Saturday, December 11, 2010

Rural Decline

This morning I learned a high school classmate's dad passed away. Leo ranched and farmed and commonly combined resources with his brothers to build operations that would support their families. I went to school with his sons Darren, a classmate, and Dustin, a year ahead of me in school, both ranch in the area. These are some of the very few that I went to high school went that chose a career in production agriculture.

Thinking about them today, a problem that will soon effect rural America in the next few years became clearer. Many farmers and ranchers are approaching retirement age and many do not have another generation to take over.

For many decades we've told rural kids that there wasn't a future for them in rural America and they needed to go to college and move to the city. In fact we give college scholarships to the brightest to ship them out even faster. The kids took the rural work ethic with them and many have been successful. As a result our rural towns and communities are declining in both population and leadership.

Reversing the decline and increase opportunities in rural America will take input from many people with diverse areas of expertise. Rural development plans can not be a one size fits all and will need to be tailored to each location.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

New Markets??

As I look forward to the long hours and near madness of seeding wheat starting this week, I also think about how to market it. With much debate and interest in local/regional food the question I find myself asking is, "How can I take advantage of marketing it to bakeries and restaurants in Kansas City and Wichita as flour?"

Normally we sell all of it, except for a small portion that's kept for seed, as a commodity to either our local grain elevator, which in turns markets it to a multinational grain company, or we haul it directly to the multinational ourselves. Multinational companies offer many advantages such as a variety of forward contracts that allow us to capture potentially favorable prices and peace of mind of getting paid timely .

On the other hand a small flour mill offers the opportunity to market the grain as a finished product to bakeries, restaurants, and the public that want closer contact to the farmers that produced it. A small flour mill is another opportunity to add a few needed jobs in rural America, it won't provide enough jobs to stop the out migration though. The potential downside is a small mill could be slow paying and lack the economies of scale for longevity even when charging a premium price.

Shepard's Grain is an excellent example of a group of farmers in the Pacific Northwest working with an ADM flour mill to develop flour products to their specifications and then marketing the flour to bakeries, delis and other commercial wheat flour users. Using a cost plus pricing system creates a very transparent pricing scheme and rely on farmer owners to help with promotion allowing end users to meet the farmer owners. Mid-scale food value chains case study: Shepherd’s Grain gives a detailed look at how Shepard's Grain works.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Rainstorms on the plaines

Farmers aren't the only ones that stare at distant lightning wondering if it's going to rain, and if it will be nice a gentle rain or gully washing down pour.

Tonight I drove to one of our irrigated fields to turn off the irrigation system, the last watering for that soybean field for the year. When I pulled in to field I noticed eyes glowing in the headlights and saw the outline of deer. It's not uncommon to see one or two deer there at night, they usually run out of the wheat stubble and into our soybeans. This time there were several deer, just standing there watching the lightning to the north and west, completely unaware of me. Then on the drive back home I nearly ran into two deer that were standing beside the road, just staring at the lightning.

As I finish writing, thunder is rocking the house and I can hear rain pounding the roof. This isn't one of those nice rains that soaks in. Rather it pounds the ground faster than the soil can let it in, running off of fields taking precious top soil with.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Corn harvest

Life down on the farm has been slow, but very shortly things will be busy with fall harvest and wheat seeding.

Corn Combine
This old girl is the combine that we harvest corn with.

We have started harvesting our non irrigated corn this past week. Most of the corn goes to our local "neighborhood" cattle feedlot. We sell some of our corn there directly from the field and they are very competitive on the price they pay for corn. They use corn everyday as a part of the feed ration to cattle, so they can take some corn that is too high in moisture for long term storage. When the moisture inside the kernel of corn is above 15% it will deteriorate over long storage periods and warm temperatures speed up the process.

Corn field
Here is a partially harvested field of corn. We are cutting non irrigated portion of the field, foreground. The irrigated portion in the background will be harvested at a later date.

Our irrigated corn is longer maturity, planted a few days later, and had water when the planted needed it the most so it matures slower. Corn has an amazing ability to maintain grain quality and not fall down while standing in the field so it might not be harvested until November after soybean harvest and wheat seeding. Much of our irrigated corn will be stored on the farm and sold later to either the "neighborhood" feedlot, one of the feedlots within 100 miles of the farm, or an elevator that might blend higher quality with lower quality corn and will most likely sell it to a feedlot or ethanol plant. The demand for corn in my part of Kansas is higher than the supply which allows us to take advantage of good prices.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Late July update from down on the farm

The past few weeks has found me finishing planting sunflowers after wheat and now keeping sprinkler irrigation systems running.

Sunflowers 1
Here is a field of sunflowers I planted in early July. I was surprised at how much they have grown the past few days.

Our early planted sunflowers in bloom. The blooms last for about a week and then the petals fall off as the seeds start developing. We will harvest them mid to late September. The seeds will go to a processing plant where oil will be extracted for a no to low trans fat cooking oil.

Grain Sorghum heading
The grain sorghum has pushed it's seed heads up. It seems early to me, but with nice rain and hot weather has sped up it's maturity. Grain Sorghum is a crop from Africa so it thrives on the hot weather and hot, humid nights that we're having now. Corn on the other hand thrives on cool nights.

Irrigation repair
This is not a sight that any farmer with irrigation wants to see when crops need irrigation. Lightning struck the electrical connections at the center and disassembly was required to get the replacement part in place. We then spent several hours the next couple of days diagnosing other problems with this system. It felt good to get it running right.

Watering soybeans
This was a great sight on a hot summer evening. After being out in the heat and the frustration of diagnosing an irrigation system that wasn't working it was refreshing to see this one putting water on soybeans. The soybeans are using just under a half inch of water a day, and we're applying 1 inches every 2 to 3 days.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Wheat harvest down on the farm

We started harvesting wheat June 20th and finished July 2nd. There was only one day that the weather didn't cooperate with us and we couldn't harvest. Wheat doesn't have the ability to stand in the field after maturity like many crops can, so wheat harvest begins as soon as the crop is mature and we try to finish as quickly as possible to reduce weather related quality problems. The wheat yields and protein was respectable, we were a little concerned about the quality reports coming from Texas and Oklahoma before our harvest and quality related discounts. The first week I was in a combine and the second week I was planting and catching up on other work after I helped get the combines and crew running each morning.

wheat,wheat harvest,harvest,Farm
A picture of all 3 of our combines working in the same part of a field during wheat harvest. Our combines are older, but they still get the job done.

Here I am unloading wheat on the grain cart while it's unloading on the semi. We commonly dump like this rather than waiting for the grain cart to finish unloading, besides Tyler does a great job of loading the trucks.

One of the combine's header is too wide to transport on the combine so it's transported on a trailer. I thought it would be neat to snap a picture of it looking in my side mirror.

We store some wheat on the farm. This happens to be Hard White Winter Wheat. White wheat from a farming perspective grows nearly identical to our Hard Red Winter Wheat. I think the berries have a sweeter taste, I love to grab a handful to snack on while unloading.

We also started irrigating our corn during wheat harvest. Weather that allows for a good wheat harvest is not the best for corn. Depending on how much rain we get between now and sometime in mid August, when corn reaches physical maturity, will dictate how much irrigation water we apply.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

An update from down on the farm

This is always a challenging time of year for us wrapping up spring planting while getting ready for wheat harvest. Adding to the challenge this year is that it seems like we get about a 1 1/2 days of planting between rains.

All the corn and early planted sunflowers are in and doing very well. Soybean planting seems to be dragging along and grain sorghum planting is right on schedule for us. Most of the wheat that was planted early is golden and nearly ready for harvest, later planted wheat is still green and needs more time to mature. It isn't uncommon for me to sneak away the first day or two of wheat harvest to finish planting grain sorghum.

In the down time between planting we got the combines out and washed up. Last fall's harvest got them very dirty. Then they all got a preharvest inspection.

Here I'm changing the planter over from sunflowers to grain sorghum. The seed metering disk is changed and with the one laying on top of the yellow seed hopper.

farm tractor
One of our tractors and our soybean planter. I snapped this picture while catching a ride to the seed truck. The old concrete road was US81 at one time, built in the 1910's.

A field of soybeans that are just starting to come up. I was surprised at how fast they were emerging from the soil. These are planted in last year's corn stubble.

Sunflowers starting to come up. Everything is coming up nicely right now, warm soil and plenty of moisture helps things pop up out of the soil. We planted these into last year's grain sorghum stubble and will plant wheat into it next fall.

This was the first corn field planted this year. This is the first time we have ever planted corn on it, possibly the first time corn has ever been planted since this part of Kansas is primarily a wheat producing area.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Corn planting down on the farm

Quite a bit has happened down on the farm since my last update. All of our corn is planted and growing nicely. There have been rain delays and we are late getting started planting soybeans and full season sunflowers. Our wheat is headed out and enjoying the added rain and cool weather as it enters the grain fill period.
Planter 1
A picture of our corn planter. We can plant 12 rows spaces 30 inches apart.
Another picture of our planter. The big tank holds fertilizer, plant nutrients, we apply all the fertilizer at planting time spaces 2 inches the side and 2 inches below the seed. Putting this much fertilizer any closer to the seed causes problems for the seed's germination, when the seed transforms to a plant.
Here the corn is spiking through the soil.

corn,seedling,family farm,farm
Here the corn plant is dug up showing how the roots are developing. It's still living off the seed until the roots and leaves become better developed.

Here is what our corn looked like a couple of weeks ago. It's growing very nicely despite the cold, wet weather we have been having lately.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Fall harvest is finished

Fall harvest is officially finished. We were able to finish harvesting double crop sunflowers. These were seeded in mid July after wheat was harvested off the field.

The sunflowers going into the combine's header. The header cuts the plant of and moves it into the combine for separating the grain from the rest of the plant.

Harvested sunflowers in the combine. They have a little more trash than normally, part of this is due to them being extremely dry.

This is what the sunflower looks like when it's ready for harvest. They aren't as pretty here as they are when they bloom.

This is what's left in the field after harvest. The combine chews up the plant and spits it out the back so there isn't much left. This field will be going to either corn or grain sorghum this spring. Normally grain sorghum is the choice for fields like this, but with the soil moisture we currently have and advances in corn's drought tolerance corn is becoming a viable option.

Monday, February 8, 2010

which corn to plant

As time goes on different opportunities become available for farmers to take advantages of different markets. One that is becoming more attractive to many farmers is conventional corn. During a conversation with a seed salesman last week the subject came up and he mentioned that in north east Kansas conventional, non GMO, corn had quite a bit of interest and that his seed supplies were becoming tight. He showed me variety tests and pointed out a conventional variety that had performed well in the tests.

When considering going to a specialty crop such as this, several things have to be taken into consideration. Am I going to have to add different equipment to seed or harvest? What am I going to do with it after I harvest it, store it on the farm? How far will I have to ship it to get a premium? I will no longer have insect resistance in my plant so I might have to add insecticide at planting time for root worms, and then I might have to apply insecticides again for insects when the corn is bigger. How close can I plant to GMO corn?

The equipment is the same for planting. A detailed cleaning is required to ensure seeds don't find their way into the field since this is is a field size trial. Planters are easy to clean out, a few minutes a row and that is accomplished. The combine on the other hand, can be more time consuming to clean. If I plan to have that field ready for harvest first then I can ensure the combine being free of GMO seeds because of wheat harvest.

Being a specialty crop I won't be able to market it for a premium locally, particularly in my low corn production area. I will have to store it on the farm and ship it at a later date. The good thing is we have more than adequate storage space and equipment to handle it and keep it in condition.

It will most likely have to be shipped to Kansas City or farther, so the premium has to be enough to make it worthwhile. My local corn price is strong and the trucking can eat up much of the premium. I can still sell the corn locally to the feedlot, it's still yellow corn except it doesn't contain genes that protect it from herbicides or insects, without a premium.

Plant protection is the next challenge since the plant is no longer herbicide tolerant and insect resistant. We haven't been using Round Up in our corn, even though it is tolerant of it, because we wanted to reduce our chances of resistant weeds. Our normal weed control protocol shouldn't be a problem. Insect control could be a problem, working with a Certified Crop Adviser is a benefit in this area. He will help scout fields for troubling insects and recommend the best product to use.

Non GMO corn will need a buffer from GMO corn. I know that corn pollen from yellow corn can blow across a road and contaminate white corn. In the article Banking on non-biotech "You need to grow non-GM corn at least 660 ft. from a GM variety, said G.W. Dimmett Premium Ag Products general manager." I can easily accomplish this from the lack of corn production in my area and fields that are isolated.

I think it is possible to raise conventional corn, especially with supplemental irrigation. I want to see varieties in some more yield tests and how the heat stress from a normal year effects them.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Always changing down on the farm

I am going in a different direction in this blog. Based off a tweet I posted on Twitter the other day. "Farming is not static, it's always evolving: better genetics, new crops, different methods." These few words generated numerous reposts, retweets, and a discussion with a gentleman about genetically modified organisms, GMO.

Farmers have always planted the best seed that they could get. In the past they saved seed from the best plants for next years crop. Then plant breeders became involved cross pollinating different plant lines to bring better characteristics to the plant. Now in the day and age of DNA testing and gene mapping, plant breeders have tools to identify the specific seeds that resulted from the cross speeding up seed development.

Companies such as Monsanto, DuPont, and Sygenta, have become involved in the seed business. These companies have brought advanced science that allows them to insert a gene from different plant species to make them resistant to herbicides and insects. Currently the only GMO crops in production are corn, soybeans, cotton, and canola. These plants are thoroughly tested and approve by the various regulation agencies in the United States. European countries have been resistant to allow Genetically Modified Organisms to be raised, and limits imports. However the countries that make up the European Union are allowing research plots and evaluating the safety of GMO crops. I feel that GMO crops are safe, I trust the regulatory agency to use sound science to allow crops to enter our food system. I also feel that these agencies will pull a product, based on sound science, if they are found to be unsafe after release.

There has been several crops tried on our farm in addition to wheat over the past 100 some years that my family has farmed in Ottawa county Kansas. We are always looking for new crops that will fit into our cropping system. A crop that looks promising for our rotation is winter canola. Being a broad leaf plant with a similar growing season as wheat it will allow us to use different classes of herbicides to control troublesome grassy weeds that plague our wheat. A change that is going to take place is an increase our acres of dryland corn, advances from traditional breeding have made it better at tolerating droughts, a drought tolerant GMO corn is expected to be available in 5 or 6 years. With grain sorghum prices lagging behind corn we are evaluating food grade grain sorghum for the gluten free market and we have an acquaintance that in the past has shown interest for milling some into flour.

Farming methods have changed a great deal in the past several years on the farm. When I was growing up moldboard plowing wheat fields was the accepted norm, weed seeds were buried deep and the fields were kept bare with additional tillage leaving the top soil very fine and prone to blow away . Then we started burning the wheat stubble to sterilize weed seed and some mid to deep tillage to break up compaction layers, still keeping the ground bare until fall wheat seeding. On fields with less weed pressure we would be less aggressive with tillage and would leave some wheat stubble on the surface until fall wheat seeding. Then in the mid 90's we took a leap of faith and started no till farming on select fields, leaving the stubble. No till was working on those fields and we had found what crops worked and where to place them in a crop rotation so more acres were added. Now 80% of our farm land is in a long term no till system, because of lease agreements that require that land to be in continuous wheat unless it needs rotated out for weed control we would be at 100% no till.

Some of the benefits of no till is that it saves labor, fuel, it greatly reduces soil erosion, and traps soil stored carbon. It saves labor by not requiring as many people spending several hours a day performing tillage operations, but with our rotations we spend more time seeding spring planted crops and harvesting them in the fall. It takes a tremendous amout of fuel to turn the soil during tillage operations. Every time soil is turned over carbon is released into the atmosphere in addition to a tremendous amount of dust. Tillage can also create a hard layer in the soil, soil compaction, that prevents plants from reaching water and nutrients, after a few years in no till this layer disappers. Bacteria and micro-organisms essential for plants thrive under no till. The wind doesn't blow the soil away because of the crop residue shields the soil and water doesn't wash the soil away as much because it will soak into the soil much the way it did when it was a prairie. We do rely on herbicides for weed control, but with our crop rotation we can use different crops and herbicides with different modes of action to help control them. I feel in the future we will learn more about dealing with weeds and pests from the organic community and eventually there will be less difference in commercial and organic.

Farming has changed in the last 38 years of my life and will continue to change using traditional plant breeding methods with modern genetic manipulations to bring them to their fullest potential. New crops will be brought into the cropping mix as they become better suited and more economical for a farmer to produce. Farming methods will slowly continue to change, the acceptance of no till and it's variants such as strip till is growing. Who knows perennial crops might become viable or Kansas might become the leading produce state.