Williston Research Extension Center Seeks to Analyze Kernza Performance in Western North Dakota
April 1, 2020 | View PDF
After four decades of breeding and testing, The Land Institute, Salina, KS, has introduced its first commercial grain, a trademarked variety called Kernza. Kernza is in the early stages of commercialization and has been bred intensively for increased seed yield and size for the past 15 years.
Dr. Clair Keene, NDSU Williston Research Extension Center Area Extension Specialist/Cropping System, has been conducting research on Kernza for the past two years. "I currently have a variety trial at the Williston Research Extension Center looking at Kernza lines from the Land Institute and the University of Minnesota. I want to learn how the lines do in the North Dakota environment," said Keene.
Kernza originates from forage grass, called intermediate wheatgrass (Thinopyrum intermedium). Kernza currently produces seeds that are only about a quarter the size of conventional wheat. So the Land Institute is aiming to develop Kernza varieties that produce larger seeds.
Kernza roots can extend over 10 feet beneath the soil surface, which is more than twice the depth of an annual wheat root. Kernza's deep roots hold soil in place, reducing erosion, and allowing exploration farther down in the soil profile.
Kernza grain is known to grow best in cooler northern latitudes. "Being a perennial crop means it will keep soil protected against erosion for multiple years. It has very deep roots so it can help cycle nutrients that have leached below the rooting depth of some of our annual crops and build soil organic matter (carbon) at depth. It may be a good fit for some of our marginally saline soils to help manage the water table, too, but we haven't done that research yet," explained Keene.
Keene particularly likes Kernza because it is a perennial crop, "You can plant it and harvest grain for two or three years (possibly a fourth year in some environments), and then you can also use it as a forage. Here in North Dakota, the residue (straw) should be baled after harvest and could be used as bedding or a low-quality feed if needed," said Keene.
Keene explained that Kernza seems to stay green fairly late into the fall. "I saw some green leaves in November on it last year. I plan to do forage quality analysis on this next year to see what it would be like as a late fall grazing option."