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.

On March 30, a group of farmers got together to learn about grazing cover crops and the value cattle bring to crop fields. Bruce Carney, a cattle grazier who produces grass-fed beef, and Rick Kimberley, a row-crop farmer, are neighbors who live outside Maxwell, IA. They’ve worked out an agreement for Bruce to graze cover crops on Rick’s fields, and both farmers are reaping the benefits.


Bruce Carney (left), a cattle grazier, and Rick Kimberley, a row-crop farmer, are neighbors and have worked out an agreement to graze cover crops on crop fields.

Bruce and Rick are collecting data for an on-farm research project demonstrating the economic and soil health benefits of grazing cover crops. Practical Farmers is working with The Pasture Project to measure below-ground benefits of cover crops and animal impact. Attendees gathered in a field that had been aerial seeded with a six-species mix in September 2016. The mix included cereal rye, spring forage barley, hairy vetch, mustard, turnip and red clover. Six species were seeded in hopes to maximize soil health benefits.

At the time of the field day in late March, the rye had come back, but the cattle were not grazing yet because Bruce didn’t think it was tall enough. He turned his cattle out on April 12, when the rye was 10 inches tall. “The rye is now growing faster than the cattle are eating it. Right now only my grass-finishers are out grazing it, but I’m going to put my cows and calves on it too, since there’s so much re-growth,” explained Bruce.

Bruce Carney and group

Field day attendees listen to Bruce Carney explain how he grazes his neighbor’s cover crops. Bruce offers dry hay to his cattle when they’re out grazing lush cereal rye to ensure they get enough roughage.

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Jack Boyer left) and Neil Sass of the NRCS discuss some deep soil cores pulled from some of Jacks cover crop fields.

Jack Boyer (left) and Neil Sass of the NRCS discuss some deep soil cores pulled from some of Jack’s cover crop fields.

On March 29, Jack Boyer hosted a field day to share his experiences and successes with using cover crops on his family’s farm near Reinbeck. Jack and his wife, Marion, are lifetime members of Practical Farmers. They raise corn, seed corn, soybeans and cereal rye for cover crop seed. They have been integrating cover crops into the fields for the last 6 years and are beginning to see the benefits, but still looking to find the quantifiable financial benefit in addition to the environmental benefit. Their over-arching goal: To leave the farm in as good or better condition than when we obtained it.

We had planned to head out to the field to see cover crops and cover crop roots in a soil pit but the rain that fell all morning didn’t allow us to do so. Luckily for us, Jack and folks from the NRCS did their best to “bring the field inside.” Continue reading

Greg Rebman
Rebman Farms
Member since 2015
Frederick, IL

Greg Rebman operates Rebman Farms near Frederick, Illinois, raising corn, soybeans, small grains and certified organic, rotationally grazed beef cattle on about 1,875 acres.

He uses cover crops on some of his farm’s row-crop acres – and is interested in transitioning more acres to cover crops as a means of providing “holistic fertility” on the farm and reducing synthetic fertilizer use.

Greg is also a regular reader of Practical Farmers’ on-farm research. When a new research report is published on PFI’s website, Greg is often one of the first to comment and get a conversation going with other farmers on one of our email discussion lists.

“I credit a lot of my own recent success to those conversations,” Greg says. “I would not have had the confidence in my 2016 rye enterprise had I not boned up on reports and contacted individual members on the discussion list to give me direction. We are expanding our cover crops and nitrogen ‘tweaking’ having been guided by some of the research done.”

In addition to farming, Greg offers a range of services for farmers and landowners through Rebman Farms, including creation of field and farm records; help analyzing and complying with government programs; development of crop and marketing plans; consulting services; and more.

The farm has been in the Rebman family for more than 100 years, and has been designated a Centennial Farm by the state of Illinois.

Learn more about Rebman Farms, its history and services, at


Map of My Kingdom has now been performed 56 times — and two more performances are already scheduled. An average of 50 people have attended each performance, so that’s 2,800 who have seen this PFI-commissioned play!

After Iowa Poet Laureate Mary Swander wrote this work that covers the tough questions involved in farmland transitions, Mary and I both thought there would be a handful of performances around the state.

And then the kudos started and the crowds came, leading to more kudos and more crowds.

Map performance in barn

A performance of Map of My Kingdom in one of my favorite spots: a barn near Lawler, Iowa. Here Tom and Irene Frantzen lead a post-play discussion.

“We’ve performed in farmers’ barns and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago,” Mary says. “We’ve performed in church basements and New York University. We’ve made a video that can be shown anywhere around the world. And we’ve begun a conversation about our vision for our land, who’s going to get the farm, and how we’re going to handle that succession in a positive way within our own families.”

In Map of My Kingdom, Angela Martin, a lawyer and mediator in land transition disputes, shares stories of how farmers and landowners she has worked with over the years approached their land successions. “Some people literally killed each other over this issue,” Martin says.  Some almost came to blows, struggling to resolve the sale or transfer of their land, dissolving relationships.  Others found peacefully rational solutions that focused not only on the viability of the family, but also of the land.

Land is the thread that binds all of the stories together.  “For most farmers I know, owning land means everything,” Angela Martin says. I am confident there will be 100-plus performances of Map of My Kingdom, because it resonates with those who have been through or are working through challenging land transfer issues that include division of the land among siblings, selling out to neighbors, and attempts to preserve the land’s integrity against urban sprawl.

To book a performance of Map of My Kingdom or Mary’s other wonderful plays, or to order a copy of the DVD of Map of My Kingdom, see


rye raw edit

A field of cereal rye field used as a calving pasture in early spring at Glenwood Century Farm near Albion, IA.

Practical Farmers’ Cover Crop Caravan spring field day series kicked off on March 28th at Glenwood Century Farm near Albion. 29 attendees came to hear Wade Dooley, an integrated crop, livestock and vegetable farmer who’s been planting cover crops since 1997. About ten years later, Wade started taking advantage of those cover crops with his beef herd.

2008 was an extremely wet year and Wade’s cows were calving in mud. He lost 20% of his calves that year. From then on, Wade decided to strictly calve on fields of green cereal rye and has never looked back. Cow-calf pairs happily graze the fresh forage too, in early spring, when Wade’s permanent pastures haven’t grown enough to allow for grazing.

During the field day, Wade shared his cover crop planting and grazing experiences, then we headed to a cover crop field to test out some soil health tools.

wade and crowd1

Field day attendees stand in Wade Dooley’s crop field that had been planted with six species of cover crops and grazed by cattle.

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During each winter season dating back to November 2009, Practical Farmers of Iowa has been offering unique online learning opportunities referred to as Farminars. With a rich history of farmer-to-farmer education in the form of on-farm field days, farminars were a logical extension of this format for the off-season.

These interactive webinars feature both beginning and experienced PFI farmers sharing practical knowledge on a range of topics for row crop, livestock and fruit and vegetable producers. Attendees log in to listen to a live presentation over a slideshow and are able to ask questions in a chatbox. Registration is not required, all our farminars are free, and they’re recorded for later viewing.

This year we started on Tuesday November 15, holding 17 weekly farminars for 446 live viewers. Already these presentations have had 1,085 views in our farminar archive.

To date, Practical Farmers has held a total of 138 farminars that drew 5,561 live attendees. In our archives, these presentations have been viewed 49,369 times.

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Green manure cover crops best fit into extended and diversified crop rotations between the small grain and corn phases of the rotation. Farmer-cooperator Wade Dooley compared corn following two green manure strategies: a red clover + sweet mix interseeded with a cereal rye seed crop vs. a mix of oats + sorghum-sudangrass + peas + rapeseed mix (OSPR mix) established after cereal rye seed harvest.

The objective of this research project was to quantify the agronomic effect on corn yields of green manure cover crops frost-seeded with a small grain or seeded following small grain harvest. Wade lists gaining knowledge, improving soil quality and improving profitability as goals for this on-farm project.

You can read the full report here: Effect on Corn of Green Manure Cover Crops Established with Cereal Rye Seed Crop

On left, a strip of the red + sweet clover mix. On right, the oats + sorghum-sudangrass + peas + rapeseed mix. Photo taken on Nov. 6, 2015.

On left, a strip of the red + sweet clover mix. On right, the oats + sorghum-sudangrass + peas + rapeseed mix. Photo taken on Nov. 6, 2015.

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This is the second installment of our “Better Know an On-Farm Research Project” series. In celebration of Practical Farmers of Iowa’s Cooperators’ Program turning 30-years-old this year, we’re looking back at some past on-farm research trials. Last month, we featured Vic Madsen discussing strip trials he and several other Practical Farmers conducted that investigated N fertilizer rates for corn. Below, we review some trials from the early 1990s that took a look at applying biological and alternative amendments for corn and soybean production. Though he didn’t participate himself, Vic remembered these trials and suggested I reach out to one of the cooperators who did participate. So I gave Dave Lubben a call. Dave and his wife, Lisa, farm near Monticello in Jones County. In 2013, they were awarded as Master Researchers for their efforts over the years in conducting over 20 on-farm research trials and hosting more than 5 field days.

Dave Lubben speaks at a Practical Farmers field day in the mid-1990s.

Dave Lubben speaks at a Practical Farmers field day in the mid-1990s.

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Josh Nelson (right)

Josh Nelson
Cardinal Prairie Farm
Member since 2012
Belmond, IA

Josh Nelson farms near Belmond with his father, two uncles and a cousin, growing corn, soybeans and pigs on the family’s main farm. Each family member rents or owns land individually, Josh explains, but “we all work jointly and own the equipment together.”

“This is my fifth year farming with them,” he adds. “Prior to that, I spent nearly a decade working as a journalist.”

Josh, the sixth generation to farm the family’s land, also independently operates Cardinal Prairie Farm on a portion of the land he rents, where he raises chemical-free produce on more than a half-acre – though he hopes to “slowly expand to a few acres” in the next few years. He also has a small herd of Highland cattle.

“The vegetable operation is chemical-free, which means I treat it as essentially organic once the plants sprout,” Josh says. Continue reading

Terry Troxel
Iowana Farm
Member since 2012
Crescent, IA

At Iowana Farm, located on her grandfather’s farmland snuggled in the Loess Hills, Terry raises 3 acres of certified organic heirloom vegetables for a CSA; the Village Pointe and Rockbrook Village farmers markets in Omaha; several restaurants; and wholesale.

Terry and her late husband, Chuck, moved back to Iowa from California in 2007 and started Iowana Farm. The 66-acre farm features 20 acres of land under cultivation – the 3 acres in certified organic vegetables and the rest in alfalfa hay. The farm’s fields are surrounded by oak savanna and grasslands.

In addition to annual crops — some grown in one of Terry’s three high tunnels — the farm also has some perennial crops.

Terry hosted a Practical Farmers field day in 2014, presented at PFI’s 2017 annual conference and is part of Practical Farmers’ on-farm research Cooperators’ Program.

Her farm is a busy place, with employees, volunteers, friends and family at work and enjoying each other’s company.

Learn more about Terry: