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.

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 up 15 gallons of 32% 180 lbs P & K, broadcast
V4-5 7 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)

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“This is amazing,” said Susan Jutz at the end of T.D.’s field day, as we loitered in his spacious and tidy machine shop. “He does so much… and he’s so young.”

Indeed, this was T.D. Holub’s first field day with PFI, which he hosted with his fiance, Sarah Gericke, near Coggon at their Garden Oasis Farm. The topic of the field day was “Tools and Tractors” and attendees tried out several of each, including his Allis Chalmers G, RainFlo water wheel, several seeders, wheel hoes, hand tools, and shop equipment – including a batch egg washer he built. Garden Oasis Farm maintains a 100-member CSA , 4-5 wholesale accounts, and does markets in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, and Independence. In addition to vegetables, T.D. and Sarah raise eggs and meat chickens, and have a few goats.

T.D. and Sarah rent land from T.D.’s family. From where he farms, he can see his old house, and his return to the farm aligned perfectly so he could buy the neighbor’s house, which is about 3/4 mile from his production fields. He is planning to drop a well for irrigation, but until then, waters-in transplants in with the water wheel, and then if needed, drives over each row slowly with the wheel raised and dripping water to give them an extra boost. Beyond that he has been lucky enough to get by with rainfall, only. (To hear all of this in T.D.’s words, check him out on the PFI Podcast: On-Farm.)

The field day started in the field and them moved inside to the machine shop and walk-in cooler. Read on for photos and details!



Holub FD (111) onions

Onions at Garden Oasis Farm

T.D. seeded beets and carrots, below with a Jang seeder, using the X24 plate (the radish plate). He is pleased with the carrots, but for the second year in a row, unhappy with beet establishment. If T.D. is direct seeding, after he uses the Perfecta (below) he comes back through and marks rows by just touching the top inch of soil with the cultivator, using welded-on row markers (made from cut down plow points). “If you can drive a straight line, you’ll never have to run a string-line ever again.” Continue reading

Tom Frantzen in his hybrid rye

Tom Frantzen in his hybrid rye

This week on the show, On-Farm was on the road – I traveled to Frantzen Farm in northern Chickasaw County to talk to Tom Frantzen. He and his wife Irene run a diversified organic farm where they raise organic hogs, cattle, corn, soybeans, hay and small grains. They have been members of Practical Farmers of Iowa since the beginning, and some of our most enthusiastic supporters. In the interview, Tom says he and Irene can’t imagine a world without PFI. I think most PFI members would agree, and would also agree that the reverse is true: we can’t imagine a PFI without the Frantzens.

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The Frantzens will be hosting a field day on their farm on June 29 from 2-5 p.m. and they will be talking about hybrid rye and hogs, and also about the perennial grain crop Kernza – developed by the Land Institute in Kansas – which Tom has a one acre test plot of on his farm. For more information, check out this news release on their field day or see this sneak peek video of Tom talking about the field day and showing his hybrid rye.

On this show, we talk a little about the history of PFI, the future of Frantzen Farm and farm transitions in general, but mainly about what is happening on the farm now. Tom says that giant ragweed has been a bigger problem on his organic farm than all the other weeds put together and has been searching for a solution for years. He thinks he has found one in hybrid rye, a recently developed variety of cereal rye, which yields better and is less susceptible to disease – particularly to ergot, which is a toxin when feeding the grain. One of the big issues with raising rye or other small grains is markets. Tom hopes to get around that by feeding the rye grain to his organic hogs – because the hybrid rye shouldn’t have issues with ergot toxins, and is  currently conducting on-farm research on that subject. We also talk about the many additional benefits of the hybrid rye from soil to water to wildlife habitat.


Matt Schuiteman, of AJS Farms in Sioux Center, started planting cereal rye in 2006 as a “trap crop” for manure nutrients. He has experimented with grazing it, baling it and growing it for seed. Matt told 65 attendees at his field day on May 30, to get the most direct payback from cover crops, put them through cattle. Matt has a cow/calf herd of 40 Shorthorn cattle and calculated the feed value of the rye to be $281 per acre!

Matt says the feed value of rye balances out the yield hit you may see in corn when planting rye, which could be around 25 bushels per acres. Matt did some quick math – if corn is selling for $4.00 per bushel, your loss would be $100 per acre. In this scenario, the forage value of the cover crop still puts you $181 per acre ahead.

Continue reading for more information, photos and an Iowa State University factsheet on cereal rye forage. Below you’ll find our first-ever video recap of a field day!

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Jon Yagla and Wren Almitra of The Millet Seed Farm

Jon Yagla and Wren Almitra of The Millet Seed Farm

Jon Yagla of The Millet Seed Farm in Iowa City was our guest this week on the show. Jon runs this urban farm with his partner Wren Almitra in the Longfellow Historic Neighborhood of Iowa City. The farm consists primarily of a series of vegetable beds in yards in the neighborhood making up about a fifth of an acre. On that ground, the farm produces food for a 20-person CSA. On the show, we talk about how Jon got started farming; how he manages to cram so many veggies in so little space; using yard waste, city compost and cover crops for fertility; no-till production; Practical Farmers’ Savings Incentive Program and his favorite type of family of veggies to grow, alliums (including the Egyptian walking onion).

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On June 24, Jon and Wren will host a field day at their farm focused on urban vegetable production, reducing both living and production costs, no-till production, their CSA and much more. You can RSVP and learn more about their field day here.


50 farmers and others met up at the Holland City Park on the evening of June 8th to learn more about how Fred Abels has made two farming practices, strip tillage and cover crops, work for him. After enjoying a supper of cheese hamburgers, baked beans, fruit and cookies prepared by PT Grillers the crowd heard from the Iowa Learning Farms crew. A graphic representation of a typical farming scenario from the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy was shown. The NRS was created to provide farmers with a better understanding of practices needed to achieve the voluntary goals of reducing nutrient pollution by 45%. To achieve those goals one scenario suggests 12.5 million acres of cover crops are needed. Currently Iowa farmers are planting nearly 650,000 or around 5%. For other practices that farmers have heard about for decades like no-till/strip till, adoption is greater and closer to 40% adoption.

Fred Abels 2016 Grundy Co Fair
For Fred Abels cover crops and strip-tillage
are two practices he uses to minimize erosion, boost soil health and improve water quality. Fred shared his story about changing to a strip tillage setup from nearly 10 years ago and then talked about his start with cover crops in 2012.Fred built his own strip tillage equipment and also changed up his planter to be able to apply nitrogen at planting. Fred emphasized the importance of adding nitrogen at planting when cover crops are a part of your program. “You don’t need to buy a new or used strip-tillage implement to get into strip-till,” he said. “I’ve been using a homemade strip-tillage implement for over 10 years and got it where it does a nice job of preparing a clean, black strip of soil to plant into – and I planted into 200 bushel-an-acre corn residue with a winter rye cover crop.” Continue reading

If cover crops can successfully be established when interseeded into corn in June, this may permit farmers to use existing equipment (rather than high-clearance machines or airplanes); may permit the use of more diverse cover crop species; and ultimately may increase the amount of cover crop biomass produced. Last year, PFI farmer-cooperator Jack Boyer interseeded a 4-species and 6-species cover crop mix into seed corn at the V4-V6 stage in randomized and replicated strips. He intended to see if the cover crop could persist underneath the seed corn canopy and see how much biomass could be produced in the fall following harvest.

You can read the full report here: Interseeding Cover Crops in Seed Corn at the V4-V6 Stage.

Multi-species cover crop mix seeded into seed corn on June 8, 2016 at Jack Boyer's. Photo taken on July 8, 2016.

Multi-species cover crop mix seeded into seed corn on June 8, 2016 at Jack Boyer’s. Photo taken on July 8, 2016.

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Phil Specht

Phil Specht

Phil Specht of Pearlmaker Holsteins was our guest this week on the show. Phil farms with his wife Sharon near MacGregor in northeast Iowa. He’s been running a grass-based, rotationally grazed dairy in the hills of Clayton County since the 1970s, and conservation has always been important to him. In 2013, his brother Dan passed away in a farm accident, and Dan’s friend Mary Damm purchased Dan’s farm. Since then, Phil and Mary have been conducting on-farm research on the links between pasture management, plant and soil diversity and grassland birds. On the show, we range from the practical to the esoteric – talking with Phil about the politics of conservation, grazing management, Facebook poetry, ways of knowing and much more.

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Practical Farmers’ 2017 main field day season is upon us!

Over the coming weeks, to help highlight some of the many farmer-led learning opportunities this growing season — and the farmers and farmland owners hosting them — we’ll be spotlighting many of the PFI farmers who are graciously giving their time to share their knowledge at these event, as well as members who make the journey to attend these unique events.

Watch and “Practical News,” our weekly email newsletter, for details and updates!

Maggie McQuown
Resilient Farms
Member since 2014
Red Oak, IA

Maggie McQuown and her husband, Steve Turman, are farmland owners who live on land near Red Oak, in southwestern Iowa, that has been in Maggie’s family for generations. Maggie inherited her family’s Century Farm in 2011.

Her great-grandparents, J.E. and Retta Taylor, purchased the farm in 1899 and named it Pleasant Prospect. When Maggie and Steve moved to the farm in 2012, they renamed it Resilient Farms to reflect their goals of long-term sustainability and conservation.

The 170-acre farm features 130 acres of corn-soybean row crops, a farmers market produce garden, a 118-year-old Victorian farmhouse, a new Passivhaus energy-efficient home, several historic farm buildings, plus multiple conservation practices dating back to the 1920s.

Maggie grew up on the farm, and shares many fond memories of farm life — from swinging on a rope in the barn, to riding the tractor and combine with her dad, to detasseling corn and swimming in the creek — in a farm legacy letter she wrote as part of Practical Farmers’ Farm Legacy Letters Project (and which is published in the book “The Future of Family Farms”). Continue reading

For several years, Practical Farmers has worked to elevate understanding and communication about pesticide drift issues. Recently, we have gathered our pesticide drift materials to a new webpage and a few new resources: a document called “Pesticide Drift and the Law,” which provides background information for farmers and their lawyers; and a video series featuring farmers Rob Faux and Andy Dunham, discussing their experiences with pesticide application near their farms and the potential (and realized) impact on their farm businesses.


Each 3-5 minute video captures a different element of why drift is a problem and how it can be prevented. Fruit and vegetable operations are sensitive to pesticide drift and are high-value crops – this means that drift on a small area can have a big financial impact on an operation. Many fruit and vegetable farms are also organic, meaning drift could cause them to lose organic certification for three years, significantly impacting the revenue they can generate from their crops.

The farms also have employees in the field daily, as growing fruits and vegetables is labor intensive. The health of those workers is at risk when pesticides drift, and they have to head inside when spraying happens nearby. “They are in danger potentially, if somebody is applying chemicals and not watching where they’re going,” Rob says. “We’d like people to be paying attention just as much as we are.”