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Small Grain Management

Posted: September 12, 2013

Interest in regards to small grain growing is rising on small farms for several reasons. Historically, winter wheat, rye and winter barley have been grown in this region of the state for grain production, straw, “green-chopped” for forage and then ensiled, or a cover crop and killed early in the lifecycle.

The advantages and disadvantages of growing small grains include:

Advantages

Small grains are a very compatible crop that can be introduced into a rotation that is heavy on broadleaves. They are classified as a cool season (annual) grass. When grown in winter, they are winter annuals (they can remain dormant in the winter and then finish their growth cycle by flowering in the spring).

When sown in the fall, winter small grains can provide a dormant, “living cover” in the soil over the winter. With their deep roots, they mop up valuable nitrogen in the soil that would normally be lost to groundwater.

The crop is competitive with annual weeds. However, small grains should not be established in “weedy” fields, as aggressive perennials, such as Canadian thistle and downy brome can easily smother the crop. Weed seeds harvested in the grain is undesirable. Weeds need to be managed ahead of planting for success. Since it is also one of the earliest crops to come out of dormancy, small grains can provide early feed for grazing or silage harvest.

Disadvantages

On small farms, interest has been revolving around growing small grain, mostly spring seeded small grains, for bread making and malting. Unfortunately, most of the varieties for these tasks are risky to grow, due their susceptibility to disease. Many of these varieties do not have resistance to a primary fungal organism, called Fusarium, which infects both wheat and barley. The organism is widespread in the growing environment. It is not uncommon for the crop to be unfit for human consumption, especially in wet years. Livestock markets sometimes can be alternate markets for feeding grain. There are fungicides that can be used to help protect the plant from infection. Growers not wanting to use fungicides will have to account for higher losses.

Often, grain growers need to have access to special equipment such as combines and planting drills. For beginning farmers, the costs are prohibitive for purchasing this equipment. In some cases, using a custom operator can be used for planting and harvesting. Custom harvesting needs to be timely, as grain can lose quality if left too long in the field. Moisture can cause grain to sprout, making it unfit for further food processing. Also, the costs need to be considered in the crop budget. See sample crop budgets in the Penn State Agronomy Guide.

Storage for the grain needs to be available if keeping the grain on the farm for longer use. There are plans available to build temporary storage in sheds and barns, instead of investing in grain bins but care needs to be taken to engineer these structures correctly, protect the grain quality and prevent rodent damage.

In conclusion, small grains fit nicely into the complex crop rotations we have in Pennsylvania. The long term profitability of integrating them into the farm as a specialty crops deserves a critical look at growing, handling, storage, processing and how this as an enterprise fits into the whole farm.