Grain Husbandry and Wide Spacing
‘Wheat’s worst enemy is another wheat plant.’ 1869
The beneficial results of wide spacing in grain crops are great indeed! Here in our own backyard, the Heritage Grain Conservancy conducted SARE-funded organic wheat trials at UMass and at partnering farms over four years from 2008 to 2012. Not only did we trial and select hundreds of almost-extinct landrace wheats for local adaptability, but we conducted spacing trials to compare the health and yield of landrace and modern wheats at various spacings.
The fields were cover cropped the season before, enriched with minerals and under sown with clover to suppress weeds. Wheat seeds were spaced 12”, 10”, 8”, 6” and 4” apart in 3 replicated plots. After analysis of the results at the end of the season, we discovered that wider spacing produced higher yield and more robust plants with less disease, especially in the heritage wheat plots.
The results of our trials are as follows:
12” – (5 lbs per acre) – Extensive tillering with large 10” long, fat seed heads, almost no disease, but also about 25% of the seedheads were short and stunted. The plant kept growing and putting out new tillers until it was mature. 12” spacing is excellent for seedsaving of the dominant seed heads to generate robust new strains. Extensive root systems reached out to lower levels of soil, finding moisture that enabled the plant to survive drought, and anchoring it during periods of heavy rainfall. No lodging occured.
10” – (7.5 lbs per acre) – Less tillers, slight balancing out of the large to small seedhead proportions.
8” – (11 lbs per acre) – The optimal spacing for field production with evenly sized heads, minimal disease and highest yield/seed weight.
6” – (20 lbs per acre) – The wheat plants were shorter with fewer seed heads.
4” – (40 lbs per acre) Wheat plants were at least a foot shorter, lacked access to sunlight due to crowding and had the highest level of fusarium due to lack of air flow. Greatest lodging.
To understand the significance of these results, it is important to know that heritage (landrace) wheats produce extensive tillers in fertile soil, however modern wheats are bred for few tillers and short stubby roots so that they do not collapse (lodge) under intensive agrochemical applications.
Modern wheat did not put out additional tillers at any spacing and were lower yielding at the wide 12” to 8” spacing than the heritage wheat. Under the modern spacing of 75 lbs per acre (30 seeds per square foot), the disease level was similar to the 4” spacing of heritage wheat. Seedheads were consistently the smallest. Woody stalks on short stocky modern plants prevented lodging and the root systems was the smallest of all. There is about 500% greater leaf surface area in the heritage wheats. The heritage wheats are powered by sunlight, but the modern wheats, bred with less leaf surface area and stubby roots, are dependent on synthetic fertilizers to survive and are powered by petroleum.
Wide spacing promotes extensive roots systems for better nutrient uptake, developing roots more fully, enhancing nutrient uptake, nourishing taller plants for increased photosynthesis that imparts richer flavor. Taller plants with greater photosynthesis have richer flavor and more phytonutrients.
Climate resilience and fertility trials of heritage vs modern wheats
Ancient emmer and einkorn exhibited stable higher yields and robust resilience under stressed conditions, whereas the modern wheat had the lowest yields and weaker plants. The heritage wheat was more resilient than the modern but less resilient than the ancient hulled wheats.
Historic Research in Wide Spacing
Fascinated by my ‘discovery’ of the value of wide spacing, I researched the matter and learned that 1800s grain research reported similar results in their trials, and promoted wide spacing of wheat. This important knowledge has been almost forgotten, as have the superior seeds. Our experiment results are confirmed by an experiment on wheat seeding rates published by the USDA in 1869 with Tappahannock (aka Red Lamas) wheat:
Landrace wheat at 12” spacing produces over 40 tillers per plant. Each clump grows from one seed.
- 14 lbs per acre planted / 3,456 lbs harvested / highest quality ever seen
Drilled September 22, 1868, on rich, well-drained clay soil, at the rate of one peck (14 lbs) to the acre. This rate yielded fifty-two bushels per acre. The grain was superior to any other wheat heretofore grown in the county. It weighed sixty-four pounds per measured bushel.
- 54 lbs per acre planted / 2,299 lbs harvested / superior quality
Broadcast on the same date on similar soil at the rate of one bushel per acre. This yielded thirty-eight bushels per acre, weighing sixty and one half pounds per bushel. It was superior to ordinary varieties.
- 108 lbs per acre planted / 873.75 lbs harvested / good quality
Broadcast on the same date on similar soil at the rate of two bushels per acre. It yielded at the rate of fifteen bushels per acre, each weighing fifty-eight and one fourth pounds per bushel. The grain was the same quality as the best summer varieties.
It will be noticed in this experiment that the lightest seeding rate not only produced the largest yield of grain, but also the finest quality and by far the heaviest in weight.
In 1868, Mr. J.P. Nelson sowed 11 lbs of wheat evenly on one acre. He reported, ‘The wheat grew luxuriantly beyond anything I ever saw, at least 40 stems each with good heads from one root.’ Although the seeding was excessively light compared to typical 50 lb rates of today, the yield was quite above average. A lighter seeding rate not only gave the largest yield, but the finest quality. ‘It was by far the heaviest in weight and had the least disease.’ Department of Seed. Washington DC, Frederick Watts, Commissioner of Agriculture. 1869
The recommended seeding rate in 1869 is consistent with the results of our research today. 11 lbs per acre is a spacing of about 8” between each seed. Specific seeding rate recommendations vary from variety to variety, therefore we advise that each farmer conduct on-farm trials to determine optimal seed rate for a variety according to his or her soil and fertility management practices, and to select for preferred traits.
Regarding seeding rate, Vilmorin, France’s master seedsman in the late 1800s, reports:
‘Among many experiments we have made on this subject, we will mention one that is conclusive. In a field of good soil under ordinary conditions of wheat culture, we planted a winter wheat in the month of October in four plots of equal extent. One of them that served as comparison, had 180 liters of seed per hectare (2.47 acres), while others received only half, the third and the sixth seed to the first, that is to say respectively 90, 60 and 30 liters. We found at harvest, the yield of straw and grain increased as the rate was more lightly seeded. Not only the performance of the last at 30 liters was the greatest, but the grain was the best and heaviest at the same volume. Later in season, it can be sown thicker. Size or fineness of grain must also be considered. Experience is the best as a guide, but it must be informed by thinking and reasoning.’
The seeding rate of wheat sown by one farmer cannot be a practical guideline for another unless the variety, soil and the time of seeding is the about same. Since kernels of wheat vary in weight and size, the number of grains in a pound will vary. A liter measures volume, so it is difficult to know exactly Vilmorin’s weight. Each variety has a difference density. Vilmorin’s recommended seeding rate for his variety is about 15 lbs per acre.
What is Heritage (Landrace) Wheat?
Landraces are pre-industrial domesticated plants or animals that have been maintained by traditional farmers in low-input, variable fields over generations so as to evolve a high level of local adaptability and survival mechanisms. In contrast modern cultivars are developed by scientific breeding with modern farming methods for conventional high-input farming. Landrace cereals, legumes and vegetables populations have been selected and saved by farmers for thousands of years since the dawn of agriculture. The popular definition of ‘heirloom’ as a variety that was grown over 50 years ago forgets the long history of our ancient landrace food crops. Landraces evolved long before industrial breeding for global markets favored uniformity, appearance and shelf-life.
Because landrace wheat was cultivated generations before the chemical soil amendments and pesticide spraying were introduced in the twentieth century, how do we grow them? What can we learn from the traditional wheat growing methods?
Good grain husbandry enhances the ecological dynamics between the interdependent soil, seed and human systems.
Living Soil enriched with compost and minerals in a rotation of vegetables and cover crops, gives wheat the balanced fertility it needs. A vital soil system nourishes larger roots that reach lower to find soil moisture to avoid heat stress and stabilize the plant in heavy rain. Robust plants get less disease.
Wider Spacing for Seed-Saving and Higher Yield – Awaken the full potential of the plant: Grow landraces and mixtures in living soil at 12” space (5 lbs/acre). Select a diversity of the healthiest fat seedheads to save for seed. Plant at 8” spacing (12 lbs/ acre) for field production. Broadcast clover in early spring to suppress weeds. Wide spacing nourishes deeper roots for better survival under drought, heat and rain extremes. Planting closer than 8” means fewer tillers, shorter seedheads, more disease and lower productivity.
Biodiversity and Seed-Saving – Selective seed-saving has been the responsibility of farmers since the dawn of agriculture. This knowledge, however, is almost forgotten.
Landrace wheats are genetically diverse populations selected by traditional farmers over millennia to be well adapted, and were grown in mixtures of diverse genotypes. As farmers rediscover the power of seed-saving at wide spacing, new climate-resilient locally-adapted landraces for organic farms can emerge. These are the seeds that can feed us as we face unprecedented climate weather extremes!
For heritage wheat seeds adapted to New England
organic conditions, see: growseed.org.
copyright 2014 Eli Rogosa,
Heritage Grain Conservancy