Alisha Bower

Midwest Cover Crop Associate

Alisha Bower joined the PFI team as the Midwest Cover Crop Associate in the first days of 2017. Her work supports cover crops and small grains programs and involves grant tracking and reporting, event planning, data collection and management, and communications.

A native Wisconsinite, Alisha was raised on a small hobby farm in Southwest Wisconsin’s picturesque Driftless region. She attended the University of Minnesota Twin Cities majoring in Political Science and Spanish, then returned to school for her Master of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin Madison, focusing her studies on nonprofit administration and designing and managing research projects in agriculture and food systems. While working on her Masters she served as a Project Coordinator at the Integrated Pest Management Institute of North America and collected on-farm data from diversified organic vegetable operations. After completing her graduate degree, she moved to Lima, Peru for a brief internship with the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service where she paused between bowls of ceviche and lomo saltado to interact with producers, agribusiness representatives, and policy makers to support U.S. farmers’ and ranchers’ interests abroad.

After work, Alisha enjoys singing show tunes while gardening, fermenting anything remotely edible (or drinkable!), and biding her time until her next international adventure by reading books that explore different cultures.

Blog posts

Have you ever heard of a shared learning call? Probably not, unless you’ve been participating in our small grains monthly calls for the past year. They’ve worked so well there that we’ve decided to try out the format for other topics. A “shared learning call” is essentially a conference call, where you dial into a conference line with many others and listen as a farmer shares their practices for about 15-20 minutes and then we open the floor for questions and discussion for the rest of the hour. All you need is a phone!

Our first cover crop shared learning call will be on February 16 from 12-1 p.m. when Mitchell county farmer Wayne Fredericks will share his strategy for managing cover crops and planting into cover crop residue on heavy soils. Fredericks has been no-tilling soybeans for 20 years and has been planting cover crops, mainly cereal rye, since 2011. Here’s a sneak peak of his tips on planter set up for cover crop residue that he’ll share on the 16th:

“Watch your depth if you’re planting into high residue. You want to plant a little bit deeper,” he says. Fredericks sets his planter a quarter-inch deeper than he normally would on his John Deere 1790 which has 24 units on 15-inch rows. He also runs 400-pounds of down pressure per unit when planting into heavy rye residue. “Having the ability to apply the necessary down pressure is key.” If this is your first time planting soybeans into rye, you might want to plant into knee-high growth instead of waiting until it gets to almost three feet high. But, ultimately, “Termination timing isn’t as critical on soybeans as on corn,” he says. “I’ve planted soybeans into cereal rye as high as this table (34 inches).”

A red tractor pulls a blue planter through lush green rye that's as tall as the tractor wheels

Wayne Fredericks will discuss planter set up for situations like this, “planting green” into living rye cover crop.

To Participate:

  1. Dial 641-715-3620
  2. Enter passcode 357330# when prompted
  3. Put your phone on mute to avoid feedback during presentation and unless speaking in the Q & A

Be sure to your calendars for these additional upcoming shared learning calls:

  • Friday, March 2 Noon – 1 p.m. Shared Learning Call on Marketing Small Grains to Breweries and Distilleries
  • Friday, March 16 Noon – 1 p.m. Steve Berger of Wellman Shared Learning Call on Cover crops for corn & soybeans: planter setup, nitrogen for corn, termination reminders

It’s hard to pick just one favorite part of the PFI conference, but I think mine is our potluck and this year we have a special treat – a whole roast pig from one of our members! Please join us Friday January 19 from 7-11 pm for a shared meal hosted by Ty and Bobbie Gustafson of Story City Locker and Donna Prizgintas and Lonna Nachtigal of the DonnaLonna Kitchen Show. Practical Farmers will provide a main dish, coffee, water and tableware. Please bring a side dish and beverage to share.

Potluck is held at CMPI Event Center (2321 North Loop Dr.) in Ames. Friday January 19, 7:00-11:00 pm.

A long line of people select food from a huge table laden with dozens of brightly colored dishes of food.

2017 PFI Potluck

PFI will provide:
  • A whole roast pig from Crooked Gap Farm, roasted by Story City Locker;
  • Buns from Madrid Bakery;
  • Salad greens from Lee’s Greens;
  • Beans from PFI member Darren Fehr;
  • Coffee and water;
  • Tableware.

Don’t want to keep food cold or warm all day? You may drop food off at Scheman when you arrive for the conference and we will transport it for you! Items can be dropped off on a designated table on the ground floor at Scheman. We will transport food from there until 5 pm 1/20/17. We can plug in crock pots and refrigerate dishes.

Need to pick something up last-minute? Visit one of these local establishments:

Don’t miss this fun family event! 

Two young boys, one holding a big brimmed hat talk to two men who are seated at a table enjoying food and beer. In the background you can see many tables full of people eating.

PFI staffer Stefan Gailans and PFI member Jeremy Gustafson are entertained by two youngsters at the potluck.

Increasing rates of cover crop use on rented ground is the next frontier in improving water quality, promoting soil health and improving farmers’ resilience and not all of this rented land is privately owned. Local, state, and federal agencies own a large amount of land in the U.S. for the purpose of protecting natural resources and providing public infrastructure (flood management, water quality management, etc).

There are three main public agencies that own and rent farm land in Iowa: The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the United States Army and the Army Corps of Engineers. For the DNR particularly, renting out this agricultural land is a balancing act between making sure that land is productive and creating and protecting wildlife habitat. The use of cover crops between cash crops on public rented ground addresses both of these goals.  Cover crops are planted to coincide with maturity of commodity crops like corn or soybeans and protect the soil until a new cash crop is planted in the spring so that there are living roots in the ground at nearly all times. This protects natural resources like water and soil by preventing erosion and nutrient leaching, and it provides and/or improves habitat for both aquatic and terrestrial species (see Wilcoxen et al. 2017).

A male farmer, dressed for cold weather kneels in a harvested field of corn where a lush, green cover crop is growing among what's left of the corn stalks

An Iowa Farmer inspects growth on his cereal rye cover crop, planted earlier this fall.

Despite the natural overlap between the goals of public agencies like DNR and the outcomes of cover cropping, it is still rarely implemented on their rented land. We spoke with land managers at several public agencies to better understand the barriers and opportunities for implementing cover crops on public lands. The following blog outlines three case studies where public land managers have added cover crop requirements in their leases and we conclude with some lessons learned that could help other public land managers implement cover crops on their acres. We found that the elements of a successful lease are: a cover crop requirement, basic best management safeguards and a penalty if cover crop is not established. To effectively manage these leases, land managers also require easier access to quality information about cover crops and should leverage public support for cover crops in their county.

Army – Middletown, Iowa

The Army owns 20,000 acres in Des Moines County where it operates a munitions plant near Middletown, Iowa. In 2017, just over 1,000 acres of land suitable for row crop production was leased to farmers on leases for one, two or five years. Since 2015, a stipulation of these leases was that cover crops had to be used, motivated largely by the Army land manager’s own interest in the benefits of cover crops. The exact language from the lease used at the Middletown plant is located in Section five of the Agricultural Land Use Regulations and Special Conditions (p. 26). It states:

A screen capture of the lease that says: "The lessee should plan to direct seed/plant cover crops the same day the row crop is harvested."

This language includes several key factors to ensure both compliance with the cover crop requirements and a successful cover crop establishment. To the first point, the lease contains explicit language about a monetary penalty for failing to establish a cover crop. The penalty payment is strategically set at $60, higher than the $40-50 per acre cost to install cover crops. This provides an incentive to the manager to pursue the cover crops as the more cost-effective option.

To ensure that the cover crop is successfully established, the lease takes one step further with some guidelines on cover crop management and planting. Notice that if the cover crop is drilled, the lease suggests the tenant should plant cover crops on the same day as row crop harvest – a best practice to ensure maximum heat units and cover crop growth before the winter dormancy period. The lease prohibits fall tillage; safeguarding the benefits of leaving cover crops growing or their winter kill residue on the fields through the winter and spring protecting the soil from erosion and holding nutrients in the plant tissue. Another stipulation requires the farmer to consult with the IAAAP Agronomist on cover crop rates and varieties so they have some expert guidance to develop a successful strategy. These clauses not only maximize the environmental benefits of cover crops, but also support the farmer in managing these tools in their production system.

A small red airplane flies low over a field of yellowing soybeans on a sunny day with few clouds dotting the blue sky

Because the Army’s fields surround a munitions plant, they have special stipulations for planting methods for cover crops. Aerial seeding (as shown in this photo) was only allowed as a permissible practice in the 2017 lease, previous versions required cover crop planting via ground methods.

DNR – Ringgold County

After the DNR committed to cover cropping 100% of their row crop leases in 2014, DNR staff in Southwest Iowa have been pioneers in taking on the challenge of implementing the mandate. Because the DNR leases in this part of Iowa tend to be larger, continuous acreages, it made it an ideal place to pilot cover crop requirements in leases. Provision 13 of the addendum to a lease for 160 acres of row crops in Ringgold County for 2016-2020 reads:

A screenshot of the DNR lease that says "Cover crops are required on all row crop fields unless the field is to be seeded down the following year or an exception is made by the land manager"

The requirement is simple, straightforward. So far, it has been well received, with only one case of a farmer simply not following the requirement. Rather than have a penalty tied directly to the cover crop provision, the following clause applies to all of the items in the addendum:

A screen shot of the DNR lease that says, "Failure to follow any of the above rules without written approval from the land manager can result in termination of any or all leases with the State of Iowa."

While this allows the agent to dismiss the tenant at any time during the four year lease, it doesn’t provide the DNR manager with many options for encouraging compliance with the cover crop requirement. The risk of dismissing a tenant mid-lease and being unable to find a replacement is a serious consideration for land managers. Having an intermediate, financial consequence diversifies the tools that land managers have to encourage behavior change even within a set lease period and offers a lower-risk option to address non-compliance rather than terminating the lease.

One approach taken by Josh Rusk, the DNR land manager for the Ringgold lease, has been to work with Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) or Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) to cover the costs of implementing cover crops for the farmers. The farmer applies for cost share through their county NRCS or IDALS office and receives technical advice there on how to plant and manage cover crops. If necessary, Josh says, “I will take the extra cost of doing cover crops into account when setting the rental rate. We’re not in it for the money; we’re in it for the management, so I have this flexibility.”

An additional benefit of working with NRCS is that planting date requirements and prohibitions against fall tillage are enforced through the cost share. These management aspects are thus not required in the DNR lease, but many leases, like the Ringgold example, include prohibitions against fall tillage in addition to the NRCS restrictions. It is a best practice to include basic management safeguards like planting date guidelines or prohibitions on fall tillage after cover crop establishment, even if they are encouraging tenants to work with the NRCS, so that basic best management practices are secured regardless of the tenant’s use of other cost-share programs.

DNR – Badger Creek, Madison County

Andy Kellner manages DNR land in Madison and Adair counties and, like Josh, has gotten creative with how to implement cover crops with his tenants. His work with his tenant on the Badger Creek Watershed in Madison County is an example of how land managers can start implementing cover crops with their tenants even if they’re in the middle of a lease.

When the DNR started encouraging land managers to include cover crop requirements in their leases, Andy had just signed a five year lease with his tenant for the Badger Creek land. Rather than wait for five years to take action, Andy started having conversations with his farmer. “The farmer was nervous about the money he was putting into it because it’s not his property and doesn’t have a guaranteed lease forever,” Andy says. “So I worked with the NRCS to get the cost share and then committed with the farmer to take any remaining cost off of the rental rate.” The Badger Creek Park is on state land and  because the lake is on the impaired water list, the area is eligible for Environmental Quality Incentives Program and federal Water Quality Initiative money. Andy worked closely with Anna McDonald, the watershed project coordinator for the Badger Creek Lake Watershed Project, to identify and enroll his tenant in cost-share opportunities. So far, cost share has covered all of the costs for his tenants so he hasn’t had to lower rental rates at all.

Badger Creek Lake Watershed Project Logo featuring an animated badger perched on an outline of the shape of the watershed

The Badger Creek Lake Watershed Project has been a major partner in getting cover crops on DNR’s leases in Madison County.

“As soon as you get over the price barrier to let them know that there are price programs and lease negotiation possibilities,” Andy says, “then it’s a positive conversation because they’re curious – it gives them a no-risk trial. And hopefully we can be a good example for neighbors.” So until the lease comes up for renewal, Andy has a verbal agreement with his tenant to plant cover crops built on the strength of their relationship.

For land managers who don’t have a rock star like Anna driving the process to connect farmers with cost-share and information on how to successfully manage cover crops, locating the tools to implement cover crops can be a barrier. “We do find that we share a lot of goals with the farmers when it comes to conservation,” Andy says. “It’s just a matter of providing or connecting them to the right resources to get it done.”

In talking with DNR land managers, a surprising barrier they identified to putting cover crops into leases was the beginning farmer requirements for public ag leases. In 2013, the Iowa legislature passed a mandate that DNR leases had to be given preferentially to beginning farmers to increase land access for those starting out. In 2017, any farmer with a net worth of less than $645,284 qualifies for preferential access to DNR leases under this policy. Therefore a small farmer who has been farming for fifty years but comes in below the net worth threshold because of special accounting practices or agricultural management qualifies alongside a farmer in their fourth or fifth season who hasn’t amassed large assets yet. In Josh’s words, “With beginning farmers, they’re pretty receptive to doing new practices. It’s the old timers that have more of a problem adapting to new practices.” In DNR staff’s experience, the current policy brings in both of these groups of farmers for preferential treatment.

A second issue with the beginning farmer policy is that it requires all DNR contracts to be posted to a public forum for a certain period to allow beginning farmers to apply for them. Previously, DNR land managers had the option to continue to offer the current tenant a renewed lease without posting it to the public forum if the rent was under $5,000 per year. The change is problematic for cover crop goals because it exacerbates the inherent tension in implementing long-term conservation measures on short-term leases. If a farmer only has a two year lease then they will do most of the work for cover crops but not reap the benefits of building soil health in the term of their lease. This is then further compounded by uncertainty around whether or not they will be able to renew their lease on that ground, so there is no business case for caring for the rented land as a long-term investment; current legislation requires that preference be given to beginning farmers who have not participated in the program over a beginning farmer in a position to renew their lease (House File 457, Section 1.7).

Typically, one strategy for creating a conducive environment for cover crops on rented ground is to increase lease (and thus relationship) lengths so both parties have a long-term stake in its management. Working within a structure where long-term relationships are off of the table, DNR land managers like Andy and Josh have turned to agreements that cover the up-front costs of cover crops through leveraged state and federal money to make sure that these practices can fit in their tenants’ business interests.

Lessons Learned

From these case studies and others we were able to identify the following elements of effective cover crop lease requirements:

  1. A cover crop requirement in the lease with absolute language;
  2. Best management guideline such as event date (plant cover crop same day as harvest, before November 1, etc.) to promote cover crop establishment or prohibition on fall tillage after establishment;
  3. Penalty for noncompliance (lease termination or additional charges).

Our interviews with staff from several different public agencies within and outside of Iowa indicated that comfort with cover crops among the staff who manage land resources is often a key barrier or opportunity to implementing cover crop requirements. Knowing some basics about the best management practices for cover crops can go a long way to helping land managers write leases and interact and answer farmers’ questions about the lease requirements. We saw in the Ringgold and Badger Creek case studies that the land manager relied on NRCS or Watershed Coordinators to provide a lot of this technical information. Land managers can use this watershed project website to identify if there is a watershed project in their area and this IDALS website to find contact information for each of the county SWCD offices where the watershed coordinators are housed. These offices also deal with state and federal cost-share programs, so they are a one-stop-shop for farmers seeking cover crop assistance.

To address this knowledge gap among DNR staff, the DNR may consider setting up a state-wide cover crop training event or several regional events for land managers led by experts like Practical Farmers of Iowa or NRCS, allowing land managers to attend cover crop field days on work time or developing a mentor network for land managers to interact with their peers who have already started working with farmers to implement the cover crop requirements. Any or some combination of these options would help land managers expand their knowledge and confidence on cover crops, allowing them to tackle adding cover crop requirements to their own leases head on.

Public agencies that own and lease farmland have an enormous opportunity to implement conservation practices that provide public goods as a model for other farmers and landowners. These conservation practices not only promote clean water and improved soil health, but also work towards goals such as creating wildlife friendly spaces, a central component of the DNR’s mission. The case studies presented here provide blueprints for other DNR and public agencies in Iowa to incorporate cover crop requirement language into their leases. Land managers should attend cover crop field days in their area or seek out educational materials online about cover crops to equip themselves with basic information to begin conversations with their renters.

With these next steps, the DNR and other public agencies in Iowa can create successful cover crop practices that both fit in the business and production plan of the farmer and satisfy the stewardship goals of the public agency.

After taking a several month hiatus from our shared learning calls, in September we jumped back into the swing of things with a call on crop insurance options for small grains. Mark Gutierrez and Criag Christianson from the regional Risk Management Agency (RMA) office in Minneapolis joined us to review the available policies for these crops. We compared and contrasted single crop policies and whole farm revenue policies so farmers could make informed decisions about what crop insurance option would work best for their small grains.

Individual Crop Plans:

Individual crop plans insure a farmer’s yield or revenue on one product, such as oats. If that farmer produces corn, soybeans and oats and chose to insure through single crop policies, they would have three policies – one for corn, one for soybeans and one for oats. Within individual policies there are three different types of insurance that you can purchase, which I’ll list so it’s easier to read:

  1. Yield Protection Plan – Policy is based on 3-10 most recent years of actual production history on your farm of the crop in question. Then loss claims are based off of production levels or yields. Loss payments are your production shortfall multiplied by your projected price for the crop.
  2. Revenue protection plan – Policy is also based on 3-10 years of production history, but compensates for price drops rather than yield drops. The price secured by the policy for the product is determined using spring projections and actual harvest prices.
  3. Area risk protection plan – For this plan, the RMA assesses yields over a whole area and when they drop below a certain threshold everyone in the area with this policy receives a payment – whether or not the farmer personally has suffered substantial yield losses.

But because all of the small grains are not widely grown throughout the upper Midwest, not all small grains are covered with ready-made single crop policies. The following small grains policies are available by state:

StateYield Protection Individual Crop PlansRevenue Protection Individual Crop Plans
IowaBarley, Sorghum, Oats, WheatBarley, Sorghum, Wheat
MinnesotaBarley, Buckwheat, Flax, Oats, WheatBarley, Wheat
WisconsinBarley, Sorghum, Oats, and WheatBarley, Sorghum, Wheat

Now, even though there are some counties in Iowa that offer ready-made barley policies, not every county carries that as a standard option. Even if the policy you’re seeking is not offered a la carte, so to speak, in your county, your insurance agent has the ability to write you a custom agreement for yield protection or revenue protection policies (there are no written policies for area risk protection policies, since presumably there isn’t enough production in your area to determine area losses). This means they will consult policies from other counties or even other states in the region and write you a special policy for that crop. If your crop insurance agent is unfamiliar with this process, they should work with their Approved Insurance Provider for help on completing a written agreement request. RMA can work with the agent and the company underwriter if they still have questions about the process.

Whole Farm Revenue Protection Policy:

Whole Farm, for short, was first offered in 2015 and is distinct from individual policies because it insures your revenue from all of your farming enterprises combined. The policy determines your historic average revenue from the last five years of your schedule F tax forms. Unlike a single crop policy, you don’t need a minimum of three years of verifiable production records to get a policy. Your insurance agent can instead use projections from similar crops or area levels to set an expected price for the crop, which will be adjusted as you accumulate years of yield and price data, so you can insure crops that you are growing for the first time as long as you have been farming for at least five years.

Whole farm is formulated to reward diversity. Your agent will use your commodity count to determine coverage levels. In order for a commodity to count in this official tally it has to meet a minimum level of revenue in order to be included. So, for example, if you have two crops and one generates 95% of your revenue that would only result in a commodity count of one. As your commodity count rises you increase the coverage options available to you. If you have one or two commodities you would only qualify for 50%-75% insurance of your annual revenue – but with three or more commodities you can access 80-85% coverage levels, though these policies have less federal subsidies than the lower coverage options. Additionally, for each crop in your commodity count up to seven you get a discount on your premium base.

Winter wheat grain in bag

This hard red winter wheat, grown in Iowa, could be insured under either a yield or a revenue protection policy. But this is not true for all small grains, like oats, where only yield policies are offered.

Another reason you might consider a whole farm policy is that it offers revenue protection on any crop while individual crop policies for small grains don’t always have a revenue protection option. If you refer back to the table listing single crop policies, you will see that oats, flax, buckwheat, and rye (italic type in the table above) only have yield protection options. We hear from farmers that low prices and lack of viable markets is the biggest barrier to growing small grains regularly and at scale. If you too are most concerned about securing a good price, it is worth considering a revenue protecting policy either at the individual or whole farm level.

But there are reasons why you might prefer an individual crop policy. Cash flow is one reason. You have to file your taxes for the year and present your schedule F in order to secure a whole farm payment. So if you are concerned about waiting several months after a crop or market failure to receive your payment, whole farm might not be the option for you. The other reason you might opt for an individual policy over whole farm is that you cannot purchase both a catastrophic plan and a whole farm plan for your farm. And if you have individual policies on crops and whole farm then loss payments from your individual plans will count as revenue for your whole farm policy. If you like to really cover your bases on insurance policies then whole farm may not be a good one to add because its benefits are sharply limited by doubling up with other policies.

If you are interested in joining us for our monthly small grains shared learning calls to hear more information like this, contact me at [email protected]. We are now accepting requests for our $40/acre cost share on small grains harvested in 2018. To request acres fill out this survey: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/DXGGRHG. Read more about the cost-share program requirements in this flyer.

On August 17, nearly 80 people gathered in Ames to attend our first conference focused exclusively on small grains. We opened with lunch and a keynote from Don Halcomb, the chairman of the Kentucky Small Grain Promotion Council, sharing the history of how growers in Kentucky came together to create a small grains association and a wheat checkoff. Then, twelve speakers gave hour-long presentations on all things small grains – from selecting varieties to management to the use of small grains for animal feed or milling for human consumption. The day concluded with a buyers and sellers reception where small grains buyers from six companies mingled with farmers and answered questions about their market specifications.

We were fortunate to take video of several of the sessions at the conference and have just published our first one, Pete Lammers’s session on feeding small grains in livestock rations.  “You can feed small grains to your livestock,” Pete said, “they won’t die.” In the video, he covers current research on outcomes of feeding small grains to pigs, poultry, horses and ruminant animals and optimal inclusion rates in rations.

We’ll be releasing more videos of sessions at the small grains conference in the weeks to come, so check in on our youtube page to stay up to date with the latest releases.

In the meantime, slides and handouts from each of these twelve presentations are now online so you can catch up on what you missed or revisit some ideas you heard at the conference. You can follow the links below to the presentation materials or visit www.practicalfarmers.org/small-grains where the links will be permanently housed under “conference sessions” toward the bottom of the page.

  1. Developing Small Grains  Markets through a Growers Association – Don Halcomb – PDF
  2. High Yielding Winter Wheat Production – Don Halcomb – Handout
  3. Small Grains in Feed Rations – Pete Lammers – PDF– Handout
  4. Market Specifications and Contracts for Food Grade Small Grains – Sam Raser – PDF
  5. Winter Rye Varity Selection, Nitrogen and Disease Management – Jochum Wiersman – PDF
  6. Winter Wheat and Barley Selection, Nitrogen and Disease Management – Joel Ransom – PDF
  7. Equipment Set Up for Small Grains and Green Manure Success – Keith Kohler – PDF
  8. Growing Conventional Small Grains with Livestock – Lee Brockmueller – PDF
  9. Oat Variety Selection, Nitrogen and Disease Management – Mac Ehrhardt – PDF
  10. Function and Benefits of Green Manures – Matt Ruark – PDF
  11. Managing for Food Grade Quality Organic Oats in Iowa – Darren Fehr – PDF
  12. Putting Organic Crop Rotations to Work – Erin Silva – PDF
  13. Business Planning and Management of Small Grains in Organic Transition – Jonathan and Carolyn Olson – PDF

All in all, the event was a huge success. Many attendees asked me if we would do this again next year – and the answer is yes, in Minnesota or Wisconsin. As part of our Small Grains in the Cornbelt project we are offering small grains cost share and educational programming around small grains in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin. In each of the three years of the project we will host one small grains conference in one of the three states. So to catch this event next year, you’ll have to hit the road. Hope to see you there!

DSC_7210

Conference attendees mingle with representatives from companies that buy small grains at the closing reception.

Ditlevson head shot

Mark Ditlevson of Blooming Prairie, MN Photo: Marie Wood. May 10, 2017. “From the fields, May 12: Farmers plant in May sunshine.” The Land Online.

After taking a break in May we got back onto our monthly small grains shared learning call on June 9. One of our pilot program farmers from Blooming Prairie, Minnesota, Mark Ditlevson, took the floor at the beginning of the call to discuss his fungicide and fertilizer regime for his small grains and his set up for harvest, which is right around the corner.

Mark planted 300 acres of small grains to harvest this year. He has both winter small grains (wheat and cereal rye) and spring ones (wheat and oats). All of them were planted after soybeans, an early maturity variety to allow optimum planting date for the winter small grains to maximize winter survival. About half of his acres are already under contract to go to Albert Lea for seed. For the other half he’s aiming for a miller – which means he needs to achieve food grade test weight and protein levels and pass strict toxin tests for diseases and crop protectant residues (particularly herbicides). The following is his playbook for growing a high quality small grains crop that meets seed and milling market specifications.

Field Passes – Fungicides, Herbicides and Growth Regulators

Phil Needham is Mark’s small grains guru. He follows the Needham plan for “managing your way to higher profits” which are modeled after European wheat cultivation techniques that yield 150-200 bushels per acre. This year Mark has done/will do the following field operations:

Winter Small Grains (wheat, cereal rye)Spring Small Grains (wheat, oats)
Pre-planting or when over-wintering plants green up15 gallons of 32%180 lbs P & K, broadcast
V4-57 oz. Palisade® growth regulator and 4 oz. of Quilt® fungicide.7 oz. Palisade® growth regulator, 4 oz. of Quilt® fungicide and 2, 4-D
Joining, plants 10-12 inches tall

10-20 gallons of 32%

Full flag

10 oz. Headline® fungicide and 7 oz. Palisade® growth regulator

Flowering/heading stage

7-8 oz. fungicide (product TBD)

Continue reading

While farmers have been getting busy planting, we PFI staff have been getting to work writing up resources to make sure the 2017 season is the best yet for cover crops. Check out these three NEW resources for farmers and crop advisers on the latest recommendations for cover crop selection and best management practices.

Cover Crop Decision Tree

This fun, interactive sheet guides the user through the decision of what cover crop will work best in their operation. Following a series of yes or no questions about cover crop planting method and date leads the user to recommendations for cover crop varieties and seeding rates that will fit with their equipment and operation.

CC Decision Tree

The journey begins with a question about planting date. Follow the link to the full decision tree to find your ideal cover crop.

Continue reading

By now, small grains have been planted and farmers have turned their attention to planting corn, and later to soybeans, but farmers must remember to continue to monitor small grains development during this busy planting time in order to achieve good quality grain. The March 10 shared learning call focused on best practices for fertilizer, herbicide and fungicide application as the three main management activities for small grains in the spring. The following are tips from our presenters David Weisberger, graduate researcher at ISU studying oat agronomy, and Bruce Roskens, Director of Crop Sciences at Grain Millers.

Fertilize pre or at planting to avoid lodging.

Small grain crops do not require as much nitrogen fertilizer as their large grain cousin, corn, and applying fertilizer at the wrong time can cause more problems than it solves. For oats, applying fertilizer at or after V4 stage will tend to increase height and decrease standability – increasing the likelihood that the crop will grow too tall to support its own weight and fall over or lodge. Pay attention to the characteristics of the variety to determine if it can handle a late fertilizer application. North Dakota and South Dakota lines like Deon and Hayden tend to get very tall so they are at high risk of lodging with late fertilizer applications. But, Illinois varieties are shorter and respond better to these late applications. In general, it’s better to keep fertilizer applications to pre-planting or soon after planting. Check the standability rating on the seed variety notes to gauge the risk of lodging with a later application.

Reins Oats planted 3-20-17

When small grains are small, like these oats or even smaller, it’s the best time to be making fertilizer and herbicide applications. Vic Madsen photographed this field on 4/22/17 (planted on 3/20/17).

Continue reading

On Thursday April 6, fifty-one attendees gathered in the Leighton Town Hall for a cover crop field day hosted by Ward Van Dyke. After tucking into a delicious lunch organized by Sandi Van Dyke, we dove into the management and benefits of cover crops. We stayed indoors and had several presentations inside to kick off the program before moving our “cover crop caravan” to two field sites on two different farms to see cover crops on the ground.

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Field day attendees “caravan” between Ward Van Dyke and Arvin Vander Wilt’s fields passing green cover crop fields (left) on the way.

First Ward spoke about his experience with cover crops. He started slow with oats, but now he does everything with cereal rye. Though he thinks the cover crops are great for stewardship, he’s now looking to “make cover crops pay” through weed control. And so far it’s working, he said, “we just don’t get the problems with marestail when there’s rye.” Last year, he added a pre-emergent herbicide to the glyphosate burndown, but was able to cut out all herbicide applications after that. This year he hopes to leave off the pre-emergent herbicide application altogether.

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“We have an infiltration problem, not a runoff problem.” This Ray Archuleta quote was much discussed on third and final installment in the American Society of Agronomy’s 2017 webinar series “Cover Crops – Looking Beyond the Basics.” The webinar, which took place on February 9, featured Anne Verhallen, a soil scientist from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, and Dave Brandt, a farmer from Ohio, describing their scouting strategies for cover crops, and how these practices help them get to the root of production challenges on their farm.

A farmer scouts any time he or she goes out into the field and takes data on environmental and crop conditions. Taking data can mean many things from taking pictures to performing simple tests and recording the outcomes. For example, in order to determine if you have an infiltration problem — which as Archuleta reminds us, is really the source of runoff — Anne suggests performing an infiltration test, driving a plumbing pipe or coffee can with the bottom removed into the soil and then timing how long it take 1 inch of water to infiltrate until the surface is just glistening. Results will vary based upon soil type, but you ideally want to measure an inch of infiltration in minutes rather than hours. Anne says, “The soil needs pores from earth worms or cover crop roots to open space for infiltration. If it crusts then you’re going to start seeing erosion and loss of soil.”

Water Runoff

Run off like this is caused by a lack of pores in the soil which serve as the entry point for water.

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