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Looking for a fourth crop to your rotation?

Pollinator-friendly buckwheat shows value in corn-soybean-wheat rotation

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In his search for a fourth crop, Henry Denotter, a Kingsville-area grain grower, has turned his attention to buckwheat — a long-established but comparatively unpopular grain now used predominantly in cover cropping.

Why it matters: Diversity in crop rotation is a critical part of environmental sustainability, as well as a farm’s economic longevity. Finding a reliable cover crop that can also be sold could better serve both purposes.

Now growing his fifth crop, Denotter has found success in marketing the specialty grain, as well as improving field growing conditions.

Buckwheat, as described by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, is a fast-growing summer annual with broad, heart-shaped leaves and white flowers.

Henry Denotter in one of his buckwheat fields. His 2020 crop was halfway through its growing period as of Aug. 27.
photo: Matt McIntosh

It takes about five weeks from planting to flower for the first time, and about nine weeks before it can be harvested. The crop will continue flowering and setting seed until it is killed by frost or some other means.

The crop is most commonly used as a cover crop for weed suppression and green manure. It can also be used as a component of livestock feeds, though it’s not a preferred food source for many farm animals.

The amino acid composition within buckwheat grains includes lysine, which provides a comparatively complete protein compared to other cereals. This makes it a good candidate for specialty grain markets.

Market opportunity

OMAFRA lists Japan and other Pacific Rim countries as presenting the most lucrative market opportunities for quality, large-seeded buckwheat, but Denotter has found success with an Ontario processor milling grains for the gluten-free market.

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High-quality buckwheat (containing sufficient levels of germ) are required for milling, but Denotter says sourcing high-quality seed can be challenging as well as expensive.

“You can’t just go get seed. For this year we had already ordered seed in December,” he says. “This is the most expensive year because they bought new seed.”

At 45 to 50 pounds per acre, Denotter uses one 2000-lb. bulk seed bag to plant 200 acres. That amount of new seed this year cost $1,500. Buckwheat sent for milling also needs to be very dry, which Denotter says often incurs additional drying costs. Transporting the crop to his buyer in Lindsay adds transportation expenses as well.

These and other factors might not make buckwheat a major money maker, but Denotter says it hasn’t been a net loss either. The fact that it makes some money and fits within his crop rotation schedule are critical reasons why he continues experimenting with the crop.

“Ideally we want to grow four different crops in three crop years. If I can, I try to keep that 200 acres in the rotation,” says Denotter.

Environmental benefits

One of Denotter’s overarching production goals is to reduce herbicide use. He says the thick canopy and fast growth of buckwheat comes in handy in this regard, though not necessarily every year.

The crop also produces a corkscrew-like taproot which, while not large, can reach the subsoil. This draws phosphorus to the surface making it more available for subsequent crops.

Henry Denotter has partnered with an apiary to set hives in his fields. A total of 177 hives are distributed at various locations around his 200 buckwheat acres.
photo: Matt McIntosh

His buckwheat fields are a hive of activity, too. Pollinators love buckwheat, and Denotter has partnered with an apiary to populate his fields with honeybee hives.

“We have 177 hives. Almost a hive to the acre. It’s good for us because it pollinates the crop, and they get to harvest buckwheat honey,” says Denotter.

“It’s a very pollinator-friendly crop.”

Production strategies

Denotter seeds buckwheat into wheat stubble between the first parts of July and August. Repeated trials show shorter wheat stubble is more conducive to earlier growth. More uniform chaff dispersal via an improved distributor on their combine also prevents chaff tunnels from emerging in the crop.

“We noticed if we didn’t give it competition, it grows a lot faster. In two to three weeks there’s reasonable growth,” says Denotter. “We use an air seeder because I want it to grow.”

Harvesting buckwheat requires that it be dead and dry. Harvesting too green will quickly clog a combine.

Buckwheat features small, semi-twisted taproots that are effective at retrieving nutrients from deeper in the soil profile.
photo: Matt McIntosh

OMAFRA resources indicate this can be achieved via swathing or desiccation, though the former is preferable since the latter can weaken stem strength and contribute to lodging. However, Denotter says desiccation is a time-flexible option that works well in his farm’s production strategy.

The threat posed by volunteer buckwheat the following growing season also means Denotter prefers to follow the crop with corn rather than soybeans.

“You’ll get volunteers all year. It will just keep flowering and dropping seed…. It’s less of an issue in a corn crop” he says.

“We did one field in soybeans last year and had volunteer issues. We sprayed with Roundup and it wasn’t really a big deal, but that kind of defeats the purpose because you’re adding a spray.”

Denotter says buckwheat has grown on him as a viable fourth crop, although he continues to evaluate it.

About the author

Contributor

Matt McIntosh

Matt is a freelance writer based between Essex County and Chatham-Kent. He is interested in all things scientific, as well as rock n' roll, hunting and history. He also works with his parents on their sixth-generation family farm.

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