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Rotationally Raised: Harvest, When and How

Combine settings are crucial when harvesting small grains. Episode 7

When it comes to small grains, farmers have many different opinions on the best time and method to harvest the crops. Unlike harvesting corn and soybeans, there’s a choice to be made: Should you swath/windrow or directly combine the small grains crop as it is standing? Depending on the year, the weather conditions and the equipment available on the farm, this may be a choice. Or, perhaps only one of the two options may be available.

In this episode of Rotationally Raised, several members of Practical Farmers of Iowa weigh in on this harvesting topic. They also discuss harvest timing and how to fine-tune your combine to more efficiently harvest small grains. 

Harvesting small grains
Wade Dooley of Albion says 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 the way hay dries down.”

He says the straw, if it has been swathed, 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, Dooley tries to watch the weather and he will direct-cut the small grains crop if it looks like a lot of rain is in the forecast around harvest time.

Swathing has benefits
Aaron Heley Lehman of Polk City agrees swathing can be risky. “If everything was perfect, and everything was standing well, a lot of us would just assume we would use the small grain head on our combine and cut the crop directly,” he says. But when there’s weed pressure or if the underseeding is very thick or you want to harvest a lot of the straw (and cut the standing grain crop 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, Lehman purchased a swather in early 2016.

Earl Canfield of Dunkerton purchased a 21-foot swather with nearby farmer and fellow PFI member Clark Porter in early summer last year, and says it proved to be a lifesaver. “If there was one piece of equipment we had in 2016 that we didn’t have in 2015, and are very glad we had it in 2016, it would be this swathing machine,” says Canfield.

Harvest moisture content
Close to harvest, his farm received several inches of rain and the underseeding took off and grew. 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 to harvest for your operation, PFI farmers say the combine settings are crucial with small grains. Darren Fehr sells food grade oats to Grain Millers in St. Ansgar, so high test weight is very important. He says it just takes some adjustments on the combine to get the hang of it. “I don’t think it should be very difficult for most producers to keep adjusting and trying it, and then decide which settings work well,” he says.

Combine settings crucial
The goal when harvesting is to separate the chaff and light oats from the heavier, high test-weight oats that you want to sell. Fehr says figuring out how to do that by managing fan speeds and sieve settings on the combine just takes some effort in 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 seed. So keeping the grain in good condition after harvest is important. Next week, in Episode 8 of Rotationally Raised, we’ll talk about grain storage and handling. For more information on small grains, check out

Editor’s Note: Ohde is the research and media coordinator for Practical Farmers of Iowa.

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