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.

The Farm-to-School Program at the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, in partnership with USDA-AMS, routinely publishes data from farm-to-school purchases of fruits, vegetables, dairy and meat in Iowa. The latest report is available here. 

The data, gathered from schools, includes products procured from growers and producers in the state of Iowa and within 30 miles of the border. By item, the data include: total volume purchased, price range from all purchases, weighted average price/unit, and the weighted average price/unit from the prior year.

Below is a snapshot image of the latest report. Additional resources about farm-to-school for school administrators, farmers, and value-added producers are available at the Farm-to-School Program website and the Iowa Department of Education website.

Sometimes cover cropping in between corn and soybeans is, let’s face it, kind of boring. Your choices are cereal rye, cereal rye or cereal rye for something that will establish and overwinter. What is an adventurous farmer to do?? Grow small grains like oats, cereal rye or wheat instead. Because these grains are harvested in July, cover crops can get a lot more days in the field. This opens up the options for cover crop species that just don’t make sense when they’re planted in October. To guide us through making the most of this luxuriously long summer cover crop window, Dave Robison “The Cover Crop Guy,” spoke on our June shared learning call about how to fit cover crops to your farm.

Mark and Melanie Peterson of Stanton, IA plant big cover crop mixes for grazing cattle after rye harvest. Here, Melanie Peterson stands in a 12-species mix of sorghum sudangrass, buckwheat, cowpeas, mung beans, forage peas, oilseed radish, oats, sunflower, Sunn hemp and chickling vetch. The mix was seeded in August 2014 and this photo was taken on Oct. 6, 2014.

“Following small grains with a cover crop is such a blessing. So much easier than putting it after corn or soybeans,” Dave says. “Cereal grains are really a great opportunity for you.” The first step to making the most of this opportunity is to establish your goals. With cover crops generally a farmer can have one or several of the following goals:

  1. Grazing – This is the most profitable opportunity for cover crops. You may also be able to take off a hay or forage crop if you forgo grazing and then plant soybeans.
  2. Addressing compaction
  3. Winter hardiness
  4. Grow nitrogen for a following corn crop
  5. Provide space to spread manure and hold nutrients in the field

Continue reading

The last day of May was hot and sunny for Grade A Garden’s first PFI field day, but a delicious lunch in the shade and the openness of the hosts kept the 50 attendees energized and engaged throughout the day. Jordan Clasen and Whitney Brewer discussed vegetable crop production, use of the layers as fertility in their field rotation, garlic production, and after a break for lunch, showed how they set up their farmers market booth and shared tips on marketing. Photos, quotes, and a summary of the field day are provided, below.

Jordan Clasen began growing garlic in 2010, at the urging of long-time farmers Larry Cleverly and John Whitson. By 2012 he quit his job and planted almost 20,000 garlic plants. In 2013 the farm started a vegetable CSA, added chickens, and increased the garlic field to 25,000 plants. Now with Whitney Brewer on the farm, the pair have 60,000 garlic plants, several acres of diversified produce and 285 laying hens. They maintain a 120-member CSA, and sell at the Des Moines Downtown farmers market and a few restaurants. “We’re at a scale that small enough that we can manage it without going crazy.”

Vegetable Production

Jordan and Whitney installed a high tunnel in December 2017, which they purchased through a kickstarter campaign. They love it, they only thing they would change is to get a bigger one. Jordan got the low tunnels, from Johnny’s, early on in the farm. Right now they are still picking some greens out of them, but next week will rip them out and re-plant. Are the low tunnels worth it? Jordan says, “Heavens, yes. They cost about $1,000 bucks of materials, but they come with the bender and directions from Johnny’s. We plant in there early and harvest a lot of lettuce out of there. Occasionally you fight the wind, which can blow the plastic off, and it’s frustrating but you deal with it.”

Continue reading

Over the span of two days, May 22 to 23, 2018, Garrin and Kristten Buttermore of Uncle G’s farm in Ogden, Iowa lost approximately 100 broiler chickens. The USDA promptly responded to this emergency and tested for bird flu since the birds were dying quickly and in large numbers. The bird flu results came back negative.

Upon further inspection, the birds had gnats in their throats and lungs. Garrin Buttermore suspects Buffalo gnats. The broilers received numerous gnat bites that resulted in an anaphylactic reaction. A veterinarian told Garrin the life cycle of gnats is about three weeks ending just about the time mosquitoes appear. This makes late May a critical time to watch for this issue. In other parts of the U.S., the gnats are killing larger livestock and deer.

Buffalo gnats are also known as black flies. Photo courtesy of Darren Blackford, USDA Forest Service,

Garrin shared his experience on the PFI livestock discussion list, and other members weighed in with similar stories. Terry LeDoux of Tipton experienced this years ago and says, “A strong breeze and darkness help hugely.” He recounts the birds pilling on each other as they tried to get away from the gnats. In response to the issue, Terry changed his broiler start date and doesn’t order chicks until the third week of May. By the time the chicks are done brooding, the Buffalo gnats are near the end of their cycle. “This has been a life saver for me,” said Terry.

Jim Jansen of Elkader says he has gnats every year because he’s close to the Turkey River. He’s learned a few lessons on how to protect his birds since he finds they aren’t good at avoiding gnats. Jim says, “The key is to provide indoor shelter. The smaller the opening into shelter the better. They are the worst when it is hot and humid – no wind. So will be forced to put a fan in shelter. You can also keep a fan on them where they feed and water.”

Brian Nowak-Thomson of Mount Vernon has found that using vanillin helps. Vanillin is extracted from vanilla beans or can be made synthetically. He boils about two tablespoons of vanillin crystals in water to dissolve it (noting it isn’t very soluble). He then dilutes the solution in a gallon of water and fills a small pump sprayer. About every two days, Brian sprays the chickens while they roost, and he also sprays the vents on his chicken wagon. Tom McDermott of Clinton gives his chickens access to tubs of diatomaceous earth and says the dust baths seem to help.

Practical Farmers of Iowa is delighted to have so many leaders in its membership. These members lead at Practical Farmers, as well as in their communities. This year member names are coming up quite frequently as they run for office across Iowa. Practical Farmers of Iowa doesn’t endorse any candidate, as it strives to be a place where many come together and learn from a spectrum of viewpoints and experiences. However, we are proud to share the multitude of members that ended up on ballots this year.

Are you running for office, but not on this list? Email Sally Worley and we will add you!

Secretary of Agriculture

  • Tim Gannon
  • Chad Ingels
  • Craig Lang


  • Fred Hubbell
  • John Norris

State House

  • Brenda Brink (District 49)
  • Kayla Koether (District 55)
  • Ryan Marquardt (District 25)
  • Denise O’Brien (District 21)
  • David Weaver (District 47)

County Supervisor

  • Linda Murken (Story)
  • Mark Peterson (Montgomery)
  • Thomas Thurston (Marshall)

Soil Water Conservation District Commissioners

  • Jack Boyer (Tama)
  • Steve Carlson (Boone)
  • Selden Spencer (Story)

For more than 30 years now, Practical Farmers has remained focused on helping farmers build resilient farms and communities, primarily through on-farm investigation and farmer to farmer education. As our membership has diversified since the 1980’s, we’ve continued to build our farmer-led niche to include programming for nearly all enterprises and production practices.

PFI’s number one value is to welcome everyone, but in order to welcome everyone and their diverse viewpoints, the board of directors has been careful to get involved in agricultural policy. Still, just as we recognize the value of our members’ knowledge for teaching other producers about their practices, there’s also value in sharing this knowledge with lawmakers. One of the most effective ways to influence policy makers is for a farmer to explain face-to-face how that issue directly affects them and other Iowans. You can read more about Practical Farmers policy work here, including farm bill issues approved by the board.

Mark Peterson in D.C.

PFI’s Board President Mark Peterson recently participated in a “fly-in” to Washington D.C. organized by the National Wildlife Federation. One of the issues important to NWF is to better align crop insurance with conservation practices. Crop insurance reform is not currently a board-approved area for PFI to advocate on, but we’re always happy to assist groups such as NWF find someone like Mark who cares about the issue and wants to help on their own behalf.

I recently caught Mark on a morning too wet to plant his beans, and was able to ask about his trip to D.C.

Continue reading

Our sixth field day, as part of our 2018 Cover Crop Caravan series, was hosted by Zak Kennedy on April 5 in Atlantic. Cover crops were greening up in southwest Iowa and 25 people came out to hear from Zak Kennedy talk about how he integrates cover crops into his cattle feeding operation. Zak, his wife Emily and brother Mitch, operate Kennedy Cattle Co., in Cass County, Iowa. They background cattle from all over the US and have found that using cover crops as a feed source provides profits, among other benefits. As a cattle farm first, and crop farmer second, the focus of this field day was on the livestock.

Field day attendees walk through Zak Kennedy’s cereal rye fields on April 5, 20118.

Crop crops and livestock pencil out

Zak first tried planting cover crops in 2012. Since then, he’s grazed them, chopped them and baled them. Over the years, he has grazed heifers, steers and cow-calf pairs on covers throughout the fall, winter and again in the spring. At times,  he didn’t have to feed them anything other than the cover crops. This translates to money saved. Zak provided the group with numbers from grazing this last year.

Fall 2017:
– Zak turned out 125 steers weighing 850 pounds on 45 acres of cereal rye
– He didn’t feed them for 18 days, saving $2 per head per day
– This adds up to $250 dollars a day in savings, which equals $4,500 in savings over 18 days
– Cover crop seeding cost $25 per acre on 45 acres; which equals $1,125
– $4,500 in feed savings – $1,125 in seed costs = $3,375 savings 

Continue reading

In Iowa and across the Cornbelt a late fall cover crop planting date and cold spring has left farmers with reservations about terminating cover crops now when it’s so small, especially if weed control is a primary goal. But, in order to comply with standard crop insurance rules, farmers would have to go ahead and terminate anyway.

Luckily, we’ve already done the research to show that in this case, farmers and insurance providers can have their cake and eat it too. PFI member and farmer Tim Sieren near Keota, IA evaluated soybean yields on his farm when rye was killed May 5, 2017, either 11 days after planting soybeans or 2 days before soybean planting in this trial. Soybeans yielded the same across all treatments at 66 and 67 bu/A, respectively.

 This evidence plus the statewide lag in cover crop growth convinced NRCS to create a process to allow farmers to delay terminate cover crops and still fully ensure their cash crops. This process is called a “deviation” from the Risk Management Agencies (RMA) Cover Crop Termination Guidelines.

 If you want the option to leave your cover crops in the field longer this year, follow these three steps to secure your deviation today.

Step 1) Check your RMA termination deadline.

Iowa falls into termination zones 3 and 4. For the western half of the state (the pink region) farmers must terminate an over-wintering cover crop at or before planting, and have 7 extra days to terminate if no-till. For the central and eastern half of the state (the blue region), farmers must terminate an over-wintering cover crop at or within 5 days after planting a cash crop, and have 7 extra days to terminate if no-till. As long as cover crops have been terminated within these guidelines and it was terminated before crop emergence a farmer can fully insure their corn or soybean crop.

Now that you know what the rule is for your area, does it fit with your management goals on the cover crop? If it doesn’t and you want to request an extension, continue on to step 2.

Step 2) Let your crop insurance agent know you’ll be requesting a deviation. Within the RMA guidelines it states:

Insurance shall attach to a crop following a cover crop when the cover crop meets the definition provided in the Basic Provisions, was planted within the last 12 months, and is managed and terminated according to NRCS guidelines. If growing conditions warrant a deviation from the guidelines, producers should contact either Extension or the local NRCS for management guidance. For information on cover crop management and termination guidelines, refer to the Cover Crop Termination Guidelines published at

Step 3) Request a termination deviation from your county NRCS office. They will work with the state office to provide a letter stating that cover crops can be terminated outside of the current guidelines but prior to reaching 24″ in height if followed by a soybean cash crop, allowing flexibility to use cover crops for weed control and providing continued soil health benefits. Pre-emerge herbicide effects and label compliance also needs to be considered when delaying termination.

For more information on how to agronomically manage cover crops to avoid a negative effect on corn or soybean yield contact me at Practical Farmers 515-232-5661.


Our fourth field day, as part of our 2018 Cover Crop Caravan series, was hosted by Bill Frederick on April 3 in Jefferson. On this snowy day, 30 people gathered in Bill’s heated shop to hear from three young farmers who’ve had success integrating cattle into their cover crop systems. Bill, and his friends Dusty Farnsworth and James Holz, all farm in west-central Iowa and each have uniquely used cover crops and cattle to add value to their operations. Each farmer shared with the audience the environmental and economic benefits they’ve experienced.

When it stopped snowing, field day attendees checked out Bill Frederick’s cereal rye growing on April 3, near Jefferson. Bill calves on this pasture on the spring, which alleviates calving in a muddy lot and improves calf health.

Crop diversification & livestock integration create profits

Bill Frederick, farmer in Jefferson

Bill Frederick is a big proponent of grazing cover crops. He and his family operate a diverse farm, that includes small grains in addition to corn and soybeans. He harvests small grains in mid-summer, which provides a large window to grow additional forage that his cattle can graze in the late summer and fall. His mixes have included oats, turnips, kale, winter wheat, triticale and cereal rye. Bill uses a rate of 1 to 1.5 bushel per acre when seeding cover crops; a higher-than-normal rate because they will be used for grazing.

“Any time you don’t have to start a tractor and feed hay is a win in my book,” said Bill, while he explained that cover crops provide him grazing opportunities at times when he would normally be feeding hay. Bill figures it costs him $1.25 per head per day to keep a cow if he’s doesn’t have cover crops to graze. That figure can add up quickly. Using this figure for his 50 cows adds up to $1,875 per month. The last two years he’s grazed cover crops for 74 days each year – between September and May – which replaced $4,625 in winter feed each year. This number does not take into consideration the cost of cover crops and application, which costs Bill $25 per acre. The discussion of hay prices came up and attendees unhappily shared that hay is selling for $120 to $160 per ton currently. This makes the prospect of saving on hay even more attractive.

Continue reading

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