Strategic Initiatives Manager
Alisha Bower joined the PFI team in the first days of 2017. She manages day-to-day operations for the strategic initiatives team, with a focus on delivery of PFI's cover crops and small grains programs to farmers.
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.
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.
“First things first,” area product manager Brandon Maxwell says, “Your general maintenance checks on the combine are the same as setting up for corn and soybeans. Don’t skip this step as it’ll keep you running smooth through the whole harvest.” You can read through all of these routine checks here.
Once these routine checks are completed according to your combine manual, the only additional parts you should need to purchase for the combine are concaves and sieves that are designed to handle small grains. “The small wire concaves and short finger sieves clean the grain up nicely without cracking heads or kernels,” service technician David Freeseman told us in the shop. “Using your soybean parts will affect grain quality by cracking more heads and allowing more chaff to pass through into the grain collection.” If you are not in a position to buy a new concave, you should install the cover plate over the first section of the concave to help it thresh the grain more gradually. “This will keep the straw in the rotor as long as possible,” David says. “You can also loosen the bolts and adjust the vanes to the slow position on the rotor grate to keep straw in the thresher for one more rotation.”
In adjusting the settings before beginning to combine, it is important to calibrate the “zero” adjustment on the concave and sieves and set the rotor and fan speed according to the manual for your machine. If you can’t find this information in your manual, you should also be able to go online or call your equipment dealer to get this information. Your equipment dealer will also know what model of sieve you should need. For wheat the recommended sieve is 1 1/8” or a 1 5/8” Close sieve for high yielding wheat crops.
Your end market for your grain will determine the amount of foreign material that you can have mixed in with the grain, so checking in with your buyer can help fine tune the settings to their specifications. If you’re growing for seed, for example, the most important goal when combining is just to catch as much grain as possible. Since it will be run through a seed cleaner anyway before it is put back out in the field, foreign material coming through the combine isn’t as much of a concern.
“How do you troubleshoot if you’re plugging up your tailings return elevator with straw?” attendee Sam Bennett asked. “This is a result of over threshing in the rotor,” David responded. “Don’t run the rotor too slow, that will put more horsepower into the rotor, which threshes the grain harder.” Additional issues to check would be if the sieve isn’t set properly it could be dropping more grain into the tailings section at the back or that the fan isn’t getting adequate air into the sieve. “If you’re not getting adequate air to blow the chaff off the sieve,” David says, “don’t be afraid to leave the bottom sieve open, and even the top one too for air flow.”
When attaching the head to the combine, you’ll want to make a few quick checks and adjustments there too. Always make sure that your u-bolts connecting the head to the combine feeder are nice and tight. “A loose head leads to crop loss,” Brandon says. If you have a flex auger head, set it to rigid (install locking pin on suspension arm) to make sure that it can’t bend as you’re moving through the grain. If you are using a draper head, lock all of it up. The draper head will be the most effective option if you have a lodged stand of small grains because it will gently pick up the crop from the ground. Lastly, make sure that the feeder front drum stop run is set to run low for small grains. For corn and soybeans this part is usually set to run high.
Chopper knives for distributing straw back onto the field after it has passed through the combine should be set to upper position engaged, as it would be for soybeans.
“Once you get out into the field combine a bit and check your grain quality,” David says. “You may need to adjust the air flow to match the density of the crop you’re harvesting. Density of barley, rye, triticale etc. are all different so you may need to change your fan speed. Some small grains just have different toughness too. Rye and wheat are different; rye needs a lot of pressure to thresh.” Getting off the combine and checking the combine’s performance after a small test swatch can save both grain quality and quantity before you set out to harvest the whole field. Even within one type of small grains, varieties can thresh differently so checking in on what’s coming out of the combine is crucial.
If you’re interested in learning more about the swathing method of harvesting small grains, check out this blog of our July 2018 shared learning call with Earl Canfield.
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.
“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:
- 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.
- Addressing compaction
- Winter hardiness
- Grow nitrogen for a following corn crop
- Provide space to spread manure and hold nutrients in the field
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.
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:
- Consistent, economical establishment of cover crops;
- Demonstrate economic benefits of using cover crops;
- 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
“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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
Cover crop termination and cash crop planting in the spring is the most important aspect of cover crop management to ensure good yields. So this spring we’ve scheduled two shared learning calls where experienced cover crop farmers share their “spring cover crop management playbook.” On February 16, Wayne Fredericks, a corn and soybean farmer in Mitchell County laid out his spring plans for us putting emphasis on the importance of planter set up for planting both corn and soybeans into higher residue field conditions created by the cover crop.
“Last fall was the first fall that we seeded 100% cereal rye before corn and soybeans,” Wayne began. “Our first experience with cover crops was fall of 2012, and we did that in strip trials because we saw the need to gather input and research on what cover crops were doing.” Wayne, who was a member of the Iowa Soybean Association Board at that time, used the knowledge he gained in these strip trials to design his finely tuned spring management strategy to maximize benefits from the cover crop and deal with the unique scenarios preceding corn and soybean planting. Wayne’s talk focused on terminating cereal rye in the spring, fertilizer adjustments for corn planted after rye and planter settings for corn and soybeans.
Cover Crop Termination
Before soybeans, Wayne maximizes biomass growth and weed control from his cover crop by “planting green” into living rye for the last three years. He says, “when you include your pre-emerge chemicals with the roundup it takes a higher rate to ensure adequate control.” On his farm they combine the cover crop burn down herbicides with their pre-emergence plan just before soybean planting, including 44 oz. of WeatherMAX® + AMS, 3 pints of Harness®, 5 oz. of Sencor® and generic capture. Continue reading
Small grains are a unique crop in the Midwestern system because they are harvested early – around July – leaving the field open for different field operations and cover crops. This longer window makes it possible to grow a legume cover crop that can synthesize nitrogen and offset purchased fertilizer costs for the following crop in the rotation. But farmers don’t have to wait until August to seed their legume, on our February small grains shared learning call we welcomed Keota farmer Tim Sieren and USDA Ag Research Station technician Keith Kohler to discuss frost seeding legumes, an alternative to waiting until after small grain harvest to establish the cover crop.
“The name ‘frost’ seeding is actually a misnomer,” Keith begins. “It’s really a ‘freeze thaw’ seeding where you want the seed out there as the season warms up.” In early spring as the days begin bouncing back and forth between freezing and warmer temperatures, the ground contracts and expands with the changes, working a seed laying on the soil into the ground. So, if you get a small sized legume seed out there at the right time this natural cycle will do the work of planting it for you. It’s the ideal method for planting clover or alfalfa into an established winter small grain like rye or winter wheat so that the crop isn’t disturbed and can be used ahead of spring small grain planting too. Continue reading
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).”
- Dial 641-715-3620
- Enter passcode 357330# when prompted
- 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 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;
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: