Farm Life Journal - May 2017

By Mark Jackson

Mushrooms, May Day baskets and machine shed kittens are a few things that come to mind as April transitions into May.

Every day is Earth Day out on the farm and all hands are on deck with corn and soybean planting now in full swing. Iowa’s farmers focus on the seasonal 30-day planting window, beginning around mid-April when soils allow for seed germination. This is the root of a farmer’s eternal optimism, where every year is a new opportunity to raise their next bumper crop.

The modern corn hybrids and soybean varieties we use are capable of enduring periods of cool, damp weather during germination when Mother Nature is renewed after her winter slumber. Earlier planting dates allow corn to pollinate and soybeans to flower sooner, leading to better crop dry down, a timely harvest and the potential for optimum yields.

“Christmas corn,” a term I heard recently, relates to late maturing crop. My grandfather used Christmas as his goal to finish harvest, my father targeted Thanksgiving and my son and I set our sights on Halloween. All the while, the USDA reports that over the past 20 years, yields have increased by more than a third. It’s an example of agriculture’s drive for change and continuous improvement.

Soil temperatures, moisture conditions and time management are all critical elements of early planting in our never-ending quest to properly manage our farms. Proper selection of seed varieties that match soil type, align with seed population rate and soil fertility values are a fraction of more than 200 management decisions required to reach harvest.

To this point, corn planting depth and seed spacing are critical elements for optimum yields. Shallow planting of corn can lead to improper brace root growth and plant lodging (falling) and skips or doubles hinder yield potential. I’ve often seen my dad and grandpa use their index finger to measure the proper planting depth. Though I have a modern, metal tool designed for digging and measuring, I often find myself using my index finger to insure proper seed depth, partly from convenience and the balance of pride of my legacy.

As a child, I was assigned the chore of weeding the garden, and with hoe in hand, the dirt would fly. My mindset is a bit different today, as what was based on necessity then, is a journey of joy today.

My fond memories of shelling fresh, green peas while sitting on the porch swing with Grandma and then enjoying a meal of creamed peas and new baby potatoes, or maybe picking raspberries to top a bowl of homemade ice cream or the taste of the season’s first sweet corn smothered in melted butter. The list goes on but the memories are forever.

While working in the garden recently with Johnathon, my six-year-old grandson, the conversation turned to food.

“Grandpa, what’s the difference between old-people food and real-people food?”

“They are pretty much the same, John, maybe depends on how many teeth I have to eat with,” I answered, as I wasn't ready for that one! I guess you can say, we all have our own perception about food, but freshness and quality are what matters.

Nevertheless, our early garden is growing nicely with peas, onions, radish, beets, carrots, lettuce, potatoes, green beans and sweet corn. Everything will be a nice addition to our meal selections. When I find the time, potted cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers need to be placed.

Being a responsible steward of the land includes being a good neighbor, showing patience and lending an ear. Michael recently received a call from a concerned resident of a new housing development adjoining one of our farm fields. The caller insisted that a dying evergreen tree in her yard was caused by the recent spraying of our newly planted field.

I was proud of my son’s response. Though he could have been easily offended, he chose to explain our spray procedures, which includes monitoring wind speed, direction and temperature as well as products and quantities used, as all of this is recorded into the sprayer’s log-book.

With this documentation for every field, we can easily review procedures, and in this case, wind direction which was away from the caller’s yard. The conversation included that the spray used, is incapable of killing woody species, such as trees or shrubs, and that their beautifully-groomed bluegrass yard would been affected first, if the spray was off target.

The caller’s tone soon turned positive and we suggested speaking with a third party such as her Earl May specialist. I might add, we had visited prior, leaving contact information for an open line of communication and a face they could relate to. The three pillars of our sustainability protocol include responsible social inclusion, along with the economic and environmental segments. Success in farming takes planning, commitment and long term vision.

There is cause for celebration here around the barnyard as Grumpy had quadruplets – three girls and a boy – all with dark tiger stripes (it would appear Clyde, the neighborhood Tom cat, may be responsible, again).

She set up house with her new litter in a yellow Dewalt tool box in the corner of the shop. With a few old towels, it’s quite warm and cozy. Murphy has been keeping a watchful eye, yet maintains her distance from the Dewalt quads. I’ve been working on names as their personalities emerge. I’m thinking for the boy kitten Bruce is fitting, and for the girls, Bobbi and Beatrice, but I’m still need one more name.

Filling a farmer’s planter has become an evolution of positive progression – wonder what that means? Read on. I still handle a limited number of seed bags each spring, but that was not always the case just a few years ago.

If you figure a bag or unit of seed corn contains 80,000 seeds and will plant 2-1/3 acres, but soybean seed is based on 140,000 seeds per bag (roughly a bag per acre). Confused? Welcome to my world.

Do the math if you choose, but my point is, that we had to handle at least 1,500 bags of seed each spring, some weighing upwards of 65 pounds. Oh, my aging back! Not to mention the extra time needed to open and handle each individual bag when time is as precious as a newborn calf.

We now use bulk seed containers which can hold up to 50 units and can be easily lifted with our forked loader onto a trailer with a conveyor belt for fast-yet-gentle delivery into the planter.

And from a dollars and cents perspective, bulk containers of corn can hold enough seed to plant 116 acres and valued at $15,000. But amazingly enough, every seed is accounted for in this entire process, as my planter-monitor tracks seed drop for each row and tabulates spacing as well. With this technology, we can control “ride quality” for precision seed placement, uniform germination and greater yield potential. And through seed research and technology the need for insecticides to control pests is greatly reduced.

After loading the planter with a 111-day maturing hybrid, I head to a field six miles from home. This will keep me busy till midafternoon. Mike will bring me the seed shuttle to finish the day and one more field. I’m home by 9 p.m. and it’s been a good day’s work. We’ve kept this pace for the past five days.

The next day I’m up early to maintenance and refill planter, fuel tractor and head to the next field. I have a 109-day maturing hybrid on board. Rain is forecast later in the day, but I plan to be done prior to the next weather front. My climate controlled cab with an air ride seat, fingertip controls and autosteer may seem like a luxury, but trust me, with a 100-hour work week, it’s priceless.

Builders framed up the new storage structure and attached the metal roof, but rain is in the forecast for the week ahead. I just as well park the tractor and planter under the new roof to keep it out of the rain and now it looks like an expensive carport with no sides, but that will change soon enough.

Several days of soaking rains across Iowa brought planting to a standstill. Flash forward five days of cold, blustery, wet and nearly frosty temperatures and the sun is finally shining with warm weather in the forecast. The builders are back to work and progress quickly.

Soil conditions are improving and are drying quickly after several days of warm, sunny and windy weather, but one more long day is needed to finish the last of my 2017 corn planting.

There’s no rest for the weary as finishing corn only signals halftime for me, as we are on a 50-50 corn/soybean rotation.

Switching the planter to soybeans requires a half day of inserting different seed discs, adjusting seed depth, down pressures, computer settings, seed shuttle boxes … you get the picture. And with more rain forecast for tomorrow, I head out to plant my first field of soybeans – a late Group II maturing bean.

We can now run the planter at 6 MPH, and while it doesn’t sound like much, after planting corn all spring at 5 MPH, it’s a 20 percent increase. With no tillage prior to planting, drive speeds affect ride quality and more accurate seed placement, but it’s all part of a no-till farmer’s management and ongoing efforts toward continuous improvement.

Midwest agriculture at its best.

Tomorrow’s a new day,

Mark Jackson