Co-Innovation, Intercropping, & Perennial Grains with Dr. Garett Heineck

Palouse wheat fields.

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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. If you enjoy the WSU Wheat Beat podcast, do us a favor and subscribe on iTunes or your favorite podcast app and leave us a review so others can find the show too.

[ Music ]

Drew Lyon: My guest today is Dr. Garett Heineck. Garett is a USDA-ARS Cropping Systems agronomist in the Northwest Sustainable Agroecosystems Research Unit and the station 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’ll be adding his expertise to a diverse team of aerospace researchers working together to improve the sustainability and profitability of agroecosystems throughout PNW dryland. Hello, Garrett.

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

Drew Lyon: Good to have you. Say you were on almost a year ago, I think, and I’m wondering how you’re fitting in with your new research unit and what facets of research have you decided? I think we talked last time about where you might be going. So maybe bring us up to speed on to where you actually are going.

Dr. Garett Heineck: That sounds great. Yeah, I can speak to that a little bit. So our unit was within the last year or so, was filled with four new scientists. And we come from a very diverse array of backgrounds. So my current role as the research agronomist is to focus on alternative cropping systems. But we also have remote sensing specialists and air quality specialists and a data modeler. And so to bring us all together took quite, quite a bit of time, right? We needed to essentially collaborate for the first three or four months to decide on what kind of research we needed to focus on and then try to write all of our ideas down and try to kind of knit them together. And you can kind of think about that as writing a big grant in the ARS we call it, a five year plan. But that’s what we’ve been working on for the last… about the last year, trying to get that all wrapped up. And we’re at the point now where we have our plan approved. It’s unlike a grant in that we don’t have to apply for it, and then it’s not a competitive process per se, but it does need to be reviewed by other ARS scientists. And so we’ve just recently gotten it approved and so I guess now with me sitting here talking with you, I am I’m able to speak about these different facets that my subject objectives focus on and they focus really on co-innovation, the implementation of intercropping — so some economics there and some soil microbiological work — and then also perennial grains. So those are the three things that I’d really like to focus on today.

Drew Lyon: Okay. So you mentioned co-innovation and it’s kind of a term used a bit in Extension. So I’m wondering, ARS is typically, at least in my mind, a research unit not really involved, per se, in Extension. Why have you decided to make, I think the Farmer’s Network —  WSU’s Farmer Network — is one of the things you’re going to co-innovate with — why did you bring that into your sub-objectives?

Dr. Garett Heineck: Yeah, that’s a great observation, Drew. ARS normally doesn’t engage in outreach and Extension per se. Yeah, we’re a research organization, however, we’re also our NSAR unit, our research unit is part of the National LTAR, that’s a Long term Agroecological Research Program. And that that spans across the entire country. And our particular LTAR is about 2.6 million acres and that’s a lot of ground to cover. And so in order to serve that large area and do research across it effectively, we really and the LTAR itself is more interested in innovation as a whole. But just speaking to our Cook Agronomy Farm, we needed to really identify and create a multifaceted outreach and engagement program that is going to include strong collaborations between the LTAR, which is the ARS side. And then, as you mentioned, the WSU Farmers Network, which is already in place, which is why it was identified early on as something that we really needed to leverage, and that’s going to allow us to have co-innovation events become possible across the three AEC’s, our agroecological classes. So you could think of like Pullman is our high rainfall zone, west of there as a transitional zone maybe a by the Wilke farm is is a little bit wetter and then further west into Lind and the Horse Heaven is our grain fallow AEC. So we have to cover all three of those and we need to be able to engage farmers at all three of those locations. So that it’s going to include collaborations with research centers. That’s right. Including the Wilke farm, Pendleton, Lind Dryland Research Farm. But the network also needs to reinvigorate other partnerships that we already have and those can be partnerships with individual producers or with projects such as the Roulston Project, which the NSAR Unit or past members of the unit have actually worked to create. And if you can kind of the first thing that I thought of when when I was trying to think about how I would conduct research across that scale was, well, my gosh, how am I going to collaborate with all of these people and give them enough of my attention? I’m not an Extension specialist. I’m not a sociologist. I’m an agronomist. And so that being said, we needed to really reach out and start talking around and figure out who can help us with this. And we ended up coming with some great partners, and I’m just really happy to talk about them for a minute. For one, the WSU senior Extension coordinator, Carol McFarland, is now leading up the WSU Farmers Network and she’s absolutely key in getting these co-innovation events not only organized but also leading them. I don’t, so say you have a group of farmers in the room, some of them are going to be more talkative than others. Some of them are more quiet, but they all have good ideas. And she really specializes in being able to engage everyone and get ideas from everyone and get those on the table. And then we’re also working with JD Wulfhorst over at the University of Idaho, and he’s really an expert in recording observations that are made from people, right? He’s a sociologist. So how can we record what people are talking about? How can we record their thoughts and quantify it? So not only measuring past research success, but also measuring what needs to be done in the future is really a focus of this co-innovation collaboration. And I think this program in the end will allow us to evaluate, like I said, past research success and measure and document interest for future research, but also from the ARS side, I think what we can really bring to the table is some strong on-farm research methodology that can be spread across the LTAR.

Drew Lyon: Okay. Yeah, I think Dr. Haiying Tao kinda got this Farmer’s Network started and then she departed a year or so ago and with the vision of really working with growers. And so it’s good to hear that your unit will be picking up some of that. And because it sounds like a great way to do both research and extension, they can just co-mingle and co-innovate together.

Dr. Garett Heineck: Yes, we hope to support each other.

Drew Lyon: Yup. Excellent. So you mentioned Intercropping and a little while ago we had Dr. Isaac Madsen on as a guest talking about canola oilseeds and he mentioned pea-ola and he mentioned working with you on that. So I wonder if you can tell us a little bit about your new intercropping research, maybe pea-ola’s part of it, maybe there’s other intercrops you’re looking at. Can you tell us a little bit about that work?

Dr. Garett Heineck: Yes. Thank you for mentioning Isaac Madsen and also mentioning Haiying Tao. A lot of what I’m doing is not new or I’m just piggybacking on what others had already started or already doing in order to kind of just make it a little bit stronger or come at it from a little bit different approach. And so currently we are actually doing our intercropping research in the Palouse. It’s focused currently for the present just at the Palouse’s Conservation Field Station. And this is a graduate student led project by Ph.D. student Katie Smith. Myself, I am focusing on the agronomics and the agronomics will be mostly looking at the land equivalency ratio, yields, how the crop grows the two species grow together and the species that we’re trying out are spring crops. So we’re looking at spring canola, spring garbanzo’s and peas and so we’re going the canola and the peas, so the pea-ola, Isaac’s talked about that quite a bit, but the thing that I’m not sure if I’ve ever read about is the peas or the sorry, the garbanzo is and the canola, which we could call I guess garb-ola [Drew chuckles] and well my initial observations have been I mean I seem to work quite well this year was a little bit of a different year. So we’ll keep before I say too much about how it worked out, I might make sure we get the numbers in and replicate the trials a few more times, but I mean, I’m happy to keep moving this project forward as far as intercropping goes and then also focusing not just on the Palouse, but also pushing further west and using winter crops as well. The graduate student is Katie Smith. She’s focusing on kind of a microbiological portion of the intercropping system. So when you have canola alone versus legumes, what’s going on in the soil, both in the rhizosphere, the soil right around the root, and also the rhizoplane, the soil that’s just connected to the plant at the root tissue itself. And so we’ll be going after those questions by several different means, both with genetic sequencing and then also PLFA to see what kind of microbes are hanging around. And then also we’ll be following all of our trials up with a winter wheat crop to see how this fits into the typical cropping system sequence. So we’re hoping to gain just a sneak peek at how we can do this intercropping in the high rainfall zone. And then, of course, I would love to keep working with those producers that Isaac’s been working with, especially if they’re interested in working with the Farmer’s Network.

Drew Lyon: Okay. Isaac explained this in his podcast, but I think it might be worth doing it again because may not be totally straightforward. The land equivalency ratio. Could you explain that and why that’s important for this intercropping work?

Dr. Garett Heineck: Absolutely. I just kind of dropped that in there. I can do a little bit better job of explaining it. So the land equivalency ratio is a way of measuring intercropping performance versus mono crop performance. So let’s say you had a field of peas, field of canola, and let’s say that that field was equal to one acre. You could take the yield of both of those and see how much you yielded. And that could be, let’s say, one x tons or one x pounds when you grew them in intercropping on the same area of land we would say, what is the x rate of yield, right? Is it 0.5 x or is it maybe 1.5 x yield of the amount of crop? And that’s the interesting thing about intercropping is sometimes we get actual higher yields when we combine the two species on the same plot of land. And that’s really the interest– one of the interesting things about Intercropping that Isaac has observed.

Drew Lyon: Okay, so the goal would be to try to, I think you call it, over yield or yield more that do a one point something x.

Dr. Garett Heineck: Exactly. You’re going to go over the one.

Drew Lyon: Okay.

Dr. Garett Heineck: Exactly.

Drew Lyon: Okay. Last time you were on the podcast, we talked a little bit about I think it was your work and Ph.D. on on a perennial crop and you seemed a bit lukewarm on that whole topic, but then I heard you mention it here just now on one of the sub objectives you want to focus on. So I wonder if you can tell us why you decide to shift gears a little bit there and concentrate a bit on perennial crops for the for Eastern Washington?

Dr. Garett Heineck: Yeah, I was a little lukewarm on the perennial grains facet of research when I first got here. I just didn’t know enough about the region, if people had tried it already, and if so, how successful it had been or how successful it could be? And after talking around to a lot of producers and and other researchers, I couldn’t help myself, you know, kind of be drawn towards the perennial grains research in this case, the perennial grain that I’ll be focusing on is kernza. That’s thinopyrum intermedium. It looks an awful lot like tall wheat grass, which I think is slightly thinopyrum ponticum. And that’s almost it seems to be kind of naturalized as I drive around the state. I see it all over the place in ditches and things. And so they do look similar, but the kernza is bred for grain. You can use it as a forage as well, but it’s been domesticated directly from an undomesticated grass species that was originally used for forage. So I think I will start off explaining the reasons why I’m doing it. With a little disclaimer, I think this project really is a bit of a long shot for the Palouse, right? We don’t know anything about it. We don’t know how it’s going to yield and we don’t know how we’re going to market it if it does yield well. That being said, I really think based on the interest that I’ve seen, it’s really worth a shot. I think we need to give it a try and give it a try for several years before we make any kind of conclusion as to its viability. So currently I have three locations of Kernza being grown and I’m using, it’s called the modified staggered start design, but it’s really just trying to disentangle the effect of stand age and time simultaneously. So it’s successive plantings over many years and those three locations that these plantings are going to be done at are the Horse Heaven Hills in the super dry region of the LTAR, up at Wilke Farm which is our more transitional zone, and then at the PCFS Farm in the higher rainfall zone. And so just the first seeding was done in this spring, but we’ll be doing of course more seedings and next two years and then of course collecting yield data from there. Besides that, I’m part of a national group that’s doing some variety testing. So looking at an unimproved intermediate wheat grass versus kernza bread at the Land Institute in Kansas, and then also Kernza Bread in Minnesota, which would be Minnesota Clearwater, their latest release. So that should really give us a taste of what these different genetic backgrounds can do in our environment. Besides that, we’ll need to do… I’ll be leading research and herbicide screening and other basic economics. And this all this research should really give us with after maybe three or four years, a good insight into the practical viability of getting this on to the landscape and what producers can expect to see. But that’s really not speaking at all to the economics side of things. This is really a specialty crop. And although if you go on The Land Institute’s website, you’ll see that Kernza is being sold all over the place. Specialty bakers, brewers, it’s very popular. However, those are still very niche markets. And so I would just– whenever I talk to producers and the Farmer’s Network about this, I really say before we do anything on a large scale, we need to pin down first year expectations for yield. It’s not wheat or annual wheat. It will not be annual wheat any time in the near future, maybe one day, but not in the foreseeable future. And you need to have an outlet to sell it. And so although this research is very exciting and I’m just very happy to get back into perennial grains, I think perennial grasses are a fabulous system to study, species to study. I just want to just move forward very cautiously and slowly as we unravel the potential of this perennial grain in eastern Washington.

Drew Lyon: Okay. Well, you know, as a weed scientist, I’ve always been intrigued with perennial crops as part of a crop rotation, because the weed spectrum in a perennial crop is can be quite different from that in annual cropping. So by rotating with perennials and annuals, you can address some weed problems you can’t do when all you do is grow annuals. Alfalfa for Italian ryegrass control is one example. People who have had really bad Italian ryegrass will plant alfalfa for several years and pretty much eliminate, you know, they can just cut it before seed production and really drain it. But, you know, finding that crop that you can make some money on will grow and yield is critical to that so I’ll be interested in watching how that works over the next several years. I think it’s a can be a very exciting thing, but as you said, a wait and see. Don’t jump in with both feet. Well, Garrett, I appreciate you taking some time to visit with me today about your your program. It sounds like you’re doing some really interesting work. I think growers will be very interested in watching what comes of it. I know we’re in the process of trying to hire a new dryland agronomist out at Lind to replace Bill Schillinger, who retired earlier this year. And I would see that as a real natural collaborator for you, hopefully in the not too distant future.

Dr. Garett Heineck: Yes, I hope to work with whoever replaces that position very, very closely. I think that’s going to be a great collaboration and as well as anyone else, farmers or professors alike. I think that I’m very open to working with with anyone at any kind of dryland research. So just shoot me an email or if you have my number, shoot me a text or give me a call.

Drew Lyon: Okay. And we’ll get those that information in our show notes or our listeners can find your contact information easily.

Dr. Garett Heineck: Thank you.

Drew Lyon: Thanks, Garett.

[ Music ]

Drew Lyon: 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 @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.

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