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Grain varieties suitable to the backyard

One of the biggest stumbling blocks for me in growing my own grain was that I just didn't know where to start.  There are at least a dozen grains available in the grocery store, but since none of my neighbors grow any of them, I didn't know which ones are suited to my climate and to my uses.

Here's a quick rundown on the pluses and minuses of various types of grain, from the backyard perspective.  I've put the most promising varieties near the top so that you can stop reading if you get bored.

Field cornCorn is the king of high output per unit area, but low protein.  This is the only grain commonly grow in the backyard, for a good reason.  You can easily harvest corn on a small scale, picking the corn and shelling it by hand or in a hand-cranked sheller.  Corn makes up the bulk of many animal feeds and is, indeed, a cheap and easy way to start breaking your dependence on storebought feed.

Wheat
Wheat is the other primary grain that Americans eat, and you can't beat the taste.  As a backyard grain, it's harder than corn but easier than many others.  It can be used as animal feed and can also be grazed by livestock in the spring without unduly affecting your grain harvest.


OatsOats are one of the best grains, health-wise, due to their high protein content.  They are a bit more difficult than wheat since the seeds are coated in a tough hull that is difficult to remove at home, but I plan to try a hull-less oat variety that lacks that problem.  In addition to being used as human and animal food, oats were traditionally grown as a cover crop for strawberries in England.  The oats were planted in late summer to early fall between the strawberry plants, grew for a while, then were naturally killed by frost before setting seed.  The grass-like plants fell and mulched the berries --- how can you beat a mulch that spreads itself?


SoybeansSoybeans clearly aren't grains, but Gene Logsdon includes them in his book because they make up the other major portion of commercial animal feeds and are a great source of protein.  They are grown like garden beans, and can be eaten at the green stage (aka the delicious edamame you might have tried as an appetizer in a Japanese restaurant) or dried and used like soup beans.  Soybeans also make a good hay and green manure.  When feeding to animals, though, you shouldn't feed soybeans raw because the beans contain a substance that interferes with digestion and protein absorption.  As long as you roast the beans first, they are a cheap and easy way to add protein to your chickens' diets.


BuckwheatBuckwheat is only kinda-sorta a grain as well.  (It's in the smartweed family instead of the grass family.)  One of our readers suggested that we give this a shot, and I have to admit that it looks like a homestead winner.  Buckwheat is high in lysine, an amino acid that other grains lack, and is a dynamic accumulator of phosphate.  It can be planted in early summer when gaps start opening in the garden from spring crops, and the fall flowers are an excellent source of nectar for honeybees.  You can go the normal route of threshing and winnowing, or just pick a cup or two by hand in the garden.  Logsdon reports that his chickens love buckwheat.


SorghumSorghum is a grain I've never eaten but one that my neighbors actually grow.  You can grow grain sorghum (aka "milo") specifically for the edible seeds or grow sweet sorghum and use the stalks for molasses and the grain for food.  Sorghum has yields as high as corn, and is very easy to harvest for animal feed since you can just cut the entire seed head and toss it to your chickens.  Threshing is also easier than other grains --- just rub the sorghum heads between your hands and the seeds will drop right out.

Pearl millet
Millet isn't often used for human food in the U.S., but is a primary grain in northern China.  Pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum) seems to have potential for the backyard since it threshes free from the hulls naturally, and chickens can be fed a whole seed head, as with sorghum.

Rye
Rye has the most potential as a pasture plant since it is very tolerant of cold weather and will stay green all winter.  Unless you love the flavor of the grain (which I don't), there's no real reason to grow it for grain the backyard.

Barley
Barley makes good livestock feed and beer, but is also not one of the top backyard grains.

Rice
Rice is, unfortunately, a backyard loser.  The grain requires at least forty days with minimum temperatures greater than 70 degrees Fahrenheit, conditions that can be found in Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, and California, but not Virginia.

Wild rice
Wild Rice is a delicious, native North American alternative to cultivated rice.  Unfortunately, we are again outside its range.  You might try growing wild rice if you live in New England or the Midwest.


If you're interested in growing your own chicken feed, stay tuned for a later installment this week, or visit our chicken blog where we're currently beginning a rundown on making your own chicken feeds.



This post is part of our Backyard Grain Growing lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:





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You must have really been left here by aliens if you don't like rye.

I grew millet as a cover crop last winter. Big mistake. Guess what weed took over my peanuts. I bet I hand weeded them a half dozen times. Don't grow it unless you pick every seed if you don't want it hanging around.

Comment by Errol Tue Jan 26 12:11:19 2010

Good to know about millet self-seeding. That would put it lower down on the list of good grain crops...

Those aliens never fed me rye --- why would I like it? :-)

Comment by anna Tue Jan 26 13:21:43 2010

Ana,

I got my oil extractor in the mail the other day! It looks very well made and came with two big bags of canola seed. I can't wait to try it out but since you have to attach it to a countertop I'm going to wait until we get to Virginia.

Comment by Everett Tue Jan 26 15:38:46 2010
Aw, don't wait! I want to hear a first hand account of whether it works so I'll know whether we should buy one.
Comment by anna Tue Jan 26 18:33:56 2010
Great list. We grew buckwheat as a green manure and then tilled it in. It is a very fast grower and the flowers are lovely. It sure helps in keeping the area weed-free as well. We did not try it for grain use but there's nothing like a good buckwheat pancake. :)
Comment by Heather Wed Jan 27 12:18:59 2010
Keeping areas weed-free is always an asset! We'll have to give buckwheat a shot.
Comment by anna Wed Jan 27 13:20:49 2010