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Alternative Field Crops Manual


E.S. Oplinger1, E.A. Oelke2, A.R. Kaminski1, K.A. Kelling1, J.D. Doll1, B.R. Durgan2, and R.T. Schuler1

1Departments of Agronomy, Soil Science and Agricultural Engineering, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and Cooperative Extension Service, University of Wisconsin-Madison, WI 53706.
2Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN 55108. May, 1990.

I. History:

Spelt (Triticum aestivum var. spelta) is a sub-species of common wheat. It has been grown in Europe for about 300 years. Spelt was introduced to the United States in the 1890s.

Most of the nation's spelt acreage is in Ohio. That state grows between 100,000 and 200,000 acres of spelt annually, about 10 times more than any other state. A few varieties of spelt were developed in the early part of this century. They are no longer identifiable, and spelt has been considered an undeveloped crop. In 1986, The Ohio State University released an improved winter variety, named 'Champ'.

Spelt is often erroneously called "speltz." Sometimes emmer, another subspecies of wheat that includes dururn wheat, is incorrectly called spelt.

II. Uses:

Ground spelt is used primarily as an alternative feed grain to oats and barley. Its nutritional value is close to that of oats. The protein content of the Champ variety of spelt is about 11.7%, compared to 12% to 13% for oats. The spelt hull has nearly as much feeding value as the kernel.

Spelt can also be used as a food grain after removal of the hulls. It is popular in Europe, particularly in Germany. American food manufacturers in this country have begun to use spelt to meet the nation's increasing demand for pasta and high fiber cereals. Spelt can also be used in flour and baked goods to replace soft red winter wheat.

III. Growth Habits:

The growth habits of spelt are similar to those of winter wheat. Spelt generally lodges less than soft red wheat, but more than semi-dwarf hard red spring or winter wheat. Under conditions where soft red wheat tends to lodge, spelt has produced more grain. Spelt has large pithy stems. As with oats, the hulls remain on the grain in threshing and comprise 20% to 30% of the grain weight. No official test weight has been established for spelt, but recent tests show that unhulled it averaged 28 lb/bu. The test weight of hulled seed is close to that of wheat (60 lb/bu).

IV. Environment Requirements:

A. Climate:

Spelt is generally more winter hardy than most soft red winter wheat, but less winter hardy than most hard red winter wheat varieties. There is very little evidence that any spring types of spelt exist. The new Champ variety from Ohio is a winter type.

B. Soil:

Spelt can be grown on poorly-drained, low-fertility soils. It grows well on sandy soils in the Midwest. Some growers claim it can produce more grain than oats on a bushel basis on these soils. However, the test weight of spelt is often less than that of oats.

C. Seed Preparation and Germination:

Seed should be cleaned and tested for germination before planting. Seed treatment with a fungicide, such as Vitavax, would prevent problems with bunts; however, the label should be consulted to see if the fungicide is cleared for use on spelt. Because the hulls are attached, germination is slower than for wheat.

V. Cultural Practices:

A. Seedbed Preparation:

Soil preparation is the same as that for winter wheat.

B. Seeding Date:

The seeding date is the same as that for winter wheat - mid-September in the Upper Midwest.

C. Method and Rate of Seeding:

Spelt should be seeded with a drill set as for oats to plant 80 to 100 lb/acre. When the seedbed is dry, spelt should be seeded slightly deeper than winter wheat. The grain drill should be calibrated to ensure that the desired seeding rate is obtained.

D. Fertility and Lime Requirements:

Requirements for fertilization are similar to those for winter wheat. On soils with optimum or lower soil tests, apply a complete fertilizer with a combination drill at seeding time. Avoid direct contact of the fertilizer with the seed. An additional topdressing of nitrogen in early spring may improve yields. The topdressing should contain 10 to 20 lb less nitrogen per acre than for wheat; the straw of spelt is tall, and excess nitrogen can cause lodging. Common rates of nutrients to be applied are 50 to 60 lb/acre N, 25 lb/acre P2O5 and 30 lb/acre K2O. Apply lime to maintain soil pH at about 6.0.

E. Variety Selection:

Champ is the only improved variety that has been released (Ohio State, 1986) in recent decades. Champ is awnless, brown-hulled, and about the same maturity as common spelt. Although Champ is slightly taller than common spelt, its straw strength is considerably improved. Its winter hardiness is about equal to that of common spelt. Table 1 compares yields and other performance characteristics for Champ with common spelt from trials in Ohio. Champ has very good resistance to leaf rust but is only moderately resistant to powdery mildew. The protein content of champ has consistently been 1 to 1.5% higher than common spelt. Certified seed of this variety is available from Certified seed growers in Ohio.

Table 1. Comparative performance of Champ spelt and common spelt at three locations in Ohio, 1981-85.


Yield (lb/a)

Date headed (June)

Plant ht. (in.)

% lodged

Test wt. (lb/bu)

% protein

No. of Tests





















F. Weed Control:

The best weed control practices are tillage, establishment of a good stand, and weed control in previous crops. Since no chemicals are specifically cleared for use on spelt, all the recommended cultural practices for winter wheat need to be followed to assure a dense, vigorous crop that competes well with weeds.

G. Diseases and Their Control:

Spelt is not resistant to loose smut or stinking smut (bunt). Treatment of the seed with a fungicide prior to planting could help prevent a smut problem, but the label should be consulted for clearance for use on spelt. Stem or leaf rust also can be a problem for spelt. Other foliage diseases can occur, but can be reduced by crop rotation. Avoid planting spelt after other cereal crops.

H. Insects and Other Predators and Their Control:

The Hessian fly, greenbug, and wheat stem sawfly are the primary insect pests that attack wheat fields. Spelt has the same susceptibility to the Hessian fly as wheat. Early fall seeding may result in weak plants with poor root systems that are more susceptible to the Hessian fly in some areas of the Midwest. However, these insects have not been a problem on wheat in the Upper Midwest and may not be a serious concern on spelt.

I. Harvesting:

Spelt can be direct combined or windrowed and threshed similar to winter wheat. For direct combining, the moisture content of the crop should be 14% or less. If there are many weeds, the crop should be windrowed and the windrow allowed to dry for a few days. The crop can then be picked up and threshed with a combine fitted with a pick-up attachment. The combine should be adjusted in a manner similar to that for harvesting oats.

J. Drying and Storage:

Follow same practices as for winter wheat.

VI. Yield Potential and Performance Results:

In plot yield trials in Ohio in the early 1980s, Champ produced an average of 3,009 lb/acre and common spelt produced an average of 2,442 lb/acre (See Table 1). Newly released soft red winter wheat varieties such as 'Cardinal' yielded 10% ' more than Champ in Ohio. No performance data are available for Minnesota or Wisconsin.

VII. Economics of Production and Markets:

The value of spelt for feed is similar to oats on a per pound basis. However, because the test weight of spelt can vary considerably, the feeding value could be lower than for oats. Hence, the demand for seed is limited.

The demand for spelt may increase in the coming decade, however, because of its recently developed uses in the food industry. Some acreage in Ohio is contracted for production of spelt for pasta. It is advisable to identify a market before growing spelt.

VIII. Information Sources:

The information given in this publication is for educational purposes only. Reference to commercial products or trade names is made with the understanding that no discrimination is intended nor endorsement implied by the Minnesota or Wisconsin Extension Services.