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.

Cover crops are typically either aerially seeded into standing crops around the time of physiological maturity in late summer or drilled immediately following crop harvest in the fall. However, on occasion time does not permit one to get a cover crop seeded in the fall or the cover crop fails to establish.

In 2017, farmer-researchers Jeremy Gustafson and Chris Teachout evaluated spring cover crops that were seeded in March approximately 50 days before planting soybeans later in the spring.

Read the full report here: Spring-Seeded Cover Crops Ahead of Soybeans.

spring-seeded covers cover shot

How Was the Trial Conducted?

Jeremy Gustafson conducted a trial in one field where he seeded oats. Chris Teachout conducted trials in two separate fields where he seeded two different cover crop mixes. See the table below for cover crop and soybean management at the two farms. Continue reading

Are you growing rye or winter wheat for grain or seed this year? What’s the plan after your harvest? If you’re looking to add nitrogen for a 2019 corn crop, now might be the time to think about frost seeding red clover into that rye or wheat in late February.

Red clover as a green manure cover crop, underseeded with oats, at Ash Grove Farm in north-central Iowa in October of 2016.

Red clover as a green manure cover crop, underseeded with oats, at Ash Grove Farm in north-central Iowa in October of 2016.

The research is clear: if you can find a market for small grains, adding a third crop to your rotation yields economic, agronomic and environmental benefits. Iowa State University and Dr. Matt Liebman’s research near Boone shows that corn and especially soybeans yield better when grown in rotation, soybeans have less incidences of disease, soil health metrics improve, erosion decreases and water quality improves – all this with equal returns to land and management.

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In Iowa, cover crops are typically either aerially seeded into standing corn around the time of physiological maturity in late summer or drilled immediately following corn harvest in the fall. However, the earlier one can seed a cover crop, the more potential for growth and biomass production. An earlier seeding date also opens up the opportunity for more diverse cover crops like brassicas and legumes that need more time and heat units to grow than common cover crops like cereal rye.

Farmer researchers Jack Boyer and Jeremy Gustafson interseeded cover crops (cowpeas, annual ryegrass, rapeseed) into corn at the V4 stage in June. Corn hybrids chosen exhibited vertical and horizontal leaf orientations to test whether more light penetrating the corn canopy would encourage successful cover crop establishment and growth.

Read the full report here: Corn Leaf Architecture for Interseeded Cover Crops.

Interseeding cover crops cover shot

How Was the Trial Conducted?

  • Corn planting date (both hybrids): Boyer = Apr. 25; Gustafson = May 5
  • Cover crop mix interseeding date: Boyer = June 14; Gustafson = June 16
  • Cover crop mix seeding rates: Cowpeas (60 lb/ac); annual ryegrass (22 lb/ac); rapeseed (7 lb/ac)
  • Corn harvest date (both hybrids): Boyer = Nov. 4; Gustafson = Oct. 25

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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 long line of people select food from a huge table laden with dozens of brightly colored dishes of food.

2017 PFI Potluck

PFI will provide:
  • 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;
  • Tableware.

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:

Don’t miss this fun family event! 

Two young boys, one holding a big brimmed hat talk to two men who are seated at a table enjoying food and beer. In the background you can see many tables full of people eating.

PFI staffer Stefan Gailans and PFI member Jeremy Gustafson are entertained by two youngsters at the potluck.

Dave and Meg Schmidt operate a diverse livestock farm, Troublesome Creek Cattle Co., in Exira IA; raising grass-fed and finished cattle and sheep, pigs and poultry. Feeding the 100% grass-fed cattle herd over the winter is a great expense, so they have experimented with feeding different forage sources- hay, cover crops, crop residue and stockpiled pasture to minimize costs. Hay is the most expensive forage to feed during the winter, so the Schmidt’s were curious how the could extend their grazing season and decrease the amount of hay they have to feed.

The full Practical Farmers’ Research Report is now available.

Sylvie Schmidt checking on cattle as they graze stockpiled perennial pasture.

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Kathy Voth

Kathy Voth is one of the featured speakers at Practical Farmers of Iowa’s 2018 annual conference (Jan. 18-20, in Ames), and we’re excited she’s able to join us. Kathy publishes the popular weekly online grazing magazine, “On Pasture,” in partnership with Rachel Gilker.

For 12 years, Kathy also worked with the Bureau of Land Management, working with ranchers, university researchers and agency staff to develop solutions that help communities live sustainably in their environment. In 2004, she developed a method, based on principles of animal behavior, for teaching cows to eat weeds.

I chatted with Kathy to learn a little more about why she advocates that farmers reconsider the place of weeds in their pastures. It turns out that weeds are highly nutritious for cattle, in addition to their abundance and resiliency to weather — and that cattle, just like people, learn to eat the food they grew up seeing their mothers and elders consume.

Kathy will lead a workshop on this topic, “Teaching Cattle to Eat Weeds,” at our annual conference next month. Visit to learn more or register.

Here’s what Kathy had to say to some of my questions. Continue reading


This year we are excited to offer continuing education credits (CEUs) to Certified Crop Advisors for several sessions at the PFI annual conference. Opportunities to earn 19 CEUs are offered in all four categories (nutrient management, soil and water management, crop management, and integrated pest management) throughout the short course and annual conference on January 18-20, 2018. CCAs, pre-register by January 11 at to save your place in the short course or at the annual conference. Continue reading

You finally did it. You took the leap of faith and grew small grains last year. Everything went great – you got your weeds back under control and grew an amazing clover cover crop. Next year you’re going back to corn – but, uh oh, hold on, it’s not business as usual. Now that you’ve grown biological nitrogen with your cover crop you’ll need to adjust your nitrogen plan. And what about terminating that clover before corn? You’ve heard that can be a real chore. PFI members Randy and Willie Hughes, who operate a 5,500 acre split conventional and organic farm in southern WI, joined us for our December small grains shared learning call to address these questions.

Fifteen people pose and smile in front of a green and yellow john deere tractor

The employees and family members that make up the Hughes Farm. Randy Hughes stands in the front row on the far left and Willie Hughes is in the back row on the far right. Photo from:

Adjusting Your Fertilizer Plan

The first step in deciding how much nitrogen you’ll have to purchase this year for your corn is figuring out how much you already have in the plant matter and the soil from your nitrogen-fixing, legume cover crop. As with different fertilizer products, no two cover crops are created equal in terms of the nitrogen they provide. The amount of nitrogen fixation depends on the biomass produced by the plant and how long it’s been in the field. Luckily, the Hughes provided some rules of thumb that can help put a number to this N source:

Cover Crop


Amount of N

1 Year Alfalfa Over ankle high 100 lbs/acre
2 Year Alfalfa Over ankle high 200 lbs/acre
Clover Way above ankle but below knee 80 lbs/acre

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Keith Berns

Keith Berns

Within the farming community — and especially among Practical Farmers of Iowa members — there is a renewed focus on soil health, its role in crop productivity and environmental conservation, and the role played by soil microbes and farm management practices.

On Practical Farmers’ 2017 member survey — a comprehensive questionnaire we send out every few years to learn more about our members, their goals and priorities — soil health ranked third among a long and varied list of priorities. We heard the message loud and clear, and are responding with a suite of soil-focused sessions at our upcoming annual conference (Jan. 18-20, in Ames). Among them, we’re pleased to bring expert no-till and cover crop farmer Keith Berns to Iowa from south-central Nebraska.

Keith is a former teacher who no-tills 2,500 acres of irrigated and dryland corn, soybeans, rye, triticale, peas, sunflowers and buckwheat near Bladen, Nebraska, and also co-owns Green Cover Seed, one of the of the major cover crop seed providers and educators in the U.S.

A few years ago, Keith developed the concept of “carbonomics,” a framework for thinking about soil health in terms of economic principles. I chatted with Keith to learn more about this unique approach to understanding the bigger picture of soil health and its complexities.

(Note: Keith will be teaching an in-depth session on carbonomics at our conference, as well as a session on the SmartMix Calculator he developed for selecting the best cover crop species mixes. Learn more or register on our 2018 conference website.)

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As farmers wrap up their season and plan for next, PFI’s farmer-cooperators have an additional responsibility: submit the data they collected from this year’s research trials and plan next year’s projects.

The first week in December marks the annual two-day Cooperators’ Meeting where farmer members meet to discuss these research results with each other and plan on-farm projects for the following year. In preparation for this meeting, staff members in Practical Farmers office are busy collecting this data, analyzing it and publishing the findings in detailed research reports for sharing far and wide.

In 2017, 51 farmer-cooperators participated in 71 projects that concluded or are still on-going.

2017 On-Farm Research Project Locations:

2017 Cooperators Program Map

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