May/June 2022 - 12

Stands of different species the researchers studied for their ecosystem services. Their findings will allow growers to plant a more diverse mix
of plants on the sides of their farmland. Shown here from left to right are cup plant, alfalfa, Kernza, and silflower. Photos: Ebony Murrell
Perennial grains as crop field borders
Study looks at which
grains promote best
By Kaine Korzekwa
lanting beneficial plants next to
gardens and crop fields large and
small has been a standard practice
for decades, even centuries. The plants
provide what are known as ecosystem
services. These include attracting
pollinators and preventing weeds.
In the grassland regions of North
America, prairie mixtures are thought
to be the best at providing these
services. However, the quality of
some of the services they provide can
be unpredictable. This is because it is
difficult to tell exactly what plants in
the mix will grow well.
Ebony Murrell and her team
decided to test five perennial grains as
alternatives to a nine-species prairie
mix. They studied Kernza, silflower,
cup plant, sainfoin and alfalfa.
Murrell presented at the annual
American Society of Agronomy,
Soil Science Society of America and
Crop Science Society of America
(ASA-CSSA-SSSA) meeting in Salt
Lake City last year.
at five
ecosystem services. These included
how many and what kind of
pollinators the plants attracted, as
well as biomass production, weed
suppression, and forage quality.
The specific characteristics of a
plant can make it better or worse at
providing certain ecosystem services.
For example, the shape and color of a
flower can be more attractive to local
pollinators. Or a plant can produce a
lot of roots near the soil surface that
prevent weeds from growing. Large
leaves of a species like cup plant may
also shade out weeds.
" I've learned in my career that
people are more interested if you have
data that shows those species can
provide a variety of services, " Murrell
said. " The goal of this project was to
quantify how well a suite of these
crops provided these services. This
allows interested growers to decide
which one(s) to plant based on their
individual needs. "
The results revealed many
important details about the services
provided by the alternatives. Murrell
says three findings rise to the top.
As the researchers predicted,
the prairie mix did provide the
best pollinator services in terms of
diversity and abundance throughout
the season.
Two of the alternatives they
studied, silflower and cup
exhibited a great balance of services.
They provide good weed suppression,
pollinator services, and forage
quantity and quality. The researchers
note that they may be the best overall
Lastly, an alternative called
sainfoin did poorly because it was not
competitive with weeds, suggesting
that in Kansas it would not serve well
as a border crop.
While it hasn't been tested, the
researchers note that these crops may
provide other services like increased
nitrogen, healthier overall soil, and
reduced erosion.
Murrell stresses that there are no
" good " or " bad " border crops because
it depends on the services needed in a
specific field.
" I don't think it's as simple as
that, " she says. " What growers elect
to plant as border crops will depend
on what services they're seeking,
their planting and harvesting
requirements, and the equipment
needed to manage the border crops,
etc. A study like this is an excellent
starting point. However, it is only
one point to consider when making
recommendations on what border
crop species to plant. "
At the end of the day, the most
Murrell adds, is to increase diversity
of plants in farming systems. She
understands how difficult this can be
for farmers. She wants to show how
planting perennial grains as border

May/June 2022

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