Wyoming Farmers Testing New Type of Wheatgrass
As eastern Wyoming farmers nosed their tractors into fields this spring, some pulled drills planting a new variety of intermediate wheatgrass. The hope is that the crop can negate Wyoming’s fussy weather and bolster bottom lines ravaged by falling organic wheat prices.
Four producers have planted experimental plots of Kernza, said Hannah Rodgers, a Ph.D. student involved in the project in the University of Wyoming’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
Kernza is a perennial, unlike wheat, which is an annual and does not regrow after harvested. Once cut or harvested, Kernza regrows. The variety can be used as a forage crop or, if left longer, can be harvested for grain. The perennial crop will develop and support microbial life and sequester more carbon.
The Salina, Kansas-based Land Institute developed the variety.
“It’s super new and only grown in a few places,” said Rodgers, such as Kansas, Minnesota, California and Nebraska.
But never in Wyoming.
“We thought Kernza might be uniquely suited to Wyoming because the state has such a harsh environment,” said Rodgers.
Kernza is harvested for grain in wetter states and then keeps growing. “You might cut it for grain and then graze it later in the summer,” she said. “Nobody has ever planted it anywhere this dry. So, it’s really an experiment.”
Beer and cereal are the main products currently made from Kernza.
Parts of eastern Wyoming are known for growing organic wheat, usually in a fallow cropping. Farmers say soil is degrading, prices are dropping, and farmland is being abandoned for other uses, such as grazing. “Which is important,” said Rodgers. “But maybe less valuable.”
The $75,000 Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education grant has several parts. UW Extension soils specialist Jay Norton will compare soil health with Conservation Reserve Program fields. Alex Fox, another Ph.D. student on the project and working with Bret Ewers in the Department of Botany, is taking plant measurements like photosynthesis and water use throughout the growing season to see Kernza’s water consumption compared to wheat. Rodgers will study soil fertility and microbial communities and carbon sequestering, and extension research scientist Tom Foulke will examine if the crop may benefit producers economically.
Mimicking native prairies, comprised mostly of perennials, drove the variety’s development, Rodgers said. Perennial plants build soil health year-round.