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.
It may still be summer, but it’s time to start thinking about planting cover crops. Our cover crop directory is a great resource for locating cover crop seed suppliers and seeding services in your area. We update it every year to include businesses that sell cover crop seed, provide cover crop seeding services, custom cover crop spraying and seed cleaning. This year is the biggest directory yet with the most business listings! Cick on the cover below or this link to the 2018 Cover Crop Directory to check it out today.
In order to secure these services at a favorable price and to get first choice at seeding dates, it’s best to line up seed and seeding in July and August. Several of the businesses listed in the cover crop directory are what we call “one-stop-shops.” With the description of the field and your cover crop selection, they can source seed and arrange for it to be seeded for you. In the directory, these businesses are listed in bold and italics.
On June 28 about 50 folks gathered in a church just west of Bedford in southwest Iowa to learn about small grains production; malting and brewing beer; and proper grazing management in pastures and cover crops. Our agenda was packed with speakers ranging from farmers to home brewers to extension agronomists – headed up by our hosts Pam and Rick Sprague of Sprague Bees and Beef.
After dinner, we started our program off with Paul Ackley who set up our discussion for the event by tying small grain cultivation and extended rotations with soil health. “Soil is a living system, so it’s correct to talk about it as soil health,” Paul says. “I’ve spent my life farming unlearning what I learned in college courses. Chemistry is a small part of how soils work, microbes are a big part.” In order to build his soil organic matter, Paul began grazing cover crops on his farm 10 years ago and found that he was able to increase his soil organic matter only to three parts per million. So he further diversified by adding wheat and summer cover crops. Now his soil organic matter is at four parts per million and rising.
Though soil health is Paul’s primary goal, maintaining his farm profitability is also an important objective. “I grow wheat so that I can afford to grow corn,” Paul says. “My input costs are $75-120 less per acre when I’m growing corn after wheat.” Then he broke down those cost savings for us. With the small grains in the rotation, Paul doesn’t need to apply phosphate and potash to the other crops in his rotation so that decreases his expenses by $50/acre. Additionally, the varied growing seasons of wheat versus corn and soybeans help him control problem weeds and decrease his weed seed bank. So, he estimates he uses $15/acre less on herbicides than in his two-year rotation. The balance of the savings ($10-55) come from reducing his nitrogen applications to corn. “N is the big ticket item, I usually am able to cut N by about fifty pounds in my three-year rotation,” Paul says.
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.
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