The Practical Blog

Practical Farmers' blog is a place where staff share news, updates, photos, reflections and other musings on our work and members in a more informal setting.

Rye is commonly known by farmers in the Midwest as a cover or green manure crop. A small amount is grown as a grain, and an even lesser amount is being fed to pigs. Across Europe, pig producers include rye in feed rations for their grow-finish pigs, gestating, and lactating sows. Rye has a mixed reputation due to its susceptibility to ergot, a fungus that negatively impacts pig health and performance. To combat the issue of ergot, new varieties, like hybrid rye have been developed with traits making it less susceptible to ergot toxins. Winter rye and hybrid rye have genetic differences, but are managed and planted the same way. Both are grown for grain production, forage, or as a cover crop to improve soil health.

“I’m more excited about hybrid rye, than I have been than any other product that we have, because of its potential on diversifying our landscape in the Midwest” – Mac Ehrhardt (Co-owner of Albert Lea Seed)

Hybrid Rye

A German company, KWS, has spent ten years developing hybrid rye. KWS has developed nine different hybrid rye varieties, three of which are sold in the U.S: Bono, Brasetto, and Progas. Bono and Brasetto are the two grain-type hybrids, while Progas is a forage-type hybrid.

Hybrid rye is just as cold hardy as winter rye, but higher yielding and more resistant to ergot. KWS, in the process of hybridizing rye, isolated the Rfp1 gene from an Iranian rye landrace. The Rfp1 gene ensures that hybrid rye produces twice as much pollen as open-pollinator varieties (OPV), which KWS labels as PollenPlus. Producing double the amount of pollen allows fertilization to occur in a short window of time – extremely reducing the chance for ergot to attach, thus minimizing fungal infection.

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It was a hot September day at Pheasant Run Farm, but that did not deter folks who came to the farm for a variety of reasons. Some were farmers themselves seeking knowledge on how to improve their own systems; some were beginning farmers seeking ideas for profitable enterprises; some were neighbors and friends seeking community; some were students seeking an introduction to sustainable agriculture; and one attendee simply said, “I am here to have fun!”

Eric and Ann Franzenburg have been farming since 1994. Over the last 10 years, they have added enterprises to create a more diverse farming system and have been farmer-leaders at Practical Farmers of Iowa by generously sharing what they have learned along the way. Recently, their son Calvin joined the farm full-time to run their cut flower business. All are quick to give credit to their mentors along the way, including Calvin who credits his mom and dad for passing along their expertise to the next generation.

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Three generations of the Deal family were on-site to lead nearly 50 field day attendees on a tour of their apple house and farm on a recent September morning. While Tracy Deal orchestrated the field day logistics behind-the-scenes (and managed the youngest generation still-in-training) and Cindy Deal managed the on-farm store, brothers Chris and Benji helped their father, Jerald, run the field day.

Left to right: Tracy and Chris Deal with their two children, Jerald and Cindy Deal, and Benji Deal.

In 2017 Deal’s Orchard celebrated their 100 year anniversary as a family farm. Over the years the farm has diversified beyond apples to include pumpkins and squash, Christmas trees, sweet corn, tomatoes, a range of value-added apple products and a site for agritourism. Starting the day with freshly-made apple cider donuts, attendees heard a brief history of the farm then learned start-to-finish about their apple cider operation—including their hard cider production—before venturing out to see their pumpkin patch and high tunnel tomato production. Continue reading

Melanie Peterson and her dad

Monday, September 10, 2018, Mark and Melanie Peterson hosted 49 guests at their farm near Stanton for a soil health field day. Mark started off talking about the farm’s history. The family who sold their farm to the Petersons in 2004, Dale and Sunny Nimrod, and Faith and Bill Sherman, were in attendance. Read more about this thoughtful farm sale here. Achieving their farmland goal of passing their farm to a local family resulted in the Nimrod family receiving Practical Farmers’ 2015 Farmland Owner Legacy Award. Read more about that here.

The Petersons have used cover crops for seven years. Mark says that in that time, soil tests have shown a 1% increase in organic matter. He said, “I’m comfortable covers are a big part of that increase. For every percent increase, the ground gains a one-inch increase in water-holding capacity. As we see more 100-year floods, and periods with no rain at all, this is vitally important.”

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On a damp afternoon in early September, 50 people gathered at the agroforestry site Red Fern Farm in southeast Iowa to learn about a variety of fruit and nut crops. Tom Wahl and Kathy Dice started the farm and nursery more than 30 years ago and now grow over 75 tree and shrub species that produce a range of common and not-so-common fruits and nuts. For a wide variety of information about the crops they grow and sell at Red Fern Farm, visit their website.

Tom and Kathy split the group in two and each took their group on a tour of a portion of the farm. Kathy’s group learned all about chestnut production and marketing, and Tom’s tour covered heartnuts, pawpaws, Asian pears, honeyberries, and American persimmons. The groups reconvened for a break, then switched tour guides.

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Kelly Clime of Hoof Beet Farm started her venture of farming 2016 by purchasing a 3.5-acre farm near Dallas Center. Kelly has a unique diversely integrated farm with chickens, turkeys, vegetables, and an apiary. All of which is draft powered by her Quarter Horse/Shetland pony. All the different pieces of the farm have a significant part in working together to support the farm. Kelly is a beginning farmer and is in her second year of the Savings Incentive Program (SIP). She shared her experience with 28 attendees at the field day last week on how she is working with her livestock to renovate her pasture and support vegetable production. Kelly covered her steps for on-farm poultry processing, approaches of direct marketing, beekeeping, farm insurance, and her use of the draft pony. Kelly’s goal for her farm is to be as diverse as possible, by integrating everything. She says, “sustainability is built with diversity.”

Kelly Clime led field day attendees through the farm explaining how she integrates chickens, honey bees, and draft horses at Hoof Beet Farm

Pastured Broilers

When Kelly first moved to her farm in 2013 the land had a lot of trash and debris, her chickens have helped to fertilize and renovate the horse pasture. Kelly raises four batches of broilers each year, with about 20 birds in each batch totaling to about 80 birds a year. One of the things that allows her to process on-farm the USDA state processing meat processing regulation exemption, which allows her to process up to 1,000 birds a year. This exemption allows Kelly to sell directly to the customers.

Kelly’s broilers are kept on pasture in a woody area of her farm within an electric fence. She self-designed a hooped structured shelter on a 2×4 base with three cattle panels hooped between the skids. Having the birds out in a woody area, predators like owls are can be an issue, but since Kelly has been utilizing this structure she hasn’t had too much trouble with predation lately.

Kelly, showing us her broilers and the hoop structure she’s constructed.

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Have you heard the good news? PFI was awarded a new NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant that will allow us to continue offering small grains cost share in 2019-2021. And now we will have the opportunity to offer the cost share in more states!

If you’re interested in our small grains cost share, submit your contact info here

Our new CIG award allows PFI to cost share small grains grown in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin.

Our cost share reimburses farms $25/acre for planting a small grain that is harvested in 2019 and followed with a cover crop that includes a legume. This includes systems like an oat crop planted in spring of 2019 with a frost seeded red clover or alfalfa under-seeding or a cereal rye crop planted in fall of 2018 with a big cover crop mix planted after rye harvest that includes species like hairy vetch, field peas, crimson clover or other legume varieties. Planting a soybean crop into or after the small grain does not qualify as an acceptable legume cover crop for this program. Small grains include barley, oats, rye, triticale and wheat, either winter or spring varieties where both are available. Continue reading

Prices for cover crop seed are high this year – particularly cereal rye, our most popular cover crop in Iowa. An enterprising farmer might look at this situation and say “hmmmm looks like a good time to get into the cover crop seed business.” As with any new enterprise, there are regulations to consider before taking the plunge, so to guide us through these requirements we invited Robin Pruisner from the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship and Doan Schmitz from the Iowa Crop Improvement Association on our September small grains shared learning call. They discussed regulations on seed sales and intellectual property requirements around specific plant varieties. In the following blog I have done my best to summarize their discussion, but to ensure compliance with any of the rules discussed below please verify with the proper regulating agency.

A cloth bag of wheat sits in a green field with a blue tag reading "hard red winter wheat"

Both federal and state regulations govern how freshly harvested grain like this could be sold as cover crop seed to another farmer.

Seed Sales – Permit and Labelling Requirements

Each state regulates the conditions under which seed must be sold within the boundaries of that state and Iowa is no exception. In Iowa, a farmer can save seed from a crop that they produce on their farm with no further permitting or testing required, unless they have signed a license to grow a patented seed (owned by a private company) that stipulates they cannot plant saved seed. For most varieties used for cover crops, you can grow seed and replant it on your own farm with no further steps. Continue reading

There is still time to get paid $10 per acre to add cover crops to your fields! If you sell corn to the Cargill plant in Eddyville, Iowa, or soybeans to the ADM supply chain in Des Moines, you are eligible. Sell to both locations? Get double the acres.

To get started, sign up today at pficovercrops.youcanbook.me, or contact PFI’s strategic initiatives assistant, Shannon Kooima, at (515) 232-5661 or shannon_k@practicalfarmers.org for more information.


Forty people gathered at Jon and Tina Bakehouse’s Maple Edge Farm on August 25 to celebrate the ties between agriculture and art. Why, you may wonder, would Practical Farmers hold such a field day?

Just shy of 25% of Practical Farmers’ membership is made up of non-farmers. To better bring them into PFI’s community, Practical Farmers committed to holding at least two events each year to educate non-farmers about agriculture in Iowa. Agriculture is such a staple in Iowa, and art feeds our hearts and souls. Art engages and educates people on important topics. Elevating the role and influence art can have when applied to agriculture is a wonderful thing, and was the focus of this creative event.

Food stories

The day started with Tina Bakehouse and Mary Swander sharing stories of how their lives have been impacted by food, and how that relationship has shifted over their lifetimes. Tina said, “Iowa has some of the richest, most beautiful soil. It should be full of agri-hoods!” She asked the audience to imagine a healthy food system, where farming is a panacea for a healthy economy, environment and people. Continue reading