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.

It was a picturesque scene at Grassway Farm in Maynard for the Wedemeiers’ first PFI field day. The milk herd grazed in a steady drizzle in the distance while the crowd huddled in one of the old barns to learn about organic transition from host, Scott Wedemeier.

Scott began with a little background information and an overview of the operation. “Initially when I came back from college we had just one barn with 100 stalls,” says Scott. “You need to increase your revenues, increase the volume of cows you milk when you add more people, and I was the extra person so we added more cows.”

Today the number of milk cows at Grassway Farm is 177.

“We didn’t want to add a lot of cost so we decided to start grazing,” says Scott. “We started grazing in 2005 and we’ve been grazing ever since. The reason we grazed initially was to add more cows with lower input costs from facilities and structures, but as you get into it more you realize there’s quite a bit of health benefits to the animals.”

With a new operation comes new challenges. Scott was met with some trials and tribulations before he worked out a way to graze cows, calves and heifers of all different ages without having to move several different herds.

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Willie Hughes (right) and father Randy (microphone) share their pragmatic approach to small grains on their farm in southern Wisconsin.

Willie Hughes and family welcomed a diverse group of field day attendees on July 12th to his family’s farm operation of 4700 acres outside of Janesville, WI with these words, “Today we will not see beautiful stands of conventional and organic corn and soybeans but visit the front lines of sustainability: small grains, cover crops and diverse rotations.” Hughes continued to explain that since 1991, when the farm began transitioning fields to organic production, there have been many successes and many failures. “We want to share the good and the bad and the sweet spot of what we currently see working in different parts of our operation.”

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It seems like breweries, both large and small, are getting creative with their products. Consumers are more and more interested in finding unique-tasting products and some are seeking out the locally-sourced brews. So, how do breweries source their ingredients to make a tasty end product? And how can farmers find ways to tap into these markets with what they grow?

Kevin Smith presents his session on What to Expect When Marketing to Breweries

Kevin Smith gave one of the market break-out sessions on how to understand and grow for breweries at the small grains conference, Rotationally Raised: Making Small Grains Work, in Mankato, MN on July 30. Kevin is a professor of agronomy and plant genetics at the University of Minnesota. He has years of experience researching and breeding barley, a small grain commonly used for making beer.

Kevin’s presentation went over some of the basics of the malting and brewing processes, what it takes to produce one of the most important ingredients in beer, malted barley, as well as how breeders develop varieties for malting and brewing.

Producing barley is different than producing other commodity crops like corn or soybeans because of how it’s tracked through the supply chain. Kevin says, “One of unique things about barely versus commodity crops is that the identity of the variety is preserved all the way through the supply chain.” So, if a brewer has a problem with a batch of malt the brewer can trace it back to the malt house, back to the farmer and possibly the field where it came from. Breweries malt barley varieties separately in order to control the taste and quality of the beer they produce.

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About the Award

Did you know that 53% of Iowa’s farmland is owned by non-operator landowners? This number is poised to increase as Iowa’s farmland undergoes a massive generational transfer.

Land owned by non-operators can present significant risks: Land tenure insecurity for tenants often decreases tenant interest in investing in conservation. Decision-making processes to make change production and conservation practices are more layered. Landlords often don’t see day-to-day management, thus are less knowledgeable and empowered to advocate for systems they believe in.

However, non-operator landowners also provide great opportunity for the future of Iowa farmland. That is why Practical Farmers started honoring landowners with the farmland legacy award in 2013.

Practical Farmers created the award to call attention to the vital role non-operator landowners play in shaping the agricultural landscape, rural communities and opportunities for beginning farmers. This award highlights people who use their role in land ownership to help create an agriculture that is in line with their values and goals. By sharing these success stories, we hope to empower other landowners to do the same.

Maggie and Steve, this year’s recipients

Maggie McQuown and Steve Turman are dedicated farmland owners very worthy of this award! This press release highlights their many major accomplishments, along with their goals for Resilient Farms, the farm Maggie grew up on and moved back to in 2011.

Award Ceremony recap

Fifty-five family members, friends and fellow PFI members came together to honor Steve and Maggie at their award reception July 31 in Red Oak. Continue reading

“What’s your favorite summer activity?”

Nora, Jaron, Dan, Lorna, and Torray Wilson listen as others share their favorite thing about summer

Attendees at Wilson’s field day July 20 near Paullina kicked off the day by introducing themselves and answering this question. Member Pedro Esquivas got kudos for traveling the farthest, from Madrid, Spain! Long-time member Paul Mugge who farms near Sutherland had the funniest answer: walking beans.

Dan and Lorna introduced the field day and provided farm history. The event was a family affair; all the Wilsons were in attendance minus daughter Faye and her husband Matthew, who were at a youth camp in Eastern Iowa. Dan and Lorna talked about the evolution of the farm and family: Dan’s parents, Beth and her late husband Ernie raised their family at the home site, where the field day was held. Dan did the same with his family. Now Beth lives nearby in Paullina; Dan and Lorna live within walking distance down the road; son Torray and wife Erin live at the home site; daughter April will soon live in a new home down the road; and Jaron and wife Liz, Faye and husband Matthew, and Robin live in Paullina. Continue reading

From left to right: Doug Adams, Seth Watkins, Chris Henning and Mitchell Hora

Doug Adams, a sixth-generation farmer in north central Iowa, led off the day’s presentations. He started using cover crops in 2012 and now uses cover crops on 100% of his own farmland. He advocates for experimenting on a small patch first, “The best way to learn how to manage it is to try it.” He shared some of his own experiments with different mixes, planting dates and application and termination methods. He also shared how environmental factors like rain and heat affected his results. At the end of the day, Doug finds that investing in cover crops pays off – he saves almost $12/acre when compared to a typical tillage program.  Follow Doug Adams on Twitter @farmerdoug93.

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On June 28 about 50 folks gathered in a church just west of Bedford in southwest Iowa to learn about small grains production; malting and brewing beer; and proper grazing management in pastures and cover crops. Our agenda was packed with speakers ranging from farmers to home brewers to extension agronomists – headed up by our hosts Pam and Rick Sprague of Sprague Bees and Beef.

After dinner, we started our program off with Paul Ackley who set up our discussion for the event by tying small grain cultivation and extended rotations with soil health. “Soil is a living system, so it’s correct to talk about it as soil health,” Paul says. “I’ve spent my life farming unlearning what I learned in college courses. Chemistry is a small part of how soils work, microbes are a big part.” In order to build his soil organic matter, Paul began grazing cover crops on his farm 10 years ago and found that he was able to increase his soil organic matter only to three parts per million. So he further diversified by adding wheat and summer cover crops. Now his soil organic matter is at four parts per million and rising.

Paul Ackley (holding mic) discusses small grains and extended rotation as Erin Ogle, Project Coordinator for the Taylor County Water Quality Initiative Project, shows attendees soil and plants from one of Paul’s wheat fields.

Though soil health is Paul’s primary goal, maintaining his farm profitability is also an important objective. “I grow wheat so that I can afford to grow corn,” Paul says. “My input costs are $75-120 less per acre when I’m growing corn after wheat.” Then he broke down those cost savings for us. With the small grains in the rotation, Paul doesn’t need to apply phosphate and potash to the other crops in his rotation so that decreases his expenses by $50/acre. Additionally, the varied growing seasons of wheat versus corn and soybeans help him control problem weeds and decrease his weed seed bank. So, he estimates he uses $15/acre less on herbicides than in his two-year rotation. The balance of the savings ($10-55) come from reducing his nitrogen applications to corn. “N is the big ticket item, I usually am able to cut N by about fifty pounds in my three-year rotation,” Paul says.

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Last year, when Nelson Smith’s neighbor dropped out of a Treffler tine weeder field day, Nelson filled the gap and hosted the event. The trailer that brought the German-built cultivator that day left empty, and its use on the farm lead Nelson to host another field day in 2018, this time with Practical Farmers of Iowa.

Nelson Smith speaks to a crowd of 77 attendees about his four year rotation and the history of this ground

Nelson’s father began grazing cattle and growing hay on this ground near Brighton in 1962 while Nelson worked in Wisconsin. Nelson came back to the farm and in 1998, after the Smith’s had owned the land for 35 years, Nelson got started in organics with 40 acres of organic soybeans.

“At that time the organic markets were not really well-known. The only market we had for our organic, food-grade soybeans at the time was Japan. So our beans left here they got shipped to the coast and they got shipped to Japan.” said Nelson. “Since then things have changed a lot and there’s a lot more interest in organic, there’s a lot more organic buyers out there. So now our soybeans go from here, down the highway and over to Washington which is about 15 miles down the road. We went from 4,000 miles to 15.”

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One of the keys to profitably integrating small grains into a corn and soybean rotation is keeping input costs low in the small grains year. While input costs such as fertilizer and herbicides are significant, perhaps one of the most substantial production costs, aside from land, is the equipment used to plant and harvest the crop. It is possible to use existing soybean combine equipment to harvest small grains, thereby keeping new equipment costs low, but some particular adjustments to the combine set up and a few key parts are needed to harvest small grains while minimizing grain loss. PFI lifetime member Wade Dooley wanted the low-down on how to set up his combine to harvest his cereal rye. So, we organized a combine clinic for small grains at Titan Machinery in Grundy Center where we looked at both Wade’s smaller straw-walker-type combine and some big rotor-type combine machines.

Clinic attendees gather around Wade Dooley’s straw-walker-type combine to hear David Freeseman (holding mic) walk through the combine settings and adjustments for harvesting small grains.

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Kate Edwards got her graduate degree in agricultural engineering with the desire to help make farmers’ lives easier. She eventually ended up in the Twin cities as an environmental consultant. Then she decided she’d rather be walking to a barn than to an office and decided to start on the journey to figure out what it would take to be a farmer.

Kate wanted to farm on the hills outside Iowa City close to where she was born. But, her land access options were limited. In the spring of 2010 she quit her job and called her grandma. When Kate told her grandma that she wanted to farm the response was, “We farmed so our children and grandchildren didn’t have to.” But Kate really wanted to farm, so she did it anyway. At first, she wanted to get into row crop farming, but that wasn’t a good option since she didn’t have the option of farming with family. She started farming vegetables instead with $5,000 worth of capital, one acre, and the knowledge from being a gardener. She tried to do a farmstand, but that fell through so she chose a CSA vegetable share (CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture). After starting with 11 families, eight years later she has a 200-family member CSA and a unique ground lease.

Landowner Rose Roelf with farmer Kate standing to her right

How She Found the Land

In 2015 Kate was looking for a new place to farm. Her neighbors, Mike and Rose Roelf, owned the land Kate was interested in. Kate said, “Rose, can I come talk to you? Would you consider leasing to me?” And Rose said, “Actually, we’ve been wanting to talk to you.” Kate had no idea that would happen, but this conversation precipitated the start of moving Wild Woods Farm to its new location on Rose’s land.
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