Tamsyn Jones

Outreach and Publications Coordinator

Tamsyn Jones joined the Practical Farmers staff in March 2012. She is the main media and outreach point person responsible for writing and sending news releases, fielding media inquiries and helping to coordinate the outreach efforts of other staff on our communications team.

Tamsyn also works on several Practical Farmers publications, from editing and laying out our quarterly magazine, "the Practical Farmer,” to coordinating our annual field day guide and conference publications, to assisting with the design and production of other PFI special projects.

Tamsyn received her B.S. in technical writing, with a focus in ecology, from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and her M.A. in journalism from University of Missouri-Columbia, where she majored in environmental journalism, studied environmental reporting in Australia and worked as a teaching assistant to soil science and agricultural journalism professors.

After graduating, she spent a year as a Rotary Foundation Ambassadorial Scholar in Tasmania, where she worked to foster greater international goodwill and understanding while pursuing additional post-graduate studies in radio and investigative journalism at the University of Tasmania. While there, she spoke to groups of Australians across the country, including Aboriginal groups in the nation’s heartland; interned as an ocean science writer; and immersed herself in the local traditional Irish and old-time Tassie bush music scene.

Originally from Pittsburgh, PA, Tamsyn and her husband, Chris Witte, have a three-year-old son, Dorian, whom they love spending time with and sharing their love of nature, hiking and the outdoors, and making music on their sundry collection of instruments, which includes banjos and bouzoukis. When she has time, Tamsyn enjoys playing her fiddle, mandolute, whistles and bowl harp, reading (medieval literature is of great interest) and playing with their two cats.

Blog posts

Kathy Voth

Kathy Voth is one of the featured speakers at Practical Farmers of Iowa’s 2018 annual conference (Jan. 18-20, in Ames), and we’re excited she’s able to join us. Kathy publishes the popular weekly online grazing magazine, “On Pasture,” in partnership with Rachel Gilker.

For 12 years, Kathy also worked with the Bureau of Land Management, working with ranchers, university researchers and agency staff to develop solutions that help communities live sustainably in their environment. In 2004, she developed a method, based on principles of animal behavior, for teaching cows to eat weeds.

I chatted with Kathy to learn a little more about why she advocates that farmers reconsider the place of weeds in their pastures. It turns out that weeds are highly nutritious for cattle, in addition to their abundance and resiliency to weather — and that cattle, just like people, learn to eat the food they grew up seeing their mothers and elders consume.

Kathy will lead a workshop on this topic, “Teaching Cattle to Eat Weeds,” at our annual conference next month. Visit http://pficonference.org to learn more or register.

Here’s what Kathy had to say to some of my questions.

When you first developed the concept of teaching cows to eat weeds, around 2004, it was a pretty radical idea for graziers. Have you seen more buy-in to this idea over the past 13 years?

That’s not changed – it’s still a pretty radical idea. Most people think that cows eat grass, sheep eat forbs and goats browse brush. What it comes down to is animals eat what they’ve learned to eat. Our thoughts about what animals eat really restricts us and them.

It kind of goes in waves. For a while I worked really hard at getting the information out. One time, I went to Missouri and when I came back, told my dad how people had pretty much laughed at me. Then five years later, they invited me back to the same conference to talk about the same thing.

My dad said I probably shouldn’t go. Well, I went and they thought I was the greatest thing. It depends on what people are ready to think about and accept, and you just have to be there at the right time.

What do you consider a pasture weed?

Lots of people are really hung up on the idea that a weed is bad and should be killed, but a weed is just a plant out of place. I think weeds are an all-around good thing.

Even among domesticated cows, different groups eat different things. I was in Boulder County, Colorado working with a group of cows, and they were pretty much eating anything. I thought, ‘I’m going to take in every single plant they’re eating and test it.’ It was like 20 plants. One was field bindweed. They’d been eating that long before I showed up.

A lady at the testing facility said she’d really like her cows to eat field bindweed – her cows didn’t have this particular culture. There are examples of cows eating all kinds of things.

From my perspective, we have wasted way too much time and money managing weeds and should let our cows eat them. The beauty of the process is that you train one group of animals to eat one weed and watch them in pasture. They will generally try other new plants on their own, because the training process opens their eyes to the possibility that other things can be food.

Mostly, we try to manage for grass.

Why do you think that is? If cows have these potentially diverse food cultures, why do you think there’s this misconception about and focus on grass?

My theory is the reason we think cows’ [only natural diet is] grass is that, when we could start to harvest forages and store them for long-term, about the time we got mechanized enough to do that, grass was an easy thing to store. So that’s what we fed them – the more grass you have, the more you have to store.

Back in the 1750s to about 1850, people thought cows ate carrots, beans, potatoes and turnips – things we’d never think of feeding them. That just pointed out to me that cows are flexible. It’s people who are inflexible.

Have you ever heard back from anyone who was initially skeptical of teaching cows to eat weeds, but had a change of heart?

I’ve had lots of people that were really skeptical and went ahead and did it – like one guy in Montana. I think he got roped into the project by a gal he worked with at [a natural resources conservation office]. I sent him instructions, he started training and I came out to help. Sure enough, [the cows] started eating some weeds, then other weeds.

The heifers we had trained he had in a pasture divided in half with a single wire. The steers on the other side of the wire learned how to eat the weeds from the heifers – so he was very sold on it.

The guys I worked with in Bolder County, Colorado were like, fine, we’ll give you some cows to work with but we don’t want to be involved. I would do different projects with these cows, trying them on different weeds. Eventually their owners became my friends. The last year I worked with them, they had a herd of 800 cows.

I didn’t always get the same cows, and the ones I trained that went out with the herd taught others. It took about six years of sorting cows – but now they run for the weeds first.

What that guy was really impressed by was that some of the native plants were making a comeback.

If graziers already feel they’re doing a good job managing their pastures, is there still a reason they should consider training their cows to eat weeds?

If you know what you’ve got in your pasture and know what you’re managing for, you can do a good job and maybe you won’t have any issues.

The problem comes when something bad happens – it gets dry, you’re managing as best you can but you overgraze. These accidents happen often, because weather changes often. Suddenly you have more cows than you thought.

My thought with [developing this approach] was that if my cows know how to eat weeds, I don’t have to worry because weeds are very resilient. They come up during drought, so my cows will always have something to eat.

Grazing weeds is a strategy for resilience. Plus – nobody knows this – weeds are more nutritious than grass. They are basically the equivalent of alfalfa or better.

Protein is one of the limiting factors for most cattle; it’s a hard thing for most cattle to get. Weeds are very high in protein, and very digestible. That means cows can gain weight even if their pastures are lower quality.

Any time an animal has protein and dry grass, they can eat all that dry grass as well and still get an adequate diet. The protein helps them process dry food better.

You might even be able to raise more cows – you basically have 43 percent more forage if you teach your cows to eat weeds.

Does your method for teaching cows to eat weeds work just as well with older animals? For graziers who want to start doing this, would they need to plan for a longer training period?

I started with heifers because we all believe younger animals learn more quickly than older ones. But then I started training anything that anyone brought me and it always worked.

Some individuals are better weed-eaters than others, but it wasn’t breed-specific, it wasn’t age-specific. If a mother cow was a really experimental eater and would eat a lot of new things, her calves were also like that – because I got to follow some of the calves over a number of years and watch their offspring.

The bulls were really interesting, because I would teach the heifers and they would put the bull in for just a day, and he would learn really fast – I think because he was trying to impress [the cows] and fit in.

The cows have taught me a lot over the years.

How do cows compare with goats when it comes to tackling pasture weeds? For graziers who do mixed-species grazing and already integrate sheep or goats, is there still a reason for them to consider training their cows too?

Goats don’t do a better job. I did goats for a long time and did prescribed grazing with them. What I found is cows are every bit as good as goats.

The reason I would always choose cows over goats is cows are so much easier to manage and sell on a market than a goat is. It depends on where you are – I think the goat market is getting better. But building fence for goats is so hard; they’re just so smart. But a cow, I can build a one- or two-strand fence and they’ll stay in.

I tell people if you already have cows and just want to get goats to manage weeds, don’t do it. Cows can do every bit as good as goats – even on brush.

But if you think you have a market for the goat or just happen to like goats and sheep, then that’s fine. I would probably still teach the cows to eat weeds.

First I would watch what everybody is eating, because before I knew cows could eat weeds, I knew there was research showing that you could put five goats per pasture and everyone would eat well. But I’ve since found it’s maybe 2.5 goats or 3 sheep per pasture.

Once cows have been trained to eat weeds, how much active pasture management is needed? Do you still have to get rid of noxious weeds?

For example, in Montana, they have a lot of spotted knapweed and really need to reduce that. To do that, there are times you really should put your animals in a pasture. I would do that in mid-July for Montana, because at that time your other plants have senesced. You’ll have grazed your spotted knapweed before it goes to seed, even if it flowers after that, research has shown that most of the seed isn’t viable.

You could manage timing that way.

One of the reasons I really thought training cows to eat weeds would be a good thing is because, while you can put up multiple fences and force cows to eat everything, in some places that’s not viable – the landscape is too big, or water sources aren’t close enough together. My thought is a if cow is out there 24/7 and knows to eat weeds, you don’t have to do anything about it.

 

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.

Our faith in straight lines is a curious cultural phenomenon. If there is one thing that is distinct about our part of the world, it is straight lines. A crisscross patchwork of roads and fence lines stretches into the distance. County lines are straight, city limits are straight, feedlots look like platted neighborhoods — and even farm driveways bisect yards and shrubbery with precision. Indeed, everything about our manmade environment is straight – yet nothing in nature follows a straight line.

In part, we owe this obsession with straight lines to Thomas Jefferson, who advocated for surveying frontier lands into perfect squares. This practice was passed into law by Congress in 1785. The dimension of the squares (640 acres) came from a quirky Welsh 17th-century mathematician named Edmund Gunter who had a passion for measuring and designing instruments. He invented an ingenious surveying chain that divided into equally sized links.

There were older methods of surveying, ones that merely counted paces and referenced landmarks. However, it was the square, orderly patchwork of sections and townships that, for better or worse, easily allowed land to be bought and sold once it was stolen from the original inhabitants.

Early surveyors endured all types of hardships as they attempted to chart straight lines through inhospitable swamps, trackless prairies and misty forests. While there was (and still is) a commercial motivation behind measuring land, it seems like there is some deeper need to impose orderly squares on the rebellious, convoluted canvas of nature.

On the night I stumbled across the bean field ahead of the ATV, I was determined to plan my future oat field. I should have done this some other time, but that wasn’t the point. I had been thinking about the oat field all day and when I had a chance to get into the field, I wasn’t going to allow the darkness to obstruct my plans.

Frontiers exist at the edge of the known universe, out there in the dark. In spite of what is unknown, we impose our schemes on the land, on the sea, on tomorrow. Our plans are in straight lines, but Nature and fate prefer crooked ones. We persist anyway, measuring, charting, planting flags in dark waterways, and dreaming of tomorrow.

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.

Keith and Barb’s son, Brent, also a Practical Farmers member, graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in animal science and is currently in his fourth year studying veterinary medicine at ISU. (Learn a bit more about Brent in this blog he writes for ISU Vet Med.)

“He has talked about combining a vet practice with our farming operation,” the Sextons report. “We have agreed that he will spend a minimum of two years after vet school working outside our county. After three years have passed, we will work on transitioning our operation to him or someone else.”

Long-time members of PFI, the Sextons feel a strong sense of community through Practical Farmers, and Keith shared on the most recent member survey that advice from Practical Farmers carries weight when it comes to making decisions about farm management.

“It’s difficult to say that PFI was the reason for a change,” Keith said, “but when they give the same message as ISU, IDALS, etc., I try to adopt the new practice.”

Keith attended Practical Farmers’ first small grains-focused conference in August.

A summary of the event — and links to presentations from the conference — are available on our blog.

PRAIRIE POTHOLES ARE USUALLY SMALL IN SIZE – but when farmed, these perennially wet spots on the landscape can have outsize implications for the environment and farm profitability.

The Prairie Pothole Region extends from Canada south and east, through parts of Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa.

In Iowa, many of these areas are found in the Des Moines Lobe, an area that spans the north-central part of the state, ending around the Polk-Story County line – and the vast majority of them are farmed. (If you’re unsure exactly what a prairie pothole is or looks like, take a look at some of the photos below.)

These areas of crop fields habitually yield poorly and drag field yield averages down – and they are prone to nutrient loss and leaching, raising questions about the benefits of continuing to grow corn and soybeans in them.

On. Aug. 31, about 25 people gathered at the farm of Jerry Peckumn, near Jefferson, to explore these questions and learn what new research from Iowa State University is revealing about these unique remnants of Iowa’s glacial past.

Part I: Research on Pothole Profitability

JERRY FARMS IN THE RACCOON RIVER WATERSHED with his sons, Tom and Ben, raising corn and soybeans, along with some hay and beef cattle, on about 1,900 acres. Part of the land is in native prairie, providing wildlife habitat and a refuge for native plants.

Jerry continues to farm the potholes on his land – but is starting to consider if he should manage these problematic areas on his farm differently.

Jerry, Tom and Ben Peckumn

From left to right: Jerry, Tom and Ben Peckumn

In partnership with researchers at Iowa State University, Jerry has started to collect data from the in-field potholes on his farm, which he hopes will offer guidance about the best way to manage those areas in the future.

“Prairie potholes need to be evaluated to find the best use of the land,” Jerry said. “Our goal is to make a good return on labor and management while trying to balance conservation practices.

Insights From Team Pothole

The first half of the field day, guests heard from two members of Team Pothole, a group of ISU researchers studying different approaches to managing farmed potholes, as well as the impacts of farming these areas.

Amy Kaleita, an agricultural engineer at ISU, is studying the water quality side of things. She gave some background on the project, including some of the main questions researchers want to answer:

  • What’s the hydrology of prairie potholes? (For instance, how long do they stay flooded, and how or when do neighboring potholes connect to each other and to downstream locales?)
  • What’s their impact on the crop?
  • What’s their impact on profitability?
  • How would alternative management practices affect their environmental and economic impacts??

“Potholes are so tiny – from less than an acre to several acres in size,” Amy said. “We’re among the first to be asking these questions.”

Amy Kaleita of ISU speaks to guests at Jerry Peckumn’s field day.

In addition to partnering with farmers like Jerry, Team Pothole has research sites at several of Iowa State’s research and demonstration farms.

“The [research farm] sites are all very conventionally managed,” Amy said. “One site is managed using aggressive, deep tillage. Another is using tile lines, and a third has been in the Conservation Reserve Program for 10 years.”

Amy invited guests to share their favorite approaches to managing the potholes in their fields. Responses ranged from adjusting the timing of spring planting to doing nothing and accepting the risk of a wet year.

Long-time PFI member Jim Sayers

PFI member Jim Sayers

Jim Sayers, a long-time PFI member who farms near Humboldt, was among those who tries to take a conservative approach. “I wait until later in the spring, or I [plant] in the mud,” he said.

“We till them in the fall,” Jerry said, noting that he’s observed differences in how well this method works on different potholes. “Not all are the same. There are some that, if I till that small area when they dry out in the fall, they seem to disappear. Other potholes, that doesn’t work at all.”

Amy replied that compaction is a possible culprit for the variable success Jerry has had with that method. Because tillage can alleviate compaction, she said Jerry’s observation “doesn’t surprise me at all.”

Key Research Findings

Amy then shared some of the key observations researchers have made so far:

  • All the potholes in the project flood from time to time, sometimes for less than a day – but sometimes for as long as a few weeks. “A couple were flooded knee-deep, for two weeks, on a graduate student,” Amy said.
  • Corn and beans are unlikely to survive more than 1 cm of flooding for more than two days. “Therefore, there is crop loss some years at all our research sites,” Amy commented.
  • Potholes in the study flood even when they have tile drains, and when there are surface inlets. “Extra drainage tile could help somewhat, but it won’t eliminate the problem,” Amy said.
  • More water ultimately drains through soils in potholes than in upslope positions. “This was a counterintuitive finding,” Amy said, because of the natural tendency of prairie pothole soils to drain poorly.
  • Prairie potholes are hotspots for nitrous oxide production – a major contributor to climate change.

Ag and Climate Change: A Possible Missing Link

Steven Hall, ISU biogeochemist, talks about climate change aspects of farming prairie potholes.

Steven Hall, a biogeochemist at ISU, picked up the presentation at this point. His work with Team Pothole focuses on processes that produce greenhouse gases – and he said it turns out, farmed potholes may have been flying under the radar.

“When it comes to the impact of corn and soybeans on climate change, the biggest issue is the production of nitrous oxide,” he said. “We’ve found that [farmed] potholes are hotspots for nitrous oxide (N2O) production.”

Steven said farmed potholes in the study produce 10 times more nitrous oxide than other areas of crop fields.

“When flooded, they provide the perfect conditions for denitrification.” For this process to occur in soils, he explained that three things are required: nitrate, organic matter and anaerobic conditions.

“We’ve found that [farmed] potholes are hotspots for nitrous oxide production . . . . When flooded, they provide the perfect conditions for denitrification.”

— Steven Hall

Saturated prairie potholes provide all three. “Potholes are draining the rest of the landscape, where nitrogen then sits,” Steven said. “The darker soils in potholes? That’s organic matter.”

Microbes in the soil then feed on the glut of nitrogen, producing nitrous oxide – a highly potent greenhouse gas (it is 300 times more effective at absorbing radiation than carbon dioxide).

N02 is also more destructive than CO2: In addition to heating the atmosphere, it breaks down the earth’s protective ozone layer, Steven explained, making people and the planet more vulnerable to the effects of solar radiation.

The cumulative environmental effect of farming millions of acres of prairie potholes could thus be significant, he added.

“An average of 9 percent of [Iowa’s] landscape is in potholes. It depends on the county you’re in, but ranges from 5 to 10 percent,” Steven said. “We now think prairie potholes could account for a missing chunk of the nitrous oxide tally not accounted for elsewhere.”

Management Options

With most climate models predicting more intense precipitation, Amy said that means prairie potholes are likely to flood more often in the future.

The good news is farmers have a range of options for managing these areas:

  • One option is to retire them. “Enroll those acres formally in CRP or stop farming them,” Amy said. “That spares nutrients from being dumped in them, and reduces phosphorus, potassium and nitrogen going into tile lines.”
  • Switch crops: A second option is to plant more resilient perennial crops, such as miscanthus – an energy crop which has the added benefit of potentially providing some income from those acres.
  • Keep farming them, but reduce water flow into potholes: Another option is to adjust some other farm management practices so less water is delivered to pothole areas in the first place. “Dial back on tillage, or switch to some type of conservation tillage,” Amy said. “The pothole is still farmed, but management practices encourage better water infiltration upland.”

Team Pothole’s research has found this approach decreased the number of days of standing water in farmed potholes by almost half, from around four to five days to just two or three days. The chances of crop yield loss were also reduced from 30 percent in any given year to 15 percent, Amy said.

Questions From Attendees

George Pollack

George Pollack

  •  Constraints to different management? George Pollack, a PFI member from Guthrie Center, asked what’s preventing farmers from putting prairie potholes into set-asides.

“Some are so small, it’s the hassle factor,” replied Jim Sayers. “It’s easier to just go through it. Having profitability numbers might help.”

Amy said some farmers she’s spoken to have shared that they continue to farm potholes so they can have all their farm acres producing. “The motivation isn’t so much profitability, but getting yield off everything.”

  • What about planting prairie? Jerry Peckumn wondered about the value of putting prairie in or near some of those wet spots. “There must be some value to wildlife habitat from an economic standpoint,” he said.

Amy replied that there are indeed wildlife benefits to having water remain in the potholes a little longer. “At around four to five days is when freshwater shrimps might appear,” she said, commenting how they can stay dormant in the soil until conditions are right. “That would draw birds. We also see ducks swimming in them.”

  • Pothole behavior in CRP vs. row crops? Stefan Gailans, Practical Farmers’ field crops and research director, asked if there are any differences in how potholes behave in CRP versus row cropped areas.

“That’s next on the list of questions to answer, but we expect [nitrous oxide production] to be less in CRP,” Steven said. “A big issue is you might have killed off the crop [in the pothole], but probably put nitrogen on in full earlier in the season. Microbes will take advantage of all that free nitrogen. If you cut down on available nitrogen, there’s less for microbes to work on.”

  • What about trees? Jim Sayers asked about planting trees in prairie potholes. Amy said that’s a question her team would love to answer, but “trees are hard to simulate. We would love to partner with someone in the real world to test this.”

Steven shared a final thought with the group: “Find something that will grow in there, that’s compatible with the rest of your farm – and maybe even produces some income.”

Read More About Potholes

Part II – Creating Habitat for Native Bees: Prairie and Bare Ground

THE SECOND HALF OF THE FIELD DAY focused on in-field prairie plantings and bee habitat plots. Mary Harris, an assistant professor and pollinator specialist at Iowa State University, discussed Iowa’s native bees and the situation facing these vital pollinators as their habitat has disappeared to development and agriculture.

Mary, who works within ISU’s departments of Entomology and Natural Resource Ecology and Management, explained that Iowa has more than 300 native bee species, and the vast majority are solitary bees, where the female builds her own nest.

“Bees need flowering resources — but they also need undisturbed soil to nest, ground that is somewhat bare, as it might have been in prairie ecosystems due to badger diggings, for instance.”

— Mary Harris

Solitary bees don’t create communal hives, like honeybees, and they don’t get nearly the kind of media attention their European cousins do — but these and other native pollinators are hardworking underdogs of the pollinator world, helping pollinate everything from fruits and vegetables to a plethora of native plants.

Mary Harris {right} discusses the benefits of a bee habitat plot — a patch of ground intentionally left largely bare — to field day guests.

“Bees need nectar and pollen — and they need access to pollen to feed their young,” Mary said. “But 75 to 90 percent of the landscape is planted to corn and beans. Corn is wind-pollinated, and soybeans — most bees do not prefer that pollen. Soybeans only produce a little pollen in the mornings and don’t need bees to pollinate. We need areas with a diversity of flowering resources.”

Mary has been conducting research with ISU’s STRIPs project, which looks at various effects and benefits of integrating prairie strips into row crop fields. Her research with the project has been focused on the impact these in-field prairie plantings have on native pollinator habitat and health.

Bare Ground = Vital Native Bee Habitat

Jerry is one of 10 farmers throughout Iowa cooperating with STRIPs (which stands for Science-based Trials of Row-crops Integrated with Prairie Strips). In addition to having prairie plantings at various spots on his farm, he is participating in a different sort of bee habitat experiment: leaving some ground intentionally bare.

“It’s counter-intuitive,” Mary said. “Bees need flowering resources — but they also need undisturbed soil to nest, ground that is somewhat bare, as it might have been in prairie ecosystems due to badger diggings, for instance.”

This step might still be too radical for many farmers, Mary admitted. Prairie strips offer a range of other benefits, from erosion control and habitat to significant water quality improvements — not to mention the possibility of cutting prairie strips for hay (one farmer Mary mentioned uses his cut prairie strips for animal bedding).

Prairie plants flower on the Peckumns’ farm as Ben Peckumn (blue shirt) and other field day attendees walk to view the bee habitat plot.

But intentionally removing plants and leaving the ground bare? Mary said it will probably take time to educate farmers on the vital role these strategically situated bald spots play in the lives of Iowa’s native bees.

Diversity Abounds on Jerry’s Farm

In Jerry’s prairie strip areas, Mary’s research team identified more than 48 species of bees — an impressive tally, Mary said, especially because not all pollinator plantings are equal when it comes to diversity of flowering plants.

“You have a very diverse bee community here,” she told Jerry. “And that’s in the middle of the peak [row crop] production season. We’re finding that if you have five flower types blooming at any one time, up to 10 types, you can support a pretty high diversity of pollinators,” Mary said. “There’s a pretty high correlation.”

Field day attendees had a chance to see both the prairie plantings and the special bare patch — situated among some prairie plants. The bald spot wasn’t huge, perhaps 10 feet in diameter — but evidence of pollinator activity was clearly visible. Holes pocked the ground — some probably too big for bee nests, but others potential nest entrances.

Guests were also treated to the sight of a native predator wasp (species not identified at the field day) attempting to dig into a bee nest it had discovered, and evidence of wildlife activity was abundant: bird feathers near the bee habitat plot, and as if on cue, a deer bounded through the prairie planting at the foot of a corn field.

The cumulative impression — for this author, at least — was that Jerry must be doing something right: It is possible for production agriculture fields to simultaneously nurture spaces where nature and wildlife can thrive.

Before the group left to head back to Jerry’s barn for lunch, Mary left the group with more philosophical food to ponder: “We may very well lose honeybees. It’s very hard to keep them over the winter in Iowa, and now there are all the stresses affecting them,” she said, referring to the wave of illnesses, die-offs — including from colony collapse disorder — that have been decimating honeybee populations across the U.S. over the past several years.

“Native bees can pollinate as well as honeybees. It’s important that we protect them.”

Some Extra Photos From the Field Day

Throughout Practical Farmers’ 2017 field day season, we are spotlighting many of the PFI farmers who are graciously giving their time to share their knowledge at these events, as well as members who make the journey to attend them.

Watch practicalfarmers.org and “Practical News,” our weekly email newsletter, for details and updates!

Teresa and Rodne Wendt
Members since 2012
Stanwood, IA

Teresa and Rodne own 120 acres of farmland near Stanwood, where they raise corn, soybeans and cover crops, primarily rye, as well as custom-grazed sheep – and they hope to add cattle within the next year.

“We’re replacing fences right now with the plan to get cattle of our own in 2018. We plan to start with feeders and then develop a breeding herd,” Teresa says. “We’ll do managed grazing and limited grain feeding on pasture, with an eye for the total system.”

Rodne farmed conventionally with his dad for many years, and Teresa grew up on a farm, but she says “this is my first foray into farming for myself. We married in 2013 and have two boys, ages 1 and 3.

“2016 was our first year farming together, and we are starting out with no-till and cover crops. Last year was our first year of covers and 2017 was the first time for no-till, so this is brand new.”

Planning a resilient farm

When they got married, Teresa says Rodney was not farming, “for reasons beyond his control. This meant I had several years to take him to field days and watch videos about soil health and biology before we did start farming together.”

One field day the Wendts attended was the PFI trip to North Dakota in 2015, where guests visited the farms of Gabe Brown and Jay Fuhrer. Teresa says she and Rodne “learned a lot” on that trip and they hope to implement a similar farming system based on extended rotations.

“We had lots of in-depth conversations about how we could implement the principles of soil health on our farm, so we had a great plan in place before we even started. We’re very interested in the Dave Brandt / Gabe Brown system of long-term rotations for weed suppression and to limit applied fertilizers.

“We intend to do a four-year rotation in a few years, with corn-beans-rye grain-pasture, and to rotationally graze the crop fields two out of those four years. All years would have cover crops, the last two with really diverse mixes for grazing.” Continue reading

Throughout Practical Farmers’ 2017 field day season, we are spotlighting many of the PFI farmers who are graciously giving their time to share their knowledge at these events, as well as members who make the journey to attend them.

Watch practicalfarmers.org and “Practical News,” our weekly email newsletter, for details and updates!

Wendy Johnson and Johnny Rafkin
Joia Food Farm
Members since 2011
Charles City, IA

Wendy Johnson and her husband, Johnny Rafkin, returned to Iowa seven years ago so Wendy could farm with her dad. Wendy and her father grow conventional corn and soybeans, hay and sheep near Charles City. They have been using cover crops for five years, and this year they have added oats into the rotation.

Wendy and Johnny also operate Joia Food Farm, raising certified organic row crops, farrow-to-finish pigs, and pastured broilers and layers. They transitioned 30 acres to organic and as of 2016, those acres were certified organic. They have also been making improvements to their pasture, including intensively rotationally grazing their grass-fed sheep flock.

“I care about our planet and what we eat,” says Wendy, who also serves as vice-president of Practical Farmers’ board of directors. “We’re also farmers, so trying to combine conservation efforts with humane and ethically raised meat is important to us.

“We want our daughter – and other kids – to live on this planet for a long time, and the best way is to be good stewards of the land and take conservation seriously.”

Wendy and Johnny are hosting a field day on Thursday, Aug. 3, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., where they’ll explore how to manage low-lying areas on the farm, know as potholes, that pool water and often yield poorly during wet years. They’ll also discuss other conservation measures they use on their farm.

Learn more about the field day here (and be sure to RSVP for the meal by Monday, July 31! You can contact Debra Boekholder at (515) 232-5661 or debra@practicalfarmers.org).

To learn more about Wendy and Johnny:

Throughout Practical Farmers’ 2017 field day season, we are spotlighting many of the PFI farmers who are graciously giving their time to share their knowledge at these events, as well as members who make the journey to attend them.

Watch practicalfarmers.org and “Practical News,” our weekly email newsletter, for details and updates!

Robert Alexander (right)
360 Heritage Farms
Member since 2015
Granville, IA

Robert (right) and his daughter, Adalynn, crouch in some oat stubble with a red clover underseeding at Scott Ausborn’s recent field day near Ida Grove.

Robert and his wife, April, operate 360 Heritage Farms near Granville, in Sioux County. The 160-acre farm features row crops, hay, a flock of 30 hair sheep (a new addition) and a herd of 40 grass-fed Angus-cross and Belted Galloway cattle. Calves are grass-finished alongside cows, and the herd is raised without hormones or antibiotics.

The whole farm is in transition to organic, though corn was certified organic this year. Robert and April grow their own hay to feed their cow-calf pairs and to sell. “One of the big things we do is sell small, square alfalfa bales,” Robert explains.

Starting to Farm

Robert grew up on his family’s farm, Alexander Farms, located in nearby Remsen. When he decided he wanted to pursue farming as a career, he says selling hay is how he got his start. He had been living in Des Moines, going to school and working, and decided to return home in the spring of 2008.

“I needed to make a car payment when I first moved back from the city,” Robert says. “We had some extra hay, so I took it to auction and started from there. We always had livestock on the farm and had always been putting up hay for our own animals, so it wasn’t anything new to me.” Continue reading

Practical Farmers’ 2017 main field day season is upon us!

Over the coming weeks, to help highlight some of the many farmer-led learning opportunities this growing season — and the farmers and farmland owners hosting them — we’ll be spotlighting many of the PFI farmers who are graciously giving their time to share their knowledge at these event, as well as members who make the journey to attend these unique events.

Watch practicalfarmers.org and “Practical News,” our weekly email newsletter, for details and updates!

Maggie McQuown
Resilient Farms
Member since 2014
Red Oak, IA

Maggie McQuown and her husband, Steve Turman, are farmland owners who live on land near Red Oak, in southwestern Iowa, that has been in Maggie’s family for generations. Maggie inherited her family’s Century Farm in 2011.

Her great-grandparents, J.E. and Retta Taylor, purchased the farm in 1899 and named it Pleasant Prospect. When Maggie and Steve moved to the farm in 2012, they renamed it Resilient Farms to reflect their goals of long-term sustainability and conservation.

The 170-acre farm features 130 acres of corn-soybean row crops, a farmers market produce garden, a 118-year-old Victorian farmhouse, a new Passivhaus energy-efficient home, several historic farm buildings, plus multiple conservation practices dating back to the 1920s.

Maggie grew up on the farm, and shares many fond memories of farm life — from swinging on a rope in the barn, to riding the tractor and combine with her dad, to detasseling corn and swimming in the creek — in a farm legacy letter she wrote as part of Practical Farmers’ Farm Legacy Letters Project (and which is published in the book “The Future of Family Farms”). Continue reading

Practical Farmers’ 2017 main field day season is almost upon us (our first event will take place this Sunday, May 21, at Blue Gate Farm).

Over the coming weeks, to help highlight some of the many farmer-led learning opportunities this growing season — and the farmers hosting them — we’ll be spotlighting many of the PFI farmers who are graciously giving their time to share their knowledge at these events.

Watch practicalfarmers.org and “Practical News,” our weekly email newsletter, for details and updates!

Fred Abels
K & A Acres Inc.
Member since 2004
Holland, IA

Fred Abels and his wife, Vicki, farm about 400 acres at K & A Acres Inc. Fred acquired the farm from his uncle in the late-1970s after working for other farmers for a few years. In addition to corn and soybeans, he has a cow-calf herd that he rotationally grazes.

He uses several conservation practices to protect his soil, local waterways and wildlife, including no-till, strip-till, cover crops, the Conservation Reserve Program and grass waterways, among others. Continue reading

Practical Farmers’ 2017 main field day season is almost upon us! Our first event will take place on Sunday, May 21, at Blue Gate Farm, operated by Jill Beebout and Sean Skeehan.

Over the coming weeks, to help highlight some of the many farmer-led learning opportunities this growing season — and the farmers hosting them — we’ll be spotlighting many of the PFI farmers who are graciously giving their time to share their knowledge at these events.

Watch practicalfarmers.org and “Practical News,” our weekly email newsletter, for details and updates!

Jill Beebout

Jill Beebout
Blue Gate Farm
Member since 2004
Chariton, IA

Jill Beebout farms at Blue Gate Farm with her husband, Sean Skeehan. They steward 40 acres of family land in southern Marion County, which has been in the Beebout family for generations, where they raise Certified Naturally Grown produce, laying hens, honey bees, hay and alpacas.

Their marketing is done primarily through their CSA and at farmers markets, including the Des Moines Downtown Farmers Market.

Jill also makes homemade preserves from the produce she and Sean grow, and dyes and spins yarn from fibers sourced from their own alpacas as well as other wool sources.

Jill and Sean’s vision is to create an economically and ecologically self-sustaining homestead that provides an ongoing connection to the Beebout land for their family, guests and themselves. Continue reading