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.

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

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

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

Most of the attendees at this year’s retreat.

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If I had a nickel every time someone asked me about the potential of selling small grains to craft breweries and distilleries – I’d be able to start my own brewery by now! Unfortunately, for most of these questions I come up short on answers so I decided to invite some experts to fill in the gaps. Our March 2nd shared learning call featured Ryan Burchett, founder of Mississippi River Distilling Company in LeClaire, Iowa and Adam Wagner, farmer and founder of Vertical Malt in Fisher, Minnesota. They went over the grain requirement for each of their respective crafts and the prices and quantities required in each industry.

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

Small Grains for Distilling

Technically – any grain can be distilled. But the classic spirits like whiskey sell the best, so Ryan sources corn, rye, wheat and barley. “We like to tell the story that grain is from farmers within 25 miles of the place,” Ryan says. “We know where our grain comes from, even the cows that fertilize the field.” He sources all his grains locally and pays $9-12/bushel for conventional grain delivered to the distilling facility. In a year he sources 3,000-4,000 bushels of corn, 1,000 bushels of rye and 300-500 bushels of wheat or barley. When we consider that average rye yield is about 40-60 bushels/acre this means that an entire year’s supply of rye for Mississippi River Distilling Company can be grown on 17-25 acres. In general, you can estimate that 1 bottle of spirits will require around 1.5 pounds of grain, so you can work backwards from a distiller’s capacity to know their grain demands.

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

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

As for the grain itself the most important qualities are that it be dried down below 15% moisture and it’s clean. Ryan explains, “We’re into the starch in the grain – we’re getting as much fuel in there as possible so the yeast has a lot to work on.” There hasn’t been a lot of rye or wheat variety trial work done with distilling in mind, to this point, but an interesting Minnesota research project that’s getting started this year will test distilling quality of different cereal rye varieties.

Ryan works directly with his sourcing farmers before planting time to estimate volumes of grain that they’ll need for the year. “We try to give them a thumbnail of what we’d like them to plant for us and then we stay in touch as the season goes on so they know if we won’t use all of their grain and they need to start looking for other markets,” Ryan says. Continue reading

Last fall was wonky. Harvest was late and many people didn’t make it into the fields until November to establish their winter small grains – a month or more after optimal planting dates for yield. On top of it we’ve had some bitterly cold stretches this winter with little snow cover, so some folks are wondering – is my cereal rye and/or winter wheat going to make it? Should I go to plan B? Right now is the time to evaluate if it’s a good enough stand to keep for grain or treat it as a cover crop and terminate before planting corn or soybeans.

Snowy barn and silo with several tractors parked in front

Cereal Rye

First off, winter small grains are not created equal. Cereal rye is far more winter hardy than winter wheat so it’s more likely to emerge from this weird winter with grace. “It’s a survivor,” Keota farmer Tim Sieren says. “Rye will germinate at 35 degrees so it will green up in time for you to evaluate the stand and decide whether you keep it and over-seed clover or not.”

Agronomist Margaret Smith explains the plant physiology that makes cereal rye able to emerge and produce grain, even if you don’t see it emerge in the fall. “The meristem of the rye – the area of growing and dividing cells – requires vernalization (cold treatment) to allow the rye to become reproductive later this spring and to produce seed. Rye needs only to germinate to become vernalized, even if the meristem is still underground and it will make a crop the following year.” Even if you didn’t see any growth last fall, it’s still likely that the rye has germinated during a stretch of warmer days and will emerge in the spring. So don’t give up hope yet on your cereal rye!

Now that it’s started to warm up more, it’s time to get out in the field and look at the plant stand. For rye, an ideal plant stand is 20 to 24 live plants per square foot, but the Alberta Agriculture and Forestry Department suggests that five to six live plants per square foot is a keeper stand. To verify the plants are alive you should dig up a few plants and verify that there’s new pure white and thick roots coming out of the crown. Even if the tops are brown, if the roots are actively growing the plants will recover. Continue reading

Guest blog post by USTN Coordinator/PFI Contractor Chris Wilbeck

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

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

What is USTN?

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

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

A man in a white shirt with a Iowa Soybean Association Logo kneels in a field with brown dry stalks of cereal rye with bright green rows of 5 inch tall soybeans growing up through it.

Wayne Fredericks inspects soybeans that were planted into two-foot tall cereal rye earlier that spring. Photo credit: Iowa Soybean Association.

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

By Meghan Filbert, Alisha Bower and Nick Ohde

Numerous studies show that continuous living cover – whether it’s perennial pasture, diversified crop rotation with small grains and hay, or cover crops in a corn and soybean system – benefit many species of wildlife, from birds – whether they are hunted or non-hunted species – to insects to fish. Here are a few that we’ve come across as we seek to use peer-reviewed research to inform our thinking about keeping roots in the ground year round.

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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.

Flowering red clover established via frost seeding into a rye cover crop. Between clover plants you can see the brown of the rye residue decomposing.

“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).”

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

“We started planting cereal rye because it was easy to calve in. Now, most all of our covers are grazed as a way to justify the costs,” said Mark Schleisman, of Lake City. Cover crops that are grazed have value, but how much value? A three-year PFI research project, initiated in 2015, helped quantify this value by putting a price tag on the forage produced by cover crops. For three cow-calf producers in northwest Iowa, the practice of grazing cover crops, combined with cost-share funding, provides positive economic returns within the same year the cover crops were planted.

Wesley Degner, of Lytton; Bill Frederick, of Jefferson; and Mark Schleisman seeded cover crops of their choosing with the intention of grazing the forage produced. Farmers kept grazing records in order estimate the amount of dry matter cattle received from the cover crop. This dry matter was then valued at $80 per ton – a conservative value considering that hay is currently selling for $130 per ton.

All revenues and costs were then considered in order to complete an economic analysis. Read the full report here: Economic Impact of Grazing Cover Crops in Cow-Calf Operations

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