Bulletin #2207, Growing Organic Cereal Grains in New England
Extension Educator Richard Kersbergen, Sustainable Agriculture Specialist Ellen Mallory, and Research Associate Tom Molloy
- Demand for local organic grain is increasing
- Successful production requires planning
- The organic certification process
- Soils and site conditions for small grains
- Planting dates
- Seedbed preparation and planting
- Harvest and storage
Organic grain production has generated significant interest in New England during the last few years. Organic dairy farmers are looking for ways to grow some of their own grain concentrate to reduce their reliance on expensive purchased organic feeds. In addition, the market for locally grown food-grade grain for human consumption has expanded for end products such as breads, pastries, and beer. Food-grade grains will usually bring a premium price, but meeting the higher quality standards can sometimes be difficult and requires attention to detail. In addition, cereal grain straw can serve as a valuable bedding source for direct use on the farm or as another saleable product.
A variety of winter and spring cereal grains can be grown in New England. Oats and barley are spring grains, whereas triticale, wheat, and spelt have both winter and spring adaptability. Cereal rye, a common cover crop for the area, is for winter production only. Winter grains are sown in early fall for a late July or early August harvest, while spring grains are sown in early spring for a slightly later harvest. If you are thinking about growing organic grains for any market—livestock or human—realize that grain harvesting, cleaning, drying, and storage equipment should not be an afterthought!
New growers should plan ahead for how they will acquire the proper infrastructure required for successful grain production. Don’t wait until harvest to decide how to get the crop out of the field and into storage at the correct dry matter to prevent spoilage. Remember that not all fields are suitable for organic cereal grain production. Although it is not always possible, try to avoid fields with heavy, poorly drained soils as well as those with heavy weed pressure. Adequate crop rotations, combined with organic soil management, can improve overall soil quality and reduce weed seed banks.
We recommend making connections with area grain farmers to observe successful production techniques. This bulletin will outline agronomic practices and recommendations for organic cereal grain production in New England. If you are going to grow organic grains, use this material as a general guideline, but seek out more detailed information from other growers, University of Maine Cooperative Extension, and informative websites such as the one published by the Northern Grain Growers Association.
If you sell over $5,000 in organic sales or plan on selling your crop to organic processors or livestock farmers, you will need to become a certified organic producer with an agency licensed by the USDA: consult the National Organic Program. This includes developing a farm plan that outlines your intentions along with your plans for managing insects, weeds, and fertility for your organic crops. Successful organic production relies on managing the farm as a whole system. Diverse crop rotations are integral to reducing weed and pest problems and improving soil health.
To be eligible for organic certification, fields must have been free of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, genetically modified crops, and other prohibited materials for at least three years before an organic crop can be harvested. Most certifiers will require submission of a farm plan during the winter and early spring for organic crops to be grown during the following summer.
Certification also involves an annual farm inspection. The USDA’s Agricultural Management Assistance Program, authorized by the Federal Crop Insurance Act, allocates funds to 15 states to reimburse producers for the cost of organic certification. Producers may be reimbursed for up to 75 percent of their organic certification costs, not to exceed $500. The eligible states are Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wyoming. For more information about organic certification, contact a local certifying agency or the National Organic Program by e-mailing NOPAQSS@usda.gov or calling 202-720-3252.
Most small grains prefer soils that are considered to be moderately well drained to well drained, with a desirable pH range of 5.8 to 6.8. Soil testing should be conducted far enough in advance of cereal grain production to adjust soil pH and fertility if necessary. Grain crops such as oats and rye are more tolerant of poorly drained and low pH soils. Barley and wheat, on the other hand, are not as tolerant and will do best in well-drained soils with a pH of 6.3 or higher.
When selecting sites for winter grain production, avoid fields that regularly pond during the winter, as this can reduce winter survival rates. When selecting sites for spring grains choose fields that can be accessed in early spring (April to early May). Delayed plantings will often result in weed pressure from summer annuals and lower yields. Perennial weed problems are a primary factor in field selection. Fields with high populations of perennial grasses, such as quackgrass, should be avoided.
Many organic crop rotations involve perennial sod crops. If you plan to follow a sod crop with a cereal grain, make sure the sod is plowed under well in advance of grain planting. Our experience with organic grain production suggests that producers should not plant spring grains on fields where perennial sods have been plowed or tilled in the same spring. Fields that are coming out of perennial sods are best prepared in the summer and seeded in the fall with a winter grain, or the following spring with a spring grain.
Organic certification rules require that you try to source organically produced seed before using conventional seed sources. You may also want to purchase certified seed. Certified seed is seed of a known variety produced under strict seed certification standards to maintain varietal purity. Seed lots must also meet specified standards for other crops, inert matter, weed seeds, and germination. Certified seed is also free of prohibited noxious weed seeds. All certified seed must pass field inspection, be conditioned by an approved seed conditioning plant, and then be sampled and pass laboratory testing before it can be sold as certified seed. If you do import seed that is not certified, check it closely for weed seeds or mixed grains prior to using. Additionally, non-certified seed may contain genetic lines that are unknown or variable.
In no case is fungicide treated or genetically modified seed allowed in organic production. Many farmers grow and store their own seed for use the following year. In these situations, it is important to clean the seed lot of weed seeds and diseased seeds before using. Producers may also want to do a germination test before planting.
A soil test should be conducted to help you identify and correct soil pH and nutrient deficiencies before planting. For organic production, deficiencies may only be corrected with approved materials. If you are unsure whether a particular material is allowed, check with your certifying agency or the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI).
What are the N, P, and K needs of cereal grains?
Usually, phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) needs can be met in part with manure and/or compost, as well as other approved sources of these nutrients, such as rock phosphate, bone meal, and Sul-Po-Mag. Phosphorus and K requirements for fall grains are important for tillering (branching off the main stem) and for winter survival. Deficiencies in calcium, magnesium, and sulfur that are identified by a soil test should also be corrected using OMRI-approved materials. If manure or compost is being used for a fertility source, you should get an analysis of that material prior to application. The analysis will help determine the application rate needed to meet grain requirements. Standard soil tests provide a recommendation for nitrogen application based on grain species.
In general, spring and winter grains require 50 to 80 pounds of nitrogen per acre. If you are applying manure or compost as a source of fertility, realize that not all of the nitrogen in these sources will be available to the crop during the first season. Actual nitrogen availability is influenced by the type of manure or compost being applied and how quickly it is incorporated into the soil. Nitrogen availability ranges from 35 to 75 percent of the total N applied for manure, and from 10 to 30 percent for compost. Plowing down a legume cover or a heavy legume sod can add significant plant-available nitrogen to the soil and may meet all your nitrogen needs for a small grain crop. Be aware that organic certification requires a 90-day period between application of animal manures and harvest for grains entering the food grade market.
Spring grains should be planted as early as possible in the spring. In most years, this means mid April to early May for northern New England. Small grains can germinate in cool soil conditions. Early planting favors the development of an increased number of tillers. Tillering is an important development stage that allows plants to take advantage of good growing conditions and compensate for low plant populations. Tillers that appear at the time that the fourth, fifth, and sixth leaves emerge on the main shoot are most likely to complete development and form grain. Tillers formed later are likely to abort without producing grain.
Early planting helps control weeds. Most summer annual weeds require warm temperatures to germinate, so having a well developed plant with multiple tillers will help compete against weeds and quickly close the canopy. If you plant later in the spring—after May 15—you should increase the seeding rate by 25 to 50 percent to compensate for the reduction in tillering.
Winter grains should be sown from mid September to early October. Several years of research in Maine and Vermont has shown that grains sown in mid October have fewer tillers and lower yield, along with a higher potential for winter injury. Late-planted grains also suffered from delayed maturity, and resulted in a complete crop failure in some of our trials.
Seedbed preparation is important, especially if you will be using mechanical cultivation tools such as a Kovar, Lely, or a rotary hoe. Depth of planting should be uniform to allow for good soil-to-seed contact as well as for uniform stands that will allow for effective cultivation.
Planting rate recommendations vary considerably. In general, seeding rates should be increased by 25 percent for organic production to increase crop competitiveness with weeds. Recommendations are often listed in bushels per acre (2.5–4.0) or pounds per acre (130–175). Compounding the issue is that seed sizes and weight can vary significantly, even for the same type of grain. Planting technique can also greatly influence the final stand. Producers should strive to plant 35 seeds per square foot or about 400 seeds per square meter. This translates to 1.5 million plants per acre. You can calibrate your drill by using the table below to count the number of seeds per foot of row. Luckily, the tillering capacity of grains allows them to compensate for various planting densities. Seeding rates for late-planted crops (both spring and fall) should be increased by 25 to 50 percent to compensate for the reduced numbers of tillers.
Cereal grains are commonly drilled in rows 7 to 7.5 inches apart. Narrower row spacing may improve crop competitiveness with weeds. Growers have implemented various strategies to reduce weed populations. For example, some farmers plant grains with a two-pass system, where half the seed is sown in one direction and the other half is sown at a 45 degree angle to the first. While this adds cost to your seeding, it may increase the grain crop’s ability to compete against weeds and fill in a canopy quicker than a single planting. Research at the University of Maine by Lauren Kolb and Eric Gallandt has found that weed biomass in the two-pass system was reduced between 25 and 30 percent compared to standard row spacing, although we saw little impact on yield of grain as compared to conventional row spacing. Additionally, compaction in tire tracks may cause variable germination and plant-stand uniformity. Some growers attach a spinner seeder to the front of the tractor and sow half the seed as a broadcast while drilling the other half of the seed with a grain drill behind the tractor. In our trials with this method, we have found a delay in the germination of seeds that were broadcast. In addition, broadcast seedlings were more prone to being dislodged during the tine weeding process. Maintaining proper seeding depth (1 to 2 inches, depending on soil texture) below the surface of the soil (not below the residue) is critical to achieving good seed-to-soil contact and proper crown development. Shallow-planted winter wheat is more prone to winter injury.
Small grains are very competitive and can withstand some weed pressure without a yield loss. Weeds and weed seeds can become a problem at harvest as they are often moist and green and can affect the dry matter of the grain.
With proper timing, grain seeded in the fall has few annual weed issues. Most of our research has indicated that, with good rotations, winter grains are not affected by annual weeds. Often farmers broadcast seed legumes (8-10 lb/acre) into the winter grain crop in March/April.
This type of underseeding is a low-cost method of establishing a green manure or sod crop as well as establishing a weed-suppressing cover for mid summer when the canopy of the grain crop diminishes. Although this strategy is common on organic farms, some growers have reported legume crops growing too tall and interfering with the grain harvest.
The earlier you are able to plant a spring grain crop, the more competitive it will be against annual weeds. In addition to early planting, many growers use tine weeders to control small annual weeds.
This technique is effective if seedbed preparation is good, if the soil condition is dry and friable, and if the weeds are in the “white thread” (just emerging) stage.
Cereal grains are normally ready to harvest between mid July and early August throughout the New England region. Harvesting should begin when the grain reaches 18 percent moisture or less. Storage moisture for small grains should be around 12 to 13 percent, so it may be necessary to dry the crop before storage using batch dryers with propane or with heat and air in bin storages. Waiting to harvest the crop until it reaches storage levels is risky, as the crop is more prone to shattering during harvest at this moisture level.
Additionally, adverse weather conditions can quickly deteriorate the quality of a grain crop. This is especially true for soft wheat, which can easily begin to sprout on the stem after it becomes mature and imbibe water from a rainstorm. On-farm moisture testers will be an important tool for the farm. However, proper moisture of the grain is not the only factor impacting harvest efficiency.
Harvest equipment should be adjusted to minimize losses in the field. Review combine adjustments with your owner’s manual and be sure to constantly monitor for field losses. This is easily done by catching some “combined” plant material as it is exits your machine. If there is a good deal of grain coming out the back, it is time to adjust the combine. Often local growers can provide advice on proper settings for grains.
Reviewed by Heather Darby, Agronomist and Nutrient Management Specialist at the University of Vermont; and Timothy Griffin, Director of the Agriculture Food and Environment Program at Tufts University
B. Cox and L. Smith eds. 2009 Cornell Guide for Integrated Field Crop Management. Ithaca: Cornell University Cooperative Extension, 2009. http://www.fieldcrops.org
P. Sullivan. Organic Small Grain Production. Fayetteville, AR: ATTRA – National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, 2003. http://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/smallgrain.html
P Michalak. Organic Grain: Cropping System and Marketing. Kutztown: The Rodale Institute, 2002.
J. Wallace, ed. Canadian Field Crop Handbook 2nd edition. Ottawa: Canadian Organic Growers, 2001.
Northern Grain Growers Association. http://northerngraingrowers.org/
Information in this publication is provided purely for educational purposes. No responsibility is assumed for any problems associated with the use of products or services mentioned. No endorsement of products or companies is intended, nor is criticism of unnamed products or companies implied.
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