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

    Proposal abstract:

    The next big trend in the Midwest for soil health and water quality is a market-based incentive model to grow corn and soybean in extended crop rotations with small grains plus legumes. 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 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.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    40 farmers will gain experience using the tool and share with other farmers through 40 presentations. Food and beverage companies that buy small grains will be persuaded that high quality small grains can be sourced in the North Central region through 10 interactions about project results. 10 varieties will be tested in new locations with no university breeding programs. Breeding programs will leverage the tool when seeking funding to support their breeding programs. Small grain breeders at SDSU, NDSU, UMN, UW, ISU and Uofl will have a solid working relationship to share testing locations and amplify their respective breeding programs.

    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.