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.

Following a 2016 tomato trial on Rebelski and Mountain Fresh Plus, three farms conducted replicated variety trials in their high tunnels on Big Beef, Rebelski, and Big Dena. Key findings are in the post below, and the full report is available here: Tomato in High Tunnel, Variety Trial.


How was the trial conducted?

Each farmer planted two tomato varieties inside a high tunnel in a randomized, paired trial. Farmer-researchers for this trial were: Tim Landgraf (One Step at a Time Gardens in Kanawha), Lee Matteson and Rose Schick (Lee’s Greens in Nevada), and Mark Quee (Scattergood Farm at Scattergood Friends School in West Branch). Spacing, mulch, trellis style, and planting date were determined by farm, and described in Table 2. Plants for the trial were started indoors and transplanted to the high tunnel (in-ground). Matteson and Schick planted into a heated high tunnel.


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Successfully raising corn after a cover crop requires timely cover crop termination and N fertilization. Commonly, farmers terminate a cover crop 2-3 weeks prior to planting corn but generally do not need to apply any more N than if they did not use a cover crop. Last year, PFI farmer-cooperator Dick Sloan attempted “planting green”: planting his corn into a cereal rye cover crop that was terminated just two days prior. In Sloan’s case, he saw a 5 bu/ac yield reduction compared to where he terminated the cover crop two weeks prior to planting corn yet stands were equal between the two treatments (Cover Crop Termination Date Ahead of Corn). This past growing season, farmer-cooperators Dick Sloan and Tim Sieren compared terminating their cover crops approx. 3 weeks prior to planting corn with terminating their cover crops within 3 days of planting corn. They also investigated N fertilizer timing and rates across the cover crop termination dates.

You can read the full report of this project here: N Fertilizer Strategies for Corn Following Cover Crop.

N fert strategies 2017 cover shot

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The Iowa Department of Ag and Land Stewardship announced today that they will be working with the Risk Management Agency and crop insurance companies in Iowa to reward farmers who are using cover crops on their farm. Farmers who have planted cover crops this fall or plan to still put out cereal rye on cornstalks going to a 2018 soybean crop can get a little extra help with those costs. Acres that are not currently in a cost share program from a local watershed program, IDALS county cost share or the NRCS are eligible and can be certified until 5pm January 15, 2018. Double check with your crop insurance agent that they are participating in the program and make sure to purchase the correct crop insurance product next spring to receive the discount. Acres certified through the IDALS program will receive a $5/acre discount on a the September crop insurance invoice. To read more go to the IDALS Cover Crop-Crop Insurance Program page and to sign up click here. Program rules are listed here and Frequently Asked Questions are addressed here. Questions about what cover crops to seed still late this fall? Get connected with Practical Farmers of Iowa by calling the office at 515-232-5661 or emailing [email protected]

Increasing rates of cover crop use on rented ground is the next frontier in improving water quality, promoting soil health and improving farmers’ resilience and not all of this rented land is privately owned. Local, state, and federal agencies own a large amount of land in the U.S. for the purpose of protecting natural resources and providing public infrastructure (flood management, water quality management, etc).

There are three main public agencies that own and rent farm land in Iowa: The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the United States Army and the Army Corps of Engineers. For the DNR particularly, renting out this agricultural land is a balancing act between making sure that land is productive and creating and protecting wildlife habitat. The use of cover crops between cash crops on public rented ground addresses both of these goals.  Cover crops are planted to coincide with maturity of commodity crops like corn or soybeans and protect the soil until a new cash crop is planted in the spring so that there are living roots in the ground at nearly all times. This protects natural resources like water and soil by preventing erosion and nutrient leaching, and it provides and/or improves habitat for both aquatic and terrestrial species (see Wilcoxen et al. 2017).

A male farmer, dressed for cold weather kneels in a harvested field of corn where a lush, green cover crop is growing among what's left of the corn stalks

An Iowa Farmer inspects growth on his cereal rye cover crop, planted earlier this fall.

Despite the natural overlap between the goals of public agencies like DNR and the outcomes of cover cropping, it is still rarely implemented on their rented land. We spoke with land managers at several public agencies to better understand the barriers and opportunities for implementing cover crops on public lands. The following blog outlines three case studies where public land managers have added cover crop requirements in their leases and we conclude with some lessons learned that could help other public land managers implement cover crops on their acres. We found that the elements of a successful lease are: a cover crop requirement, basic best management safeguards and a penalty if cover crop is not established. To effectively manage these leases, land managers also require easier access to quality information about cover crops and should leverage public support for cover crops in their county. Continue reading

Cover crops are gaining new attention for their ability to reduce weed pressure in soybeans. Specifically, when seeding soybeans directly into a thick cover crop. In the past two years, farmer-researchers Jeremy Gustafson and Jack Boyer have documented reduced herbicide use when planting soybeans into a tall, thick cereal rye cover crop that they chemically terminated near the time of soybean planting (Cereal Rye Cover Crop Termination Date Ahead of Soybeans). In this new project, farmer-cooperators Jack Boyer and Scott Shriver investigated the effect of row-width on soybean yields when rolling a cereal rye cover crop. Boyer rolled select strips after terminating with an herbicide; Shriver used a roller-crimper to terminate his cover crop.

You can read the full report of this project here: Rolling Cover Crops and Soybean Row-Width.

Rolling covers and soy row-width cover

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The difference between a restored soil and unrestored.

The difference between a restored soil and not restored only after a couple years.

Guest Blog Post by Jonathon Gano, Director of Public Works for the City of Des Moines

Soil health is a key part of managing agricultural land with well understood benefits and a whole host of options.  Less well understood is the soil outside the front door of our homes.

Our lawns are often an afterthought when thinking about soil health but they are one of the first places a homeowner can work to improve water quality in our lakes and streams.  Healthy soil under our lawns can absorb and retain three times as much water as unhealthy soil.  Every drop of water lands somewhere – keeping that water where it lands just a little longer will slow it down, cool it off, and clean it up.

The first and best chance for a healthy lawn is careful management of Iowa’s abundant topsoil when the house is built.  Avoiding overcompaction and paying attention to the final grading to ensure adequate depth of the topsoil layer are key parts of a healthy lawn.

If, like most of us, you already live in a house with a yard, don’t give up hope – there is still a way to improve the soil without having to start all over again.

The most effective way to improve the health of the soil in our existing yards is the combination of deep core aeration with a top dressing of compost immediately following.  The compost fills in the holes left by the aerator, letting rich organic matter get deep into the soil profile.  That organic matter not only soaks up a lot of water, it helps feed the beneficial soil organisms in the ground and leaves the yard greener and more drought resistant.

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A group of farmers traveled to Ohio in August to spend a day at Dave Brandt’s farm. This blog accompanies the article in the Autumn 2017 Practical Farmer “Members Reflect on Lessons Learned in Ohio.”

By Sally Hertz Gran

Sally Gran Photos (28)

Sally Hertz Gran stands in the pasture at Berry Family Farm in Pleasantville, Ohio.

In this reflection, I will be highlighting some of the topics we dug into during the trip including crop rotation, seed selection (coatings and genetics), enterprise diversification, grazing cover crops, and how to engage more farmers in regenerative farming practices.

Ohio Soils 

Stefan and Meghan came prepared with activities to keep us occupied on the long bus ride, including a challenging game of Ohio trivia. Many of us were surprised to learn that soybeans are Ohio’s #1 crop. Shortly after arriving at Dave’s farm on Friday morning, we learned why—soybeans are not only commonly double cropped, with two harvests in the same calendar year, but some Ohio farmers grow continuous soybeans year after year.

This was the case for the first field the hayrack stopped at on Dave’s farm, in Carroll, Ohio. It had been in continuous soybeans for 25 years until just three years ago when Dave began leasing it. Prior to European settlement when most of Iowa was an ocean of densely-rooted prairie, Ohio was part of the eastern deciduous forest, which means that their soils are naturally higher in clay and lower in organic matter than Iowa soils. In the yellow clay of the recently formerly continuous soybean field, Dave increased the organic matter from 1% to 1.7% in just three years by implementing an extended rotation, planting cover crops, and practicing no-till. The three-year framework of this rotation (corn-cover-beans-small grain-cover) is applied throughout his entire farm.

Dave Brandt

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In my article for the latest issue of the Practical Farmer, our quarterly newsletter, I focused on buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum), some of the farmers who grow it, and its culinary uses. Many farmers grow the crop as a cover crop, because it’s pretty easy to grow, can suppress weeds, and research has shown it can also make soil phosphorus more available to subsequent crops. But buckwheat is also a delicious food: its groats can be eaten whole or it can be milled into flour.

One of the PFI members I talked to was Peter Kraus, who is originally from Decorah – where his parents Barbara and Kevin run Canoe Creek Produce – but now lives with his wife in northern Wisconsin where they teach environmental stewardship. He says that their long-term plan includes moving back to Decorah to farm and teach farm-to-table education, build support for growing and using small grains in the area, and building soil and setting down roots. He sent me his recipe for buckwheat sourdough bread, which includes buckwheat groats and flour. Enjoy!

Kneading buckwheat sourdough bread

Stretching buckwheat sourdough

Peter’s Buckwheat Sourdough Bread Recipe (adapted from Tartine Book No. 3)

For 1 loaf of bread:
200 g sourdough starter or leaven
350 g organic bread flour
100 g organic whole wheat flour
50 g buckwheat flour
300 g water
50 g yogurt, sour creme or creme fraiche
10 g salt
100 g toasted buckwheat groats

Optional ingredients: toasted walnuts, maple syrup, dried fruit.

First, I mix the sourdough starter or leaven with the flour and half of the water to form a dough and then let it sit for up to an hour. While I am waiting, I bringing the rest of the water to a boil and pour over the toasted groats to soften them.  Once the groats have cooled, I thoroughly mix all the remaining ingredients together.

I let the dough ferment  in a closed plastic container for several hours depending on temperature and strength of the starter. Every hour I wet my hands and stretch and fold the dough on itself four ways.  Once the dough is billowy and bubbly I shape the loaf on a floured surface. I I preheat the oven to 450 to 500 degrees Fahrenheit. I place the shaped loaf into an enclosed baking vessel  like a dutch oven or a bread pan with a sheet pan over it, and let it rest for 15 minutes. I scratch the loaf surface with a razor blade or sharp, serrated knife to score it. Then bake for 20 minutes before removing the lid to let the loaf brown up. Finish baking for about 20-30 minutes more at 400-450 degrees.

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Clark Porter manages his family’s farm near Reinbeck. He is a former teacher and non-profit administrator. A Practical Farmers member since 2012, Clark is an advocate for healthy soil and clean water.

He and his wife, Sharon, a Spanish teacher, have two grown sons. In his spare time, Clark enjoys kayaking, hiking and camping throughout Iowa and Minnesota, and writing about his reflections on farming and being a part of Iowa’s working landscape.

On a cold evening late last October, I found myself on a quest through soupy darkness, across bean stubble, waterways and fresh tile trenches. I had a measuring wheel in front of me while my father followed me on our ATV. In a cloud of bean straw dust and hazy yellow light, I attempted to sight combine tracks at my side and walk a straight line towards a distant waterway. Once there, we would plant a flag marking the corner of a future oat field.

My father and I were like mariners from the Age of Exploration. Absent a GPS device and using the best methods we had, we left the known world of our western fence line and set out against the elements on a futile journey to create a straight line. The farther our little exploration party ventured towards the dark, distant shore of the waterway, the more difficult it was to be sure we were indeed traveling in a straight course. We persisted on faith alone; it was clear we had lost our reason. Continue reading

Keith Sexton Member since 1989 Rockwell City, IA

Keith Sexton
Member since 1989
Rockwell City, IA

Keith and his wife, Barb, raise corn and soybeans, both GMO and non-GMO, on about 1,300 acres near Rockwell City.

They use cover crops in their operation (the Sextons reported in their 2017 member survey that PFI field days on cover crops have been most meaningful); are currently enrolled in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program; and use a mix of tillage methods, including fall and spring tillage, strip-till and no-till.

“We have increased fall tillage only to smooth out a field that was pattern-tiled,” Keith said. “We are doing more strip-till of corn stalks and less no-till planting of soybeans.”

The Sextons’ short-term farming goals include increasing yields and reducing soil erosion – but longer-term, their goal is to work on transition planning for their farm. Continue reading