustainable food products to market. And they are very excited to try to bring the first Kernza product to market.

Dr.Lee DeHaan:

And they worked through a lot of learning and experience and interaction with farmers and in whole supply chain. It came out with a beer on the West Coast called Long Root Ale. The distribution of that one is expanding. They've since released a couple of more beers in some markets. They've also since released a noodle that can be purchased from their website.

Dr.Lee DeHaan:

The other player that we began talking to some years back was General Mills. And they have a Cascadian Farm line of organic products that many people are familiar with. And they were most interested in introducing Kernza into a product that would be on that Cascadian Farm brand. And so recently, they've come out with a, that contains Kernza and it's sold in limited markets but that's expanding in the future I think.

Dan Crummett:

Adoption of an alternative crop depends on many things, but profitability usually is top of the mind for a producer before they would try something like this. What kind of grain yield does Kernza produce?

Dr.Lee DeHaan:

Yeah. We have to underscore the experimental nature of the crop and the fact that most farmers are going to be on a steep learning curve as they start to work with it. Encourage people to start slow and learn from your neighbors, if at all possible. Or have support from nearby research scientists and others to help in that process.

Dr.Lee DeHaan:

But if things go well, and it depends on the area and the year and everything, but farmers are, things are going well, get around 500 to 1,000 pounds per acre. That's the real upper end. And expectations should be for unpredictability and learning and see how it goes. Be ready for anything the first few years you get into it. Prices are difficult to summarize because there's really not per se, a market out there yet. Farmers have to go into their growing with some idea their own arrangement about how their grain's going to move into a processor. And hopefully, an end product.

Dr.Lee DeHaan:

All of that's still coming together and there's a lot of variability from region to region and whatever situation the farmer sees themselves in. But certainly, our goal and inspiring or directing what's happening is that we hope that prices are of the nature that farmers will be able to get a similar income from their Kernza fields as from other crops that they're working with at the time.

Dan Crummett:

Well, I know from reading some of the material and conversations we've had in the past, you've already come a long way from the original genetics of this line as far as yield is concerned. Where are your breeding efforts today and in further boosting Kernza yields?

Dr.Lee DeHaan:

Yeah. I started into this slow and it was not something that was my main work for the first 10 years. And then, the number of resources here and then programs around the country has really exploded. Our progress is accelerating, but so far yields have doubled and tripled in the past 18 to 20 years. And I'm looking at that.

Dr.Lee DeHaan:

At least the gains that we're going to be making, hopefully accelerating by applying the latest breeding technologies. We have a genome sequence for the species, and we can use genetically assisted breeding to accelerate the progress. Roughly, I'd say my goal would be around 100 pounds of yield, increased through breeding on an annual basis.

Dr.Lee DeHaan:

We're going to get there in terms of meeting the similar yields to annual wheat, for instance. I hope within a couple of decades, we're going to have yields that are going to be very similar to wheat.

Dan Crummett:

Well, it's the lower yields don't always preclude a product from being used. As most no-tillers know, yield isn't everything. Give us an idea of how Kernza can benefit growers as far as economic sustainability in the long run, especially for those interested in forage and grain production. Kernza is a dual purpose crop, so that would have to play into the economics of things too.

Dr.Lee DeHaan:

Yeah, exactly. We really encourage farmers that are interested in Kernza to make sure that they have a way to utilize the forage from those fields. There's a couple of different points where that happens. After the grain is harvested, the residues are generally larger than a wheat straw residue, and the quality is somewhat better as well than a wheat straw residue. More like a low quality warm season, grass hay in terms of its feed value. Many of the farmers I've talked to have been in situations where that big yield of feed, especially for some beef cattle, can be just really what they need right in the middle of summer. A supply of hay that they can bale.

Dr.Lee DeHaan:

And secondly, being a perennial that regrows per be fast after harvest, as long as there's some rainfall. Into the late fall and winter grazing and even early spring grazing are all possibilities. And those can work really well into some systems, especially for getting into that spring period where forage is really tight. It can be a great fit on a system that way.

Dr.Lee DeHaan:

The overall economics can benefit from these forage side, but also from the input side. Being able to have crop that you can establish once and hopefully it persists many years. We anticipate that reducing the input cost to the farmer by not having to purchase seed until the ground years often. The fertilization that's required is typically less than we would expect for wheat. The large perennial root system is deep and it's there all year round. There's less loss of nitrogen out of the system, which means it's used efficiently. What's applied tends to be used by the crop. All those benefits.

Dr.Lee DeHaan:

And finally, there's a flexibility of having a grass crop that if you get into a drought situation where forage is extremely valuable, and it's needed, instead of taking grain that year, you can harvest or graze it. That's been just a great thing for some of the farmers who are getting into production of Kernza to have that flexibility to harvest grain if it's right for them or harvest the forage, if it's the right thing to do.

Julia Gerlach:

We'll get back to Dan Crummett and Dr. Lee DeHaan in a moment, but I want to take time once again to thank our sponsor, Yetter Farm Equipment, for supporting today's episode. Yetter Farm Equipment has been providing farmers with solutions since 1930. Today, Yetter is your answer for finding the tools and equipment you need to face today's production agriculture demands.

Julia Gerlach:

The Yetter lineup includes a wide range of planter attachments for different planting conditions, several equipment options for fertilizer placement and products that meet harvest time challenges. Yetter delivers a return on investment and equipment that meets your needs and maximizes inputs. Visit them at yetterco.com. That's Y-E-T-T-E-R-C-O.com. Here are Dan Crummett and Lee Dehaan once more.

Dan Crummett:

We'd be remiss if we didn't mention geographic areas of adaptation here. Where is Kernza have grown the most productively or the most dependably, let's say?

Dr.Lee DeHaan:

Yeah. We're still exploring the answer to that question in terms of the best fit for the crop. And it can be its production or its competition with other crops or the land value, et cetera, intermediate wheat grass, which is what we're talking about here, was introduced to the United States from high elevation regions in the Middle East. Mountainous areas, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkey.

Dr.Lee DeHaan:

And it was brought to the Western part of the United States were also high elevation, lower rainfall areas. Typically where there's, oh, somewhere in the range of 12 to 20 inches of rain, it's considered to be a pretty good fit. And as we've looked at it for grain, we've brought it more into the grain producing regions, further east. And some of that has to do with where the research is and where their interest is.

Dr.Lee DeHaan:

It's being grown. The most acres are really in the upper Midwest of states of Minnesota, Wisconsin. But the natural fit of the crop from where it comes from is best adapted, maybe areas that are either higher elevation or somewhat lower rainfall. And in Kansas here, we have on average about 30 inches of rain, but it varies from it seems like about 20 to 30 these days. But in dryer years, we're pushing the southern end of the adaptation. We haven't found it to do that well moving say down to Oklahoma.

Dr.Lee DeHaan:

Where people are growing it right now tends to be down to Kansas and then west into Colorado and up to Montana, North Dakota and east to Wisconsin. And then as well some over all the way to New York, based on where. There's been some research being done and contacts between farmers and researchers.

Dan Crummett:

A lot of acres of potential there. You mentioned the Kansas rainfall. I know Oklahoma where I am is about 32 inches, but I remember the night it came. Every crop has specific care and feeding recommendations. And what's Kernza like for growers interested in trying it? What does it take agronomically to establish a successful stand?

Dr.Lee DeHaan:

Yeah. Being a grass, it's still a lot like establishing a forage grass. Farmers that have the equipment or experience in growing perennial forages tends to be a good fit. Or even better, perennial grass seed producers really understand what it takes to grow perennial grass. The seed size has increased, but the seedling vigor is still more like a forage grass. It has to be planted shallow and get a good rain after it's planted.

Dr.Lee DeHaan:

A good seeder or a drill that can plant shallow. And typically in the fall in most of the regions where people are growing, as we get into the far north or really high elevations, find that fall rainfall is not dependable and spring rainfall is a lot more dependable. Grasses are typically only planted in the spring in those areas. And that tends to be the way that they want to plant Kernza too.

Dr.Lee DeHaan:

If it is planted in the fall, we can expect the first harvest the following summer. It's going to be typically a little later maturing than winter wheat would be. Especially in Kansas, we'd be harvesting winter wheat at least a month earlier than we would expect to harvest the Kernza. And then, it can be harvested typically with standard equipment if you can cut it directly. In some situations, especially organic production, if there's weeds involved, farmers might want to swap the stand first and then use a pickup header.

Dr.Lee DeHaan:

And so, that's a piece of equipment that some people aren't going to have normally these days, and might be something to look into having available to give that flexibility. But once it's established, farmers are typically harvesting the forage and bailing it. Otherwise, applying some sort of fertility, usually in the late fall. Might be in the organic systems. It's going to be some kind of manure. In the conventional production, it could be nitrogen fertilizers over the fall winter period. But once it's established, it usually does a good well of excluding weeds. And mostly, you're managing it with a combine and a four inch harvester.

Dan Crummett:

What could you look at as far as stand longevity? What have you seen in your research and on some of the experimental uses on producer farms across the country. What are we looking at as far as stand longevity?

Dr.Lee DeHaan:

Yeah. The stand persists really well. Intermediate wheat grass is a rhizomative perennial grass. What was learned in its introduction to the US range lands was that it is susceptible to over grazing. If it's harvested too frequently, it does get excluded pretty quickly. It has to be managed carefully without too much overgrazing or over-cutting of it.

Dr.Lee DeHaan:

But in a system like we're using of cutting mostly that for the grain, it's going to persist really well. But the issue has been maintaining the yield of grain for many years. Especially, in areas where there's more rainfall. And further to the east, cooler temperatures and good rainfall of say the corn, soybean belt, people see a pretty rapid decline in grain yield just over a three year period.

Dr.Lee DeHaan:

At that point, they're looking at either going to harvesting it as a hay crop for several years, or now experimentally looking at ways to renovate that span and get it to be productive again. We see less rapid decline in areas where it's probably more stressful growing conditions. It's a bit of an open question about how long is the stand going to last? I know intermediate wheat grass, grass seed growers typically expect a five day year productive stand of seed.

Dr.Lee DeHaan:

So far, growers that are trying to manage it like a forage grass and taking grain harvest from it, haven't been able to manage for that good of a stand longevity of. Stand longevity is not the problem of a sustained grain yield has been a tricky bit, but we've got stands here at the Land Institute that have been here for 20 years now that are still strong. The grass is persisting great. It's a matter of managing it for sustained grain production.

Dan Crummett:

On another note, as far as establishment, how would this fit? How would a grower maybe in the upper Midwest look at working this into a rotation around traditional row crops and such?

Dr.Lee DeHaan:

Yeah. It's finding that right place to plant it is a bit tricky, especially as we found planting earlier in the fall is beneficial. Typically, we've seen a real benefit to planting by August, later August in the upper west. And it's hard to have a corn or soybean crop removed by that point. It fits well going into, if you had corn for silage, or if you had oats, it can fit in. Or a spring wheat, spring planted small grains can be a good fit to remove something on time and get the Kernza established in the earlier fall instead of later fall.

Dr.Lee DeHaan:

That's the tricky piece there. To find a way to get it in on time and not have to plant after corn has been harvested, for instance. Farmers who are planting are having a flexible system where they grow something maybe just besides corn or soybeans, or they plant a really early soybean that they might harvest early. And they no-till the seed directly into that, might work out. In some cases, I've seen at work.

Dan Crummett:

Well, you have considerable experience with Kernza. I understand that the Land Institute's also working with other perennial crops. What might be in the pipeline there?

Dr.Lee DeHaan:

Yeah, we're excited to bring this idea of perennial grain crops worldwide. One of the most advanced and exciting pieces there is a perennial rice in China has been quite a success already. We've been supporting in collaborating with that program for over 10 years now. And farmers are growing perennial rice in a particular region. And it's that production's expanding every year. I think we're into the thousands of hectares of perennial rice production.

Dr.Lee DeHaan:

For the United States, we have programs here at the Land Institute involving a perennial wheat that similar to the Kernza, but it's more like wheat. We are crossing the perennial grasses with wheat. That program has that end goal of something that's going to look more like wheat and have a grain that's more the size of wheat. The challenge has been getting the chromosomes to work nicely with each other when you're crossing two species that are quite different. But we're looking for a breakthrough coming in the years ahead where that could be a viable crop in the United States.

Dr.Lee DeHaan:

Also, a perennial grain, sorghum, is something we've worked on here for over 20 years. It's coming along well. It's easier to get it to be a good perennial farther south. And we're most enthusiastic about its near term use in Africa where sorghum came from originally to bring perennial grain sorghum there, to help reduce erosion and bring greater sustainability to agricultural production in Africa and other regions tropical. And then, moving the crop as well further north currently.

Dr.Lee DeHaan:

Our program is based out of Georgia and it's a pretty strong perennial in Georgia. There's exciting developments on that crop. We're also working on a perennial sunflower relative that was a native plant in the United States, North America. And we've been selecting it for greater seed size and seed production. Some work is going on in collaboration with other universities, such as the University of Minnesota, to work on the genetics of the species, genome sequencing it and accelerating some of the breeding. Working on disease resistance and pest resistance has been important.

Dr.Lee DeHaan:

With a native species, there tend to be a lot of things living here already that like to eat the plant. Disease resistance is a really important and pest resistance, very important on that development. On the legume side, we're looking at legumes that could be growing just as a inner cropped forage. Such as alfalfa grown between rows of Kernza increasing the forage yield, the forage quality of the whole system.

Dr.Lee DeHaan:

And additionally, providing nitrogen fixation into that system. There's some evidence that mixing a grass and a legume can really help to do the things for the soil that we're most interested in perennial crops for improving the soil carbon, the structure of the soil, the water infiltration into the soil. And providing a measurable increase in soil carbon sequestration, which some groups are interested in paying farmers to sequester atmospherics carbon into their soil. That could be an economic benefit to the whole system by providing some numbers to groups that are wanting to pay for carbon sequestration offset.

Dr.Lee DeHaan:

And finally, [Sanefloin 00:28:22], which is a relative of alfalfa. Already has a fair bit of production in the US, Northern US for forages and seed production for that use. We're interested in exploring the use of Sanefloin seed for use as a human food. And there's good potential there, but there's a basic research that needs to be done on understanding the nutritive value and ensuring that it's a healthy food product before we can bring that one to market. But the yields and the seed size of Sanefloin are very exciting.

Dr.Lee DeHaan:

Plenty of those ideas but plenty more as well could be worked on. It's just a matter of getting to them, getting to the resources to explore them. And working with hopefully researchers around the world to develop new perennial crops.

Dan Crummett:

Very promising. Particularly in the age of growing interest in regenerative agriculture.

Dr.Lee DeHaan:

Exactly. Yes.

Dan Crummett:

For growers who are interested in your project, the work of the Land Institute and about Kernza, where do they go for more information?

Dr.Lee DeHaan:

The easiest place to learn about Kernza is just at kernza.org. We have a nice website. There's a link there for producers that are interested to learn more. Contact information right there for learning more. And to learn about some of our other crops and the work we do, we have our Land Institute website, which is landinstitute.org. And we have some information there about all of our ongoing work. And the people who are in the area, we invite them to investigate stopping in for a tour that we offer at, usually on Fridays there's availability of a tour of our work here.

Dan Crummett:

Okay. Very good. Well, thank you, Dr. DeHaan, for your time and conversation. And I look forward to working with you more in the future.

Dr.Lee DeHaan:

All right. Thank you very much.

Julia Gerlach:

Thanks to Dan Crummett and Dr. Lee DeHaan of the Land Institute for this discussion about this no-tiller's dream come true with dual purpose intermediate wheatgrass, Kernza. To listen to more podcasts about no-till topics and strategies, please visit no-tillfarmer.com/podcasts. Once again, we'd like to thank our sponsor, Yetter Farm Equipment, for helping to make this No-till podcast series possible.

Julia Gerlach:

If you have any feedback on today's episode, please feel free to email me at erloch@lessitermedia.com, or call me at (262) 777-2404. If you haven't done so already, you can subscribe to this podcast on iTunes, Spotify, or Google Podcast, and get an alert as soon as future episodes are released. You can also keep up on the latest no-till farmer news by registering online for our No-till Insider Daily and weekly email updates on Dryland No-tiller e-newsletter.

Julia Gerlach:

And be sure to follow us on Twitter, @NoTillFarmr, with farmer spelt F-A-R-M-R and our No-Till Farmer Facebook page. For our entire staff here at No-till Farmer, I'm Julia Gerlach. Thanks for tuning in.