SMALL GRAINS IN THE CORN BELT
Planting small grains and incorporating cover crops in a cropping system can be a powerful tool for breaking pest cycles and increasing weed control while improving soil health, water quality and reducing GHGs. Despite these benefits, small grains, once a common part of Midwest cropping systems are now scarce in the Corn Belt. Farmers cite lack of markets as the biggest barrier to bring small grains back into their rotation system.
Over the past 3 years, Walton Family Foundation, McKnight Foundation and funding from the USDA NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant have supported SFL and Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) to work together to help farmers grow high quality small grains as well as address the structural barriers for making them a commercially viable option for CPGs and retailers with sustainable sourcing goals.
We have identified that not only is there a strong farmer interest in growing small grains, but that Midwest farmers can consistently grow high-quality oats. We have established the sustainability benefits and farm level economics derived from a 3-year rotation system with a small grain and nitrogen fixing cover crop. However, lack of secondary markets is a key barrier to incentivizing production at a scale necessary to drive impact at the landscape level.
PFI and SFL’s goal is to establish the right conditions to make small grains work for farmers, with the assumption that market demand is necessary to incentivize diversifying the current corn-soy rotation. Food, feed and seed companies are key to unlocking this market potential.
Since 2016 through this initiative, PFI has offered cost share for over 3,500 acres of corn and soybean grown in rotation with small grains plus legume cover crops. Between 2019-2021, this will expand to 20,000 acres. To complement the cost share, PFI offers agronomic support through a full program of education, agronomic and community resources around growing small grains and cover crops.
Our food and beverage supply chain partners are supporting this initiative through addressing research questions and barriers to establish a market for small grains grown in the Midwest. This includes designing US grown oat variety trials and test plots, cover crop cost share support, small grain livestock feeding trials and feasibility studies, implementing sourcing pilots, analyzing pricing mechanisms to reduce farmer risk, and researching and addressing barriers to bring this to scale.
SFL is working with PFI, farmers, and supply chain partners to gather robust water quality, GHG emission and soil health data on extended rotations through a suite of methods, including the Cool Farm Tool, Fieldprint Calculator, and the Resource Stewardship Evaluation Tool. PFI is collecting on-farm soil health and water quality data and working with other partners using satellite imagery to track landscape level changes and impact from investments.
For more information, contact Elizabeth Reaves at [email protected].
Learn more about PFI, our implementation partner.
- New: Open Source Soil Health Communications Toolkit: Soil Health Slide Deck, Supporting Appendix, and click here for the full set of resources.
- Small Grains in the Corn Belt Newsletter: Issue 1
- Small Grains in the Corn Belt Project Components
- Reviving Feed and Seed Markets to Grow Small Grains in the Cornbelt: A Market Solution for Climate and Water Protection in Agriculture
- Sustainable Agriculture in the Corn Belt: What Practices Matter
- Sustainable Feed Summary Deck
- Feeding Small Grains to Livestock: A Meta Analysis
- Small Grains, Large Grains: A Boone County, Iowa Case Study
- 5 Reasons Why Diverse Crop Rotations Are Good For Iowa
In the News:
- The Growing Case for Returning to Cover Crops and Small Grains in the Midwest
- Making Extended Crop Rotations Work
- Where Corn Is King, the Stirrings of a Renaissance in Small Grains
See below for our recent animated videos on soil health.