Can Amber Waves of Grain Become Perennials?

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Sieg Snapp (view larger image)

Every time farmers plant a cash crop, they make substantial investments of money, time and labor resources. But what if the crop didn’t have to be planted every year but resprouted each spring and was ready for harvest by summer?

MAES crop and soil scientist Sieg Snapp, who’s located at the W.K. Kellogg Biological Station (KBS), is addressing that question. Her team is studying the possibilities for developing perennial wheat as a crop for environmentally friendly agricultural production. Her research is supported by a four-year, $1 million U.S. Department of Agriculture organic research grant.

Snapp is leading a team made up of MAES agriculture, food and resource economics scientist Scott Swinton; outreach specialist Vicki Morrone; MAES wheat breeder Janet Lewis; Michigan farmers; and colleagues at Washington State University. The work builds on research that led to a new type of perennial grain crop.

“Our goal is to go the next step and develop perennial wheat varieties and management practices that are practical for farmers to adopt to use as a ground cover, a forage and a grain crop,” Snapp said. “Washington and Kansas have conducted innovative plant breeding, crossing intermediate wheatgrass forage with annual wheat to get the annual wheat grain characteristics and a close to marketable product. I realized that nobody was focusing on the agronomic management and practical aspects of variety development, so my student, Brook Wilke, started to evaluate varieties suitable for Michigan about three years ago.”

Snapp and the team will study these perennial wheat varieties at KBS in southwestern Michigan.

“We’re going to be looking at their adaptation to Michigan farms,” Snapp said. “We’re looking at organic production practices and various management options, such as whether we could possibly graze the crop in the fall to obtain multiple products, forage and grain.”

The research team members will study the wheat over three to four cropping seasons so they can observe its hardiness under various weather conditions and extremes in temperature and precipitation. The perennial wheat isn’t just a money-saving crop—it also protects the environment by helping to keep soil in place and capture moisture from rain and snow.

“It’s always growing and keeps roots in the soil to prevent erosion,” Snapp pointed out. “We’ve already found that the roots of the perennial wheat can reach three times deeper than annual wheat roots, and this is promising for a crop that could capture carbon.”

In a year or two, the researchers will produce enough seed at KBS to provide farmers with opportunities for experimentation. The project will include growers who help test the wheat under a variety of conditions on farms of varying sizes around the state.

The results will be used to inform basic science research conducted at universities around the world. Snapp also will disseminate the study’s outcomes via MSU Extension.

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