Today at the Land Institute in Saline County, Kansas, Jim Shroyer and Dr. Stan Cox, Coordinator of Research, visit about the work being done to develop more sustainable crops. Starting out of the environmental movement of the 1970’s, the Land Institute currently takes wild, perennial species and works to domesticate them. Still years away from practical applications, the Land Institute is having successes.
(Jim) Good morning folks, welcome to That’s My Farm. I’m Jim Shroyer your host and today we’re in Saline County at the Land Institute. Now, at the Land Institute they’re doing things just a little bit different than traditional farmers. They’re looking at making our annual crops, perennial crops. So, stay with us. I think you’re gonna enjoy this interesting topic today. So we’ll be right back. Thank you.
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(Jim) Good morning folks, welcome to That’s My Farm. I’m Jim Shroyer, your host and we’re in luck because today we’re in Saline County and we’re at the Land Institute. And the Land Institute’s been here for a while and it’s kind of had an interesting history over time. And today we have Stan Cox with us, Dr. Stan Cox. He is the Coordinator of Research here at the Land Institute. So, Stan thanks for being with us this morning I appreciate you taking the time. And kind of tell us the history of the Land Institute and the goals, missions of it. (Stan) Well the Land Institute started just across the road here in ’76. And it kind of grew out of the environmental movement of the ’70s, trying to develop a more sustainable society. And as time… and the following few years, they were doing a lot of studies of the native prairie and looking at the ecological functions of it and started wondering would it be possible to develop an agriculture that had those same ecological functions, but unlike the prairie could produce food that’s edible by us. The prairie can produce food for cattle. (Jim) That we eventually eat, unless you’re vegetarian. (Stan) Right, yeah right. Could you have a grain producing type of agriculture that would conserve water, prevent soil erosion, could get rained on as much as it could and still not experience erosion? Finally just after 2001 we started developing breeding programs to develop perennial versions of our familiar grain and grain legume crops. (Jim) We’re talking wheat of course, the wheat state. And then grain sorghum. (Stan) Right. (Jim) What other legumes? (Stan) Sunflowers and some native species that might be domesticated. Because if you’re going to have the functions of the prairie, you’re going to need perennial plants, because the prairie obviously is 100 percent composed of perennial plants. And not just grasses, but legume plants of the sunflower family and many other types of plants. (Jim) So we’re talking about making our crops perennials instead of annuals. (Stan) Yea. So for the past dozen years or so, we’ve been taking two different approaches to developing perennial crops either taking a plant like wheat which has related, has species related to it that are perennial and making those crosses. Or taking wild or other perennials species and domesticating them just like our ancestors 10,000 years ago domesticated wheat and barley. (Jim) So Stan, tell me a little bit about your background, your academic background? (Stan) Well, I got my PhD in plant breeding, at Iowa State and then I was in Manhattan a on the K-State campus working with USDA as a wheat geneticist for 13 years and since then I’ve been here. My work now is mainly on perennial sorghum. (Jim) Well, thank you for that little introduction to the Land Institute. And stay with us because we’re gonna be talking to you and some of your staff here in a little bit and you folks at home, stay with us as well. We’ll be right back after these words from our sponsor. Thank you.
(Jim) Welcome back to That’s My Farm. I’m Jim Shroyer and we’re at the Land Institute near Salina and we have Dr. Stan Cox with us. And Stan is going to tell us a little bit about this what I would say is a regular old grain sorghum nursery, but there’s a little bit of a twist here. So Stan, tell us a little bit about this grain sorghum nursery. (Stan) Well unlike most grain sorghum breeding nurseries that you’d see, here we’re working on developing perennial sorghum. And the only way that sorghum which is a tropical crop, the only way that it can survive the Kansas winter and come back the next spring is under ground, which means developing underground stems called rhizomes. And sorghum happens to have a very close relative in the plant world, called sorghum halepense, or popularly known as Johnson grass. (Jim) Exactly. (Stan) Which has rhizomes. So, we’re not trying to develop a plant like Johnson grass. (Jim) Yea, we’ve got plenty of that. Especially in the southern part of the state. Right. (Stan) And it may have, a single plant eight pounds of rhizomes, stretching out feet away from the plant in one season. We’re not wanting that. But we can get a kind of a scaled down version. (Jim) So how, OK, yea show us what the difference would be in a perennial sorghum, which you have right here. (Stan) Well, here a rhizome. I had dug this plant up. (Jim) Just a while ago? (Stan) Yea, just a while ago. And so here’s a rhizome. (Jim) A rhizome coming here. (Stan) Yea, a little one coming there. And you can see ones underneath. (Jim) And this is a typical sorghum size. (Stan) Yea, yea, they’re not excessively tall. And here we’ve got rhizomes going down. Now, that’s what we need. One that’s gonna come up in the fall does us no good. That’s a suicide shoot there. (Jim) Right, it’s not gonna make it. (Stan) And I broke this one off when I dug it out. But when these rhizomes get a few inches down below the soil surface then they can avoid freezing and produce a sprout that comes back the next year. (Jim) OK. So tell me in a way that I can understand how you get a Johnson grass type? How do you get a perennial sorghum because we’ve got chromosome difference here, numbers and that sort of thing. So, kind of take us through how you do that. (Stan) It’s a little tricky crossing grain sorghum with Johnson grass cause Johnson grass has 40 chromosomes in a cell and sorghum has 20. But there are two ways you can do it. One is to use a chemical called colchicine. (Jim) It’s a nasty one. (Stan) Yea, but if you use precautions. It’s natural, derived from a lily plant. But you apply it and you can double the chromosome number of sorghum. But the other way, which works very well is that sorghum sometimes has in producing the egg cells that participate in pollination there’s a little slippage there and it will produce egg cells that have double their normal number of chromosomes. (Jim) OK. During meiosis or mitosis? (Stan) Yea, during meiosis and so they can unite easily with pollen from Johnson grass and then we produce populations like this. (Jim) You’re off to the races. Stan, I want you to hang on cause we have to have a break right here and folks stay with us. We’ll be right back after these words from our sponsors.
(Jim) Welcome back to That’s My Farm. We’re here at the Land Institute with Dr. Stan Cox. And Stan we’re standing in a kind of an unusual nursery here. It kinda looks like wheat but it doesn’t. So, talk to us a little bit about your perennial wheat and your intermediate wheat grass program. (Stan) That’s right Jim. This is intermediate wheat grass or the grain producing version of it, we call kernza now. We got in the small grains world of perennials, we got two kind of parallel tracks. One of them is to turn this forage grass into a grain crop simply through selection in the field, genetic improvement. The other involves cross between kernza and regular annual wheat, Kansas wheat varieties, other wheats. Making crosses between them to try to combine the yield and seed characteristics of wheat with the perenniality of this plant, which is a very strong, hardy perennial. (Jim) OK. So this kernza is basically a forage, intermediate wheat grass. How hard is it to make this more of a grain producer as opposed to a forage producer? What goes into that process? (Stan) Well using, Lee DeHaan is our kernza breeder. It’s been pretty straight forward. He’ll grow out each of these clumps. Here is one plant. You can split a clump apart so you have the plant represented more than once in the field. And he’ll grow out… these days he’s growing out maybe 15,000 of these in evaluation nursery, getting data on all kinds of stuff. But yield per head is one of the main traits. We select out of those 15,000 maybe the best 1/2 of 1 percent or something. Brings them to another nursery or in the green house, inter-pollinates them and uses that seed to plant another big nursery and select again. So, it’s a rapid turnover thing. And the plants, the best grain producing plants at this point are almost look like a different species from the forage type intermediate wheat grass. (Jim) So, it’s been domesticated. (Stan) Well you can see the analogy with wheat, they tend to be shorter, thicker straws, fewer tillers, larger heads, larger seed. It kind of shows you what our ancestors 10,000 years ago did in a much less well organized way to domesticate annual wheat. Lee is doing the same thing with kernza. (Jim) Interesting. Thank you Stan, don’t go away. (Stan) Oh I thought I was… (Jim) You don’t get off this easy. OK, hang on. So folks, stay with us. We’ll be right back after these words.
(Jim) Welcome back to That’s My Farm. I’m Jim Shroyer your host. And today we’re at the Land Institute and we have Tim Cruz a plant ecologist. He’s also Director of Research here at the Land Institute. So, Tim, tell us what we have right here? What are we standing in? (Tim) Well we have a biculture we call it, a combination of kernza and intermediate wheat grass grain we’re developing and it’s inter-cropped with alfalfa. (Jim) OK. So, why are you doing that? Why… I know being a plant ecologist where we’re going with this, but why are you doing this? (Tim) Yea, yea. Well, annual grain agriculture right now is vulnerable to soil erosion. It can leak nutrients. We know there’s phosphorus showing up in water bodies around Kansas. It at certain times of the year, will invite insect pests and weeds. We need to control those. And yet, when we go out and we look at the native prairie, the rule, there are exceptions, but the rule is that it doesn’t have these shortcomings. And we ask ourselves why? And there’s two broad reasons, one is the prairie is perennial. (Jim) Right. (Tim) And the other is that it’s diverse. It has a lot of different plant species growing together. That can deter pests, it can slow down disease spread. It can have many different functions. But one of the functions of diversity in the prairie is the ability to capture nitrogen by legumes. The plant family that includes alfalfa and peas and beans and locust trees. (Jim) Sure. (Tim) And so we’re working to try, in a very simple fashion at the beginning, to see if a couple of crop species can coexist with legumes. One, do they compete heavily or can they get along over time? And secondly can we see evidence of nitrogen being fixed or acquired from the atmosphere by legumes? (Jim) Right. (Tim) And then transferred to the grain? So, when we harvested the kernza back in July, it was ya high. And it had totally suppressed the
alfalfa. (Jim) Right. (Tim) You couldn’t hardly even see it in here. But then after we cut the kernza the alfalfa took off and now it’s fixing a lot of nitrogen and putting it into the soil and then we expect to see that via what are called isotopes of nitrogen show up in the kernza next year. (Jim) So, you’ll know where that nitrogen came from whether it came from the soil or that it was fixed by the legume. (Tim) Exactly. (Jim) Now will you, I am thinking forages here. Now, after the kernza is gone here and the alfalfa’s coming back. Here we are late in the season and will this be taken as a forage after the frost? (Tim) Right now, this is a small experimental plot, but we are planning experiments where we will have a legume, kernza combination that we will graze and we envision that this will provide an excellent forage at the end or the beginning of the season. (Jim) Or even maybe next year possibly. (Tim) Exactly. (Jim) Tim, hey I appreciate it. This is really kinda interesting how kernza and some of the perennial, other perennial crops that you guys are working on here will fit into this kind of prairie scape agriculture. (Tim) Yea, yea. Thank you for your interest. (Jim) Folks, stay with us we’ll be right back after these words.
(Jim) Welcome back to That’s My Farm. I’m Jim Shroyer. We’re at the Land Institute and we have Dr. Stan Cox with us. And Stan in this final segment here, kinda tell us how the perennial grain sorghum, how the perennial wheat and the kernza program, how do you see that going to fit into a typical farmer? (Stan) First I should say there are gonna be from most of these crops, quite few years decades of breeding before they’re going to be equivalent to the kind of annual crop that we have now. (Jim) Traditional crop. (Stan) But in the meantime well Lee DeHaan our kernza breeder has kind of looked around and he sees that for initially getting into farms, that the bar is pretty low for the so called alternative or specialty crops. He figures a thousand pounds an acre if you look at wild rice, quinoa, some of these things. Now that’s now what we’re aiming for these to be, but initially especially on land that’s more erodible, that might be where the first toe hold comes. But what we’re aiming at though is to be a standard crop that eventually on the farms of the future people will grow as a matter of course. (Jim) You know, when you think about the nutrients, the seed you have to buy I mean it’s not a crop that you’re never gonna have to touch again. You’re gonna have to handle some of it like you do traditional crops, right? (Stan) Right, as you know a crop isn’t going to grow with no moisture or no nutrients or deficient nutrients, you’re not going to get high yield. We’re working on various ways of trying to address those and one thing is for sure, just like with say wheat varieties for sure just like the breeders of perennial crops are going to have to pay close attention to disease and insect resistance, grain quality and all the traits, they can’t just simply say OK, we’ve got a perennial crop and it yields a thousand pounds and we’re done. (Jim) Well Stan, we’re standing in a field of kernza, this five year stand. What can kernza grain be used for? (Stan) Well, we’ve done a lot of work with millers and bakers on this and it can be used in making just about anything that wheat is used to make. Now for a loaf of raised bread, you need about a 50/50 blend with wheat flour. But for other products that you would make with soft wheat, for example, straight kernza works for those. (Jim) Cookies, muffins, that sort of thing? (Stan) Yea, yea. You bet. (Jim) Well, Stan thanks for talking to us about the Land Institute and the interesting work that you’re doing here, cause this is down the road, 20-30 years. This may be more of a standard practice. So, thank you Stan for sharing with us. (Stan) Thank you Jim. (Jim) Folks, stay with us next week cause we’re gonna be back at this same time with That’s My Farm. We’ll see you next week.
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