A generation ago, small grains were common on most Iowa farms. But today, much of the information about how to manage small grains for grain production as well as the equipment to harvest and process them is limited. However, with the low corn prices and interest in cover crops, small grains are making a slow but steady resurgence. The Allamakee SWCD is currently working on a project through the Leopold Center to promote small grain production in Allamakee County and to assist producers with connecting to the infrastructure needed to grow and sell a marketable product. (Click here for the Allamakee SWCD Small Grain Brochure)
Because cropland rental rates and production costs have not decreased at the same dramatic rate as commodity prices, many farmers are actually losing money by planting corn and soybeans. This is not news to most farmers. The addition of a small grain to a corn-soybean rotation can reduce input costs for seed, fertilizer, and herbicides. Diversity in systems helps stabilize profits from year to year, emphasizing the importance of looking at the profitability of the entire rotation rather than each individual year as well as comparing input costs to revenues. Small grains with a red clover underseeding not only have reduced input costs during that year but also reduce input costs the following year. However, growing a high quality (marketable) small grain is essential for improving the profitability of the rotation.
Research conducted by Matt Liebman at Iowa State University has shown that although corn is grown less often in a three-year rotation (corn-soybeans-small grain), it is often higher yielding and at lower cost due to the addition of nitrogen-fixing legumes such as clover with the small grain. Liebman has shown that soils from three-year rotations (or longer) are higher in organic matter, lower in bulk density, and higher in microbial biomass than two-year rotations. It is often difficult to add dollar value to these soil characteristics, but they generally result in soils are more resilient to varied weather conditions and may provide nutrients longer into the growing season.
One of the biggest hurdles for small-grain production is the infrastructure needed to harvest, store, and market the small grains. In order to have a marketable product for food-grade grains, the product has to meet the quality and test weight requirements of the buyer.
Click here to read about a local producer who recently planted winter wheat followed by a diverse cover crop.
Please stop by the Allamakee SWCD/NRCS office or call 563-568-2246 ext. 3 to discuss how a small grain may help meet your goals and what assistance you may need.
Additional Small Grain Resources:
Intercropping Winter Cereal Grains and Red Clover – ISU Extension
Midwest small grain trails to help with variety selection – on Albert Lea Seed website