Farm Life Journal - March 2017

By Mark Jackson

March brings a different mindset to Iowa farmers. There’s a renewed vigor as 2017 crop preparations, which began nearly six months ago, are being reviewed and double checked and finalized. Things such as the seed varieties purchased for specific fields and soil types, or seed maturity to determine harvest or checking soil tests taken on a four-year rotation, just to name a few.

The pace of daily chores takes on a different light, too, as if the timer has been set for when farmers will begin planting this year’s crop. All this comes from years of experiences and on-farm research. With modern agriculture, I find myself starting spring field work nearly a month earlier than my grandfather. And yet, until that first day planting arrives, it remains a guessing game as Mother Nature is still in charge.

Before I start planting corn and soybeans, early garden prep begins. What comes to mind when I mention gardening? Fruits, vegetables, flowers, family? For some it’s the enjoyment of fresh produce, others it’s an added source of income and for some it’s all about the journey. It can almost be a spiritual process, where everything is blueprinted in a precise sequence, while for others it can be much less formal. Either way, it’s an opportunity for family enjoyment.

For me personally, watching energetic young minds absorb the wonderment of emerging plants from seeds placed by their own hand. And the many conversations along the way as the grandchildren ask the really serious questions like, “When does a cucumber become a pickle?” and “When do we plant carrots so I can see better?” Last year, Johnathon wanted to plant “mashed potatoes” because they’re one of his favorite foods. Priceless!

Regardless of your motivation and what you grow, and whether you plant large plots or small pots, being able to pass along a sense of pride by finishing a task is timeless. Gardening and farming is cut from the same cloth and for many of us it’s been a lifelong seasonal passion. The average farmer essentially gets one try per year to grow their crop (it’s often said that if you’re lucky as a farmer, you get 40 attempts during your farming career). And despite the many challenges of modern agriculture, our eternal optimism motivates those 40 tries.

On this day…

7 a.m. – I’m out early this morning – ground fog combined with a bright sunrise is a photographer’s dream. My smart phone can take some really nice photos. I love the inspiration a photo can bring to mind when you perfectly captured a moment in time. I seldom know the picture I’ll take until the moment presents itself.

8 a.m. – My son Michael gets an early start, as he wants to lay out new boundaries for several fields. This will require several part days to complete. We equipped our John Deere gator 4x4 with a computer and Global Position System equipment, giving us the ability to traverse our fields quickly and easily to map large areas. These virtual boundaries are recognized by my tractors, planter, sprayer and combine to guide them efficiently across the fields.

I’m spending the day sorting “junk.” Ok, maybe that’s not the proper term. How about, “lesser used items,” that have been stockpiled over the years in an abandoned farrowing house/nursery that was once used to raise pigs. We need to get this project finished and the sooner the better. The scrap metal goes into the recycle pile, some items get relocated for future use and yet other “stuff” will find its way to the burn pile. Change never comes easy as there always seems to be a cost associated with it. Take for example, our decision to remove this old livestock building, which is no longer used for its intended purpose. We’re going to replace it with a much-needed machinery storage structure. Thus, here I am clearing away clutter so we can dismantle the old structure and utilize its footprint to build anew.

Noon – Change of plans. After lunch, Gator repair is in order, as the two front tires are going flat. We should have it going in about an hour.

With the progression of healthier crops, through modern technologies, the crop stubble left behind after harvest is nothing short of a tire puncture waiting to happen. We take great care to manipulate stubble and attempt to steer tires between rows to reduce wear and tear. But regardless of precautions taken, flat tires are fairly common place. I keep a well-stocked tire repair kit for plugging tire punctures. Seldom does my day go as planned and breakdowns can be part of the mix. We just go with the flow, which can make for longer days when hard goals are set.

Back to sorting junk. By end of day, I plan to have the trailer filled with used scrap metal. Mike can make a trip to our local scrap recycler tomorrow. Hopefully the load makes enough to pay for the fuel to haul it to town. Our shop cat, Grumpy, has been curled outside in the sun, keeping an eye out for lunch. I wonder if she will have a spring litter again this year.

6 p.m. – I hear the grumble of a powerful truck engine, a shiny blue semi and livestock trailer is coming down the gravel road. It rolls into the barnyard, making a huge circle to line up with the hog building’s load out door. Sam and Caleb were sorting hogs earlier today (livestock is often sold weeks and months ahead and must be delivered in a preassigned time frame). It’s a logistical nightmare to say the least. Today is unusual though, as rarely do they load in the daylight. Most often it’s early morning or late night. Twenty-four-seven are the normal working hours of livestock farmers. But after dark the trucks are rather pretty with all their cargo lights, a rolling X-mas tree of sorts. Anyway, just think bacon.

I scheduled a trip to the vet tomorrow for Murphy’s annual checkup.

Next to riding in the gator, tractor and combine, one of Murphy’s most favorite things is to accompany me in the front seat of the pickup. Murphy has been part of our family for eight years now. It was a cold and windy day when she wondered into our barnyard hungry and scared. But with a gentle hand and calm voice, she quickly adapted to her new home. Turns out the renters of the old farm house down the road didn’t want the added cost of a pet. She is a full blooded Labrador, mild mannered with all the antics and mannerisms typical of that breed. And just like my care of Murphy, animal welfare is a way of life for livestock farmers. Iowa farming is a diverse cross section of plant and animal production with annual sales exceeding $30 billion, where one in every six jobs are related to farming. And though livestock production is a business enterprise capable of drawing a profit, today’s farmers go to great lengths to care for their animals. Agriculture is the heart of this country where we provide consumers with an endless table of nutritional choices in a sustainable manner.

Murphy had a good checkup at the vet, her vaccinations and heart worm meds are up to date and she even got to trade sniffs with a fancy, little white poodle. On the way home we stopped at the Rempe farm to check on the cover crops. With the warm weather, fields have been greening up quickly. It’s refreshing to see whole fields in shades of green, especially this early in the spring. Growth means root mass and root mass enhances soil health. Cereal rye will grow at temps above 38 degrees, whereas corn and soybeans need 50-54 degrees for plant growth.

Mild weather welcomed in March this year, which brings to mind, “In like a lamb, out like a lion.” Grandpa liked to reminisce and tell stories with old sayings handed down from his grandfather, steeped in history with a pinch of truth like: “Don’t plant corn until the oak leaves are the size of squirrels ears,” “Plant your corn so its knee high by the fourth of July,” “Dig your horseradish in a month with an ‘r’ in it,” and “A wink or a nod is all the same to a blind mule.” All of these were a form of communication that illustrated agriculture’s optimism from a bygone era and yet continues to inspire smiles and conversation yet today. Just remember, “If the chickens run in with the first sign of rain, it won’t rain long.”

Speaking of weather, Mother Nature is a common theme among farmers because everything we do revolves around it. For generations we’ve dealt with the extremes of temperature and moisture and the consequences, from which our incomes are derived. As is well documented, it’s too hot or cold, too wet or dry. Some say three-quarters of what we do is determined by Mother Nature, thus crop insurance is one tool farmers us to partially protect our revenue. I say partial because the premiums we pay are based on the percentage of coverage purchased on our corn and soybean acres planted. Next week our rep is stopping by to discuss the 2017 premiums structure.

My to-do list is growing; several jobs have been put on hold because of the building cleaning/demolition project. I need to get on planter repairs, several worn bearings need to be replaced. We also have a March corn contract for delivery to the local elevator. And several tile suck holes located with recent field scouting tours, need repaired.

Agriculture at its best. See you next month.

Farmer Speak

Farrowing – Sow giving birth to a litter of piglets.

Farrowing house – A special accommodation unit devoted to the care of sows at farrowing.

Crop stubble – Stems left on the field after the crop has been harvested.

Cereal rye – A hardy cover crop that benefits soils by reducing erosion and weed suppression while managing soil nutrients.