Intermediate wheatgrass is a perennial grass, part of a family of plants called “wheatgrass” because of the similarity of their seed heads to those of annual wheat varieties. Traditionally, intermediate wheatgrass is used in agriculture as a hay and pasture crop across the Northern Great Plains and Western US. However, its seeds have a flavor and nutritional value similar to wheat, and also show resistance to shattering and lodging (elements necessary for grain harvest). Because the seeds of intermediate wheatgrass are so similar to those of wheat grown for grain production, scientists have identified it as showing great promise for development into a perennial grain crop.
Researchers from multiple disciplines including soil science, weed science, plant breeding, agronomy, and agricultural economics, are collaborating to obtain a commercial variety of intermediate wheatgrass grown for grain production. Research has focused on using plant breeding and genetic tools to increase grain yield and seed size, improve nutritional quality, and evaluate flavor and use in grain-based products. In addition to plant breeding, research is also being conducted to determine environmental performance (including carbon sequestration, nitrate leaching, water use, and water run-off), and evaluate economic competitiveness.
As part of an effort to develop a line of intermediate wheatgrass that would be a viable grain crop, The Land Institute (a GLBW consortium member based in Salina, Kansas) and their collaborators have established small-scale trial fields of intermediate wheatgrass in states across the Midwest. These trials have shown that the crop is broadly adapted and easy to grow. Nutritional values and methods for harvest and processing of intermediate wheatgrass have been measured and tested, and pilot commercial applications put into practice. Test-marketed under the name Kernza™, the flour made from intermediate wheatgrass grain can be used to make many of the same foods that flour made from annual wheat can. However, further increases in grain yield are needed before intermediate wheatgrass is competitive with annual wheat as a grain crop.
Partnerships Research Multifunctionality
Intermediate wheatgrass has also shown promise as a biomass crop grown for biofuel production in northern latitudes, often out-producing switchgrass. With co-production of a high value grain for human consumption, the crop could be an attractive option to farmers and ranchers in many of the world’s grain producing regions. Additional research is being done to evaluate intermediate wheatgrass as a dual food and fuel crop, and to increase its plant biomass yields.
In 2010 the University of Minnesota, acting through the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture, awarded Land Institute plant breeder Lee DeHaan an Endowed Chair in Agricultural Systems position. The Endowed Chair provided Dr. DeHaan with access to the University of Minnesota's network of research facilities. Experimental plantings of intermediate wheatgrass were established at six locations in Minnesota in 2011. These locations are being used to study intermediate wheatgrass for both grain and biofuel production.
According to Dr. DeHaan, the Minnesota locations are designed to compare the economics and agronomics of planting Intermediate wheatgrass compared to other biofuel crops. In particular, the study will compare soil carbon accumulation and nitrogen leaching, as well as the biomass yields and grain yields. Even though current varieties of intermediate wheatgrass have relatively low grain yields, if the value of the biomass for bioenergy is included, this crop may be economically competitive with corn or switchgrass. And unlike corn or switchgrass, intermediate wheatgrass can act as a “multi-functional” crop, providing more than one commodity product, as well as ecosystem services. Growing switchgrass requires sacrificing acres that could be used for food production. Though corn can be used for multiple commodities – the grain being used for food or livestock feed, and the plant biomass being used for ethanol production – removal of plant biomass will rapidly degrade soil quality. With a perennial grain such as intermediate wheatgrass, you should be able to have a grain commodity, plus the biomass commodity, while actually building soil organic matter. Learn more about The Land Institute’s work with Intermediate wheatgrass.
1) Picture of annual wheat vs. perennial wheatgrass root system from: Glover, J. D. et al. 2010. Increased food and ecosystem security via perennial grains. Science 328: 1638-1639