From Surviving to Thriving: Alternative Crop Trials with Dr. Garett Heineck

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USDA-ARS Northwest Sustainable Agroecosystems Research Unit
PNW Herbicide Resistance Initiative
The Land Institute

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Episode transcription:


Drew Lyon: Hello, welcome to the WSU Wheat Beat podcast. I’m your host, Drew Lyon, and I want to thank you for joining me as we explore the world of small grains production and research at Washington State University. In each episode, I speak with researchers from WSU and the USDA-ARS to provide you with insights into the latest research on wheat and barley production.

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My guest today is Dr. Garett Heineck. Garett is a USDA-ARS cropping systems agronomist in the Northwest Sustainable Agroecosystems Research Unit and is stationed in Prosser, Washington. He received a B.S. from the University of Wisconsin–River Falls and an M.S. and Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota in plant breeding and genetics, focusing on perennial grass seed production systems.

In his current role, he will be adding his expertise to a diverse team of ARS researchers working together to improve the sustainability and profitability of agroecosystems throughout the PNW dryland region. Hello, Garett.

Dr. Garett Heineck: Good to be back on the show, Drew.

Drew Lyon: You know, your work reminds me of some of the work I did when I was in western Nebraska as an extension dryland cropping system specialist, so I’m always intrigued by what you’re doing. Can you kind of remind me of the projects you’re working on at this present time?

Dr. Garett Heineck: Yeah, of course. Yeah. I’ve got three broad topics that I focus on currently. The first is on-farm research methodology. So, how do we conduct research on farm with farmers? And that can mean a lot of different things, whether the farmer is actually in the driver’s seat doing the research or perhaps I’m hauling equipment out to their farm doing the research.

It’s been a passion of mine to learn and grow with farmers wherever I do research, and it’s no different here in my current role. So, that’s my first main facet.

The second is focused on perennial grains. I focus mainly on the perennial grain Kernza and hopefully I’ll be able to tell you a little bit about that during this podcast.

And the third facet is on intercropping–how we can grow two plant species together in the same field and how that might fit into our wheat-based rotation, depending on if we’re in the Palouse or if we’re in a further west county where it gets a little bit less rain. So, those are the three facets that I currently work on.

Drew Lyon: Okay. And most growers here in eastern Washington focus on wheat. That’s what they’ve grown; that’s what seems to do really well, fits our environment well. Do you measure how your different alternative crops impact wheat production?

Dr. Garett Heineck: Absolutely. It’s been interesting because I have a passion for alternative cropping systems. It’s a lot of fun, but they oftentimes aren’t going to be the things paying the bills, at least not the majority of the time. They’re interesting to study and they’re important for farmers to consider putting on their farms, but it’s often not what the main focus of their farm is going to be on.

So generally, a lot of my work is focused on cropping rotations or cropping sequences, where I’ll look at the yield of the wheat prior to planting an alternative crop and then after harvesting that alternative crop–or if it’s a cover crop, looking at what the impact is on that wheat crop. For instance, in my intercropping work, we had intercrops going in on ground that was in both spring and winter wheat at different locations, and then we followed that up with winter wheat to see the impact that that intercropping system may have on it. And so, while I won’t be going into depth on the intercropping study, that’s just one example of how I try to make sure I’m helping our farmers stay profitable in a wheat-based agroecosystem.

Drew Lyon: Okay. And I know being a weed scientist, cropping systems can be really influential on what weeds are problematic, and I know you’ve been active in the PNW Herbicide Resistance Initiative. Can you talk a little bit about how you’re involving that work in your cropping systems work?

Dr. Garett Heineck: Absolutely. The PNW Herbicide Resistance Initiative has been really, I think, a boon for my research because it gives me a reason, maybe, to study alternative crops and how that may impact weeds throughout the Pacific Northwest. For example, I’ll just use the example of the perennial grains research. We can go into others as well.

But so, when a perennial grain–a strong, competitive perennial–is planted on the Palouse landscape like Kernza, which is intermediate wheatgrass, it takes a while to get established. But after that, our annual weeds such as prickly lettuce or Italian rye, they don’t seem to compete very well with these rhizomatous perennial grasses. And so that’s been something to really–it’s of interest, I think, to the Herbicide Resistance Initiative as a whole. But also, sometimes these things don’t work out.

So, in the Horse Heaven Hills, we have the same trial going on with perennial Kernza. The downy brome there outcompetes the Kernza quite easily, and even when the plants do get established, they’re not able to compete and produce enough rhizomes to outcompete the future downy brome that may be germinating. So, you’ve got these alternative crops that may work in one space, but not in another for reasons of moisture or perhaps soil type or a multitude of factors.

But that, I think has been really a strong component of my research, and it gives some credibility to me in the alternative cropping systems experimental scheming because I can look at how do weeds respond to these different crops.

Drew Lyon: And that’s very interesting because, you know, adding a perennial to an annual cropping system can really shake up what weeds do well. But evidently, the super weed downy brome is able to hang in there, even with a perennial crop like that.

Dr. Garett Heineck: It is. I’ve talked to my cooperator up in the Horse Heaven, Garrett Moon of the Moon Family Farms, and he likens the Kernza a lot to his CRP ground and he’s like, “Well, you know, we’ll establish it and it’ll look like a mess for the first year. But after that, if you just leave it maybe two, three years down the road, it’ll start to compete with the downy brome.” And we’re like, “We’re going to have to wait a lot of years to find out if this competes at all with this nasty weed that everyone seems to be having a problem with.”

So, we’re going to keep that Kernza study going in the Horse Heaven, but I would say the trajectory is more on the downside rather than the upside in that particular region for that particular project. But there are there are other opportunities when one door closes.

Drew Lyon: Okay. Can you tell us a little bit more about your Kernza work throughout eastern Washington?

Dr. Garett Heineck: Of course, yes. I had three study sites initially, one in the Horse Heaven, one at the Wilke Farm, and then one in the Palouse at the Palouse Conservation Field Station.

I’ll start in the annual cropping zone–where we get a little bit more water, a little bit more precip, and near Pullman–and I would say that’s been very successful. I’m going to kind of preface any results by saying that we still haven’t found much of a market for Kernza and although it’s being trialed nationally and now we have an ARS national group who grows Kernza across seven different states from the Pacific Northwest all the way out to Pennsylvania, we’re still having trouble with marketing.

So, when farmers ask me to do a larger scale trial, it really needs to be–the conversation still has to start with, “Well, what are you going to do with it when you can’t sell it as a perennial grain that’s somewhat like wheat? You know, what can you feed it? What are you going to do with it?” So, that’s an important conversation to start with. And I want to just throw that on the table here.

But, on the positive side, in the Palouse, the Kernza has done incredibly well. I would say once I get the agronomics down, we’ll be able to produce Kernza as well as anyone in the Midwest and possibly even better. So as far as yields go, these are spring planted, so it goes in–sometimes half the plots go on with the spring wheat, so kind of like a nurse crop, so we could study kind of how–again, wheat-based rotation–can we grow wheat with this, at least in the first year? Half of it was without the spring wheat and the spring wheat did not outcompete the Kernza.

So, we had two different treatments, both that yielded Kernza in that second growing season. Our top treatments yielded with–it’s not like wheat, so when you harvest it and it goes into the hopper of a combine, it’s a little dirtier. But once it’s cleaned and de-hulled, if there [are] any hulls left on the seed, we were looking at between about 800 and 1,000 lbs of grain off of our higher treatments. And we’re still kind of interested in measuring how does that change over two, three, four years?

As we move further west, as it gets drier, I think our more northern counties are going to do better with Kernza–so Wilke, I think we’ll have a shot at making that work up there.

We had a few fits and starts right out of the gate with our plots up there, but this year we’re excited to take our first crop at the Wilke Farm and we’ll see how it does. It’s looking very good though.

And then the Horse Heaven, unfortunately, it’s surviving–which to its credit, it’s hard to survive in the Horse Heaven Hills–it’s a tough environment and I don’t mean that to be an insult. I think Garrett Moon would agree with that. But I would say we’re at about 10% of the yield that we found in the Palouse, maybe even a little less. So, [it is] a very low yielding area for wheat as it is, and the Kernza is even lower.

So again, the trajectory for the prospects of Kernza in the Horse Heaven–although I’m not ready to give up on it–I think the way it’s turning out is that we might have to pivot a little bit and try some new alternative crops out there, which, you know, I’m not upset about. It’s just the way research goes. And I’m excited just, you know, open up a new door and try something else.

Drew Lyon: Okay. So, some real potential, particularly in the wetter and more northern portions of eastern Washington.

Dr. Garett Heineck: I think so.

Drew Lyon: Is there some work going on on trying to utilize Kernza grain for various uses? Are you aware of anything like that? To create a market so people have something to sell.

Dr. Garett Heineck: Yes. I’m partnering with The Land Institute on this project, and they have marketing experts who help us market the grain once our farmers grow it. So, we have one farming family in the Palouse who’s going to put 20 acres in this year. And we’re excited to see once we get a little bit more volume, what we can do with it in the Pacific Northwest.

We also have a new cooperator from The Land Institute, Evan Craine, who’s going to help us hopefully find some outlets. We could use it for malting, we could use it for artisan baking. It usually has to be mixed with wheat—it doesn’t have the gluten-forming potential that our standard wheat does, but it has wheat-like properties so it can make bread, certainly can make crackers or cookies, things like that. So, there is potential there, but it needs to be developed and I think we need a bit more volume to really test how it can perform in our intermountain west region.

Drew Lyon: If growers are interested in this Kernza research, is there someplace they can go to keep up with it, both yours and maybe across the country?

Dr. Garett Heineck: That’s a great question. For now, I do not have an online outlet for this research. I think things will change once I start getting more data in and the ARS, especially, starts collaborating more with our partners at The Land Institute. I’m hoping maybe we can start putting some of our results on their website and just kind of sharing our data with them because they’re really the major driver of the marketing and outreach for this hopefully emerging perennial grain crop.

Drew Lyon: Okay, maybe we’ll put a link to The Land Institute in the show notes so listeners can go check it out.

Dr. Garett Heineck: And it’s a great website too, just to go in and see what they’re doing. There [are] all sorts of perennial crops that you can check out.

Drew Lyon: Okay, interesting. So, another crop I know you’ve been working on in north central Washington is grain sorghum. This is a crop I worked with a little bit in western Nebraska, but the elevation–we were above 4300 [feet] and the season was a little short for it, but I imagine that’s not too dissimilar from what you’re experiencing in north central Washington. Can you tell us a little bit about that work with grain sorghum?

Dr. Garett Heineck: Yeah, of course. This is a project–I do not lead this project; I’m just the agronomist who’s kind of along for the ride and I help out where I can. This is led by Ian Burke and Nick Bergmann. Of course, Ian Burke is our weed scientist at WSU.

Nick Bergmann is a theoretical human geographer. He studies communities and he studies things in a context of commons resources. And so, what that means–he’s associated with the Pacific Northwest Herbicide Resistance Initiative, and he thinks of weeds as this commons resource–and that is a whole [other] deep dive and I’m not even qualified to talk about that, I don’t think. But it is interesting to think about how communities can come around weed problems, how do they overcome that challenge?

And that’s been absolutely critical in this project to have Nick thinking about and interacting with growers on this problem and on this project, because we didn’t go in thinking, “Well, we’re going to grow some grain sorghum in north central Washington.” That wasn’t the idea. We didn’t have any ideas. The farmers chose that.

And next thing you know, we had almost 500 acres growing across three counties: Douglas, Okanogan, and Lincoln counties. So, it was really cool to see that just explode right out of the gate. So, that was a lot of fun.

Drew Lyon: You didn’t start small, did you? [laughter]

Dr. Garett Heineck: No, almost we started too big, I would say.

Drew Lyon: And what were the results of that project? Is it looking promising or not? It’s a summer crop, so summer rainfall tends to be important, and that’s not something we have commonly in this part of the world. So, how’s it going or how did it go?

Dr. Garett Heineck: I would say, overall, I would say it went a heck of a lot better than I thought it would, Drew. Did we have problems? Absolutely. There are many challenges that even if we do get a market for it will be challenging to overcome. But overall, I’d say we had eight sites and we had three or four of those that were actually quite successful in getting a crop up and getting it close to or to maturity. And some even got it out of the field, combined it, and some sold it, some have not sold it yet.

So, we’re looking at yields probably between 20 and 35 bushel. That’s an estimate from my own data taking plot by quadrant-type yields. So, the combine is going to get different numbers in that. But I’d say, in the better fields we’re at between 20 and 35 bushels an acre of sorghum, which is, you know, getting up to that 2,000-2,500 lbs range.

So, I was really excited to see that. I didn’t think–like you said, we don’t get summer rains or very little of it. And I thought this stuff was going to burn up. Quite the opposite. It used all the moisture in the top eight inches, but it just kept digging down where it could and the stuff was still green come September. That was the problem, in fact; it was too green.

Drew Lyon: That was my experience in western Nebraska. Sorghum’s drought avoidance mechanism, in the vegetative stage anyhow, is to sit and wait for it to rain. Corn would burn up; the sorghum just sits there. And then, if your season’s too short, you run out of season to make the grain. So, that was my experience and I was curious to see how it’d work here.

Having a summer crop in a rotation is really effective for managing the weeds we have in our winter cereal cropping system, so it’d be a great addition if we can find a warm-season summer crop like sorghum. And so, it’ll be interesting to see how that progresses and if the group sticks with sorghum or picks something else in future years.

Dr. Garett Heineck: I will say they are excited about it–well, generally, they were excited about it to try it again this year. So, we’ll have another 400 plus acres going in, probably in those three counties we picked. I think we picked up one more grower so we’re at nine growers and if they’re okay failing forward with us, then we’re happy to work with them.

So, we just, you know, of course, need to learn from each other and assume that things are not going to work out in the first couple of years. But it was good to see some grain being produced.

Drew Lyon: Yes, it is, I imagine. Yeah. So, what other fun crops have you been working on, alternative crops?

Dr. Garett Heineck: That is another great question. So, I kind of do some work with the [USDA] NRCS Plant Material Center and I do some cover cropping trials with them. And I’ve liked that a lot because I can see what crops–not as if from a grain production standpoint, but just what crops or what species can survive in different places.

For example, I’ll take you back to the Horse Heaven Hills where we maybe get eight inches of rain if we’re lucky. I found that millet does quite well there. Sorghum as a cover crop did quite well there. That was surprising. I didn’t think that we would get those plant species to survive. So, this year we’re doing a cropping sequence trial where we’re going from a winter wheat into an alternative warm-season grain, like sorghum or millet and food-grade teff. Teff, that’s a new one. That’s fun; from Teffco in Boise, Idaho.

And then we have a fallow control–and then we’re going to go back into winter wheat and just see, again, in this wheat-based rotation, what are the impacts with recropping these warm-season cereal crops.

Should be really fascinate[ing]. I’m excited to see how it goes. And again, as long as Garrett Moon doesn’t get tired of me and kick me off his ground, I’ll keep drilling seed in. That’s what I tell him anyways.

Drew Lyon: All right, you do some really interesting work. I like I say, it reminds me a bit of what I did, although you’re doing it on a different scale than I did a lot of my work, which I find is quite interesting.

Dr. Garett Heineck: Well, hopefully that work will be as successful, Drew. The jury’s still out on that one. [laughter]

Drew Lyon: Not everything is successful, as you mentioned. But that’s in its way a success when you can divert a grower from trying something that isn’t going to work. I guess you can say that’s success.

Garett, thanks for coming on and sharing some of your work with us. I know I’m going to stay focused and watching what you’re doing, and I’m sure growers will as well. So, [I] hope to have you on again sometime to find out how some of these interesting crops are working for you.

Dr. Garett Heineck: A pleasure, as always, Drew. Thank you.


Thanks for joining us and listening to the WSU Wheat Beat podcast. If you like what you hear don’t forget to subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast app. If you have questions or topics you’d like to hear on future episodes, please email me at drew.lyon — that’s — ( You can find us online at and on Facebook and Twitter [X] @WSUSmallGrains. The WSU Wheat Beat podcast is a production of CAHNRS Communications and the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

I’m Drew Lyon, we’ll see you next time.


The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed by guests of this podcast are their own and does not imply Washington State University’s endorsement.