Alisha Bower

Midwest Cover Crop Associate

Alisha Bower joined the PFI team as the Midwest Cover Crop Associate in the first days of 2017. Her work supports cover crops and small grains programs and involves grant tracking and reporting, event planning, data collection and management, and communications.

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.

Blog posts

After taking a several month hiatus from our shared learning calls, in September we jumped back into the swing of things with a call on crop insurance options for small grains. Mark Gutierrez and Criag Christianson from the regional Risk Management Agency (RMA) office in Minneapolis joined us to review the available policies for these crops. We compared and contrasted single crop policies and whole farm revenue policies so farmers could make informed decisions about what crop insurance option would work best for their small grains.

Individual Crop Plans:

Individual crop plans insure a farmer’s yield or revenue on one product, such as oats. If that farmer produces corn, soybeans and oats and chose to insure through single crop policies, they would have three policies – one for corn, one for soybeans and one for oats. Within individual policies there are three different types of insurance that you can purchase, which I’ll list so it’s easier to read:

  1. Yield Protection Plan – Policy is based on 3-10 most recent years of actual production history on your farm of the crop in question. Then loss claims are based off of production levels or yields. Loss payments are your production shortfall multiplied by your projected price for the crop.
  2. Revenue protection plan – Policy is also based on 3-10 years of production history, but compensates for price drops rather than yield drops. The price secured by the policy for the product is determined using spring projections and actual harvest prices.
  3. Area risk protection plan – For this plan, the RMA assesses yields over a whole area and when they drop below a certain threshold everyone in the area with this policy receives a payment – whether or not the farmer personally has suffered substantial yield losses.

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On August 17, nearly 80 people gathered in Ames to attend our first conference focused exclusively on small grains. We opened with lunch and a keynote from Don Halcomb, the chairman of the Kentucky Small Grain Promotion Council, sharing the history of how growers in Kentucky came together to create a small grains association and a wheat checkoff. Then, twelve speakers gave hour-long presentations on all things small grains – from selecting varieties to management to the use of small grains for animal feed or milling for human consumption. The day concluded with a buyers and sellers reception where small grains buyers from six companies mingled with farmers and answered questions about their market specifications.

We were fortunate to take video of several of the sessions at the conference and have just published our first one, Pete Lammers’s session on feeding small grains in livestock rations.  “You can feed small grains to your livestock,” Pete said, “they won’t die.” In the video, he covers current research on outcomes of feeding small grains to pigs, poultry, horses and ruminant animals and optimal inclusion rates in rations.

We’ll be releasing more videos of sessions at the small grains conference in the weeks to come, so check in on our youtube page to stay up to date with the latest releases.

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Mark Ditlevson of Blooming Prairie, MN Photo: Marie Wood. May 10, 2017. “From the fields, May 12: Farmers plant in May sunshine.” The Land Online.

After taking a break in May we got back onto our monthly small grains shared learning call on June 9. One of our pilot program farmers from Blooming Prairie, Minnesota, Mark Ditlevson, took the floor at the beginning of the call to discuss his fungicide and fertilizer regime for his small grains and his set up for harvest, which is right around the corner.

Mark planted 300 acres of small grains to harvest this year. He has both winter small grains (wheat and cereal rye) and spring ones (wheat and oats). All of them were planted after soybeans, an early maturity variety to allow optimum planting date for the winter small grains to maximize winter survival. About half of his acres are already under contract to go to Albert Lea for seed. For the other half he’s aiming for a miller – which means he needs to achieve food grade test weight and protein levels and pass strict toxin tests for diseases and crop protectant residues (particularly herbicides). The following is his playbook for growing a high quality small grains crop that meets seed and milling market specifications.

Field Passes – Fungicides, Herbicides and Growth Regulators

Phil Needham is Mark’s small grains guru. He follows the Needham plan for “managing your way to higher profits” which are modeled after European wheat cultivation techniques that yield 150-200 bushels per acre. This year Mark has done/will do the following field operations:

Winter Small Grains (wheat, cereal rye) Spring Small Grains (wheat, oats)
Pre-planting or when over-wintering plants green up 15 gallons of 32% 180 lbs P & K, broadcast
V4-5 7 oz. Palisade® growth regulator and 4 oz. of Quilt® fungicide. 7 oz. Palisade® growth regulator, 4 oz. of Quilt® fungicide and 2, 4-D
Joining, plants 10-12 inches tall

10-20 gallons of 32%

Full flag

10 oz. Headline® fungicide and 7 oz. Palisade® growth regulator

Flowering/heading stage

7-8 oz. fungicide (product TBD)

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While farmers have been getting busy planting, we PFI staff have been getting to work writing up resources to make sure the 2017 season is the best yet for cover crops. Check out these three NEW resources for farmers and crop advisers on the latest recommendations for cover crop selection and best management practices.

Cover Crop Decision Tree

This fun, interactive sheet guides the user through the decision of what cover crop will work best in their operation. Following a series of yes or no questions about cover crop planting method and date leads the user to recommendations for cover crop varieties and seeding rates that will fit with their equipment and operation.

CC Decision Tree

The journey begins with a question about planting date. Follow the link to the full decision tree to find your ideal cover crop.

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By now, small grains have been planted and farmers have turned their attention to planting corn, and later to soybeans, but farmers must remember to continue to monitor small grains development during this busy planting time in order to achieve good quality grain. The March 10 shared learning call focused on best practices for fertilizer, herbicide and fungicide application as the three main management activities for small grains in the spring. The following are tips from our presenters David Weisberger, graduate researcher at ISU studying oat agronomy, and Bruce Roskens, Director of Crop Sciences at Grain Millers.

Fertilize pre or at planting to avoid lodging.

Small grain crops do not require as much nitrogen fertilizer as their large grain cousin, corn, and applying fertilizer at the wrong time can cause more problems than it solves. For oats, applying fertilizer at or after V4 stage will tend to increase height and decrease standability – increasing the likelihood that the crop will grow too tall to support its own weight and fall over or lodge. Pay attention to the characteristics of the variety to determine if it can handle a late fertilizer application. North Dakota and South Dakota lines like Deon and Hayden tend to get very tall so they are at high risk of lodging with late fertilizer applications. But, Illinois varieties are shorter and respond better to these late applications. In general, it’s better to keep fertilizer applications to pre-planting or soon after planting. Check the standability rating on the seed variety notes to gauge the risk of lodging with a later application.

Reins Oats planted 3-20-17

When small grains are small, like these oats or even smaller, it’s the best time to be making fertilizer and herbicide applications. Vic Madsen photographed this field on 4/22/17 (planted on 3/20/17).

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On Thursday April 6, fifty-one attendees gathered in the Leighton Town Hall for a cover crop field day hosted by Ward Van Dyke. After tucking into a delicious lunch organized by Sandi Van Dyke, we dove into the management and benefits of cover crops. We stayed indoors and had several presentations inside to kick off the program before moving our “cover crop caravan” to two field sites on two different farms to see cover crops on the ground.

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Field day attendees “caravan” between Ward Van Dyke and Arvin Vander Wilt’s fields passing green cover crop fields (left) on the way.

First Ward spoke about his experience with cover crops. He started slow with oats, but now he does everything with cereal rye. Though he thinks the cover crops are great for stewardship, he’s now looking to “make cover crops pay” through weed control. And so far it’s working, he said, “we just don’t get the problems with marestail when there’s rye.” Last year, he added a pre-emergent herbicide to the glyphosate burndown, but was able to cut out all herbicide applications after that. This year he hopes to leave off the pre-emergent herbicide application altogether.

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“We have an infiltration problem, not a runoff problem.” This Ray Archuleta quote was much discussed on third and final installment in the American Society of Agronomy’s 2017 webinar series “Cover Crops – Looking Beyond the Basics.” The webinar, which took place on February 9, featured Anne Verhallen, a soil scientist from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, and Dave Brandt, a farmer from Ohio, describing their scouting strategies for cover crops, and how these practices help them get to the root of production challenges on their farm.

A farmer scouts any time he or she goes out into the field and takes data on environmental and crop conditions. Taking data can mean many things from taking pictures to performing simple tests and recording the outcomes. For example, in order to determine if you have an infiltration problem — which as Archuleta reminds us, is really the source of runoff — Anne suggests performing an infiltration test, driving a plumbing pipe or coffee can with the bottom removed into the soil and then timing how long it take 1 inch of water to infiltrate until the surface is just glistening. Results will vary based upon soil type, but you ideally want to measure an inch of infiltration in minutes rather than hours. Anne says, “The soil needs pores from earth worms or cover crop roots to open space for infiltration. If it crusts then you’re going to start seeing erosion and loss of soil.”

Water Runoff

Run off like this is caused by a lack of pores in the soil which serve as the entry point for water.

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Roots of cereal rye in early April (pictured) can be a food source for harmful pathogens and insects if not managed carefully.

We don’t often think of our cover crops as gun slinging cowboys and cowgirls of the old west, staring down their pistols at villains of agriculture: diseases, insects, and weeds. But by the end of the webinar “Cover Crops and Pest Management: The Good and the Bad,” I was pretty convinced that while cover crops are no silver bullet for the big bads of agriculture, they mostly fall into the good category – even if they have a glint of the bad in their eye.

This first installment in the American Society of Agronomy’s “Cover Crop 2017 Webinars – Beyond the Basics” series explored the relationship between pests and cover crops. The two speakers showed that cover crops can be effective for combating pests (particularly weeds), but their potential to double-cross the farmer and become a host for insects and diseases should always inform management decisions.

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Today I’d like to introduce you to two farmers: Jenny Quiner and Dusty Farnsworth. Jenny runs a ¼ acre urban vegetable farm in Des Moines while Dusty farms several hundred acres of organic and conventional row crops with integrated hogs and cattle. What do these two have in common besides their membership in Practical Farmers of Iowa? They both use the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to develop infrastructure and implement environmental protection measures on their farms.

EQIP logo

EQIP is a federal cost-share program for farmers who implement any one (or more!) of  a large list of approved practices. Though EQIP applications are accepted on a continuous basis, March 17, 2017 is the deadline to submit mid-year 2017 applications for timely response. In 2016, 122 approved practices included projects such as installing windbreaks, bioreactors, and pollinator habitat or writing grazing and nutrient management plans. Approved practices are determined on a county by county basis depending on the environmental and conservation needs of the area. This map shows the 2017 lists of approved practices by clicking through for each county.

All approved practices qualify for 50% cost share, but certain factors such as historically under-served farmer status and/or alignment with federal initiative policies cause the cost-share rate to climb to a maximum of 90% (specifics on page 1 of this document). Though formulated as a percent, the payment is actually a flat rate based on the cost of implementing the practice in your area.

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One of the benefits of small grains is that they are very versatile crops. As we discussed in our previous blog about variety selection, a farmer can have many different end uses in mind when planting a small grain. One of the uses is to bale the straw for sale or for their own use. On our Feb 3 shared learning call, Extension educator and farmer Margaret Smith talked us through the costs of baling straw and market outlets for this product, advising that you have to do your math homework to see if it will fit in your business plan.

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Oat straw windrows at harvest on the Fleishman’s farm in 2016

There are three main costs involved in baling straw. The labor and equipment costs are the biggest line items, but — Margaret cautions — don’t forget that by removing straw you’re taking nutrients off the field. Straw yields vary, but we’ll use a typical yield of 1 ton/A for the following discussion. The current cost to replace macro-nutrients removed in a ton of straw is $9 for potassium (K) and $2.20 for phosphorus (P). In addition, carbon is lost from the system (800 lbs C/ton of straw) limiting potential positive impact on soil organic matter, though this aspect of soil health has no immediate, out-of-pocket dollar value. She estimates the costs per ton per acre for custom baling range from $67 to $77, but only about $60 if you own the equipment and are baling yourself, as shown in the table below.

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