A guide to the five major grains

The five major grains of wheat, oats, rye, buckwheat and barley each possess their own unique growing, cooking and flavour properties. Here's a look at what sets them apart.

A guide to the five major grains


  • As the world's leading bread grain, wheat requires a cool, moist growing season and several months of hot, dry weather for ripening
  • Wheat grows about a metre (three feet) tall and turns golden brown when ripe
  • It is ready to harvest when the grain is hard and crunchy between the teeth
  • Wheat supplies the best-balanced nutrition of any grain
  • Soft wheats are used in pastries and cakes while the hard wheats are best for bread
  • Semolina flour from hard durum wheat is used to make pastas, including spaghetti
  • Summer wheat is sown in spring; winter wheat should be sown early enough for the plant to produce three or four leaves before the frost


  • Of all the grains, oats are the highest in protein
  • They are a hardy crop that thrives in a cool, moist climate and cannot tolerate drought
  • Oats give their best return when sown early in the spring
  • A mature oat plant stands up to 1.5 metres (five feet) tall
  • Oats can be harvested while they still have a few green tinges
  • They should be gathered into grouped sheaves and left to dry in the field


  • Rye is sown predoninantly in the fall for its grain, but also frequently for use as a cover crop or green manure crop
  • Rye grows up to 1.5 metres (five feet) tall
  • Although its per-hectare (per-acre) yield is less than that of wheat, it can produce crops on poorer soil than wheat and tolerates cold, drought and dampness better than wheat
  • Most rye bread contains at least 50 percent wheat flour


  • Buckwheat is raised for its nutlike, triangular seeds and soil-boosting benefits
  • The dark, strong-flavoured flour is excellent for pancakes
  • Buckwheat grows to about a metre (three feet) high; it prefers moist, acid soil and hot weather
  • Because it matures rapidly (60 to 90 days), buckwheat is a fast-growing summer annual that improves soil fertility and protects the soil over winter


  • A long, cool ripening season and moderate moisture is best for barley, which is the second-most grown cereal crop in Canada
  • It will adapt well to heat and aridity, and also tolerates salty and alkaline soils better than most other grains
  • Barley is a summer crop
  • Barley is used for animal feed, beer and malt. It is also used in soup and as a whole-grain dish
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