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Serving: IA
Adam Kramer harvests one of his last loads of wheat in
SUNSET: Adam Kramer harvests one of his last loads of wheat in 2018. He added wheat to his rotation to build soil health and fertility.

Add small grains to your rotation

Wheat or oats teamed with cover crops helps improve soil health and fertility.

By Sara Berges

A Wisconsin farmer is improving soil health and fertility on cropland he farms across the state border near Waukon in northeast Iowa. He added winter wheat to his rotation, followed by a diverse cover crop.

Adam Kramer, who owns and operates Black Sand Granary in Prairie du Chien, hopes to break up pest cycles, improve soil health and reduce input costs by adding a small grain to his corn-soybean rotation.

Adam Kramer standing in barn with american flag in the background
ACROSS THE LINE: Adam Kramer operates Black Sand Granary at Prairie du Chien, Wis., and farms across the state line in Iowa.

In October 2017, Kramer planted about 110 pounds per acre of soft red winter wheat on 70 acres following soybean harvest. Soil tests he conducted in 2015 when he started farming the property indicated the farm was deficient in many categories, including a compaction layer at 6 inches.

“The yields on the farm weren’t very good — certainly not profitable,” Kramer says. “I had an idea that farming in these conditions would require something different than the common rotation and practices. There is more work to do, but we are on track to build something sustainable.”

Making money with small grains
Because he applied fertilizer at higher rates to build soil fertility, Kramer used a growth regulator on the wheat to help reduce the potential for lodging due to higher nitrogen application rates. Other options for decreasing lodging include using varieties with stronger straw or shorter stems. Kramer also applied a fungicide to protect against rusts and fusarium head blight, also known as scab.

He harvested the wheat July 23, with an average yield between 95 and 100 bushels per acre and an average weight of about 56 pounds per bushel. Kramer sold a portion of the wheat to ADM in Boscobel, Wis., and kept some for cover crop seed.

Growing small grains may not be highly lucrative in today’s market; however, the reduced input costs can improve net returns.

The cover crop mix of turnips, radishes, Austrian winter peas, sunflowers, red clover, soybeans, oats and spring barley is flourishing in early October 2018.
DIVERSITY: The cover crop mix of turnips, radishes, Austrian winter peas, sunflowers, red clover, soybeans, oats and spring barley is flourishing in early October.

“If you grow food-grade small grains, you may be able to get a better grain price,” says LuAnn Rolling, district conservationist in Allamakee County for USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. “If you grow food-grade, organic grains you’ll receive an even higher price.”

The biggest Iowa-based buyer of food-grade oats and other small grains in the area is Grain Millers in St. Ansgar. “There are people growing food-grade small grains in Allamakee County and throughout Iowa, but there are limited options when it comes to buyers. There aren’t that many buyers,” Rolling says.

Improve corn, bean yield
Wheat can impact net returns beyond market prices. “Studies have found that diversifying rotations can improve corn and soybean yields in the following years, which then improves the profitability of the entire rotation,” Rolling says.

In addition to the grain, Kramer sold the straw to add to his profits. “When removing straw, it’s important to be aware of the nutrients contained in the straw and apply fertilizer rates accordingly,” she says. “Cover crops are especially important on fields where residue was removed; a cover is needed to help protect the soil from erosion.”

Less than a week after harvesting his wheat, Kramer seeded a cover crop mix of turnips, radishes, Austrian winter peas, sunflowers, red clover, soybeans, oats and spring barley.

Adam Kramer’s daughters, Haily and Harper, check on the wheat crop last summer
WHEAT: Adam Kramer’s daughters, Haily and Harper, check on the wheat crop last summer. He hopes to break up pest cycles, improve soil health and reduce input costs by adding a small grain to his corn-soybean rotation.

“The period after small-grain harvest is a great opportunity to plant a mix that will accomplish a wide range of goals,” says Neil Sass, area resource soil scientist for NRCS at West Union. “The mix Kramer used is great for capturing carbon and for adding pore space in the soil to break up compaction. Pollinators, beneficial insects and wildlife also seem to appreciate the plant diversity that was introduced.”

About two months after planting in early October, Sass and staff from the Allamakee Soil and Water Conservation District sampled aboveground biomass of the cover crop mix, and then dried and weighed it. Dry biomass samples ranged from 1,510 to 4,600 pounds per acre, with an average of 2,580 pounds per acre.

“The biomass levels are similar to what we often see in mid-May with a winter-hardy grass like cereal rye,” Sass says. “These are good biomass levels; a lot of carbon has been captured.”

Livestock grazing another benefit
Allowing livestock to graze cover crops adds additional benefits. Early-seeded cover crops can produce substantial amounts of biomass, which can provide good forage. Producers should be careful, though, when selecting seed mixes. You want to plant species with balanced nutrients and graze them at appropriate heights. It’s also important to know the herbicide restrictions from previous crops.

“If you plan to graze cover crops in the fall, treat it like a prescribed grazing system and keep the animals out of the field in wet conditions and remove them when there are still several inches of aboveground biomass remaining,” Rolling advises.

Now is the time to start planning for next fall’s cover crop. There may be financial assistance available for conservation crop rotations and cover crops through your local NRCS-SWCD office. The next sign-up deadline for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program is March 15.

Producers in Allamakee and Clayton counties can apply for EQIP funds through a Regional Conservation Partnership Program project by adding a small grain to a rotation and following it with a diverse cover crop.

If you plan to plant cover crops following small grains or on silage ground, try planting a diverse mix to take advantage of the longer growing season. Your local NRCS-SWCD staff are available to help you determine what mix would meet your goals.

Berges is project coordinator for Allamakee Soil and Water Conservation District in northeast Iowa.

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