Scientists look to wheatgrass to save dryland farming and capture carbon
- Intermediate wheatgrass is an imported grain that has been grown in the U.S. Great Plains and Intermountain West since the 1930s; but could it be used in marginal fields in dryland areas?
- Kernza, an intermediate wheatgrass bred by The Land Institute, is being planted in eastern Wyoming, where researchers from the University of Wyoming are uncovering whether the crop can help farmers stabilize and bolster their soils, while providing a profitable crop.
- Planting perennial crops, like Kernza, can help soil health and stability, retain moisture, and cut down on planting costs and greenhouse gas emissions from annual plantings.
Farming in eastern Wyoming is not for the faint of heart. The semiarid landscape receives unpredictable weather and is considered an unforgiving environment for agriculture.
Despite this, farmers have grown annual winter wheat crops in eastern Wyoming, but at a cost. Given the harsh growing conditions, farmers note that with falling wheat prices, soil degradation, and variable weather, annual crops feel like a losing proposition.
“Farmers — especially in this region, but across the country — are really looking for things that can give them some resilience in the face of climate change,” said Hannah Rodgers, a soil science doctoral student at the University of Wyoming.
To encourage farmers to keep fields flourishing, conservationists are suggesting a new approach: plant a new perennial grain called Kernza. This novel grain was developed by the Land Institute, a Kansas-based organization, as a way for farmers to boost the health of their soils while providing a more profitable crop.
Researchers at the University of Wyoming, including Rodgers, were awarded a $75,000 Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education grant to study the feasibility of Kernza in the dry Wyoming fields.
A cousin to wheat
Kernza is also known as intermediate wheatgrass (Thinopyrum intermedium), a perennial grass that was introduced to the United States in the 1930s from Europe and Western Asia. Used primarily for hay, forage and pasture lands, it has become a favorite conservation grass in the Great Plains and Intermountain West, as it does best at elevations between about 1,100 and 2,700 meters (3,500 and 9,000 feet). The root systems are deep and robust, making it a great soil-stabilizing plant.