Winter Grains

Summer 2009
Spring Growth Conference 2009

Rick Kersbergen of UMaine Cooperative Extension presented information on a SARE project for growing small winter grains in Maine and Vermont. Small grains might fit into a dairy crop rotation after a corn silage crop to offset corn prices.

Kersbergen noted that to feed 10 pounds of barley per cow per day takes about 2 tons per cow per year. For a 60-cow herd, those 120 tons would require 60 acres of land.

Winter, or fall-planted, grains are usually planted in early to mid-September. They are well adapted to New England growing conditions, and weed management is much easier with fall- than spring-planted grains.

Since corn silage is harvested from mid-September to November, Kersbergen, Heather Darby (of the University of Vermont Cooperative Extension) and Tim Griffin (of Tufts University) wanted to know if October is too late to plant small grains. Over three years, they tested cultivars of spelt, triticale, rye and wheat sown on Sept. 15 and Oct. 15 in Orono, Newport (Maine) and Vermont. They didn’t trial winter barley because they’ve had trouble growing that in the past.

The October planting resulted in a 24 to 100 percent yield penalty (100 percent meaning no plants survived) and a big difference in the amount of biomass produced. For example, ‘Richland’ wheat produced 0 pounds per acre of grain on all three types of soil; while the greatest yield, 2,589 pounds per acre, occurred with ‘Alzo’ triticale on a silt loam. Late plantings were less competitive with weeds; and finer-textured soils decreased winter survival, especially for triticale and wheat.

Yields from the Sept. 15 planting ranged from 1,136 (‘Sungold’ spelt on a sandy loam) to 4,093 (‘Alzo’ triticale on a silt loam) pounds per acre. ‘Richland’ wheat on a silt loam produced 4,033 pounds per acre. The higher figures “are pretty good yields,” said Kersbergen. One way to plant winter grains by Sept. 15 may be to grow a short season corn silage variety, he added.

In 2008, yields from early-planted grains ranged from 1,815 (‘Trical 815’) to 3,526 (‘Champ’ spelt) pounds per acre. The penalty for late planting ranged from 33 to 53 percent.

Kersbergen said to ask whether the good yields from early-planted grains justify the costs of combining, harvesting, storing and processing grains, and whether growers have time for an additional enterprise.

Nitrogen Management

“Do you have enough N to carry over for the grain crop in the spring?” asked Kersbergen. He noted the challenge in fall-seeded grains of supplying sufficient N without losing N to the environment. In September, soils are warm enough that significant amounts of N can mineralize (be converted from organic to mineral N); later, fall and spring rains and snow melt can move N out of the root zone or result in denitrification (microbial reduction of N to release N gas).

A study in Newport, Maine, on a sandy loam soil addressed this issue. Treatments included plots with no fertility added; with 3,500 gallons per acre of liquid manure applied before planting (on Sept. 20, 2006); at tillering (May 15, 2007); or in bands (on May 15, 2007). The two spring treatments increased grain yields by 75 percent, compared with liquid manure applied before planting in the fall and plots with no manure. The fall-applied manure probably leached over winter. In fact, plots with fall-applied manure yielded the same as those with no added fertility. Solid manure probably wouldn’t have leached so much nitrogen. (Kersbergen noted that such manure applications couldn’t be done on organic grain for human consumption, because of the required waiting period, but are fine for animal feed.)

Kersbergen suggested an alternative to planting fall grains after a corn silage crop: Plow down a sod crop in the summer to feed the fall-planted small grain.

Alternative N Sources for Grains

Kersbergen also presented work by Marianne Sarrantonio of the University of Maine on alternative, spring-applied N sources for organic triticale.

On May 5, 2008, with plants in the early boot stage, she applied 50 pounds of N per acre using fish meal, soybean meal, blood meal, cottonseed meal or Chilean nitrate to triticale sown in early October 2007. No harvest restriction occurs with these materials, as it does with manure.

The most significant and probably most cost effective yields (2,686 kg per hectare; 2,391 pounds per acre) occurred with Chilean nitrate and with fish meal (2,520 kg per hectare; 2,243 pounds per acre), compared with 2,260 kg per hectare (2,011 pounds per acre) on plots with no N added.

However, Chilean nitrate cost $4 per pound in 2008; and fish meal, $8 per pound. “I think a better answer is what kind of material can you put on or plow down in the fall that would retain more of that mineral N and have that become mineralized the following spring,” said Kersbergen.

Growing Sunflowers for Oil, Meal and More

Kersbergen also presented the work of University of Vermont agronomist Heather Darby, who has studied soybeans and sunflowers for their potential to produce oil, biofuel, protein meal, and seed for human consumption.

Kersbergen noted the difference in seed size between sunflowers and corn. “If you try to plant them with a corn planter, you’ll have trouble establishing a uniform population. Try to calibrate your corn planter if you’re going to plant sunflower seeds with it.” Darby usually plants 18,000 to 22,000 plants per acre. Maine farmer Henry Perkins last year tried 20,000, 30,000 and 40,000 plants per acre. Kersbergen recommends 30,000 to reduce variability in the size of the seedhead, which improves combining.

Sunflowers are frost-sensitive but can tolerate an early May planting, and they seem to yield better and dry down quicker if planted in early May versus late May. Plant them about 1.5 inches deep, said Kersbergen, although 2.5 inches won’t hurt. “They need a fair amount of moisture to germinate.”

Mean yields nationally are about 1,349 pounds per acre; Darby got 1,600 and 1,733 pounds at two Vermont farms. Perkins got about 1 ton per acre last year. Densities of 25,000 to 35,000 plants per acre increase yield.

Regarding oil production, 74 gallons per acre is the national mean; two Vermont farms got 60 and 75 gallons, respectively. Yields depend partly on how well farmers press and how good their presses are. The southern Vermont farm has a Täby press, which is more efficient than the less expensive Chinese press at the northern Vermont farm. Pressing seeds twice increased oil yield on one farm from 60 to 75 gallons per acre.

The mean oil content in seeds is 40 percent nationally; in southern Vermont it was 32 percent (8 percent of the oil is left in the meal); in northern Vermont, 28 percent (12 percent of oil is left in the meal).

Most researchers have been growing ‘Defender,’ but oil yield varies among varieties.

The seed meal is high in crude protein (34 percent) – although most of Kersbergen’s data are in the high 20s. For comparison, canola is about 30 percent crude protein.

The challenges in growing sunflowers for these products include lack of grower experience, lack of proper equipment, pests, and tourists who pick flowers.

Pests may include birds, which can cause significant damage; and white mold. “Our plots in Orono were loaded with white mold,” said Kersbergen. “If you’re a vegetable grower and you’re growing other crops that are susceptible to white mold, especially beans, think about where sunflowers fit in your rotation. Harvest and chop the stalks to get the inoculum out of the field.”

Kersbergen noted that Darby has tried interseeding alfalfas and clovers in sunflower plots. No results are available yet.

Growing Soybeans

Darby has also studied soybeans in Vermont. Soybeans, said Kersbergen, are rated from 000 to 10, based on days to maturity; the lower the number, the shorter the season. “Maine farmers probably want nothing more than 1,” he said.

The distance from the soil to the lowest pod is another varietal consideration. Even if their yield is lower, taller plants with higher pods will be easier to combine, said Kersbergen. “If you’ve ever had rocks go through your combine, you’ll want higher beans.”

Darby grew soybeans in Hardwick (1,500 growing degree days) and Alburgh (2,200 growing degree days), Vermont, last year. Plant densities at harvest were about 185,000 plants per acre, suggesting poor germination or loss during cultivation. Yields were about 1 ton per acre.

“Soybeans have different sizes, so when you calibrate your planter, calibrate it not by weight but by the number of seeds it’s dropping per acre,” said Kersbergen, suggesting the same for sunflowers.

Soybeans are a potential oil crop for Maine farmers, said Kersbergen, “but most of our soybeans are probably going to end up being harvested in November, so those soils probably won’t have a cover crop growing on them in the winter.” Some soybean crop residue should help protect the soil, “but you want to think about how environmentally damaging might it be having all that bare soil in the fall – especially if it’s on a slope. How will soybeans work in your rotation?”

Klaas Martens suggested spinning cover crop small grains into soybeans when the first yellow leaves appear. He has tried wheat, spelt and barley; wheat did best. Oats, which would be winterkilled, are another possibility.

Asked about spinning a legume into a grain, Kersbergen said that clover can be spun into a winter grain as soon as the snow is gone. “Make sure you’re looking at timely harvest of the grain as well, so that the clover doesn’t interfere with harvest.” Growers can also spin legumes into spring grains or plant them when sowing spring grains. “It may not give you that much nitrogen that year,” said Kersbergen, “but it’s a cheap way to re-establish a sod crop if you’re going from a grain crop to a perennial forage crop.”

One of the advantages of winter grains, he added, is that they can be planted on heavier soils in the fall, when those soils aren’t so wet, for harvesting in July, when the ground is fairly firm. “It’s a way to take advantage of soils we consider lower quality that have a high potential for productivity, but getting tractors on them at certain times of the year is tough.”

Some results from these sunflower and soy experiments are posted at Kersbergen also said that a Northern Grain Growers Association has formed (278 S. Main St., St. Albans, VT 05478; [email protected];

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