“I love when farmers tell me that they're grazing their corn residue. That's a resource that's laying out there ready to use. It's also pretty nutritious for your cattle, and especially with cover crop usage, it's a great way to make it more economical for farmers if they were to graze.”
— Morgan Jennings, Field Crops Viability Coordinator, Practical Farmers of Iowa
In this episode of the Cover Crop Strategies podcast, brought to you by SOURCE® from Sound Agriculture, Morgan Jennings, field crops viability coordinator with Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI), discusses PFI’s cover crop cost share program as well as her cover crop research on grazing corn residue in the spring.
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The Cover Crop Strategies podcast series is brought to you by SOURCE®️ by Sound Agriculture.
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Full TranscriptMackane Vogel:
Welcome to the Cover Crop Strategies Podcast, brought to you by SOURCE® from Sound Agriculture. I'm Mackane Vogel, Assistant Editor at Cover Crop Strategies. In this episode, Morgan Jennings, Field Crops Viability Coordinator with Practical Farmers of Iowa discusses PFIs Cover Crop Cost-Share Program, as well as her cover crop research on grazing corn residue in the spring.
All right, so I'm here with Morgan Jennings. Morgan, if you want to just start off, same way we usually start these podcasts off, just want to know a little bit about you and how you got into the world of agriculture and how you got to where you're at today?Morgan Jennings:
Awesome. That sounds great. So, as you just said, I'm Morgan Jennings and I am the Field Crops Viability Coordinator for Practical Farmers of Iowa, and I got into Ag, oh, I guess I've always been surrounded by agriculture. I grew up on a hobby farm in eastern Iowa and then got my undergraduate degree at Iowa State University in animal science and agronomy, and then I continued my education at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln specializing in ruminant nutrition and grazing perennial systems. And then, yeah, joined Practical Farmers of Iowa and I help administer our cover crop program and give technical assistance to farmers who are grazing cover crops and the like.Mackane Vogel:
Awesome. I think a lot of our listeners know, but just in case there's someone who doesn't, why don't you give us just a quick, brief overview of what PFI is?Morgan Jennings:
Yes, that's a great question. Practical Farmers of Iowa, we're a nonprofit farmer-led organization founded in the 1980s. I was not, but it's been around for quite a while and we really just pride ourselves on being a farmer-led organization. So, farmers really lead our programming and they just are the ones that are sharing information and learning from each other. They host field days, any of our farm and ours or shared learning calls. That's all related to our farmer-led education department. And then we also have a research department so farmers can participate in on-farm trials if there's a topic of interest to them and they want questions answered, that could be like cover crop termination or nitrogen application, really anything. So, that's the Research department. And then there's the Farm Viability department, which is where me and my team resides.Mackane Vogel:
Perfect. That's a good segue. Next question I have for you is just a little bit more about your role specifically and I think there were some programs you'd mentioned to me that you guys are working on, specifically with cover crops. So, I wanted to hear about that a little bit.Morgan Jennings:
Yes. Yeah, in my role I talk to farmers quite a bit, mostly regarding the Cover Crop Cost-Share Program. We're offering it again this year. It's been around since 2015, so longstanding program being pretty successful. It's really exciting to see farmers interested in seeding cover crops. And that program, open right now, enrollment closes December 1st, so if anyone has seeded a fall cover crop on non-organic corner bean acres, definitely encourage you to apply. It's $10 per acre and you can enroll an unlimited amount of acres, which is great. I think that really sets us apart from some other programs where there may be an acre cap and you could also stack our program with any publicly funded cost share program. So, definitely encourage farmers to maybe check out their local USDA office and see if they're able to double dip. That's more money in your pocket. But yeah, application is super easy, should take 10 minutes to get completed. I help farmers with that a lot. You can call the office and I get them enrolled over the phone or the application is super easy online as well.Mackane Vogel:
I want to go a little bit more general with this question, but in your work with farmers and cover crops so far, what's been something really valuable that you've learned just about the world of cover crops? I know that's super general, but I don't know, I want to put you on the spot here.Morgan Jennings:
I guess I would say that it's really refreshing to see farmers that have been doing this for decades and they're aware that starting cover crops is challenging. I mean, it's more time, labor, money. And they understand that the benefits don't happen overnight, but I guess I get really happy and geek out about it when farmers are coming to me sharing pictures of their cover crops because they're super excited about how it got established and they're just like, "It's so green and beautiful and nice to look at instead of a bare field." And so it's nice that I can talk to them about it and, again, help them with the technical assistance side of things, but that just being in this program, they also feel that they can reach out at any time and share their excitement with us. So far, I think, that's been a really rewarding part of the program. It's not just get you through the pipeline, we can build that personal relationship.Mackane Vogel:
Have you guys seen a good mix of experienced cover croppers and people that are more new to it in the program, would you say?Morgan Jennings:
Oh yeah, absolutely. We have tons of farmers that are brand new to cover crops, no experience at all. One of the requirements to the cost share program is that if you have zero or one year of experience, you'll talk to me for example, or one of us agronomists just to make sure you feel comfortable with your cover crop plan. So, that's for people who are brand new, but we have a ton of farmers as well that have a decade's worth of experience and any of them are able to apply anybody with whatever farm size too, anybody is eligible to enroll.Mackane Vogel:
We've had a lot of different farmers on the show, obviously, and one thing that I hear a lot is with these cover crop incentive programs, a lot of times the complaint I hear is like, "Oh, it's just so complicated to figure out how to enroll." Or, "There's not enough time in a farmer's day to go online and really figure this out." What would be your pitch as to how you're making this easy for farmers to get involved in and just not take too much time away from all the other things we know that farmers are busy with?Morgan Jennings:
For sure. Yeah. I guess the easiest thing I would say is, "Pick up the phone." If you are in your tractor and you're doing whatever on the farm, like I said, me and anybody on the team can just get you enrolled over the phone. Heck, I just did that with a farmer this morning. He called, was like, "I want to get enrolled." I was like, "No problem." We pulled up an application and he was off the phone with me in 15 minutes, but I also went into some details about what the next steps were for him.
So, it can be a super quick, easy process. Phone calls, really easy if you don't want to have to deal with a computer. Lately too, just 'tis the season, everybody's harvesting, I get a lot of phone calls when they're in their tractor, working. So, I would say that if that works for you, definitely take advantage. Then there's other options too. I have farmers that are like, "Can I tell people to enroll in your program or can I enroll farmers for you?" That's fantastic. If you want to help recruit for us, we have them do that and if you have other people in your family that are tech-savvy, then definitely have them help you enroll, but whatever works best for you.Mackane Vogel:
Yeah, I love that, like you said about them kind of being in the cab. That's sort of our vision for this podcast too, is we hope some of you're out there listening, driving around in the tractor right now and killing some time, hanging out with us on the podcast here. So, it's always awesome. I want to shift gears a little bit, because I know you've done some research with cover crops and I'm kind of curious about, correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought you did some research with spring corn residue and grazing, is that?Morgan Jennings:
Oh yes, yes I did.Mackane Vogel:
Is there anything you want to share from that at all?Morgan Jennings:
Yeah, sure, I can touch on that a bit. Yeah, so that was part of my research when I was at UNL, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, working under Dr. Mary Janowski. One of my studies was corn residue grazing in the spring and we were looking really at soil compaction parameters, so bulk density, penetration resistance. I don't need to necessarily go into those nitty-gritty details, but that's what we were measuring. And then looking at the impacts on emergence and yields. And the other component to that study was having three different cattle grazing treatments. So, we had a control where no grazing was done, and then we had a normal stocking density treatment and a high stocking density treatment and just evaluating those compaction parameters and, like I said, its effect on emergence and yields. And actually, the high stocking density treatment had the highest yields.
We kind of speculated that that could have been because with the livestock grazing the residue, it's allowing some of the warmer soil temperatures and just helping with that emergence and potentially was just having livestock on the land. You have that nutrient cycling back into the soil as well. So that could have been why there was higher yields in the high stocking density treatment, but ultimately I know that farmers are concerned about compaction in the field, but that study found that if there is compaction, it's so minimal and it's below the threshold that would cause issues for crop growth. Obviously, there was a difference in compaction between the no graze treatment and the graze treatments, but there was no difference in bulk density between the graze treatments and that's the true measure of compaction.
So, we found that really interesting, that even though it might look bad, maybe you have to potentially increase your down pressure when you're planting, there could be surface roughness that might contribute to that emergence and yield and whatnot. But yeah, just really interesting to see that compaction might not be as big of an issue as we think. And this was in the spring when this study was done, so we really created a worst case scenario with it like turning cattle out when it was wet and sloppy and just nasty. So, that was really neat to create that worst case scenario. But yeah, maybe I would just recommend to farmers, with that all being said, that if it's really rough out there, then maybe slow down, watch your speed, adjust your down pressure, and hopefully, yeah, your emergence and yield won't be too badly affected.Mackane Vogel:
What was the tillage practice, do you remember, in those fields? Was it conventionally tilled stuff or?Morgan Jennings:
I believe it was no-till, if I'm remembering correctly. Yes, and it was also, it was a high yielding cornfield as well, and it was in Nebraska and I believe it was also irrigated, so I know sometimes that could potentially make a difference.Mackane Vogel:
Yeah, I was going to say, obviously, if you're no-tilling, that'll definitely help cut down on that compaction too, but that's a really interesting point about the grazing. I do think that's definitely one reason why farmers might be a little hesitant towards it.
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Back to one of the questions I asked you earlier. I think grazing is one of the more interesting things in the cover crop realm to me. I think it's really interesting talking to different farmers about how they rotate their livestock with grazing, and it seems like every farmer has a totally different approach to it, which is really cool. So, I love hearing about grazing and cover crops.Morgan Jennings:
Yes, I agree. I do, I geek out when farmers tell me that they're grazing their corn residue, because I'm like, "That's fantastic! That's just a resource that's laying out there ready to use. It's pretty nutritious as well for your cattle, so take advantage of that feed stuff." And especially with cover crops too, that's a great way to make it more economical for farmers if they were to graze.Mackane Vogel:
Absolutely. Back to PFI for a sec. You talked a little bit about some of the events you guys do and I've been to a couple of field days, but I'm correct that they're not all in Iowa, right? It does move around a little bit?Morgan Jennings:
Yeah, yeah. We, I think, had field days actually in all of the surrounding states this year over the summer I was in Nebraska of course for some, and then Minnesota, Wisconsin there might've been one in South Dakota. But yeah, we try to branch out more than just Iowa for sure.Mackane Vogel:
Yeah, that's awesome. I love going to the field days. They're always super fun. I think I went to one of yours in Iowa this year, but I know you were in Wisconsin. We're based in Wisconsin here, so I had that one on my calendar and then I got too busy, I couldn't go, but maybe next year. When did the events start back up for you guys? In the spring, I'm guessing?Morgan Jennings:
Yeah, honestly, I guess events are ongoing. There's always little ones. I know that, me being in the Field Crops team, we get invited to a lot of events. I'm actually going to be in Nebraska beginning of November for a grazing conference and a transition to organic conference. So, we get invited to quite a few, but our big ones that we're going to be putting on lately or that are coming up, we have our annual conference, which is in January, and that is January 19th and 20th, and that's going to be at the Iowa Event Center in Des Moines. So definitely, if you want to check it out, please do. There's going to be lots of good sessions there.
I know some of the field crop sessions are improving weed suppression and reducing herbicides with cover crops, cover crop strategies ahead of corn. I think there's actually a session too, that was exploring OMP varieties as a forage source, so just topics that maybe the listeners could be interested in checking out. That's going to be the biggest event, probably, of the season, happening in January. We had, I think, over a 1,000 people attend it last year.
And then the next one I would say would be a good one for listeners to go to is our Midwest Covers and Grains conference, and that is March 4th at the Mayo Event Center in Mankato, Minnesota. And so, if anybody were to attend that, they'll definitely see me there along with other Field Crop team members.Mackane Vogel:
Nice. Yeah, those sound like some good events. I'll have to mark my calendar for those as well. One other thing I wanted to ask you about before we go here is, I've been doing a lot of interviews, some research on some alternative cover crops recently, and I think in the Midwest especially, we see a lot of the same species. I think rye and wheat are really popular. But in your work or at any of the events that you've been to, do you see the same types of cover crops a lot or are there a good mix? What are some of the more successful ones that you've seen? Different species?Morgan Jennings:
Yeah, great question. I definitely agree with you. I'd say rye is the king of cover crops. That's definitely a really popular option and it is winter hardy. So, at this point in the game, I know a lot of people are seeding rye right now. Rye is great, absolutely, especially ahead of beans. It's fantastic for weed suppression. But if you're ahead of corn, I think wheat is a good option. And that's generally what I recommend to people, just because it's still over winters, but there's a lower risk of nitrogen tie up because it's slower to break dormancy than rye is. So, if it puts on less biomass, there will be less nitrogen tie up. So, that's generally what I've been coaching to farmers lately at this point. But earlier in the season I've had a lot of farmers, it's super exciting to hear, they're trying rye, but then they're incorporating a brassica species as well, so if that's radishes or turnips, they're seeding it by drone. I know that's getting pretty popular.
So, it's nice to see some of that variation. And I know that there, I guess we recommend maybe a brassica species if they're seeing compaction in the field, just because it can help alleviate some of it a bit with their root system. And for farmers who don't want to deal with a winter hardy species and they could be new to cover crops and don't want to deal with spring management and termination, then maybe choosing a winter kill option is good. I know quite a few farmers as well have been trying out oats, so they obviously winter kill, which is great. You don't have to worry about spraying in the spring, so that might be a safe bet.
Of course, just keep in mind planting windows, and I know it was really dry last year and it's still dry this year, so just trying to get it planted so it can get moisture and get some growth on it before it winter kills is a big deal. But yeah, I suppose I'm seeing a little bit of everything, but for sure rye is very common, but oats and mixing that with rapeseed or something, that could be a good option for grazing.Mackane Vogel:
Yeah, I think that's some pretty sound advice. You mentioned aerial seeding, and that's something I'm really interested in right now. Have you gotten a chance to see it done at all? Or I guess my question would be, and I don't know if you have the answer to this, but it seems like there's kind of a divide of like, well, some people swear by it and other people are like, "Oh, it just didn't work for me." Is there an ideal grower or an ideal mix or something that you think it's a really good fit for?Morgan Jennings:
Yeah. I've seen it done with drone once. I actually was at Iowa Cover Crop, their grand opening in Jefferson, Iowa, and they did a drone demonstration, which was really neat. That was the first time I had seen it. And so far I've heard of farmers using a drone for turnips and radishes, and I would say their general consensus from those conversations has been it's more cost-effective just because they're applying less pounds per acre, because it could get costly quickly if you were to maybe seed rye. So, that's what I've heard lately.
But I agree with you that it is back and forth. Some people absolutely love it. They might love drones better than planes just for the sake of not getting into the neighbor's field as much. But there's definitely been mixed reviews about it. A lot of people do drill it themselves. So, I guess I don't have a definitive answer on what's better than the other. I suppose if it's really dry, you'd want to try to drill if you can, just so you can get that seed soil contact and hopefully get it some moisture.Mackane Vogel:
Sounds good. Yeah, it's definitely an interesting topic. I'll have to, we'll circle back on that one. We'll maybe come back and do a deeper interview about that later on in the show. But anything else you want to share with the listeners before we go?Morgan Jennings:
I guess just everything that I'm saying so far, we have lots of opportunities at PFI, so I know I talked about the Cover Crop Cost-Share Program a lot. We also have a Small Grains Cost-Share Program that's going to be opening soon. So, anyone could be seeding barley, oats, rye, wheat, whatever it might be. So, just plant your small grain, harvest it in 2024, and then if you follow it with a legume cover crop, then that is eligible for our Small Grains Cost-Share. So, that will be open soon. So, if anybody's interested, just keep your eyes peeled on our website for that. We also have a Nitrogen Rate Risk Protection Program, and that is a program for you if you're interested in reducing the risk if you're cutting back on your nitrogen application. So, definitely check that out. My colleague, Chelsea, is a genius and can help with that.
And yeah, this all said, I would say practical farmers.org, that's our website. Definitely go there. You'll be able to see and read anything that I've been saying, get more details on eligibility and whatnot. I would also maybe say that if you're interested in all the happenings at PFI, we have a practical cover cropper newsletter and a small grains newsletter. Those come out monthly. So, that's a good way to stay in the know and see what we got going on. And you can subscribe to those, whether you are a member of PFI or not. So, that's exciting.Mackane Vogel:
And confirm. I subscribed to both of those and there's a lot of good stuff in there.Morgan Jennings:
Aw, thank you.Mackane Vogel:
All right, well thanks for joining us. And spoiler alert, we might have some PFI farmers speaking at our event in March, the National Cover Crop Summit. So, stay tuned for some more details on that. And you can obviously head to covercropstrategies.com where you're already at listening to this episode for more details on that. Thanks again and we'll see you next time.
Big thanks to Morgan Jennings for today's conversation. The full transcript of the episode will be available at covercropstrategies.com/podcasts. Many thanks to our sponsor, SOURCE® from Sound Agriculture, for helping to make this cover crop podcast series possible. And from all of us here at Cover Crop Strategies, I'm Mackane Vogel, thanks for listening and have a great day.