Researchers explore options for profitable rotation crop
By STEVE BROWN
MOUNT VERNON, Wash. -- Small grains have primarily been grown in Western Washington in rotation to break disease cycles and to improve soil quality.
Now researchers at Washington State University's research and extension center in Mount Vernon are looking for ways to make grain crops more profitable for the region's growers.
During a recent walk through the facility's test plots, graduate research assistant Karen Hills described some of her work.
"Winter wheat is good for this area, and there's already lots of conventional wheat," she said. "We're testing conventional practices in an organic setting."
Winter wheat in particular fits into an organic scheme because of its weed competitiveness and early harvest.
Protein tends to be the limiting factor in producing high-quality organic winter wheat for bread, but top-dressing with an organic-approved nitrogen fertilizer at the boot stage brought protein levels up by 1 to 2 percent, Hills said.
WSU wheat breeder Steve Jones said having a high-quality organic wheat could help generate a decentralized supply chain involving growers, millers and bakers.
"We're not looking to put the Palouse out of business," he said. "We're looking to meet local demands."
Hills said a related project involves surveying the 19 counties of Western Washington to answer several questions:
* Which types of bakers are most open to using regionally produced wheat and flour?
* How do bakers define "local?"
* What are the barriers to a regional supply chain?
* What is the potential for developing that supply chain?
Trials at the WSU farm and at a farm in nearby La Conner tested wheat with an application rate of 30 pounds of a 7-2-2 blended fertilizer per acre in the early spring and at rates from zero to 80 pounds at boot stage. Results at the two sites showed protein increased from between 11.49 and 12.02 percent to between 12.35 and 13.5 percent for the plots receiving 60 pounds per acre at the boot stage. Increases in protein were insignificant beyond that rate.
No significant change in yield was noted among the nitrogen application rates.
Graduate research assistant Jeffrey Endelman is working to select barley varieties that will succeed in the maritime microclimates of Western Washington.
Trials of spring and winter barley lines were conducted on the Mount Vernon research farm and in the fields of cooperating farmers in Lynden and Coupeville, using both organic and conventional practices.
Two winter varieties developed at Oregon State University were tested. Strider yielded 2.6 tons per acre at Mount Vernon in 2010, and Alba yielded 3.3 tons.
Several varieties of spring barley are suitable for feed. Bob, Champion and Baronesse yielded 2.8 to 3.2 tons at Mount Vernon. The semi-dwarf BCD47 yielded 3.5 tons and stood out for its resistance to lodging and stripe rust.
The spring malting varieties AC Metcalfe, Harrington and CDC Copeland all had good agronomic performances, according to a WSU Extension report.
Hull-less spring and winter barleys, which can be marketed as food crops, proved to be good performers but are not commercially available.
Results also showed that varieties developed under conventional practices are also suitable for organic production.