ROCK SPRINGS, Pa. — Pennsylvania is well-positioned to take advantage of the organic poultry market, but the state needs to import a lot of organic corn and soybeans to feed those chickens.
That situation creates an opportunity for small grain growers, Paul Patterson, a Penn State poultry nutritionist, said Tuesday during the small grains field day at the Russell E. Larson Agricultural Research Center.
Pennsylvania uses its own corn by December and has to import corn until the next harvest. “If locally produced is important, small grains could help with that,” Patterson said.
In 2012, the National Organic Standards Board allowed farmers to feed a certain percentage of synthetic methylamine, one of two crucial amino acids for poultry. The chemical is a limiting factor in egg size and helps get layers to produce commercial-size eggs quickly, he said.
The standards board has since reduced the amount of allowed synthetic methylamine, and there is talk that the board could eliminate the synthetic entirely by 2017.
“That’s a real challenge for us,” Patterson said.
Without synthetic methylamine, nutritionists would have to increase the protein content of feed so much that a lot of nitrogen would go to waste and end up in the manure, he said.
Triticale, hull-less oats and hull-less barley have much higher methylamine contents than corn, which could make the small grains an economical alternative, Patterson said.
“We buy corn for energy, primarily,” not for the methylamine, he said.
The small grains can cause sticky feces, a problem for both manure management and chick health, though this can be overcome by adding enzymes to the feed to help birds break down the grain fiber, Patterson said.
“Birds like these small grains. They do very well on them,” he said.
Using small grains could also be a cheaper replacement for soy meal, though this might be difficult for the organic and natural market because of the small volume of these grains processed in the state without hexane, Patterson said.
Organic soybeans have to be full- or high-fat, whereas small grains would avoid the extra fat content, he said.
Triticale has a number of other advantages. The plant uses a lot of phosphorus and potassium, so triticale-fed chickens’ manure can make a great fertilizer. The grain also has half the gluten of wheat, making triticale more digestible, Patterson said.
Winter triticale offers good weed control, a particular benefit to organic producers who have fewer weed control options than conventional farmers, he said.
Diluting feed with small grains can change the color of the egg yolk. That difference can be averted with other feed additives, Patterson said.
In another presentation at the field day, Penn State entomologist John Tooker said cereal leaf beetle has been the biggest small grain pest he has seen this year.
The beetle is primarily a pest in wheat and oats, and is rare in rye and barley, Tooker said.
At a farm in Washington County, Md., Tooker found a huge infestation of cereal leaf beetles. With a population of about one larva per tiller, Tooker expects he ruined a pair of jeans walking through that field.
That is because cereal leaf beetles pile their feces on their back to protect themselves from being eaten, Tooker said.
The beetles feed on the flagleaf. An infestation is often diagnosed while driving by in the truck because the field looks white.
“At that point, you can’t do anything. You’ve already lost that field,” Tooker said.
The beetles are best caught when they are orange eggs, he said.
Cereal leaf beetles arrived in 1930s or 1940s from the Middle East, and they are primarily controlled with a parasitic wasp that the USDA imported to control them.
The beetle seems to have been resurging in the past few years. Tooker offered two hypotheses about why that might be.
The first is the predator-prey cycle in which wasp populations would drop off after a decline in beetle populations, allowing the beetle populations to rise again.
The second is that insecticides may have knocked back the wasp populations, he said.
As for pests as a whole this spring, “they’ve been pretty mild as far as I’ve heard,” Tooker said.
Tooker also showed off a trial comparing pest problems in wheat monocultures with mixed wheat varieties planted together.
The field trials are based on earlier greenhouse research that showed there were fewer aphids on a potted wheat plant when surrounded by four wheat plants of a different variety, he said.
If farmers can control pest problems by doing something as simple as planting mixed varieties, that might be an easy and cost-effective practice. Mixed pollen also has the potential to produce larger seeds, he said.
“What we’ve found so far has been promising,” Tooker said.
The diverse plots yielded 6 percent more than the monocultures and had lower pest populations in the first year of the ongoing study, he said.
All of the wheat varieties in the trial have midrange maturity. If the varieties have different maturities, it might be difficult to time head scab treatments, Tooker said.