Promising research for perennial plants on the Prairies

Researchers say commercial perennial crops suitable for prairie production could be available in as little as 15 years.

It’s already been about 90 years of work, but the finish line is in sight, said Doug Cattani, a plant breeder at the University of Manitoba.

He is working mainly on developing a perennial intermediate wheat grass, also known as kernza.

“I decided to look at improving something that we know we can grow here in our region,” he said.

Intermediate wheat grass is grown as a seed crop for forage but shows promise for both human consumption and as animal feed because of its high protein.

He has been working on it for six years and has gone through the first selection cycle. It has to go through a number of winters to select for the best seed production.

“The issue is getting the genetics so that it will be consistent,” Cattani said. “That’s what we’re looking at right now, and I think we’ll get there within 10, 15 years.”

He said it would be a dual use crop. Producers could harvest the grain in mid-August and then graze the fall regrowth at freeze-up. The livestock clean up the dry growth that would be there in spring and add nutrients as they graze.

He said the ability to seed it on more marginal land is another advantage.

This image shows heads are beginning to emerge.  |  Doug Cattani photo

This image shows heads are beginning to emerge. | Doug Cattani photo

It can be seeded at any time because seed isn’t produced in the first year anyway.

“I’m envisioning that probably by the time we release this to producers, we may be able to underseed it to wheat, take the wheat crop off and then have this grass establish through the remainder of the year and produce a good grain crop the following year,” Cattani said.

The Land Institute in Kansas is also working on the crop and has already sold product to Patagonia Provisions, which is using it to make a beer known as Long Root Ale.

The long roots of perennial crops are among their main benefits. They are able to access the nutrients and moisture below the typical root depth of annual crops.

They aid in carbon sequestration and use sunlight year-round.

Sustainability on several levels is a good reason to develop viable perennial crops, said Jamie Larsen, a plant breeder working on perennial wheat and perennial cereal rye at Agriculture Canada’s Lethbridge research centre.

“There’s just some real environmental, social, economic benefits to this whole system,” he said.

“What could it do for a farmer? It means that they plant maybe once every three years or once every five years. It saves him fuel, seeding equipment wear, all that kind of stuff. It makes better use of nutrients. It may allow them to expand their acres. It may just allow them to have a reasonable life.”

Larsen said perennial cereal rye is closer to commercial viability than his wheat-by-wheat grass crosses.

This image shows the crop a week before maturity.  |  Doug Cattani photo

This image shows the crop a week before maturity. | Doug Cattani photo

He is using a perennial rye developed about a dozen years ago for forage and crossing it with annual fall ryes to try improving both the perennial habit and grain production.

“Under our conditions here in Lethbridge, it certainly is perennial,” Larsen said.

“The grain yields we’ve seen are in the kind of 40 to 50 bushel range, which is not terrible.”

Still, there are challenges in maintaining both characteristics, and he said more crosses are still required.

Larsen said the challenge with his perennial wheat work is maintaining stability and gaining repeatability because chromosomes randomly appear or disappear. Sterility can also be a problem.

“One thing we’re doing through internal funding here at Ag Canada is we’re actually looking for the genes that are responsible for perennial habit, so we’re doing a bit of genomics work on that,” he said.

Genomic information from other researchers and new technologies such as CRISPr could also bring perennial wheat to the market sooner.

He said farmers can see the advantages.

“This will be adopted as soon as we have something that’s productive enough,” he said.

Cattani said other crops also show potential. He has done work on perennial sunflowers, flax and a pulse known as prairie turnip. He said four of six native species of sunflowers in Manitoba are perennials.

“We have looked at the oil profile of the flax and the fatty acid composition of the sunflower, so we know where they stand related to their respective annual crops,” he said.

“The flax actually has a pretty interesting profile. Whether it’s of human grade, I would not be willing to say, but it could easily have an industrial use.”

Prairie turnip, a staple of indigenous people, is likely 40 to 50 years down the road, he said.

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