Small Grains in the Cornbelt

Adding a third year of small grains into a two year corn and soybean rotation has numerous benefits for the environment and farmers. The cool season crop disrupts pest cycles that plague a purely warm season rotation between corn and soybeans and allows for more growth of a nitrogen-fixing, green manure cover crop after the earlier harvest in July. This can reduce inputs like herbicides, insecticides, and fertilizer and has the added benefit of spreading a farmer’s work load more evenly throughout the year. Given these benefits we would expect to see oats and barley grown all over Iowa, but we don’t. Small grains have largely been absent from the Iowa landscape since the 1970s and as a result, commodity buyers have stopped looking to buy small grains in this region.

In order to close this gap and connect farmers who want to grow small grains with buyers who want to source a more sustainable product, Practical Farmers and the Sustainable Food Lab are spearheading a three year small grains marketing pilot in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin. The program offers farmers in these three states cost-share to incorporate a third year of small grains into their corn and soybean rotations and works with industry partners to find market outlets for the harvested grain.



Both market and farmer participants in the pilot convene monthly for shared learning calls which focus on topics from variety selection to best management practices for growing small grains to successfully finding an end market for the grain. Farmers receive $40/acre on up to 80 acres of conventional or transitioning land and access to a peer and mentor network of small grains growers and experts to answer production questions.

Pilot participants will have to meet some data reporting requirements in order to receive this cost-share, as outlined in this memorandum of understanding. If you are interested in participating in the pilot as a small grains grower or participating in the shared learning calls email Sarah Carlson at [email protected] with your contact information and the number of acres you wish to enroll in the program.

Visit the small grains page for more information about small grains production, variety trials, or Practical Farmers Youtube channel to view our twelve-episode Rotationally Raised video series. This page contains our small grains directory, which we update yearly to include buyers of both seed and grain.

If you would like to participate in shared learning calls with farmers and small grains researchers or learn more about how buying rotationally raised small grains, corn or soybeans impacts sustainability metrics email [email protected] or call (515) 232 5661.

Each year we publish a small grains directory which is distributed to farmers in the pilot, at Practical Farmers Field Days, and publically available on our website. If you would like to be added to our small grains directory email Alisha at [email protected] or call (515) 232 5661.

Practical Farmers will also be exploring the development of an online market for small grains. Check back here to keep updated on the development of this platform.

We are conducting oat variety trials in Iowa and partnering on oat variety trials in Wisconsin to provide growers performance data specific to the region. The results of our 2016 trial are available here. Further PFI studies explore nitrogen rate needs for a corn crop following a green manure cover crop, triticale seeding rates and fungicide impact on cereal rye grain yield. For a complete and current list of Practical Farmers Research reports on small grains visit our research reports page and select “small grains” from the member priorities drop down list.

As part of this program, Practical Farmers will be convening an extended rotation expert council to facilitate further collaboration and information sharing between researchers who study management and impact of extended rotation systems that include small grains in the Upper Mississippi Basin. If you would like to be included on calls and meeting invitations for research network meetings email Sarah at [email protected].

Farmers who participate in the pilot will provide Practical Farmers with information about their management practices through several years of their extended rotation in 2017-2019. This data will be analyzed for sustainability metrics using the Field to Market Fieldprint calculator, the Cool Farm Tool (CFT), and the National Resources Conservation Services Resource Stewardship Evaluation Tool (RSET), among others, to determine the environmental and conservation benefits created by extended rotations with small grains. A summary of the changes in sustainability metrics aggregated across all farms will be published in a roadmap of next steps at the end of the project.

On August 17, 2017, Practical Farmers hosted a small grains conference, “Making Small Grains Work,” at the Quality Inn & Suites Starlite Village Conference Center in Ames. Attendees selected three sessions to attend of a total nine offerings (three concurrent sessions during three time slots). Practical Farmers members were invited to attend the conference free of cost, while non-members are asked to pay a $40 registration fee.

In 2018 and 2019 we will host one similar small grains conference in Minnesota and Wisconsin and continue to host an annual Iowa-based event.