Saturday, November 14, 2015

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

There has been a great deal of discussion lately about the topics of farm sustainability, food security, and environmentally sound agricultural practices.  We, as farmers and stewards of the land, need to put our money where our mouth is.  We may have the two most important jobs on the planet: producing food to feed the world and bearing responsibility for one of our most precious resources: the soil.  We need to take our claims of placing environmental stewardship ahead of profit very seriously.  Profit does not need to be at the expense of sound environmental practices;  they are not mutually exclusive.
Washouts were very common
this spring.
View of the perennial grass
from the top of the hill.
My father-in-law drilling in a
perennial grass mix over a washout.

One of our goals, as stated on this website, is to ELIMINATE erosion on our farm.  This is and will continue to be a very, very difficult goal to reach and maintain.  Our land has lighter, sandy soil types and quite a few hills, but where there's a will there's a way and we've made up our mind to make it happen.  With all the precipitation this Spring there were massive amounts of erosion in pretty much every field in our area and although we had much less than most we were not immune to it.  Not yet. One particular hillside had 4 separate washouts on it.  We decided to plant a perennial grass cover to hold the soil in place since they would likely continue to erode.  I know that some farmers dislike grass waterways through the middle of their fields and would prefer to operate end to end with no obstructions.  If the seed and fertilizer are washed away every year in these areas and nothing grows except weeds why would we not plant it to a perennial grass to hold the soil in place?

View from the bottom of Field 5.  Had this
field been conventionally tilled you would
likely be seeing a huge washout.

I did find some more promise in another field as well.  Our worst field, as far as soil type and slope, had no soil movement whatsoever and produced the highest yielding corn on our farm.  All of our corn fields had been strip-tilled this Spring and had at least some erosion down the strip in spots, but not this field.  This field (Field 5) is in it's 8th year of no-till/strip-till.  I felt guilty
strip-tilling it this Spring as it was the first time it had iron through it in 7 years. Field 5 has two predominant slope directions on different halves; one towards the south and the other towards the east.  I strip-tilled and planted perpendicular to each slope on it's respective half of the field.  This turned out to be a slight inconvenience throughout the growing season with field operations but with no erosion it was well worth it.   There is no doubt in my mind that had we done conventional tillage and not strip-tilled we too would have endured the massive amounts of erosion that were prominent in the area.  I strongly believe that the longer we continue to focus on the soil through the use of strip-till, cover crops, livestock integration, and rotations that we can get every one of our fields to perform like Field 5.  We have a plan for the future with crop rotations, cover crops, and a no-till/strip-till combination that we believe will get us to the point of eliminating erosion on our farm.

These are but a few small actions on a small farm and their significance in the grand scheme of things is minuscule.  Despite this fact, we believe that the way we operate our farm and focusing on soil health speaks volumes about us and what we represent. We will put our money where our mouth is.  I challenge you                                                                       to do the same.  Thank you for reading.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Avoid a Strip-Till Nightmare: Monitor Dry Fertilizer Quality

View from the tractor. Strip-till and auto-steer are a great combination.
 Ohhh the anticipation...

As we are eagerly awaiting for fall harvest to begin I finally have some time to write about our spring field work.  We had planted two different fields of cover crops in 2014; had acquired a new (to us) strip-till unit for fertilizer application; and we were finally able to upgrade to auto-steer.  We had planned to strip-till a few acres last fall but just couldn't get a wiring issue figured out before the ground froze.  It turned out to be a very simple fix (the ground and power wire to the meter sensors were swapped).  However, I was disappointed we wouldn't be able to compare fall and spring applications with the strip till unit. Just like all equipment that someone is unfamiliar with, it took a little while to learn the ins and outs of the strip till bar and air cart this spring. However, once it was dialed in, we were within 2 pounds per acre accuracy when applying phosphorous (P) and potassium (K).  I was very happy with these results.  We learned it pays to take density measurements of each load of fertilizer, as they often differ.  If the density was not entered correctly into the rate controller it could cause inaccurate application rates.  We applied 70 pounds of potash and 130 pounds of MEZZ per acre on our corn ground and it didn't plug once.  The air cart didn't miss a beat for us and I was really impressed. That's not to say we didn't have problems though; our ground has a lot of subsurface rocks and we went through a great deal of shear bolts for the fertilizer knives.   We were initially running about 8 inches deep and shearing bolt after bolt.  After moving up to 6 inches deep, the shearing frequency went down, but didn't stop completely.  I was worried the fertilizer might be a little
too close to the seed and affect germination, but have not noticed any problems during the entire growing season.  I was also very interested to see if their would be any difference between 6 and 8 inch depths. My observations favored the 6 inch depth.  The corn greened up a few days earlier and maintained a slight height advantage into mid-July at the 6 inch depth.  I'm not sure why, but I believe the corn root didn't have as far to go to hit the fertilizer band.  My biggest lesson this spring was how poor quality fertilizer can really cause problems.  We did some custom strip till work for a neighbor who had a different fertilizer supplier and things didn't go well.   The rate was not extremely high, only 300 total pounds per acre (I had
The fertilizer knife was set at 6-8
inches deep.  You can find the fertilizer
 by clearing out the berm with a spade.
  previously applied 460 pounds per acre for my dad with no problems).  This fertilizer mix was basically the same as what I had applied, except he added 100 pounds of urea per acre (my dad added 260 pounds of urea).  No problem, I thought.The batch of fertilizer had been sitting on the tender truck for the previous five days and when we started to auger it into the air cart a bunch of wet, half dissolved, muck fertilizer poured right into the cart and down to the meter at the bottom.  We spent the next hour cleaning the wet mix out of the meters.  Once I finally got going, knife after knife began to plug.  I couldn't go 20 feet without plugging a fertilizer knife.  The batch of fertilizer was peppered with small, ping pong ball sized clumps of hard fertilizer and rocks.  The rocks and clumps were small enough to pass through the screen when loading onto the air cart, but not small enough to pass through the fertilizer knives.  I even found a rock the size of my smart phone on the air cart screen after we had loaded fertilizer; glad the screen caught that.  The fertilizer batch was also partly saturated with moisture.  All this made for a very, very long night.  I wanted to finish before the rain started, so I kept battling through the bad fertilizer batch and finally finished at about 3:15am.  It sure felt great to crawl into bed that night.  So if you take away anything from this blog post; let it be my experience with a bad batch of fertilizer.  I would recommend that fertilizer be brought directly from your retailer, and if at all possible, do not let it sit in the tender truck or the air cart overnight.  My main task before we strip-till this fall is to build a smaller screen to use while loading fertilizer into the cart. It may take longer to load but avoiding potential headaches and downtime is a much more important priority.  Thanks for reading and have a safe harvest. 

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Planting 2015 and a Small Victory for Strip-Till

This year's planting season was great and with the craziness of spring field work over, I finally have some time to sit down and write this blog post.  My apologies in advance, as this post is fairly technical and full of farmer jargon.  Planting is my second favorite thing to do on the farm behind combining corn, and I had been anxiously anticipating it all winter.  We were able to get in the field early and finished before the rains became fairly consistent and heavy.  We strip-tilled all of our corn ground this spring and planting onto the strips was awesome.  The berm made from the strip-tiller provided a great seedbed and seemed to almost suck the planter into the strip, which kept the rows straight, even on hillsides.  Following the strips didn't require us to use the markers on the planter either, which was also a big plus.  My biggest win of the spring was convincing my dad to strip-till and plant corn directly into his alfalfa stand instead of plowing it up.  He was, and still is, skeptical.  I hope it turns out well, or I will never hear the end of it.  I'm pretty confident because I planted corn directly into an alfalfa stand 2 years ago in 2013 with good results.  The following is a comparison of the 2013 spring and this spring:

2013 Corn into Alfalfa

This was an alfalfa field planted to corn  in 2013.
In 2013 we planted corn into a field of four year old alfalfa with no tillage.  It should be said that we had a good corn stand in 2013 of 32k plants per acre.  However, it was absolutely annihilated by hail at about the V5-V6 growth stage.  Looking at the field right after the hail I thought we were wiped out.  It was heartbreaking.  We gave it a few weeks and were amazed by how well a corn plant can recover from that degree of damage.  The stand had been reduced down to about 23k plants per acre, but still yielded about 120 bushels per acre (BPA).  We were very surprised and happy with that result despite the circumstances.  We had a beginning yield goal of 170 BPA.  We broadcasted 260 pounds per acre (lb/A) of nitrogen/N (urea), 150 lb/A of phosphorous/P (diammonium phosphate [DAP]), and 100 lb/A of potassium/K (potash).  We also allowed for an N credit of 50 pounds from the alfalfa.  I do not like to broadcast fertilizer, but we didn't have banding equipment or a strip-tiller.  Plus, our mind was made up not to do tillage.  We set the the row cleaners on the planter down to make about a one half inch deep trench and clear out the alfalfa ahead of the seed opener.  We also set the down-force on the planter as high as it would go.  Our row cleaners have shark tooth blades and I think they worked much better than a finger style would have.  There was a slight problem ensuring the seed trench was closed 100 percent of the time.  However, we did not have a spiked closing wheel, which I think that would have eliminated the issue.  The planter pulled fairly hard, but the setup worked very well.  Our planter is set up for in-furrow pop-up fertilizer but we didn't use it.  I think it would have provided some benefit in the no-till ground.  We planted on May 8th and terminated the alfalfa with glyphosate three days later.  Overall I think it worked well. I've also noticed, two years later, that the soil in this particular field has better aggregation than all of our other fields.  This better soil aggregation is likely due to the fact it has not been tilled in 8 years.  It also has the steepest slope on our farm and has no erosion whatsoever.  Honestly, I felt a little guilty strip-tilling it this spring.

2015 Corn into Alfalfa

Planting corn directly into alfalfa. 2015
My dad had some alfalfa ground he wanted to plant corn into for silage.  I worked on him all winter long to convince him to just plant directly into it. He's a little old school and was stuck on the idea of plowing it up.  I think the fact that we sold all of our tillage equipment helped persuade him, since there was nothing he could readily borrow from me to plow up the alfalfa.  I would have preferred to get a pass of glyphosate on it last fall, but his mind still wasn't made up, so it didn't happen.  It turned out to be quite a different process than what I had done it 2013.  I strip-tilled on May 4th and planted on May 8th (I'll explain why in a bit).  We put all the fertilizer down (460 lb/A total) with the strip-tiller.  We used 260 lb/A of urea, 130 lb/A of DAP, and 70 lb/A of potash.  We allowed for an N credit of 50 pounds from the alfalfa.  I ran a little slower to avoid plugging the machine; 3.5-4 MPH.  Since the alfalfa was still growing the strip-tiller cut more of a slot rather than building a berm, and the closing disks didn't do much of anything.  It pulled much harder than in soybean stubble, which was to be expected with alfalfa's extensive root system.  I ran it about 6 inches deep and we could actually open up the slot by hand and see the band of fertilizer underneath (wish I had taken a picture).  I was nervous to plant right after the strip-tiller for fear that the seed openers would directly follow the cut of the fertilizer knife and drop the seed right into all that fertilizer.  It was supposed to rain, and it did, so we waited a few days for the fertilizer slot to mellow, grow back together, and close itself.  It worked great and we planted on May 8th. Ideally, I would have liked to terminate the alfalfa 5-7 days after planting, but certain events dictated otherwise.
4840 was retired by an electrical fire.
Termination with glyphosate was delayed until May 22nd by rain and an electrical fire, which claimed the 4840 and left us without a tractor to pull the sprayer.  Luckily no one was hurt and we were able to get the fire out before it took the entire tractor.  Thankfully we were already done planting and the tractor was being used by a neighbor.  We put a lot of work and money into that tractor and had planned to keep it around for good.  Like any reliable piece of equipment, we will be a little sad watching it go.  Overall, planting 2015 went great until the very end and we are thankful and excited to see the corn coming up and being one step closer to harvest.  Hopefully we can start side-dressing nitrogen in the next week or two if the rain holds off for a few days.  Thanks for reading and have a safe and enjoyable summer.


Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Why the Switch to No-Till

The aim of our first few posts will be to help readers gain an understanding of who were are, our goals as farmers, and why we chose our particular operating methods.

There is a statement I've heard quite a few times that goes: "You can't switch to no-till until Dad is in the ground."  This adage implies a reluctance to switch tillage practices amongst the older generation of farmers.  Conventional tillage is what previous generations have practiced, and it's worked for them, so they see no need to change.  There are some seasoned farmers who practice no-till but they are the minority, especially in southwest Minnesota.  Conventional tillage does have some benefits: it dries the soil and can allow for earlier planting, while fall tillage buries crop residue and preps the soil for spring tillage. 

So why did we switch to no-till when the overwhelmingly
Every farmers favorite job: picking rocks.
dominant practice in our area is conventional tillage and a corn/soybean rotation? 

The answer is simple: money.  That statement may make me sound greedy or shrewd, but hear me out.  Economics drive change.  I did not grow up on a corn/soybean operation; I grew up on a farm that raised cattle and the hay to feed them.  I simply didn't know any better.  I considered tillage an integral part of farming because that's what everyone else was doing.  Fall tillage in 2011 was the catalyst for us to look at no-till.  We were in a dry year and pulling the ripper through corn stalks that fall was absolutely awful.  It felt like I was ripping concrete, and it took its toll on the equipment.  We spent over $1500 alone replacing ripper points on a single 135 acre field, plus the increased fuel consumption, other repairs, and lost time.  Those kinds of economic impacts can produce change overnight like it did with us.

The lingering reminder of that fall still haunts me in the form of rocks.  No one likes to pick rocks, but hilly land like ours is already prone to having them.  We pulled up an enormous amount of rocks doing tillage -- so many that I considered attempting to sell the large ones to landscapers in the metro area.  After doing some research during the winter, we first no-tilled one field of corn in the spring of 2012.  Multiple people told me it was a bad idea and wouldn't work.  The yield was comparable to the previous year, we had avoided two tillage passes, and significantly reduced our input costs.  All of our ground was no-tilled starting in 2013 and the first major advantage I saw came in the spring of 2014.  We had an exceptionally wet spring and I noticed huge washouts and gullies in others' conventionally tilled fields. Meanwhile, even though our land had more slope there was no soil movement or erosion.

Soil is a resource and its loss costs everyone money not just the farmer.  The loss of highly productive topsoil and its nutrients costs farmers; while increased water treatment, river dredging, and environmental impacts cost everyone money.
 Our field after heavy rain. No soil movement.
Conventionally tilled field across the road. Not the best picture but notice the erosion.

Here is a recent article at about some of the costs of erosion.  Economics may have been the initial driver for us to switch to no-till, but seeing an increase in soil health and a reduction in erosion is why we decided to sell the tillage equipment and commit 100 percent.  As a farm family that also has jobs off of the farm, no-till also means less of our already limited time is spent in the field.  We know that no-till isn't without it's faults.  Many studies show that the soil takes longer to warm in the spring and more fertilizer is required.  We've simply found that our soils perform much better without tillage, and retaining more moisture has improved our crops.  No-till is only a piece of the bigger picture of sustainable soil management, but starting no-till spring-boarded our move in a different direction with our farm practices.   Finally, if it takes hundreds of years to make one precious inch of topsoil, I don't want to watch it wash away in one afternoon of rain.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Why I Love Farming

Welcome to our website and our first blog post.

To get my feet wet the first thing I'm going to discuss is why I love farming. I did not always love farming; in fact, I loathed it until I was in my early 20's. If you would have told me at 18 that some day I would farm, I'd have said you were crazy. As a teenager, I hated the long, hot hours square-baling hay all summer when I wanted to be with my friends at the lake. Chasing and being chased by cattle still ranks as my least favorite pastime. I learned to appreciate the value of a good fence at a young age.

I grew up in the 80's.  Ask any farmer who operated then: times were tough. Really tough. I was young and really didn't understand how difficult things were financially. I just knew Mom and Dad were stressed. We ate a lot of mac & cheese, and the cool Nike shoes I wanted had to wait. To this day, "the 80's" are mentioned at least 2-3 times at every meeting with my banker. My folks encouraged me to find some other vocation; this was something we
Wolf 2. Baghdad, Iraq 2005
actually agreed on when I was a teenager. When I got my license it became very easy to avoid the farm and its associated work, by focusing on sports or other school activities. I joined the National Guard in the summer of 2000 to pay for college, because even though she had offered, I did not want to have my mother foot the bill.

Fast forward to 2006. I had just returned from my first tour in Iraq, was a new husband, and still didn't want anything to do with farming. I wanted to be in the CIA and had even designed a specific major in Arabic and Farsi to help my chances. After three rounds of interviews, I finally got a letter just before Christmas in 2008: thanks, but no thanks. I was utterly devastated. Their procedure was to not provide explanations either, which made it all the more frustrating. In 2007 Sara and I had purchased 320 acres and although we had no plans to operate it then, the door was now open to the possibility. 2009 brought another deployment to Iraq. Unlike the first tour where our artillery battery was stationed in Baghdad, we now served as convoy security and saw the 
Shocker 1. Talill, Iraq 2010
whole of Iraq. As a farm boy it was easy to recognize Iraq's lack of anything resembling production agriculture. Most Iraqi farmers still used hand tools and old fashioned man power instead of the enormous and imposing equipment seen in the United States. Not to mention the 100+ degree heat. If you were to put them in a new John Deere with air conditioning and auto-steer they would probably think they had died and gone to heaven. Sitting in a 1977 John Deere 4430 back home wasn't looking so bad anymore. The air conditioning sure was nice and I bet it beat walking behind a mule-powered, one-bottom plow all day. I think there is a significant amount of ignorance when it comes to Americans knowing just how good we have it--farmers and non-farmers alike. Water, reliable utilities, full supermarkets, fertile ground, and unsurpassed ag technology are a few of the many things we should be thankful for.

About half way through the deployment I began seriously considering the farm. I missed the color green after seeing so much dull brown desert and sand. I just wanted to be home with my wife and away from the political turmoil,
My three loves: Sara, Sam, and a field of green
violence, and pressure. After 6 years of of marriage I had been away more than I'd been home and I didn't want to live that life anymore. I wanted a quiet, simple life.  In 2011, we had an opportunity to rent 137 acres of expiring Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) ground and I spent the entire fall plowing with a John Deere 4430 and 4-bottom plow. Looking back I wish I had known a little more about soil function and health as I would not have plowed. Nonetheless, by 2012 we were able to break up some of our own ground that had expired from lease and I was really farming. For the first time I was actually happy and content with what I was doing. The learning curve was very steep and I made a lot of mistakes, but I take great pride in likely being one of the last true self-started farmers. I began to love making and watching things grow.  I'm still in awe of how a seed smaller than a dime can grow into a plant over 8 feet tall in a matter of months. There is a sense of peace and tranquility in a field of growing crops; no greed, no violence, no pressure.

That's why I love farming.