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Intermediate Wheatgrass Studied at Kellogg Farm

by Brook Wilke,
Farm manager of the Kellogg Biological Station

Published: Friday, October 11, 2019

Grazing in Michiana

Intermediate wheatgrass (Thinopyrum Intermedium) is a perennial cool-season grass that was introduced to the United States in the early 1900s, and has been used as a forage grass (pastures and hay) in the Central and Western U.S. for many years. After several years of experiment with intermediate wheatgrass at the Kellogg Farm, I'm wondering how it might perform more broadly in our grazing and hay systems.

Our work with intermediate wheatgrass has been associated with efforts to identify and test perennial grain crops that are being developed by The Land Institute in Kansas. Intermediate wheatgrass has been central to this effort both by directly breeding for higher seed production, and also through hybridizing it with annual wheat, resulting in what has been called "perennial wheat."

Both efforts have shown promise, but both have also come with plenty of agronomic and productivity challenges. The perennial wheat hybrids have high productivity potential but struggled to survive and regrow during hot, dry summer conditions after grain harvest. Intermediate wheatgrass, like most perennial plants, produces fairly small seeds and thus breeding efforts have a long way to go in order to develop varieties that can compete with annual crops that have been bred for grain production over thousands of years.

Several years ago, the Land Institute branded the grain that is harvested from intermediate wheatgrass as "Kernza," which is now being marketed through niche channels for grain, cereal, beer and other products.

The most recent project at the Kellogg Farm included testing to see if the improved varieties of intermediate wheatgrass could be harvested for both grain and forage, through grazing or mechanical harvesting. In this system, the wheatgrass is grazed or hayed in May, prior to stem elongation. The grain is combined in August, and straw baled shortly after. Regrowth of the perennial plant is then grazed or hayed again in November, prior to winter. Data from this project is still being compiled, but grain yield was not visibly impacted by the grazing or haying events in spring and fall.

The intermediate wheatgrass plants are impressive biomass producers, which led me to consider whether it could be used solely as a forage crop in pastures and hay fields in our region, similar to how it is used in Western states. Thus, we seeded three pastures this fall with a combination of intermediate wheatgrass, alfalfa and clover to test the productivity and quality potential of this forage in our region. While this is not a formal experiment, we will be able learn more about the best times to graze and hay the crop, regrowth potential after harvest, and response to different grazing management types.

My expectation is that the intermediate wheatgrass will produce large quantities of high quality forage in mid to late spring, but then go somewhat dormant during the mid-late summer months. However, I'm eager to see whether grazing and clipping flowering stems in June might result in more regrowth.

Also, some of the pastures that we planted to intermediate wheatgrass have irrigation, which may help sustain production over the summer months. So much to be learned; stay tuned.

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