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.

One of the benefits of small grains is that they are very versatile crops. As we discussed in our previous blog about variety selection, a farmer can have many different end uses in mind when planting a small grain. One of the uses is to bale the straw for sale or for their own use. On our Feb 3 shared learning call, Extension educator and farmer Margaret Smith talked us through the costs of baling straw and market outlets for this product, advising that you have to do your math homework to see if it will fit in your business plan.

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Oat straw windrows at harvest on the Fleishman’s farm in 2016

There are three main costs involved in baling straw. The labor and equipment costs are the biggest line items, but — Margaret cautions — don’t forget that by removing straw you’re taking nutrients off the field. Straw yields vary, but we’ll use a typical yield of 1 ton/A for the following discussion. The current cost to replace macro-nutrients removed in a ton of straw is $9 for potassium (K) and $2.20 for phosphorus (P). In addition, carbon is lost from the system (800 lbs C/ton of straw) limiting potential positive impact on soil organic matter, though this aspect of soil health has no immediate, out-of-pocket dollar value. She estimates the costs per ton per acre for custom baling range from $67 to $77, but only about $60 if you own the equipment and are baling yourself, as shown in the table below.

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As fruit and vegetable farmers across the state embark on another growing season, they’ll again review their action plan for experiencing pesticide drift. Fruit and vegetable  farmers in our membership, along with livestock graziers and other specialty crop farmers have made it clear to us that pesticide drift is a serious financial and health risk to their farms. Practical Farmers of Iowa respects the individual farmer’s choice of growing practices, but we join these farmers in asking those of us who use pesticides to follow the label, communicate ahead of time with neighbors, and ask coop agronomists to be mindful of and communicative with sensitive crop growers in the area.

Please don’t let pesticides drift.

 

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Improving water quality of the state’s surface waters begins with the source. At our annual conference last month, Adam Kiel, of the Iowa Soybean Association, and Kellie Blair, who farms with her husband A.J. near Dayton, presented about efforts to monitor tile water quality on farms across the state.

Kiel_CC vs. no-CC water quality

Average tile water nitrate-N concentrations from sites with and without cover crops that were monitored in 2016. 2,172 water samples were collected from 272 locations as part of Iowa Soybean Association’s effort in 2016.

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Because the markets for small grains require that farmers produce good yields, but also good grain quality, storage is particularly important. Fortunately, most farmers that raise corn and soybeans usually have the equipment and facilities on their farm to keep small grains in good condition after harvest. In this episode, PFI members share some of their experiences with small grains handling, cleaning and storage.

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Growing Money

Do you plant cover crops on your farm? Then you know that they improve your soil health and clean your water, but do you ever wonder what they do for your bottom line? While many scientific studies have been done that quantify environmental benefits of cover crops, there just isn’t the same research regarding the economic benefits. With funding from the SARE program, Practical Farmers of Iowa and Iowa State University are trying to fill this gap but we need your help.

We have developed an online survey to quantify the economic return on investment of your cover crops. If you farm in the Midwest and have used cover crops please take a moment of your time to fill out this survey before March 1, 2017. Your participation will help us tell the story of how we can take positive steps for farm incomes without compromising the opportunities of future generations. Thank You.

Visit this URL to participate today: tinyurl.com/covercropROI

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Practical Farmers of Iowa’s Cooperators’ Program—our vehicle for conducting on-farm research trials. As such, throughout this year we’ll periodically be taking a look back at work done by farmer-cooperators over the past 30 years in a series of blog posts entitled “Better Know an On-Farm Research Project.” In this first edition of the series, we’re profiling one of the earliest on-farm research projects in the history of the Cooperators’ Program: Nitrogen Rate Comparisons in Corn.

Vic Madsen (speaking) presents about on-farm research at a field day in the early 1990s.

Vic Madsen (speaking) presents about on-farm research at a field day in the early 1990s.

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It’s that time of year when PFI staff analyze, scrutinize, and summarize another successful field day season. We have much to be proud of, and much more work to be done! PFI hosted 25 field days in 2016. Thank you for attending.

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Leaders: First of all, none of these field days would be possible without the farmer-leaders who step up every year to host these events. Their commitment in 2016 was invaluable and we thank them for sharing their knowledge and their farms! Some of them stepped up because they found attending field days was an important part of their learning process and they wanted to participate from the leader side. Others, just humbly stated that hosting a field day was a good excuse to clean up the farm. Whatever the reason, PFI could not exist as a member-led organization without our field day hosts!

Jon Bakehouse discusses soil regeneration at his July 27 field day

Jon Bakehouse discusses soil regeneration at his July 27 field day

Here are the PFI member-leaders who “cleaned up their farm” in 2016: Nathan & Sarah Anderson, Jon & Tina Bakehouse, Carmen Black, Ethan & Rebecca Booth, Bruce Carney, Rob & Tammy Faux, Jeremy Hall, Larry Harris, Chad & Katie Hensley, Jeff Jensen, Emma & Marcus Johnson, Laura Jones, Susan Jutz, Virgil Knobloch, Tim Landgraf, Steve Leazer, Aaron & Nicole Lehman, Jan Libbey, Randy Luze, Amber Mohr, George Naylor, Denise O’Brien, James &  Julie Peterson, Mark Peterson, Sara Peterson, Billy Sammons, Frank Santana, Steve Schmidt, Dave & Meg Schmidt, Erik Sessions, Julia Slocum, Lee Tesdell, Dan & Lorna Wilson, Mary & Vernon Zahradnik, Daniel Zimmerman and Leroy Zimmerman.

Lessons: We had a variety of topics covered again this year, directed by feedback from our members and event attendees. You know that pesky blue field day evaluation form that PFI staff relentlessly chases you to complete? Well, it turns out we really do use that information to assess the current year, and plan for the next. Here are some statistics from 2016 to prove it!

 

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Using a roller-crimper to terminate cover crops is a topic that has garnered A LOT of attention in recent years. At our 2016 annual conference, three farmers shared their experiences with using modified equipment to roll cover crops. This year, Levi Lyle (of Keota) and Billy Sammons (of Churdan) explained how they’ve used actual roller-crimpers (after the I&J design) in Iowa!

Billy Sammons and Levi Lyle presented before 76 in attendance.

Billy Sammons and Levi Lyle presented before 76 in attendance.

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The Van Der Pols tackle farm transitions (Part two of a three-part series)

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When Jim and LeeAnn Van Der Pol began farming in 1977 on his family’s Central Minnesota farm, they added pigs to the operation. When their son Josh and his wife Cindy joined the farm in the mid-1990s, they expanded the pasture farrowing. “And then we hit 1998 and the $18 hogs in October and November. That really knocked Josh and Cindy around, because we didn’t have any hogs on contract. And we lost what we thought was going to be a goodly share of our retirement by that time because of what the hogs did to us.”

A terrific opportunity opened up, though, and Jim took a job building the facilities for a low-input swine facility at the University of Minnesota’s experiment station near Morris. Jim and LeeAnn turned over a portion of his salary to Josh because the farm wasn’t able to pay him much out of the farm budget. LeeAnn and Cindy both worked off-farm jobs too, LeeAnn at a nursing home and Cindy at her parents’ garden shop.

The Van Der Pols recovered from the hog price collapse and expanded their production again, building a new hog house four years ago and adding a couple of hoop houses. They also put a lot of time and energy into starting a meat business, Pastures A Plenty, through which they now sell to stores, restaurants and direct-to-consumer throughout Minnesota. “That meat company is going to provide a lot of opportunity for those who want to work at it and work in it,” Jim says. LeeAnn adds that, while “the farm checkbook sucks money all the time, like most farms do, the meat company has six figures in the checking account. Sometimes we plot about how we can get money from the meat company to the farm.”

“When we started selling pork and later beef and chicken direct, we decided we needed a separate accounting structure for the meat business,” Jim says. “We needed the farm to be selling the farm animals into this other entity, which would pay to have them processed and to sell the products. That way, we could tell if we were making money on the farm or on the business.” They chose a subchapter S corporation, with Jim, LeeAnn, Josh and Cindy all partners in the company.

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When it comes to small grains, Iowa farmers have many different opinions on the best time and method to harvest the crops. Unlike with corn and soybeans, there’s a choice to be made: should you swath/windrow or directly combine the small grains standing? Depending on the year, weather conditions and the equipment available on-farm, this may be a choice, or only one of the two options may be available. In this episode of Rotationally Raised, PFI members weigh in on this, as well as harvest timing and how to fine-tune your combine to more efficiently harvest small grains.

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