Published Feb 9, 2017

Rotationally Raised, Episode 7: Harvest, When and How

By Nick Ohde

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.

Small Grains Harvest

Wade Dooley of Albion says that he started looking at swathing because he wanted to improve not only the quality of the grain, but the quality of the straw. “The straw quality is usually a little higher,” he says, “because you’ve cut it when there was a little bit of life left in it, so it dries down closer to hay.” He says it just holds together better going through the combine, and then makes nice bales that end up making excellent livestock bedding. “I’d like to swath, but in Iowa in July, it rains so much that swathing is really risky,” he says. Because of this, Wade tries to watch the weather and direct cut if it looks like a lot of rain in the forecast around harvest time.

Aaron Heley Lehman of Polk City agrees that swathing can be risky. “If everything were perfect, and everything were standing perfectly, I think a lot of us would just assume use the small grain head on our combine and take them directly,” he says. But when there’s weed pressure or the underseeding is very thick or you want to take lots of the straw (and cut the grain closer to the ground), direct cutting can mean taking a large amount of plant material that’s still green into the combine. For that reason, Aaron purchased a swather in early 2016.

Earl Canfield of Dunkerton says that he purchased a 21-ft swather with nearby farmer and fellow PFI member Clark Porter in the early summer last year, and said it proved to be a lifesaver. “If there was one piece of a equipment we had in 2016 that we didn’t have in 2015, it would be this swathing machine,” he says. Close to harvest, his farm received several inches of rain and his underseeding took off. He had originally planned to direct cut his oats, but because he likes to cut relatively low to the ground to harvest lots of straw, he knew he’d be taking lots of material through the combine with the added growth on the underseeding. He put the swather to use and was able to harvest a quality oat crop.

Once you’ve tested the grain to make sure it’s at the right moisture level for your operation, PFI farmers say that combine settings are crucial with small grains. Darren Fehr sells food grade oats to Grain Millers in St. Ansgar, so high test weight is crucial, but he says it just takes some adjustments to get the hang of it. “I don’t think it should be very difficult for most producers to come to settings that work well,” he says. The goal is to separate the chaff and light oats from the heavier, high test-weight oats that you want to sell. Darren says that figuring out how to do that by managing fan speeds and sieve settings just takes making adjustments, testing, and readjusting.

Grain quality is very important with small grains, whether you’re selling them to a food grade market or using them as cover crop seeds,  and so keeping the grains in good condition after harvest is important. Next week, we’ll talk about grain storage and handling. For more information on small grains, check out