Trio Cropping Demonstration- Grapes, Sweet Corn, Poultry

Final Report for FNC02-433

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2002: $2,800.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2005
Region: North Central
State: Iowa
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


This project idea was conceived in January 2002. That spring, an application for SARE grant funding was sought. Jeff and I felt very strongly, that this project would promote a new concept of integrating crops and livestock in agricultural production. My brother and I both have farm backgrounds and degrees in Agricultural Distribution. My father has a game preserve and has been planting sweet corn in his flight pens for cover for 5 years.
Grapes were chosen as the crop the system revolves around because of the high income/acre potential. We attended seminars on grape growing and familiarized ourselves with the problems facing grape growers. We learned that what insect pests and diseases are problems in conventional vineyards. Frequently, deer, raccoon or birds can devour an entire crop before harvest. We looked for disease resistant grape varieties that were best adapted to Iowa weather and required the simplest trellis and pruning needs. The Marechal Foch grape seemed like a good decision. A few Espirit vines were purchased for trial purposes.
Sweet corn varieties were researched for disease resistance, production, ear height, plant height, and natural pest resistant characteristics. The main reason sweet corn was chosen was its characteristic of having a moving growing point. This trait would allow defoliation of the lower leaves by the chickens with little harm to plant’s growth. Ear height was an important trait considered because of the fear that the chickens would eat the silks interfering with pollination. This first year, Jackpot seed corn was planted.
The livestock component and its introduction, was considered crucial to the project’s success. Chickens are omnivorous and will consume insects, worms and prefer green plants. A chicken prefers not to feed on brown/dead matter. If introduced to soon, the chickens will eat the young corn. If too late, than the maximum beneficial predators of emerging insects from the soil and feeding on the plants is negated. We wanted a foraging type bird that had multiple uses. We wanted to show the flexibility of this type of system for everything from raising free range poultry, organic egg production, or the raising of brood hens. The Plymouth Rock chickens were chosen for their foraging traits, versatility and availability. The chickens would be moved into the pen when brooding was no longer necessary and the corn’s growing point beyond the chicken’s reach.
Watering needs for grapes and sweet corn were considered. We felt it to be of minimal concern. Since grape vines, in most vineyards, are planted in 8 foot wide rows with grass in between the rows. We felt that we were just replacing the grass with an income producing plant that would cease its water consumption, at a time when the grapes needed it.
Fertilization needs and the contribution the fresh chicken manure would have on the system was unknown. No research could be found in this area. We chose to use minimum space (bird/sq. ft) requirements for the raising of Label Rouge free range chickens, since this was considered to be a potential market. A soil test was obtained prior to planting to establish a baseline and to see what the soil nutrient were needed prior to planting. The soil nutrient requirements for growing grapes alone were used as a fertilization guide. It was anticipated that the sweet corn would use any excessive nitrogen from the chicken manure.
Insect control would be done by biological and physical means. The life cycle of the principal insect pests of both sweet corn and grapes were examined. Many of the principal pests of both plants have life cycles in the soil and grass roots. Mechanical cultivation is disruptive and kills many insects at this stage of their life cycle. Therefore extensive spring cultivation was considered essential for controlling several of these species. Beginning in June, many insects leave the soil and migrate to their host plants. This is the time when poultry would be introduced into the pen.
Herbicide use was not planned. Mechanical cultivation would be used for weed control and conjunction with the foraging chickens.
Grape diseases would be controlled with sulfur and copper sulfite sprays if necessary. It was also felt that eventually the chickens would consume the grapes on the ground and would reduce the transmission of many fungal diseases the following year.
Putting it all together:
With this conviction, we started construction of a 50’x50’ enclosed pen as soon as weather allowed. This size was largely dictated by the largest, one piece, bird netting available on the open market. A 2-inch size net was selected to prevent damage from snow and ice loads during the winter. The sides of this pen were 7 feet tall and covered with 17 gauge chicken wire. The bottom of the wire was buried under the soil to prevent predators from entering the pen from under the wire. A slightly sloped plot was selected for drainage purposes. Four rows of vines were planted in 12’ rows, with the vines 7 feet apart in a North to South orientation. A total of 88 vines were planted in the pen. A single high trellis system was implemented with the top wire at 5.5 feet. To prevent the chickens from eating the young vines and encourage upward growth, 30” grow tubes were placed around the vines.
The 500 chickens arrived April 29, 2002 and the sweet corn was planted on May 1, 2002. There was a delay of a week between the ground being tilled and planted the corn. The corn was planted in 30 inch wide rows and 3 rows were placed in between each row of vines. The corn was hand cultivated once before the chickens were released on June 10. The chickens had free access the constant fresh water and self feeders were placed in the pens. No shelter was provided other than the corn and vines.
Jeff was in constant touch with Mike White, ISU Extension, Michelle Moore, MCARD and Jeri Neal, ISU Leopold Center during this summer. We held an open house in June to promote interest in the project. The open house was in the Cedar Rapids Gazette, Ottumwa Courier and several other local papers. Several high school agriculture teachers and extension agents attended.
In August, we harvested over 100 dozen ears of sweet corn. The corn was of average to good quality. We did notice that roughly 20 percent of the ears were not adequately pollinated and about the same percentage had some worm damage. Until August, only 2 vines had been lost. After the sweet corn was harvested, we noticed that 12 of the grape vines had died. The cause had been from girdling by mice. The mice had built nests inside the grow tubes. All grow tubes were immediately removed.
The chickens were butchered 80/week beginning in late August. The chickens remained in the pen until being slaughtered. The wire trellis’s served as roost for the chickens at night. This was quite a sight, but would not be acceptable if the vines had young grapes. The flesh of the chickens was flavorful but firmer than chicken produced by standard methods.
Acceptance by SARE:
After receiving notification of being chosen, Jeff and I reflected back upon the successes and disappointments of the project. We had already invested a great deal of time, labor and money in the promotion and development of this concept. We both agreed that we should see this project through its entirety and chose to accept the SARE grant. We believed this concept has merit.
This first year’s experience was invaluable. We planned to make several changes in 2003.
- We chose to introduce pheasants instead of chickens for several reasons. Chickens tend to roost off the ground while a pheasant will roost on the ground. The chickens tended to range only 100 feet from the feeders in search for food. We noticed that the weed control was not as effective further from the feeders.
- We decided that 20 inch corn rows and increasing the number of rows between vines would increase pollination.
- The corn would be planted the same day the ground was tilled and the soil temperature was above 65F.
- We planned to remove any grow tubes (on the replacement vines) by August 1.
- We wanted a corn variety with more disease resistance and a better husk cover.
- We planned to cultivate the corn twice before releasing the birds into the pen.
- Another soil sample would be sent for analysis.
- Construct a shed adjacent to the pen to brood birds.
The Second Year:
- February 03: Jeff and I attended the Iowa Grape Growers Conference to promote the project and gather information.
- March 03: I attended a wine making seminar given by the Goldenhills RC&D, to research marketing avenues for the eventual grape crop. Jeff and I attended a Pruning Techniques, Planting and Trellising seminar. Jeff spoke briefly about the project at this event. An 8x10 shed was purchased, remodeled and moved next to the pen. Then a small holding pen was constructed outside the original pen.
- April 03: We received the results of the soil test on the plot, which showed a substantial increase in organic matter %, P, and K. The pH had dropped slightly from 6.5 to 6.2. A favorable P/K ration was maintained. Because of these results we decided to decrease the number of birds in an effort to adjust soil fertilization. Arrangements were made for Eli Bergmeier, Iowa States Vineyard Consultant. Eli and I pruned the vines and evaluated them for disease and overall health. No insect or diseases were found and Eli felt that the vines had normal growth. No over winter damage from cold weather was noted. Eli suggested lime sulfur spraying as a preventative measure, while the vines hadn’t broken bud yet. This was done that day with a simple had sprayer. The ground was tilled towards the end of the month to kill some young weed growth.
- May 03: Soil re-tested for conformation. The day old pheasants arrived May 5. On May 17, we planted the sweet corn. Miracle variety of sweet corn was chosen. This variety has a tight husk, disease resistance, an ear height of around 20 inches and an overall height below 6 feet. The ground was tilled with a rotary type tiller and the corn planted on the same day. The soil temperature was 65 F.
- June 03: Jeff was invited to speak on the project by Mike White, Iowa State Extension, at a Central Iowa Grape and Wine Training Session. The corn was cultivated every 2 weeks until the pheasants were introduced into the pen. The pheasants were released on June 21. Blinders were placed on the birds to prevent cannibalism. The release date was delayed slightly because of pheasant not being mature enough. Dipel, a Bt insecticide was applied to all after 3 plants showed some damage from worms.
- July 30: Brochures were printed and distributed. Newspapers were contacted announcing the event. An open house was held on July 17. Grow tubes were removed at the end of July.
- August 30: 150 ears of sweet corn were harvested. The quality was excellent. Very few worms were found in the corn. Pollination was also excellent. Overall, considering the dry year, the corn crop was excellent. The fencing kept all deer and raccoon from entering the enclosure and destroying the crop. No vines have been lost up to this point.
- September 03: Jeff attended a seminar at Central College in Pella, Iowa. Dr. Fred Kirschenmann, (Iowa State Leopold Center) was the invited speaker. Dr. Kirschenmann invited Jeff to speak on the project during the seminar. Jeff gave a presentation to the audience and fielded questions.
- October 03: Pheasant were removed from the enclosure for use on hunting preserve. A soil sample was obtained.
The Third Year
- January 04: Jeff and I attended the Iowa Grape Growers conference to promote the project.
- February 04: Vines were trimmed and tied up.
- April 04: Sprayed the vines with Sulfur/oil spray as a preventive measure against fungal diseases.
- May 04: 250 pheasant chicks arrived May 3 and placed in the shed. Tilled vineyard and planted Miracle sweet corn in middle rows. Planted 1.5 inches deep and in 20 inch rows. Soil temperature 66 degrees. Buckwheat was planted in the outside rows of the vineyard as a smother crop and to attack beneficial insects. The vineyard was hand tilled again May 20. The Buckwheat and sweet corn had germinated. The pheasants were allowed access to the outside to become acclimated to the outdoors.
- June 04: Pheasants were released into the vineyard on June 15.
- July 04: a Practical Farmers Association Field Day was held July 14. Over 60 people attended the field day. It was advertised on the Brownsfield radio network and WHO radio. Several local newspapers were also represented.
- August 04: Harvested sweet corn. Lodging noted and ear did not fill as well as last season.
First, this project has proven that the integrating of grapes, sweet corn and poultry in an operation is feasible and is sustainable. The benefits of this type of operation are:
1) Annual variable expenses of pesticides and fertilizers can be reduced or eliminated.
2) Soil fertility is maintained.
3) Income/acre is greater than for anyone crop alone.
4) The product quality was not reduced.
Second, the original idea for developing this system was to provide income to offset the high cost of vineyard establishment and reduce input costs. I feel this was also accomplished. The poultry/pheasants and sweet corn provided a profit of $4,206 over three years and the cost of vineyard establishment, fencing/netting and shed purchase of $3893. An annual cost savings for not having to spray herbicides, pesticides and fertilizer was also realized. For a conventional vineyard of this size and additional $167 would have been spent. This is the equivalent of $984/acre.
Third, this system provides flexibility for a farming operation. The farmer may choose to plant another row of grapes between the existing rows and concentrate on just growing grapes. The farmer may chose to raise free range poultry if there is a market demand.
The most challenging problem the first year was rodents girdling the vines. This was solved by removing grow tubes earlier. Currently, rabbits are posing our most challenging problem. This will be addressed this coming spring.


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.