Summer Brings Harvests and Direction

Crops may not always be predictable, but farmers are and they continue to show up in the field and provide when everything else seems to stop. PFI small grain farmers have been busy. Winter wheat and rye are all but harvested, and oat harvest is happening now.  

In this issue we share new farm production data revealing new insights on the benefits of diverse rotations, the kick off of our beef feeding trial, our newly submitted CIG proposal to continue to build out manure management and GHG benefits from the small grain intervention on-farm, and upcoming virtual learning opportunities (a few from the over 60 virtual field days PFI is offering this summer). 

We hope you will take some time to dig in and think with us not only about what else we should be asking, but how to see this shift in cropping systems on the landscape and in our supply chains. 

We are grateful for the thinking, commitment, and investment this community is making to make diversification and regenerative agriculture possible. 


- Carol Healy & Elizabeth Reaves, Sustainable Food Lab 


On-Farm Data Continues to Reveal Benefits of Diverse Rotations
From 2017 -2019, PFI has surveyed Midwestern corn and soy farmers that are diversifying their rotation with a small grain plus a legume cover crop.  We analyzed GHG emission impacts of the rotation change and captured management changes resulting from the extended rotation system. The on-farm data story continues to be compelling!
We set out to test the below three hypotheses:
  1. Diverse rotations with small grains lead to more roots in the ground year-round.
  2. Fertilizer reduction to corn following a legume cover crop has a big impact on reducing GHG emissions
  3. Extended rotation benefits (increased corn and soy yields and drastic cut of fertilizer) may not be capitalized fully by farmers in first 1-3 years of practicing the rotation.
Our hypotheses were validated. We found that crop diversification is an essential unlock and speedier path to profitable regenerative agriculture farming systems.  Instant benefits can be realized by reducing fertilizer use in the corn year without sacrificing yields but half of farmers were hesitant to do so. While short term profitability is possible, farmers need additional support to defray the risks (real and perceived) and the delays in getting their systems to recalibrate to deliver consistent benefits across the whole farming system.

We are left with some pointers for strategic next steps and next research questions: 
  1. How can we motivate the 50% who have yet to adopt fertilizer reductions following a cover crop? 
  2. How do we balance high costs and expertise needed for data collection and analysis against the need for documentation of impact? 
  3. What are the key ingredients to scale this practice? 
None of this is scalable without a market for the small grain crop. We are eager to explore the above questions with many of you through our continued collaboration to create small grain markets and drive this practice on the landscape, including through our newly submitted CIG proposal highlighted below.

Review the complete production data summary and dig in to the data analysis here.

Beef Feeding Trial Kicking Off!

We are confident that beef cattle can eat small grains, but what our partners and producers want to understand is… What might this look like in practice? What are the benefits and tradeoffs to a producer? And if the case is there, what is needed to scale? We are fortunate to have the Couser family and McDonald’s USA explore these questions with us through the design and analysis of a beef feeding trial.

The Couser Cattle Company, of Nevada, Iowa, is a medium-scale farmer-feeder beef operation with over 5,000 head of cattle and over 5,000 acres of corn and soybean.  The Cousers will incorporate oats into the cattle’s total mixed ration (TMR). A treatment group of 500 cattle will be fed a TMR comprised of 25% oats, compared to the control group of 500 cattle which will receive a standard ration without oats. With PFI, they will evaluate the performance and health of the cattle over a 200-day period. Together we will also evaluate the greenhouse gas emission impacts and understand farm feasibility and economics of incorporating oats. This unique opportunity to test the feasibility of feeding small grains will provide learnings that are transferrable to farmer-feeder operations throughout the country.

McDonald’s, a trial sponsor, is particularly keen to learn with the Cousers and us given its interest in supporting producers to find and adopt innovative practices that work for their operations. “McDonald’s believes responsible beef production can improve the environment and enhance farmer and community livelihoods with ethical practices for animals and people. This project hits on all these aspects of sustainability. We are excited to assess how this project reduces the emissions footprint of our beef, while increasing farm resilience by enabling more diverse crop systems in the Midwest,” said Sara Kroopf, Manager of US Supply Chain Sustainability at McDonald’s.

Bill Couser, co-owner of the operation, has procured oats from a nearby Iowa farm and will begin processing and feeding in the coming weeks. But even before the feeding trial begins, he is looking ahead and considering growing oats this fall given the benefits of adding a crop into his rotation. “This trial really spurred some additional interest for us,” Bill Couser said, “and we want to take it one step further to see what it can do for soil health and water quality on our land.”
Save the Date! Virtual Field Day Learning Opportunities

Join PFI members for a field day on August 11 from 1-2pm Central Time with a farm family that will share their experience from two years of adding oats to a corn-soy rotation. A.J. and Kellie Blair will discuss their on-farm research to optimize fertilizer rates in the corn year and general observations around yields, management practices, on-farm logistics, and benefits and challenges of the extended rotation system.

Register Here: Growing High-Quality, Food-Grade Oats
                       Aug 11, 1-2pm CT

The field day is open to all, with PFI farmers the primary audience. SFL will host a more intimate discussion between the Small Grains partners and Blairs following the field day. Stay tuned for more information and in the meantime, plan to join us live on Aug 11!

Check out these other PFI virtual field days featuring small grains. All are welcome!
Newly Submitted CIG proposal to further understand value proposition of the small grain system
Over the last 4 years, our work has been funded in large part by the Conservation Innovation Grants (CIG) program. PFI and SFL submitted a new proposal this June to pilot innovative cost share and market-based mechanisms with supply chain partners, including many of you, to increase the adoption of fertilizer and manure management practices that result in lower GHG emissions in an extended rotation with small grains.

Our objective is to document the complete value proposition of extended rotations - environmental, farmer business and supply chain business impacts - and to support farmers and supply chains to scale up the entire package of best farm management practices that the use of small grains with legume cover crops offers. This need was just reinforced by our recent production data analyses highlighted above. 

We should be notified of the decision this fall. Thank you to those of you that provided letters of support and we look forward to continuing to partner with you! 

See the CIG
project summary for more detail and reach out with questions!
New Communications Resource

Check out our latest small grains project overview deck - MAKING DIVERSE ROTATIONS WORK - which summarizes the sustainability case, project partners, goals, and what we are looking to next as a community of practice. The deck intends to synthesize what we've learned in an easy-to-understand format for your internal and external stakeholders. 
In the News.....

PBS Feature Highlights Oat Benefits

4.2.20   I   Iowa PBS

This episode of Iowa Ingredient, an Iowa PBS production, follows how oats are grown and processed in Iowa and includes oat recipes. A PFI farmer is featured and talks to how a year of oats in rotation with corn and soybeans helps to break up his weed cycles and shares how the biologically grown nitrogen in his system replaces inputs in the corn crop. Grain Millers, one of our supply chain partners, is featured processing the oats where you can see how oats are cleaned and dehulled, and talks to the versatility of oats. Watch the complete episode or just the farmer segment

Visit Small Grains in the Corn Belt for information & resources 

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

Update your preferences or unsubscribe from this list