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.

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.

A man in an ISU baseball cap sits on a tall stool to the right of a screen displaying a photo of green rye growing in strips. Audience members heads appear in the foreground.

Don Elsbernd discusses cover crops at his field day in his (heated!) shop.

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:

  1. Consistent, economical establishment of cover crops;
  2. Demonstrate economic benefits of using cover crops;
  3. 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

On March 29th, 38 people braved the chilly weather to attend a field day hosted by Clark Thompson at the Royal Café in Story City, Iowa. Clark talked about his adoption of no-till and cover crops as well as his new bioreactor. After that, Doug Adams and Patrick Chase of the NRCS presented on soil health and ran a rainfall simulator for everyone. After these presentations, we went out to Clark’s farm to see his cover crops and his bioreactor.

Clark started his presentation by talking about his goals with farming: to be more efficient, to make decisions based on data and not on habits or what his neighbors are doing, and to follow what the data says. Data is very important to good decision making, and Clark uses his own data from scouting reports and many different soil tests to find multi-year trends. To attain the goal of efficiency, Clark practices no-till beans and strip-till corn. These practices minimize the number of trips across the field, thus optimizing equipment usage and minimizing equipment cost.

Clark Thompson speaking to a crowd at the Royal Cafe in Story City

Clark Thompson presenting at the Royal Cafe.

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.

A middle aged man in coveralls stands in a hole dug into a mostly brown field, holding a plant in his hand that has long roots clinging to soil

Steve Berger inspects the rooting depth of cereal rye planted in one of his fields. Photo: Cliff Jette, The Gazette

Fertilizer Plan

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

Our second spring field day as part of our 2018 Cover Crop Caravan series was hosted by Josh Nelson and Austin Charlson on March 28 in Clarion. Our plan was to have lunch in town and then head to Josh’s and Austin’s fields but an early spring snowstorm left 8-10 inches of snow on the ground in this part of north-central Iowa and kept us inside. Despite this, Josh and Austin shared with the group how they’re making cover crops work on their farms and we also heard from Doug Adams and Patrick Chase from the NRCS on the benefits of cover crops and reduced tillage for the soil.

Snow on the ground kept us indoors, but attendees learned plenty from the cover crop experiences shared by Josh Nelson, Austin Charlson and Doug Adams.

Continue reading

“What is entrusted to us, we should care for.” 

This stewardship ethic seeped into each unit of Shane LaBrake’s 2-day tractor workshops. Being good stewards of the land, our bodies, our workers’ health, and yes, the machines themselves, he argued, builds an environment where fewer resources and time are needlessly wasted. He also reminded workshop attendees of Neil Young’s prophetic album title: “Rust Never Sleeps.”

The largest takeaway for the attendees at the workshop were:
1. Tractors are powerful tools – use them professionally. Use ROPS, wear a seat belt, tell someone where you are, wear protective equipment, follow safe operating practices.
2. RTFM – Read The “Freaking” Manual. There are over 240 makes of tractor and over 9,000 models; knowing yours is what matters.
3.  Routine maintenance and daily pre- and post-use maintenance checks save time and money. (Shane provided a list of these checks, which he encourages farmers to keep visible on the tractor).
4. Each attendee felt more confident in their ability to continue learning how safety and effective operate and maintain a tractor. And they felt empowered by their new knowledge to be more discerning and confident when shopping for tractors and implements.

Workshop attendees learning about tire types and safety features on a New Holland TN65.

Continue reading

We kicked off our  2018 Cover Crop Caravan field day series on March 27 with Mike Jackson in Oskaloosa. The event started indoors at the Mahasaka County Extension Office in town before heading to the field to view some cover crops that were green and waiting for warmer temperatures to spur some growth. Mike shared with the group the when, what, how and why for cover crops on his family’s farm.

The cold weather didn’t keep attendees from venturing out to one of Mike’s cover crop fields to see the green cereal rye anxiously awaiting warmer spring temperatures!

Continue reading

For the tenth consecutive winter season, beginning and aspiring farmers in Practical Farmers’ network assembled for a two-day retreat to network and make progress building their farm businesses. The location and dates vary each year in an effort to attract new farmers from around the state, landing this year at the Wesley Woods Retreat Center in Indianola, Iowa.

Most of the attendees at this year’s retreat.

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.

A glass of raw grain, a glass of malted grain and a glass of beer form a triangle in front of a vertical malt logo

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.

Two men in collared shirts smile in a field of golden wheat that comes up to their knees

Ryan Burchett (left) and Gary Burchett are co-owners of the Mississippi River Distilling Company. They source 100% of their grain locally from farmers. Photo from: https://www.mrdistilling.com/quad-cities-businesses-partner-to-increase-whiskey-production-in-le-claire/

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.

Snowy barn and silo with several tractors parked in front

Cereal Rye

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

Guest blog post by USTN Coordinator/PFI Contractor Chris Wilbeck

The US Testing Network for non-GMO and organic corn yield trials has evolved since its founding in 2009.  Public data from the 2017 trials is now available online.

For more information about USTN and its members, go here.   For USTN Public Data, go here.

What is USTN?

It all started in 2009, when a few cutting-edge seed corn retailers and breeders decided it was time to build something they couldn’t find – a yield trial testing network for their non-GMO and organic hybrids.  PFI’s Sarah Carlson was there and helped to create the US Testing Network (USTN), a member-run organization for seed retailers and public and private breeders developing hybrids for the non-GMO and organic seed corn markets.   Now encompassing a regional network of more than 40 locations in 11 states, USTN has become the go-to option for small plot yield trials for those previously underserved markets.  Since USTN’s inception, PFI has acted as the test coordinator for the trials, with USDA-ARS (Ames IA) performing the data analysis. Continue reading