Strategic Initiatives Manager
Alisha Bower joined the PFI team in the first days of 2017. She manages day-to-day operations for the strategic initiatives team, with a focus on delivery of PFI's cover crops and small grains programs to farmers.
A native Wisconsinite, Alisha was raised on a small hobby farm in Southwest Wisconsin’s picturesque Driftless region. She attended the University of Minnesota Twin Cities majoring in Political Science and Spanish, then returned to school for her Master of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin Madison, focusing her studies on nonprofit administration and designing and managing research projects in agriculture and food systems. While working on her Masters she served as a Project Coordinator at the Integrated Pest Management Institute of North America and collected on-farm data from diversified organic vegetable operations. After completing her graduate degree, she moved to Lima, Peru for a brief internship with the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service where she paused between bowls of ceviche and lomo saltado to interact with producers, agribusiness representatives, and policy makers to support U.S. farmers’ and ranchers’ interests abroad.
After work, Alisha enjoys singing show tunes while gardening, fermenting anything remotely edible (or drinkable!), and biding her time until her next international adventure by reading books that explore different cultures.
Sometimes cover cropping in between corn and soybeans is, let’s face it, kind of boring. Your choices are cereal rye, cereal rye or cereal rye for something that will establish and overwinter. What is an adventurous farmer to do?? Grow small grains like oats, cereal rye or wheat instead. Because these grains are harvested in July, cover crops can get a lot more days in the field. This opens up the options for cover crop species that just don’t make sense when they’re planted in October. To guide us through making the most of this luxuriously long summer cover crop window, Dave Robison “The Cover Crop Guy,” spoke on our June shared learning call about how to fit cover crops to your farm.
“Following small grains with a cover crop is such a blessing. So much easier than putting it after corn or soybeans,” Dave says. “Cereal grains are really a great opportunity for you.” The first step to making the most of this opportunity is to establish your goals. With cover crops generally a farmer can have one or several of the following goals:
- Grazing – This is the most profitable opportunity for cover crops. You may also be able to take off a hay or forage crop if you forgo grazing and then plant soybeans.
- Addressing compaction
- Winter hardiness
- Grow nitrogen for a following corn crop
- Provide space to spread manure and hold nutrients in the field
Our fifth stop on the cover crop caravan this spring took us to Postville in northeast Iowa. We were greeted that morning with a fresh snow fall that unfortunately made it impractical to see cover crops in action, luckily our presenters had lots of photos to remind us what spring and summer look like. Don kicked off the field day by describing his cover crop practices and experiences and then we had a special presentation from Liam McVey, a local sixth grade student with a top prize science fair project on soil organic matter. NRCS Area Agronomist Neil Sass then wrapped up the day with a deeper look at the science of soil organic matter and new results from a cover crop seeding date and rate study Neil and his colleague Jacob Groth conducted last year.
Don has been planting cover crops for years on his farm in Allamakee and Winneshiek counties, even though some would say that’s “too far north” to do cover crops successfully. He first got into cover crops because he was concerned about erosion on soybean ground due to lack of substantial residue. But with more experience his goals have evolved and grown to three:
- Consistent, economical establishment of cover crops;
- Demonstrate economic benefits of using cover crops;
- And add diversity to the system.
Among the tricks he’s tried to accomplish these goals within his short window for cover crop growth are dormant seeding and interseeding. Continue reading
“My goal with cover crops is to balance soil health and maximize crop production;” Steve Berger began his talk on cover crops for our March “shared learning call.” Steve farms near Wellman, IA and joined us on March 16th to share his practices for successfully managing a cereal rye cover crop on every acre of his corn and soybean ground. His talk covered his fertility plan, terminating cover crops and planting the main crop.
Steve plants rye in 10” rows using a crustbuster drill immediately after harvest – which can go up to or past the second week of November. Then Steve implements his fertility program, which he describes as “spoon feeding my nitrogen.” After temperatures drop in the fall he will apply swine manure, dribbled onto the soil surface. Then in early spring he takes soil tests to measure available nitrogen (N). In most years this leads to broadcasting ammonium sulfate in two separate passes with 30 lbs of N per acre in each pass for a total of 60 lbs of N applied before the corn planter hits the field. Or this nitrogen is applied as manure. This sets the stage for a successful corn crop after a cereal rye cover. Continue reading
If I had a nickel every time someone asked me about the potential of selling small grains to craft breweries and distilleries – I’d be able to start my own brewery by now! Unfortunately, for most of these questions I come up short on answers so I decided to invite some experts to fill in the gaps. Our March 2nd shared learning call featured Ryan Burchett, founder of Mississippi River Distilling Company in LeClaire, Iowa and Adam Wagner, farmer and founder of Vertical Malt in Fisher, Minnesota. They went over the grain requirement for each of their respective crafts and the prices and quantities required in each industry.
Small Grains for Distilling
Technically – any grain can be distilled. But the classic spirits like whiskey sell the best, so Ryan sources corn, rye, wheat and barley. “We like to tell the story that grain is from farmers within 25 miles of the place,” Ryan says. “We know where our grain comes from, even the cows that fertilize the field.” He sources all his grains locally and pays $9-12/bushel for conventional grain delivered to the distilling facility. In a year he sources 3,000-4,000 bushels of corn, 1,000 bushels of rye and 300-500 bushels of wheat or barley. When we consider that average rye yield is about 40-60 bushels/acre this means that an entire year’s supply of rye for Mississippi River Distilling Company can be grown on 17-25 acres. In general, you can estimate that 1 bottle of spirits will require around 1.5 pounds of grain, so you can work backwards from a distiller’s capacity to know their grain demands.
As for the grain itself the most important qualities are that it be dried down below 15% moisture and it’s clean. Ryan explains, “We’re into the starch in the grain – we’re getting as much fuel in there as possible so the yeast has a lot to work on.” There hasn’t been a lot of rye or wheat variety trial work done with distilling in mind, to this point, but an interesting Minnesota research project that’s getting started this year will test distilling quality of different cereal rye varieties.
Ryan works directly with his sourcing farmers before planting time to estimate volumes of grain that they’ll need for the year. “We try to give them a thumbnail of what we’d like them to plant for us and then we stay in touch as the season goes on so they know if we won’t use all of their grain and they need to start looking for other markets,” Ryan says. Continue reading
Last fall was wonky. Harvest was late and many people didn’t make it into the fields until November to establish their winter small grains – a month or more after optimal planting dates for yield. On top of it we’ve had some bitterly cold stretches this winter with little snow cover, so some folks are wondering – is my cereal rye and/or winter wheat going to make it? Should I go to plan B? Right now is the time to evaluate if it’s a good enough stand to keep for grain or treat it as a cover crop and terminate before planting corn or soybeans.
First off, winter small grains are not created equal. Cereal rye is far more winter hardy than winter wheat so it’s more likely to emerge from this weird winter with grace. “It’s a survivor,” Keota farmer Tim Sieren says. “Rye will germinate at 35 degrees so it will green up in time for you to evaluate the stand and decide whether you keep it and over-seed clover or not.”
Agronomist Margaret Smith explains the plant physiology that makes cereal rye able to emerge and produce grain, even if you don’t see it emerge in the fall. “The meristem of the rye – the area of growing and dividing cells – requires vernalization (cold treatment) to allow the rye to become reproductive later this spring and to produce seed. Rye needs only to germinate to become vernalized, even if the meristem is still underground and it will make a crop the following year.” Even if you didn’t see any growth last fall, it’s still likely that the rye has germinated during a stretch of warmer days and will emerge in the spring. So don’t give up hope yet on your cereal rye!
Now that it’s started to warm up more, it’s time to get out in the field and look at the plant stand. For rye, an ideal plant stand is 20 to 24 live plants per square foot, but the Alberta Agriculture and Forestry Department suggests that five to six live plants per square foot is a keeper stand. To verify the plants are alive you should dig up a few plants and verify that there’s new pure white and thick roots coming out of the crown. Even if the tops are brown, if the roots are actively growing the plants will recover. Continue reading
Cover crop termination and cash crop planting in the spring is the most important aspect of cover crop management to ensure good yields. So this spring we’ve scheduled two shared learning calls where experienced cover crop farmers share their “spring cover crop management playbook.” On February 16, Wayne Fredericks, a corn and soybean farmer in Mitchell County laid out his spring plans for us putting emphasis on the importance of planter set up for planting both corn and soybeans into higher residue field conditions created by the cover crop.
“Last fall was the first fall that we seeded 100% cereal rye before corn and soybeans,” Wayne began. “Our first experience with cover crops was fall of 2012, and we did that in strip trials because we saw the need to gather input and research on what cover crops were doing.” Wayne, who was a member of the Iowa Soybean Association Board at that time, used the knowledge he gained in these strip trials to design his finely tuned spring management strategy to maximize benefits from the cover crop and deal with the unique scenarios preceding corn and soybean planting. Wayne’s talk focused on terminating cereal rye in the spring, fertilizer adjustments for corn planted after rye and planter settings for corn and soybeans.
Cover Crop Termination
Before soybeans, Wayne maximizes biomass growth and weed control from his cover crop by “planting green” into living rye for the last three years. He says, “when you include your pre-emerge chemicals with the roundup it takes a higher rate to ensure adequate control.” On his farm they combine the cover crop burn down herbicides with their pre-emergence plan just before soybean planting, including 44 oz. of WeatherMAX® + AMS, 3 pints of Harness®, 5 oz. of Sencor® and generic capture. Continue reading
Small grains are a unique crop in the Midwestern system because they are harvested early – around July – leaving the field open for different field operations and cover crops. This longer window makes it possible to grow a legume cover crop that can synthesize nitrogen and offset purchased fertilizer costs for the following crop in the rotation. But farmers don’t have to wait until August to seed their legume, on our February small grains shared learning call we welcomed Keota farmer Tim Sieren and USDA Ag Research Station technician Keith Kohler to discuss frost seeding legumes, an alternative to waiting until after small grain harvest to establish the cover crop.
“The name ‘frost’ seeding is actually a misnomer,” Keith begins. “It’s really a ‘freeze thaw’ seeding where you want the seed out there as the season warms up.” In early spring as the days begin bouncing back and forth between freezing and warmer temperatures, the ground contracts and expands with the changes, working a seed laying on the soil into the ground. So, if you get a small sized legume seed out there at the right time this natural cycle will do the work of planting it for you. It’s the ideal method for planting clover or alfalfa into an established winter small grain like rye or winter wheat so that the crop isn’t disturbed and can be used ahead of spring small grain planting too. Continue reading
Have you ever heard of a shared learning call? Probably not, unless you’ve been participating in our small grains monthly calls for the past year. They’ve worked so well there that we’ve decided to try out the format for other topics. A “shared learning call” is essentially a conference call, where you dial into a conference line with many others and listen as a farmer shares their practices for about 15-20 minutes and then we open the floor for questions and discussion for the rest of the hour. All you need is a phone!
Our first cover crop shared learning call will be on February 16 from 12-1 p.m. when Mitchell county farmer Wayne Fredericks will share his strategy for managing cover crops and planting into cover crop residue on heavy soils. Fredericks has been no-tilling soybeans for 20 years and has been planting cover crops, mainly cereal rye, since 2011. Here’s a sneak peak of his tips on planter set up for cover crop residue that he’ll share on the 16th:
“Watch your depth if you’re planting into high residue. You want to plant a little bit deeper,” he says. Fredericks sets his planter a quarter-inch deeper than he normally would on his John Deere 1790 which has 24 units on 15-inch rows. He also runs 400-pounds of down pressure per unit when planting into heavy rye residue. “Having the ability to apply the necessary down pressure is key.” If this is your first time planting soybeans into rye, you might want to plant into knee-high growth instead of waiting until it gets to almost three feet high. But, ultimately, “Termination timing isn’t as critical on soybeans as on corn,” he says. “I’ve planted soybeans into cereal rye as high as this table (34 inches).”
- Dial 641-715-3620
- Enter passcode 357330# when prompted
- Put your phone on mute to avoid feedback during presentation and unless speaking in the Q & A
Be sure to your calendars for these additional upcoming shared learning calls:
- Friday, March 2 Noon – 1 p.m. Shared Learning Call on Marketing Small Grains to Breweries and Distilleries
- Friday, March 16 Noon – 1 p.m. Steve Berger of Wellman Shared Learning Call on Cover crops for corn & soybeans: planter setup, nitrogen for corn, termination reminders
It’s hard to pick just one favorite part of the PFI conference, but I think mine is our potluck and this year we have a special treat – a whole roast pig from one of our members! Please join us Friday January 19 from 7-11 pm for a shared meal hosted by Ty and Bobbie Gustafson of Story City Locker and Donna Prizgintas and Lonna Nachtigal of the DonnaLonna Kitchen Show. Practical Farmers will provide a main dish, coffee, water and tableware. Please bring a side dish and beverage to share.
Potluck is held at CMPI Event Center (2321 North Loop Dr.) in Ames. Friday January 19, 7:00-11:00 pm.
- A whole roast pig from Crooked Gap Farm, roasted by Story City Locker;
- Buns from Madrid Bakery;
- Salad greens from Lee’s Greens;
- Beans from PFI member Darren Fehr;
- Coffee and water;
Don’t want to keep food cold or warm all day? You may drop food off at Scheman when you arrive for the conference and we will transport it for you! Items can be dropped off on a designated table on the ground floor at Scheman. We will transport food from there until 5 pm 1/20/17. We can plug in crock pots and refrigerate dishes.
Need to pick something up last-minute? Visit one of these local establishments:
You finally did it. You took the leap of faith and grew small grains last year. Everything went great – you got your weeds back under control and grew an amazing clover cover crop. Next year you’re going back to corn – but, uh oh, hold on, it’s not business as usual. Now that you’ve grown biological nitrogen with your cover crop you’ll need to adjust your nitrogen plan. And what about terminating that clover before corn? You’ve heard that can be a real chore. PFI members Randy and Willie Hughes, who operate a 5,500 acre split conventional and organic farm in southern WI, joined us for our December small grains shared learning call to address these questions.
The employees and family members that make up the Hughes Farm. Randy Hughes stands in the front row on the far left and Willie Hughes is in the back row on the far right. Photo from: http://www.whughesfarms.com
Adjusting Your Fertilizer Plan
The first step in deciding how much nitrogen you’ll have to purchase this year for your corn is figuring out how much you already have in the plant matter and the soil from your nitrogen-fixing, legume cover crop. As with different fertilizer products, no two cover crops are created equal in terms of the nitrogen they provide. The amount of nitrogen fixation depends on the biomass produced by the plant and how long it’s been in the field. Luckily, the Hughes provided some rules of thumb that can help put a number to this N source:
|Cover Crop||Biomass||Amount of N|
|1 Year Alfalfa||Over ankle high||100 lbs/acre|
|2 Year Alfalfa||Over ankle high||200 lbs/acre|
|Clover||Way above ankle but below knee||80 lbs/acre|
It’s important to note that all of the legumes listed in the table above are planted in July or August in the year preceding the corn, after wheat is harvested in the Hughes’s operation. “You won’t get nitrogen out of it if it’s only got a couple months of growth,” Randy says, “so it’s got to go in after a small grain.”
But, N in the cover crop is not necessarily correlated directly to available N in the soil that corn can use. So the Hughes designed a study to see which fertilization strategy created the most available N. They compared two different legume cover crop treatments and two manure treatments that varied the time of cover crop planting and manure application. The cover crop treatments were alfalfa planted after oat harvest (summer) or winter wheat with alfalfa drilled into it in the spring. The manure treatments applied 6,000 gallons of hog manure into a non-legume cover crop after wheat (summer) or applied in the spring before soybean planting.
Wheat harvest on the Hughes’s farm with the green of an underseeded legume peeking through the wheat stubble. Photo from: http://www.whughesfarms.com
They found, as they expected, that the legume cover crop with more growing time produced more available N, but both cover crop treatments actually had higher N concentrations than either of the manure treatments. The frost seeded alfalfa into wheat resulting in 26 ppm of available N in the soils, alfalfa planted after oat harvest rang in at 20 ppm, hog manure applied after wheat was 14 ppm and spring applied N was only 10 ppm. Through this project the Hughes learned that their green manure strategies were highly effective at providing available N to the subsequent crop.
Terminating the Cover Crop
While you want to give the cover crop as much time to grow as possible to maximize the available N, we also know that killing it before corn planting to avoid yield drag can be tricky. As Willie says, “You’ve got to get it dead or it’ll be a weed for you too.” Their preferred implement is the disc, a fifty foot sunflower 1550, though they say plowing or chiseling could work. They perform 1-2 passes with the disc when the soil temperature is at 45-50 degrees and then plant corn when soil temperature reaches 60 degrees.
One benefit of the nitrogen provided by plowing in the cover crop, often referred to as a green manure, is that the nitrogen is not as susceptible to leaching. “If you get four inches of rain in the conventional world you lose four inches of nitrogen, but with the legume breaking down it doesn’t leach away because it’s not soluble yet.”
When it comes the balance sheet, the Hughes see the benefits. “Small grains have made or saved more money organically than they have conventionally,” Randy says. “You can buy nitrogen conventionally about as cheap as you can grow it, but in organic you can’t.”
Every month we host a shared learning call featuring on growing or marketing small grains. If you’d like to join our next shared learning call, email Alisha@practicalfarmers.org or call 515-232-5661. Learn more about our small grains cost share or other programming at practicalfarmers.org/small-grains-cornbelt .