By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
Small grains have been described as “poverty grass” by farmers who stick to higher-paying corn and soybeans but small grains can be profitable, land-improving and versatile for farmers looking for different options.
So say three crop farmers on a small grains panel during a Living Labs session during the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario (EFAO) conference who have been collaborating with researchers to discover new ways of growing grains to improve soil health and water quality while still maintaining profitability.
“We are trying to add diversification to the main crops, keep our ground covered and use grains for weed control,” said Greg Vermeersch, of VanMeer Farms near Tillsonburg. “We’re also seeing a bump of five to seven bushels on our corn harvest the year after.”
Brett Israel of Carl Israel Farm Ltd. near Drayton said growing small grains is an important part of a whole farm system. “As organic producers, small grains give us cropping flexibility because they can follow virtually any crop. They also provide straw for our pig operation.”
Both farmers are part of the Living Labs on-farm research program where they test new hybrids and cropping strategies in their own fields. Partnering with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) and led by the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association (OSCIA) the project connects farmers with researchers. EFAO’s goal is to help make farms more resilient in the face of climate change and specifically, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by focusing on reduced tillage and continuous soil cover.
Brett Israel, 3Gen Organics
A multi-generation family farm organically cropping 1,200 acres near Drayton, the Israels also raise 170 sows farrow to finish as part of their farm systems at 3Gen Organics. They grow approximately 600 acres of small grains and have recently launched a direct-to-market flour from their own grains.
Flexibility is the real win with small grains, says Israel. “They are a profitable crop in the organic crop system and with pigs, the higher inclusion of wheat and barley allows us to feed more barley to the pigs which increases meat protein.”
Growing grains is part of being a community grower, believes Israel. “We are good producers first and foremost and small grains feed our community.”
With small grains, fields are never bare. Israel showed a slide called “ A tale of two fields” revealing bare, dirt fields with water infiltration issues compared to a field of winter barley which was green and no visible water pooling. “If we can keep the ground covered while generating a profitable crop, that really is a win-win.” With climate change and the worry of weather instability, small grains can protect the soils and improve soil health, making it more resilient to wild weather.
Greg Vermeersch, VanMeer Farm
The sandy soil in Tillsonburg is vastly different from the soil near Drayton so Living Lab research on the VanMeer farms has to consider that small grains are not as profitable as soybeans, ginseng, tobacco and other vegetable crops grown in the area. Part of Vermeersch’s goal is to discover how to make it profitable because the addition of small grains makes his workload much easier due to the timing of planting and harvesting,
“We want to make it financially feasible without getting into specialty markets,” explains Vermeersch.
His test plot with Living Labs was growing soybeans in relay rows between barley and comparing it to a double-cropped field of soybeans. Vermeersch expected the soys in the relay rows would outperform the soys that were double cropped. However, an early frost clipped the relay soybeans while a wet growing season on sandy soil allowed the later-seeded double-cropped soybeans to thrive and they were the best performers.
Still, he sees real potential for relay crops once he figures out the best way to harvest. This year, he harvested the barley in July with a traditional combine using plastic tile to protect the soybeans. The soys ended up getting a good “haircut” and some rows were driven over by the machinery. Still, they bounced back quite readily and Vermeersch estimates he gave up two bushels an acre from the stress. The soybeans were harvested in late October.
“The great thing about Living Labs is that we get funding to help with these experiments. Crop farmers on the leading edge are also on the bleeding edge because we don't know how the crops will turn out,” says Vermeersch.
Relay cropping is not something Israel felt would work on his Drayton-area fields from a weed-control perspective. He prefers to grow winter barley which is seeded in the fall, gets a coat of liquid manure in the spring and then is basically ignored until harvest.
Both crop farmers say the key to any double cropping or relay cropping strategy is genetics.
For Israel, finding a new breed of winter barley which improves winter survival and increases yield potential goes a long way to crop success. “We made 114 bushels per acre with the winter wheat,” he said. When followed with newer, short-season varieties of soybeans, and seeing that climate change is reducing the number of frost days, double cropping has even more chance of success.
Eric Page, a researcher with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada said genetics are key. “Improved varieties make it easier to pull off these rotations and maximize your period of crop growth.” He recommends researching short season genetics when calculating a systems approach to cropping.
One grower asked for practical tips for first time cereal growers, Israel said the best thing to do (if the ground is flat) is to frost seed in March.
“We have seen substantial improvement where we frost seed -- massive yield benefits,” said Israel. Seeding early gives small grains time to establish and increases the grain fill period before the hot days of summer stress the plants. Planting spring wheat into frosty ground (after the snows have melted) really does well but oats and barley can also see a yield increase when “punched through the frost”, said Israel. ◊