field with corn
BACK IN FAVOR: Iowa was once a leader in small-grain production, especially oats, but many farmers haven’t grown them for a generation. Now, more farmers are interested in growing small grains.

Making small grains work

August conference at Ames will explore small-grain production in Iowa.

By Alisha Bower

Due to low commodity prices, many Iowa farmers have found adding a small grain like oats or wheat to their crop rotation can help reduce the amount of fertilizer and pesticide they need to buy. The extra crop not only improves the bottom line, but also adds other benefits: diverse rotations use less energy, cause less erosion, and improve soil and water quality all while improving corn yield.

But because small grains have been nearly absent from the landscape for a generation in Iowa, much of the knowledge about how to grow and market these crops has been lost. To help close this knowledge gap, Practical Farmers of Iowa is putting on its first stand-alone small-grains conference. Titled “Making Small Grains Work,” the half-day conference is Aug. 17 at Ames.

It will kick off with lunch at 11:30 a.m., as participants will hear a keynote from Don Halcomb, the chairman of the Kentucky Small Grain Promotion Council. He will share the history of how growers in Kentucky came together to create an association and a wheat checkoff that has propelled Kentucky wheat production to nearly 30 million bushels through investment in small-grain research, education and promotion.

After lunch and the keynote address, attendees will choose four one-hour afternoon sessions to attend. Some sessions focus on end uses of small grains, such as feeding small grains with professor Pete Lammers from the University of Wisconsin Platteville and market specifications for food-quality small grains with Sam Raser, a grain buyer for Grain Millers.

Growing small grains successfully
Other sessions will be led by farmers and experts from around the Midwest, discussing field practices for growing small grains, such as planter setup, weed control, combine settings and postharvest handling. Darren Fehr will discuss weed control and oat production on his organic farm in Iowa, and professor Erin Silva of the University of Wisconsin-Madison will show the latest research on optimal organic crop rotations. Minnesota farmers Jonathan and Carolyn Olson explain their management and marketing of transitional small grains, and Lee Brockmueller of South Dakota will discuss how he raises small grains and integrates them with livestock on his conventional farm.

SEED DEPTH: Darren Fehr will speak at “Making Small Grains Work,” a half-day conference in Ames on Aug. 17, about his practices for raising high-quality oats. Ensuring precise planter setup by measuring seeding depth is one element of his production.

Several other sessions will focus on what farmers plant after small-grain harvest: namely the selection, mechanics and function of a green manure cover crop. Professor Matthew Ruark from UW-Madison will discuss biological function and nitrogen synchronization from a green manure cover crop, and Keith Kohler, USDA ag research service specialist, will dig into optimal equipment setup for managing a small grain with a green manure crop underseeded or planted after small-grain harvest.

After the sessions have concluded, all presenters and attendees are invited to a reception. Representatives from several companies that buy conventional, transitional and organic small grains will also be available to answer farmers’ questions about contracts and market specifications.

The conference will run from 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Quality Inn and Suites Starlight Village Conference Center in Ames. It is free for PFI members and $40 for nonmembers. Registration is required online at or by calling 515-232-5661.

Bower is Midwest cover crops associate for Practical Farmers of Iowa in Ames. Contact her at [email protected].

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