Farm Life Journal - June 2017

By Mark Jackson

Memorial Day sets the introduction for June and a time we remember those who have helped make this country great. This is also a month of growth and opportunity in my world of row crop agriculture. I find it interesting that June is considered the wettest month of the year here in Iowa, but averages are for politicians and the lack of one good rain could change that distinction. Most corn and soybean planting is wrapped up in Iowa, but not unlike most years, portions of the state will face Mother Nature’s extremes as farmers deal with delayed planting or where a replant is required. Either way, a farmer’s costs escalate and profits diminish when we are forced to plant this late in the year, however optimism persists.

Fortunately, that’s not my scenario for 2017, as we finished by the third week of May, just ahead of a weeklong rain system. My young corn and soybean seedlings have emerged very nicely and the race to harvest continues. To go from a kernel of corn to a 12-foot-tall plant in 90 days and ready to harvest in six months, with a crop high in starch and oil, truly amazing. The soybean plant is equally amazing, though only waist-high as a mature plant, but capable of producing two tons of protein and oil from a single acre.

We seem to be going in several directions at once, but the care and needs for our young crop is not like that of a young family. Quick response to a laundry list of possible concerns is crucial to a healthy growing crop. My next steps include IPM (integrated pest management) as part of my farm’s sustainability protocols: a process of scouting growing fields and analyzing the results to determine the best avenue to proceed. Case in point: many insects are our allies for plant growth, so we don’t want to broadcast insecticides that don’t discriminate between good insects or bad insects. Today, many farmers use modern seeds and coatings that target bad pests, but weather can still help pests flourish or soil temps can tie up nutrients in the soils.

Once again, armed with high-tech tools used to scout fields for destructive pests, nutrient deficiencies, weed pressure, etc., allowing us to address concerns quickly and efficiently. IPM also recognizes the tillage styles, no-till, strip till, reduced till or full till; all self-describing terms relating to various soil preparation styles, but the amount of residue left on the surface can affect these management decisions. The costs and tradeoffs associated with sustainability practices can be deceiving and the outcomes vary by soil types and regional weather variations. Simply put, farmers can adapt to a wide range of demands and landscapes.

My grandfather only knew one option, and it began with a plow and required many tillage passes before harvest. Today, clean water is as much a bountiful harvest as are our crops. And for me, add one more management scenario, no-till planting into cover crops. A process gaining favor when talking clean water through nutrient banking and enhanced erosion control, but not without its risks and added production costs. Just as I plant soybeans directly into a field of waist-high cereal rye, imagine if you were to plant green beans our sweet corn into your lush green lawn and you start to understand this process.

Grumpy’s litter of four, born early May, are growing quickly. The four B’s – Bess, Bruce, Bobbi and Beatrice. They had some excitement though, when Bruce, Grump’s only male kitten, came up missing earlier in the month. It was a warm and sunny day so I had left the shop doors open. It seems Blackie, a young mother cat, decided to move her small brood into an empty box next door, but in the process she added Bruce to her new family. Being a head taller and twice their size, Bruce looked a bit out of place, though he didn’t seem to mind the extra attention. It wasn’t long before I heard all the commotion and was able to solve the “great cat-napping capper.” And Murphy used the diversion to clean out the cat food bowl. Smart dog!

My flowers are gearing up for yet another beautiful year around the farm; Grandma often said the gift of a plant will surely bring good luck. For me, the personal joy of watching Mother Nature brings inspiration and a spirit of wonderment — from emergence to a fruitful harvest. I have many plants, flowers, trees and shrubs around the barnyard, along with all the good luck and fond memories that came with each one. From hostas, lilies, petunias and irises, to asparagus, horseradish, rhubarb and fruit trees, they all have a spirit of life that adds to the spice for life. It may seem silly but I have hostas in the shade of my hog buildings and purple sandhill shrubs around the compost bin. For me they bring a better sense of order and an obvious level of pride.

The garden is already producing a steady flow of radishes, lettuce and broccoli. Kudos to Jeff Lanphier, my Earl May specialist, for making suggestions in my seed selections and providing follow-up care. I’ve had many years of experience gardening but not unlike farming, there are always new lessons to learn.

My peas are blooming, so we should be enjoying creamed peas and new potatoes by end of the month—yum! Green beans, onions and beets will follow close behind; we reap what we sow. The weather forecast has been unseasonably hot and dry but with my garden hose close by, perfect soil moisture is my plan, unlike my field crops which must root deeper to draw adequate moisture while waiting for rain.

June is a countdown month to an October harvest as we sweep out grain bins and send several dozen more semi-truck loads of grain to market. Iowa farmers are famous for our ability to store what we grow. In fact — with 2 billion bushels of on-farm and 1.5 billion bushels of off-farm storage — it’s a factor in our marketing plan. Maintaining grain quality with proper drying and ventilation is essential as summer temperatures rise. And just like my plants growing in the fields, pests are attracted to stored crops as well, so when I say we are sweeping out our bins, guess what? We use a broom to clean the perforated metal floors in our bins. (Some are more than 36 feet across, the size of an average two-story home.) Dust and pieces of grain make that perfect place for insects to thrive, so when the last bushel is augered out, the “fines” are swept away and prior to harvest we spray an insecticide around the bins, not unlike the way your local bug man will spray in and around your home to prevent infestation. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

So if you are wondering why we don’t just sell everything right off the combine and save the hassle, let me try to explain “crop basis” and “carry in the market.” My local markets have a long history of livestock production and grain milling, creating a strong economic demand for animal feed and resulting in grain prices comparable to river access bids. The “crop basis” is the difference between the Chicago Board of Trade market price and my local bid price, (a handling fee of sorts for the middle man). And when grain is in strong demand, the basis price will shrink, (giving me a better price) and vice-versa when we have an abundance of grain in our bins. Now as for “carry in the market,” oftentimes when the market wants to guarantee a supply later in the marketing year, they will bid higher for those months, (another enticement to sell), which more than compensates for my time and risk of quality control. Confusing, I agree, but nevertheless marketing opportunities for farmers to be rewarded for utilizing our many skills while spreading the burden of bringing a continuous flow of food to the world’s market all year long.

Corner posts: not a sexy topic but an essential, simple solution to an age-old need. The corner post is still used by famers to define farm boundaries while maintaining a strong fence for grazing livestock. Though many fences have long since deteriorated or have been removed, the corner post often remains, an enduring reminder of agriculture’s resilience. This may sound like a history lesson but Iowa became the 29th state on December 28, 1846 and throughout the decade prior to statehood, the land was surveyed into mile square tracts of land of 640 acres (a full section), thus the symmetrical patch work as seen on an Iowa map. A quarter section (160 acres) was a typical farm size for my grandfather’s era, he would say “40 acres for grazing, 40 acres for oats and hay and 40 acres for corn.” I’d remind him that’s only 120 acres, plus “40 acres for Mother Nature.”

The adage “good fences make good neighbors,” is based on the corner post which supported that fence and often served as a boundary line between neighbors. And from this comes “the right-hand rule:” as I stand on my property facing the fence, I’m responsible for the fence to my right. Grand-dad spoke of many a squabble between farmers over something as simple as a corner post being moved or broken or when a neighbor didn’t maintain their half of the fence and crops were damaged by livestock looking for greener pastures. From a lighter perspective, Grandpa told of a story related to a corner post: a group of young, eager hunters set out with an expensive bird dog. It seems their fancy dog with a nose for pheasants suddenly got an eye for Grandpa’s favorite Tom cat. The cat shot to the top of the nearby corner post, with the dog close behind, with all the snarling you’d expect. It must’ve been quite a sight: men with guns, Grandpa with only his pitchfork and a cat perched on a post. Hadn’t been that much commotion around the barnyard since Grandma found a skunk in the outhouse! But everything eventually finds perspective and life on the farm is no different, as oftentimes simple solutions are the most enduring.

Tomorrow is a new day,

Midwest agriculture at its Best

-Mark Jackson