Farm Life Journal - February 2017

By Mark Jackson

Editor’s note: Meet Mark Jackson, a grain and livestock farmer from Rose Hill (a small town located near Oskaloosa in Mahaska County, or about 73 miles from Des Moines). Mark and his wife JoAnn live on a century farm (it’s been in the family for more than 100 years) and have two grown children and energetic grandchildren! Follow along each month as Mark chronicles the events and activities that make farm life different – and similar – to yours!

Feb. 1, 2017

February has arrived, bringing noticeably longer days. It’s been a mild winter by most standards.

Some of the bright spots in my neighborhood are my cover crop fields. We are in our third year of seeding cover crops after harvest (usually October or November), which provides a living green cover. Cover crops add another degree of erosion control and nutrient banking while adding life to the otherwise brown winter landscape and ultimately cleaner water. My water came from somewhere else, flows downstream and is shared by everyone, it is one water.

During the winter months, chores reflect my desire to prepare for the upcoming cropping season. Daily shop time includes cleaning and preparing equipment. A common item of all my machinery is tires. Our farm’s inventory exceeds 100 tires, with some standing six feet tall and weighing hundreds of pounds. The one machine that comes to mind when I think tires is our high-wheeled John Deere (JD) 4730 crop sprayer. It’s tall enough to walk under, can safely pass through standing crop and has spray booms that can unfold to a working width of 100 feet. We use two sets of tires on the sprayer, one set is much wider, providing flotation while reducing soil compaction prior to crop emergence. I call the narrow set of tires “skinnies.” They’re designed to slip through growing crops to reduce crop damage when soils are normally more firm and soil compaction is less of an issue.

It’s now 8:30 a.m. and my son Michael started the half-day project of switching the sprayer wheels, putting on the much wider flotation tires. This is a two-man job and farmer ingenuity is abundant on this project. We use specialized equipment, designed by Michael and a friend, to safely complete this job. We share equipment with our neighbor on this effort, using hydraulic jacks, dollies and stands, allowing us to handle the massive tires with ease. Our shop cat Grumpy is curled up on her pillow and doesn’t seem the least bit concerned by the all the noise and bustle going on around her. We are able to finish the tire swap following a light lunch.

Engine oil changes are another ongoing maintenance item on the farm. Tractors require an oil change after 250 hours of use (not by miles, like you’re accustomed to with you automobile). An oil change for our tractors require anywhere from 18 -32 quarts (compare that to my car or pickup which need 5 quarts). You quickly realize oil in bulk is necessary for our tractor engines and transmissions.

-3 p.m. Finished the tire swap on the sprayer. Now it’s a good time to change engine oil and filter. The hour meter is a little shy but we have the time. I retrieve a filter from the store room (we try and keep a supply of filters on hand, a real time saver when one is needed). Our JD farm machinery dealer will occasionally have filter sales, a good time to stock up inventory. We keep probably 8-10 different filter sizes on hand. Murphy, our black Labrador, licked the last of the cat food out of Grump’s bowl (those two are always tit for tat).

Farmers wear many hats and keeping good records is part of that. Successful tax planning begins long before the year ends and culminates March 1st. Our incomes are never guaranteed as commodity prices follow supply and demand projections set by the Chicago Board of Trade, with Mother Nature’s perpetual influence. But with proper management through good seed selection, soil management and modern technology, etc., yield averages can benefit and profit margins maintained.

Tomorrow looks like a good day to drop papers by for our accountant. I’m not a last-minute kind of person. Good bookkeeping is an asset and my daughter-in-law Mary Beth runs a tight ship. Our families work closely together throughout the year with our farm records, making for better tax planning.

Next week we need to fill a soybean contract by delivering five semi loads of soybeans to our local elevator. Followed with another ten loads of corn by the first half of this month.

Our grain storage bins for corn and soybeans are located at numerous locations, including as far as seven miles from my home farm (a logistical advantage during harvest, our busiest season). A bit of trivia: The U.S. farm population declined from the 1930s for nearly 50 years as people moved away from the farm in search of a better life than the dusk to dawn labors of farming. Today less than 2 percent of our countries’ population still farm. I mention this only because our farm supports three families today where once these farms supported a dozen families. Yet today we produce 3-4 times more with a fraction of the inputs.

My Grandfathers had two grain bins, one for corn to feed cattle and hogs, the other for oats to feed his horses, with a supply adequate to last till next year’s harvest. His entire oat crop could fit in just one of the wagons that I use today.

Stories around the farm from days past, can serve to reinforce lessons learned. Granddad shared the story of the “missing watermelon.” It seems the oats bin was that perfect place to store apples, pears and melons to protect them from freezing temperatures. With a grin, he said, “but if you didn’t find them all, you may have a watermelon roll out come spring.”

Farm consolidation and our limited population lends itself to larger machinery and the technology that has improved over time. One of our winter time chores includes reviewing and updating the maps for each individual field on our various farm locations. Our machinery has the ability to guide itself, known as auto-steer using GPS (global positioning satellite). The onboard computers can read these field maps as we place our seeds and fertilizers with sub inch accuracy, using variable rate technology. It recognizes various boundaries such as grassed waterways, helping reduce soil erosion and eliminate overlap. This helps save us money and has environmental benefits. As time and weather allow I would like to reset a few boundary lines using my Gator. I’ll put that on my mental list of things to do.

Tomorrow is a new day.

Midwest agriculture at its best.

Sincerely, Mark Jackson