Season is Underway

Despite the wet spring, small grains are in the ground and in-field monitoring is kicking off. The rain, cool weather, and flooding has us all feeling extra humbled by the challenges of working with the weather and the role we all have in increasing the resiliency of cropland to to heavy precipitation events. PFI is busy planning 41 farmer field days this year to do just that.

This newsletter features an overview of our recent webinar that shares what we've learned collecting data from and engaging with farmers over the last two years. PFI offers a season update to give us a sense of what is happening on the ground. We share the status of cover crops in Iowa, a new opportunity as part of the 2018 Farm Bill, and reminders of upcoming touch points with all of you.


- Carol Healy & Elizabeth Reaves, Sustainable Food Lab 


Webinar Recap - Lessons Learned from Two Years of Small Grains in the Corn Belt
Together we are asking the following questions through our collaboration: Can farmers be profitable when adding a small grain and cover crop to their corn and soy rotation? What additional sustainability value can be captured by the supply chain? Is it measurable and can the tools used to measure give results that are both useful feedback for farmers and lead to more informed action and investment by the supply chain as they verify impact? Around 20 partners joined SFL and PFI during a webinar on April 4 to dig in to what we’ve learned over the last three years of working with and collecting data from farmers. Key learnings include the following:
  • Farmers are profitable when they reduce inputs and have multiple market options.
  • Farmers can significantly reduce emissions in a 3-crop system without sacrificing yield.
  • Measurement alone cannot drive change. 
We recognize the need to line up the business case for the entire supply chain to pull a more diverse rotation on to the landscape. We hope that this research and webinar sheds light on two important components of the business case: farmer profitability and measurable environmental impacts. Read the complete webinar recap, view the slides, or watch the webinar to learn more.

Season Update from PFI 

Small grains are in the ground and, luckily, are partial to the cool weather that’s predominated the Midwest the last several weeks. Now that the growing season is officially underway, in-field monitoring is kicking off. Farmers in the cost share will be monitoring nitrate concentrations in water coming out of tile lines, available nitrogen in soils after a cover crop to determine their fertilizer rates for their corn, and burying household objects like tea bags and popsicle sticks to measure the biological activity of the soils. Pictured here is a cost share farmer taking water samples from a tile line. At least one farmer will even conduct randomized replicated trials to test low and high fertilizer rates following a legume cover crop, to collect data on how much nitrogen fertilizer they can displace with their cover crop. This data will be used by farmers to make management decisions and track environmental outcomes on the ground that can deepen our understanding of the impact of the extended rotation system and further calibrate sustainability tools such as the Fieldprint Calculator and Cool Farm Tool. 
Read how cover crops and reduced tillage benefit farmers, especially this wet, rainy season
Iowa's cover crop acres are small but expanding: farm profitability can make the case for growth
This May 17th Gazette article  explores the challenges and opportunities to increasing cover crop adoption in Iowa. While cover crops constitute only 4% of total acreage in Iowa, between 2015 and 2017 the state nearly doubled its cover crops acres. Communicating the profit potential from cover crops may unlock more accelerated adoption - simply put, how cover crops will affect a farmer's bottom line. Our PFI partner, Sarah Carlson, shares how we need to change the message to reach more farmers. "We’ve probably gotten the majority of farmers who are motivated by improvements in soil health," Sarah says. "It’s time for a new message. I believe farmers need to share more strongly about the positive short-term cost-saving benefits through improved weed control and greater ability to access the fields during wet spring conditions.”
Watch a PFI cost share farmer use extended rotation, oats and cover crops with livestock integration to keep his farm profitable and safeguard soil health

USDA Opens Signup for New On-Farm Trials Effort 

USDA is investing up to $25 million per year over the next five years to help support the adoption and evaluation of innovative conservation approaches on agricultural lands. USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is accepting proposals through July 15, for On-Farm Conservation Innovation Trials (On-Farm Trials), a new, additional sub-program created by the 2018 Farm Bill for the USDA’s Conservation Innovation Grants (CIG) program. On-Farm Trials include a Soil Health Demo Trial, also created by the 2018 Farm Bill. Read the announcement here. 

On-Farm Trials is distinct from traditional national CIG competitive grants funding, which is used to support early pilot projects or demonstrations of promising conservation approaches and technologies and is not typically provided directly to producers. On-Farm Trials funding is designed to flow through partners directly to producers to implement innovative approaches that have been well-studied and known to provide conservation benefits.

"We are asking partners that have access to producer networks to join us in putting innovative conservation under the microscope to figure out how to expand the adoption of innovative practices and systems,” Chief Lohr said. “NRCS intends to use On-Farm Trials results to inform our own work with farmers, ranchers and forest landowners.”

A webinar for potential On-Farm Trials applicants is scheduled for May 29 at 3pm EST.
Learn from Celize the many benefits of feeding triticale to pigs


Join us and connect with the broader small grains team! Contact Elizabeth or Carol for more information.

Supply Chain Partner Quarterly Call
  • What: Check-in call with our corporate partners. Our vision for these calls is to build a community where we are actively learning together, bringing challenges as they pertain to this body of work and facilitating a themed discussion. In June, we will review a PFI-illustrated Feeding Small Grains Infographic and learn what the data tells us about inclusion rates and performance. Our discussion will include ideas, lessons learned and opportunities for engaging livestock nutritionists. 
  • When: June 4, 11-12pm EST

PFI Conference: Rotationally Raised - Making Small Grains Work
  • WhatThe annual farmer-facing conference covers a variety of topics about growing small grains and benefits of an extended rotation. Breakouts include sessions on integrating animals with a small grains operation, feeding small grains to livestock, marketing small grains, and the agronomy behind successfully raising small grains. PFI and SFL will organize a special learning agenda for our corporate partners and our nutritionist allies. Learn more.
  • When: August 15-16
  • Where: Wisconsin Dells, WI
In the News.....

The dirt on soil loss from the Midwest floods

5.21.2019    I   Jim Ippolito, CSU & Mahdi Al-Kaisi, ISU 

As devastating images of the 2019 Midwest floods fade from view, an insidious and longer-term problem is emerging across its vast plains: The loss of topsoil that much of the nation’s food supply relies on.

Today, Midwest farmers are facing millions of bushels of damaged crops such as soybean and corn. This spring’s heavy rains have already caused record flooding, which could continue into June, and some government officials have said it could take farmers years to recover.

Long after the rains stop, floodwaters continue to impact soil’s physical, chemical and biological properties that all plants rely on for proper growth. Just as very wet soils would prevent a homeowner from tending his or her garden, large amounts of rainfall prevent farmers from entering a wet field with machinery. Flooding can also drain nutrients out of the soil that are necessary for plant growth as well as reduce oxygen needed for plant roots to breathe, and gather water and nutrients.

As scientists who have a combined 80 years of experience studying soil processes, we see clearly that many long-term problems farmers face from floodwaters are steeped in the soil. This leads us to conclude that farmers may need to take far more active measures to manage soil health in the future as weather changes occur more drastically due to climate change and other factors....Keep Reading to learn about the implications of the flooding on soils and the management practices to help farmers recover and remain resilient.

Farmers Are Excited About Soil Health. That’s Good News for All of Us.

4.8.2019   I   Karen Perry Stillerman, Union of Concerned Scientists

“When we think about the challenges in agriculture, carbon—and how to sequester it—is near the top.” So said Roger Johnson, the president of the National Farmers Union (NFU), in opening the grassroots organization’s 2019 annual convention in March. Storing carbon in farm soils is an important climate change solution, but building the health of those soils is also critical for ensuring clean water for communities and helping farmers be productive while coping with the consequences of a climate that is already changing. And throughout the NFU’s three-day gathering, the phrase “soil health” and talk about strategies to achieve it seemed to be on everyone’s tongue.

Though it is hard to quantify, surveys suggest that many US farmers are already taking steps to build soil health and store carbon in their soils....Keep Reading.


Cover Crops Protect Local Drinking Water Supplies

4.3.2019   I   Elizabeth Lillard, National Wildlife Federation

Over the last five years, more than 60 cities in Iowa have struggled with high nitrate levels in their drinking water, and 30 percent of Iowa’s municipal water systems are at high risk for nutrient pollution. High nitrate levels in drinking water are a considerable public health risk, and studies have linked elevated nitrate levels to bladder cancer, thyroid cancer and birth defects. Despite the risk, many smaller facilities don’t have nitrate removal equipment to use when levels rise. To mitigate the damage, drinking water authorities can sue counties that manage upstream drainage districts (as Des Moines did in 2015) or construct new treatment infrastructure. Both of these options are prohibitively expensive.

Communities in northwest Iowa source their water from groundwater aquifers which are often overlooked when considering the impact of nonpoint source pollution....Keep Reading.

Visit Small Grains in the Corn Belt for information & resources 

Special thanks to our funders:
NRCS, Walton Family Foundation & McKnight Foundation

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