CONNELL, Wash. — Jeff Shawver isn’t afraid to take risks.
The Connell, Wash., farmer has been raising triticale — a cross between durum wheat and rye — since 2010.
The main risk for him and other farmers is the USDA offers no crop insurance for triticale.
“In a drought year like this, you don’t have the crop insurance to protect you, so you’ve gotta be kinda ballsy,” Shawver said. Less than 5 inches of rain fell this year, about half the average.
Shawver raises about 1,000 acres of triticale for seed each year. In July’s harvest, he averaged about 20 bushels per acre, the same as his winter wheat yield and about double his spring wheat yield. In a normal year, with 9 to 10 inches of rain, triticale can yield 40 to 45 bushels per acre.
“It’s an easier crop to grow than wheat, in my opinion,” he said. “You don’t have as many headaches.”
Tri State Seed Co. co-owner Dana Herron said he pays Shawver a premium to raise triticale seed for forage. Shawver estimated he receives a $2-$3 per bushel premium to grow triticale compared to wheat.
A versatile crop
Triticale, which was first developed in 19th century Scotland and Sweden, is a versatile crop that is attracting attention on the West Coast and parts of the Plains states. Some 5,446 acres of triticale were grown in Washington state in 2012, more than double the acreage 10 years previous, according to the USDA Census of Agriculture. Washington’s triticale acreage peaked in the 2007 census at 9,427 acres but high wheat prices since have prompted some farmers to switch back to that crop.
Nationally, 61,428 acres of triticale were harvested in 2012, with California and Kansas growers each raising about a quarter of the total. Idaho farmers grew 1,445 acres and Oregon grew about 1,079 acres that same year.
Triticale is also grown in Europe and other parts of the world for food grain, animal feed or forage, and researchers say it has potential as a biofuel feedstock.
According to the most recent USDA Agricultural Marketing Service weekly hay report, triticale sold for roughly $160 per ton. As of Aug. 22, triticale for grain was priced at roughly $149 per ton, according to Central Washington Grain Growers.
Triticale seed has become a mainstay of Tri-State Seed’s business and is sold in at least 15 states. Herron said 90 percent of it is sold to grow forage.
For dairy and beef producers, triticale offers good digestibility for cattle, said Herron.
“The dairymen in the Columbia Basin are not casual farmers, they’re serious,” he said. “When they say they like it, there’s a reason.”
Sid Wavrin of Mabton, Wash., feeds triticale to his dairy cattle. He plants it as a winter crop after harvesting corn, then harvests it for silage in the spring before planting corn again.
“It works really well in our rations,” Wavrin said. “It’s a pretty major portion of my program.”
Howard Nelson, manager of member special services for Central Washington Grain Growers, contracts with growers to raise triticale, primarily for grain.
“We tell them if they grow it, we’ll provide a market for it,” he said.
Demand and usage vary each year, Nelson said. This year, triticale went into the cover crop market, some food use and chicken feed.
Tri-State Seed co-owner Craig Teel estimates roughly 30 growers produce triticale seed in the Pacific Northwest, 20 for forage seed and 10 for grain seed.
Grain farmers also see rotational benefits in using triticale, breaking the disease cycle of wheat, Herron said.
Triticale is more tolerant of diseases than wheat, without the need to spray for rust or fungus.
“It’s as close to a bulletproof plant as you can get,” Teel said.
Washington State University researcher Bill Schillinger has included winter triticale in the rotation for a long-term cropping systems study in Ritzville, Wash.
In this low-rainfall region little moisture is stored at the surface in no-till fallow. Schillinger wanted something that could be planted before the winter freeze and grow faster in the spring.
“If you plant winter triticale early, it will produce considerably more grain biomass than early-seeded winter wheat,” Schillinger said. “If you plant late, you get the same amount of grain biomass as early-planted wheat.”
Schillinger hopes to see farmers try triticale in the Horse Heaven Hills, where they often have trouble with early seeding due to dry conditions. He advises trying 50-100 acres first.
“Make your no-till fallow and if we have a wet year — it rains in the summer — plant your wheat early,” he said. “If not, dust in your triticale on Oct. 15.”
Lack of insurance
If triticale is versatile, easy-to-grow and drought-tolerant, why aren’t more farmers growing it?
The answer comes down to two words: crop insurance.
Triticale acreage fluctuates so much because of the lack of federal crop insurance for it, Nelson, of Central Washington Grain Growers, said. When faced with a choice, many farmers grow wheat, the mainstay of Eastern Washington, because they can obtain crop insurance for it.
“If we could get some growers together to put some pressure on (the USDA Risk Management Agency) to get crop insurance, that would be the biggest thing we could do to benefit triticale production,” Nelson said. “If we had crop insurance, the acreage of triticale would skyrocket.”
Jo Lynne Seufer, risk management specialist at the RMA office in Spokane, said the agency considered crop insurance for triticale several years ago. At the time, it was determined not to be feasible, Seufer said, but the agency may take another look at some point.
Farmers interested in insuring their triticale should contact their local USDA service center about the Non-Insurance Assistance Program, Seufer said. The agency uses NAP participation to gauge farmer interest in crops such as triticale, Seufer said.
Besides insurance concerns, many farmers are leery because of perceived similarities to rye, a noxious weed, Shawver said. But triticale doesn’t grow continuously, as does rye, he added.
Shawver said he plans to continue raising triticale, particularly on his lighter, sandier soils, as long as he can find someone to grow it for.
“There’s not a whole lot of options for us in this dryland area,” he said. “Triticale gives me another option besides wheat, white or red, that I can grow here.”