Treating Small Grains as a Cash Crop: stepping up small grain variety selection for Cornbelt farmers

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2018: $199,817.00
Projected End Date: 09/30/2021
Grant Recipient: Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI)
Region: North Central
State: Iowa
Project Coordinator:
Sarah Carlson
Practical Farmers of Iowa

Information Products

Oat Selector Tool Trial 2021 (Article/Newsletter/Blog)
Oat Selector Tool Trial 2020 (Article/Newsletter/Blog)


  • Agronomic: oats, wheat


  • Crop Production: crop improvement and selection, crop rotation, plant breeding and genetics, varieties and cultivars
  • Education and Training: decision support system, farmer to farmer, on-farm/ranch research


    Extended crop rotations, which kept living roots in the ground year round, were replaced in the 1960s by a short, “warm-season-only” system of corn and soybeans. This has resulted in increased nutrient pollution to surface waters leading to the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico and increased farmer dependence on purchased inputs like synthetic fertilizers and pest and weed control products. Although cover crops are critical to improving water quality, cover crops alone are not enough to sustain and improve the environmental quality and natural resource base on which agriculture depends because they are limited in their ability to break pest cycles and significantly reduce the need for synthetic fertilizers. Extended crop rotations do provide these additional benefits, making them crucial for soil and ecological health. These crop rotations additionally spread out labor throughout the year, enhancing the quality of life for farmers and repopulating communities due to more consistent labor demand. When small grains left the landscape in the 1960s, robust university breeding programs, extension efforts and farmer decision making tools shifted to focus on corn and soybeans only. Today corn and soybean farmers, along with their agronomists, use voluminous data to select high yielding seeds.

    Our project - Treating Small Grains as a Cash Crop: stepping up small grain variety selection for Cornbelt farmers acts on the theory that small grains should have the same data-driven support as corn and soybeans and tests a technology platform to amplify the limited university small grains research that exists today. We created and trialed a genotype-by-environment prediction model that powers a public website and generates top performing small grain varieties based on a user's zip code. After this model was created, 10 farmers planted randomized, replicated trials with 2 small grain varieties, one recommended by the tool and one of their choosing. These farmers shared the results with other farmers through presentations and field days, fostering learning and excitement about small grains variety selection. University small grain breeders were convened throughout the project to share their data, increase collaboration, and leverage their work to more farmers across the Midwest. 

    Project objectives:

    We propose to build a small grain decision-support tool for corn and soybean farmers, including organic producers, that will use a genetics by environment model calibrated with small grains variety trial data from around the Midwest to improve farmers’ confidence in variety selection. The tool will then be validated and further calibrated by randomized, replicated, on-farm research trials evaluating performance of the top two varieties selected by the tool. This publicly available and easy to use tool will result in improved small grain yield performance and profitability of these soil health boosting crops by helping farmers select the right variety for their climate.

    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.