Minnesota Farmer

July 16
July 16, 2018, 9:34 pm
Filed under: Corn, Farm, nitrogen, weather

Who would have believed it.  Here it is July 16 and the corn is almost fully tasseled.  We went through a terrible spring, wet ground and late planting made us believe the whole year would be late, and now the corn is tasseling on time, this is great!

Now not every field looks this good.  There are drowned out spots, but they do not really take up all that much area.  Of more concern are really late planted corn, replanted corn and areas of compaction or nitrogen shortage, all of those can amount to many more acres and much more yield loss than the drowned out will effect.  When you look across a field and you see areas where the corn looks a bit yellow and is short, that could be from any of those problems.  They will cause a shortage of mature corn at harvest and a reduced yield.

So I’m giving thanks for the places where the corn looks great, but I’m a bit worried for the areas where it does not.

Between showers scramble

Life has been a bit of a scramble here on the farm in southwestern Minnesota.  In the days since May 30 we had over 10 inches of rain.  That stalled out farm work.  Luckily I got the weeds killed in the corn before all of this started.

I usually put on most of the nitrogen that the corn needs about now.  With that much rain I was going to have some problems getting it on.  The corn is growing fast.  Conditions got almost dry enough, so three days ago I gave nitrogen application a try.100_2720Mostly the work went well.  Small areas were still wet, but I could get through most of it.  With the tallest corn having to bend over to allow the nitrogen applicator to pass, I was at  the last days of being able to get through it.  This corn looks real good, but that is not the case with all of it.100_2723Yellow corn leaves show areas where the ground was water logged, but not covered in water, and corn was having trouble getting the nitrogen it needs.100_2724These yellow areas can be near low spots, but may appear at random spots on hill sides.100_2725Low areas have lost most of their corn.  There is still some corn left, and since it is so late in the year and the areas are small we’ll just have to live with what is there.100_2728There are some drowned out areas in the soybeans also.  Again they are too small, and it is too late to do anything about it.100_2727The nitrogen applicator is doing a nice job of tilling the area between the rows.  Getting in and loosening the water compacted ground may do as much good as getting extra nitrogen to the corn.  The areas that were too wet, will get more compacted, but those are small areas.  I just have to accept the small amount of bad along with the greater good.

Last night we got another 1.3 inches of rain.  Now we wait.  We will get dryer weather, if it will be soon enough to finish putting the nitrogen on is something we do not know.  Meanwhile weather radar shows more rain on the way and the forecast is for several more days of rain.

The old saying is “Rain makes grain,” and this should lead to a good harvest.  Rain and warm weather are good for our crops, it just makes weed control and fertilizer application difficult at times.  No one said I was living an easy life.


Last minute N

It has been wet his month.  If you count the last day of May we have had almost 10 inches of rain in 20 days.  The last 4 days have seen almost rain free and puddles have retreated.  A stray tractor or two attempted the fields yesterday and more were out today.

I was lucky to get the weeds sprayed in the corn just before the rain started, but back then the corn was only about 6 inches tall.  Now most of it is passed 20 inches and stretching for the sky.  I needed to get into the field and get that last shot of N down.  This afternoon I gave it a try.100_2719

Nitrogen (N) is a vital nutrient for all grasses and corn really needs the N if it is to produce.  The problem is that the amount of N corn needs is not available naturally in the soil, and too much N in the wrong form will move with water out of the soil.   You really have to study the Nitrogen Cycle to understand what is going on.  To make it easy for you, the types of N that are easy to put on the soil to feed corn, whether they are organic or inorganic, do not go directly to the corn roots.  They must be broken down into a form that will move with water by bacteria.  There are some types of N producing products that break down slower than others, but none will stay in the soil forever.  Thus it is necessary to either overload the field so N will be left for the whole season or add N late in the season.  That’s what I was doing today, putting on that last shot of N.100_2720The corn is almost too tall in some places, so it is time to get going.  It is also the perfect time since corn really needs a shot of N now, and a little stirring of that rain packed soil will not hurt any either.  The problem is that there are still some wet spots out there, but if it rains again, it will be too late to get the job done.

I’m putting on anhydrous ammonia (NH3).  This is one of the most hazardous things I do.  NH3 is delivered as a pressurized liquid.  As long as it stays under pressure it stays liquid, but release the pressure and it turns in to a gas, and the extreme cold produced will burn you.  The gas is also an inhalation hazard, breath in too much and you burn your insides also.  Despite all the hazards, NH3 is inexpensive and easy to apply, you just need to be careful.

So here’s hoping I can get the last of the N on the fields.  I’m also hoping I do not get all of that machinery stuck in one of those wet spots.



How old is your water?

At a recent Farm Bureau meeting I was sitting in on a seminar on water issues when one of the presenters mentioned aging water.  Whoa, that was a new one.  I didn’t know that you could tell the age of water.

Being able to age water has implications for the conversations farmers, lawmakers and environmental groups have been having.  For years now I have been listening to people blame farmers for many of the ills found in our rivers, streams and wells.  If we can age water, we can tell if those problems are from todays farming practices or those of the past, and I know that how we farm today is very different from how we farmed 50 and more years ago.

So first off, how do you age water?  Well, if you want the whole scientific process, I invite you to check out some scholarly papers such as this one from the U.S. Geological survey (USGS).  For a bit more on the implications of water age in the Chesapeake Bay estuary check this USGS paper.

Now I know most of you will not read these papers, so here is the short version.  There are elements that are taken in by water as it falls.  One of those compounds, Tritium (3H or hydrogen-3), a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, has a known breakdown time.  Another compound, chlorofluorocarbons, a group of stable manmade compounds containing chlorine and fluorine, are only present in water from during the years of its manufacture and use.  Using these elements we can find out when the rain water fell.  This helps us find travel time for water from raindrop to point of sample, whether that sample be taken in a well, river, lake or the ocean.

At issue for farmers is the claim that the nitrogen and other pollutants found in water today are the direct result of our actions today.  The study of the Chesapeake Bay area has found that water in the bay can be aged from less than a year, to centuries with an average age of about 30 years.  That means that problems in our waters have their roots over a generation ago.

Nitrogen is an interesting element.  It makes up most of the air we breathe and is both a requirement for, and a waste product of, life.  In particular nitrogen helps promote plant life.  Nitrogen in the soil has several forms.  Some of those forms are stable and will stay where they are put, but the form needed by plants ties to water, and thus it moves with water either into plants or deeper into the soil and eventually into our rivers and lakes.  Once in lakes it promotes plant life that makes water green with algae and green water is not appreciated by those who use water.

This now leads us to Total Daily Maximum Load (TMDL), the amount of pollutants found in waters of our country, and what part of that amount that farmers should be held accountable.  For all of my 60 years I have heard agriculture educators promote farming practices that reduce erosion and nutrient waste.  Farmers have been following the practices of these educators and are a bit upset that we are still being blamed for so much of todays pollution in water.  When you are doing all that is being asked of you, all that modern science tells you to do, what more can you do.

Aging water has helped us to understand that it is the practices of years ago that we are dealing with today.  Eventually the waters of our country will get better, but it is going to take time before the practices of today show up in rivers and lakes.  In the meantime, the family farmers who produce 95% of our countries food will continue to do their best to follow the laws and regulations that reduce pollution.  We live on the land, and it is our children that will be the first ones effected by any pollution.  It is our job to protect the future of life, and we take  the job seriously.


30 days: Fertilizing after the harvest

A misconception of those who are not on the farm is that we just throw fertilizer out there and hope it does some good.  Farmers do not live by the “if a little is good, more is better” creed.  Fertilizer is a costly input and must be used when and where it will give us the best crop possible.  Today is day 6 of the 30 day challenge and we are going to be talking about fertilizer.

Plants need nutrition just as all living things do.  They are able to take that nutrition from the soil.  Specifically our farm crops need Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium along with smaller amounts of the elements Sulfur, Boron, Zinc, Iron, Manganese, Copper, Magnesium and Sodium.  These elements may be in combination with other elements that the plants can metabolize or break down.

Fertilizers used on the farm come in many forms.   Some are sourced from the air or mined from the soil, others are sourced from waste products of industry or agriculture.  Plants do not care what the source of the nutrition is, they need it broken down into pieces that they can use, and all forms of fertilizer will eventually break down into these forms.

Our farm uses some animal waste sourced fertilizers, manure, and some commercially sourced fertilizers.  We also make use of the left over plant materials from last years crops to help our plants grow.  The commercial fertilizers tend to break down faster and be of use in the year they are applied.  Crop and animal waste tends to break down slower and while some will be available for the next crop, some parts will take months or even years to become available to the plants.

Before any fertilizers can be applied we soil test.  A sample of our soil is taken from several parts of a field and sent in to be tested at a place like Agvise Laboratories.  They will send back a test report of what is available in our soil and a suggestion of what should be applied on our crops.  It is up to us to take that report and modify it to our conditions and expectations.

100_2499Animal waste, manure, is placed on our farm with a machine like this.  The process of turning animal waste to fertilizer was covered in yesterdays post.

100_2507Solid commercial fertilizer is placed on our farm with a spreader like this.  In either case the fertilizer needs to be mixed into the soil to preserve it for next years crop.

Nitrogen fertilizer is the largest part of a plants needs.  If the plant cannot source it directly from the air, it must come from the soil, and nitrogen is hard to keep in its place.  Nitrate (NO3) and nitrite (NO2) are naturally occurring inorganic ions that are part of the nitrogen cycle. Microbial action in soil or water decomposes wastes containing organic nitrogen into ammonia, which is then oxidized to nitrite and nitrate. Because nitrite is easily oxidized to nitrate, nitrate is the compound predominantly found in groundwater and surface waters.  Nitrate-containing compounds in the soil are generally soluble and readily migrate with groundwater.  Nitrification inhibitors can be added to nitrogen based fertilizer to slow the process of nitrite oxidation and keep the nitrogen on the soil longer.  (Urine is a good source of ammonia that becomes plant usable nitrogen.)  Because of nitrogen’s instability, we typically wait to apply most of our nitrogen after the crop is up.

Fertilizing the fields is just another part of the work that is done after the harvest.




10/27/13 Harvest Report

We are done!  It feels good to say that.  Harvest for us finished on Friday when we took out the last of the soybeans.  We had left about 40 acres in that last field because they were too wet at the time we got to them.

So how did it go.  Despite the dry summer conditions and crazy rainy weather we had at planting, all things turned out good.  So a recap.100_2028

This spring was wet and cold here in southwestern Minnesota.  There was snow on our gardens and fields when we should usually start planting in late April, so it was May before we got any corn planted with the first fields going in on May 7.  Rains stopped planting, but when we next got into the field on May 12 we kept going until we finished corn.  Usually we target May 10 as the last day of corn planting, I guess we missed that one.

With another rain delay to slow us down, we did not start planting soybeans until May 21, and then we stopped again.  Our next planting weather came on June 2 and we kept going until we finished on June 3.  For those who missed the few days of planting weather this spring matters then became worse as the wet weather held on for another week.

100_2184The summer weather started out wet and early field activities were difficult.  I left these ruts while side dressing nitrogen.  There were many places in the field that showed how wet we were all spring, then the weather changed, and we had dry conditions.

Before we were done with the dry weather we were in a severe drought.  Yes, we had periodic rains, but you had to wonder where the crops were getting their moisture.  The good thing is we had the heat we had been denied all spring.  Corn and soybeans were looking good, we had only to wait for harvest to see what the end result was.

I have to say the yield results were good.  The soybeans did not look all that good when we were harvesting them, but when the beans went across the scale this was the best soybean year since 2005.  The final tally is 15. 5 bushels better than last years soybean harvest.  It turned out to be a very good soybean year.

The corn numbers were not so good.  Our corn fields did indeed look good all year.  When we started to harvest the corn, we were able to put most of it straight into the bin without drying.  We’ll be running the fans until freeze up, but corn harvested at under 20% moisture will dry down just fine in the cooler weather of fall and early winter.  We ended up drying about one-quarter of our harvest, that savings will help to defray the costs that must be covered by the lower corn prices this year.100_2489

Our final corn yields were eight bushels over last years extreme drought ravaged crops, but seven bushels under the crop we got in 2011.  Looking back to our record crops of 2004 to 2009, we were not even close.  It was a good year, but under the trend yields we have come to expect.

Looking back even further, I can remember years that were not even as dry as these last two that would have been complete disasters, but due to the modern technology of genetic engineering, have become very respectable crops.  The ability of corn to shrug off dry weather and insects has really changed what our crops can yield.  The reduction of costs for herbicides due to modern genetics also helps to make a poor crop pay the bills.  The future is exciting, can’t wait to see what will be next.



The push

Every summer seems to have one, the period when planting and harvest like hours keep you in the field for hours on end, day after day.  I think I have finally reached the end of this summers push.

There is a period of time in the early summer when the corn is growing rapidly that it seems everything must be done at once.  If you should happen to get a rain storm in there, life can get even more hectic.  This year I had not only a long period of wet weather, but a family wedding and a funeral in that time period.  Usually the push is over before the 4th of July, but this years wet, cold spring slowed crop growth so that the jobs came later in the year.100_2188

The push started with side-dressing nitrogen this year.  Sometimes it starts with spraying weeds, but the herbicide we put on right after planting held the weeds off so we were into the nitrogen when the rains came.  We also had to send our JD 8220 to the shop when a sleeve in the motor cracked and water started getting into the piston.

Once the ground started to dry I would select a field to put nitrogen on by which field was driest.  That worked pretty well until I was almost done, then in a field that has never been a problem before, I hit some wet going, and buried the nitrogen applicator.100_2184Yeah, I was in that deep.  I don’t think I would have had any problem if I had the JD 8220 usable for side-dressing.

Not all of our corn was growing at the same rate, but the weeds were really starting to take over parts of some fields.  It was time to spray weeds before the corn got too tall, and time was running out.  You do not just throw some herbicide on a field and hope it works.  Although I plant glyphosate tolerant corn varieties, sometimes glyphosate does not do the job.  I was having problems with some larger broadleaf weeds in some fields, and that needed an extra boost to kill them off.  I also had some fields where the return on investment did not warrant spraying anything.

When I started side-dressing nitrogen I had scouted all of our fields and found few weeds to be concerned about.  It seems that the rainy period we had jump started a few weeds, because now the soybean fields were showing lots of weed growth.  Corn can outgrow most weeds if given the chance, but soybeans are a different matter.  Soybeans always seem to need two or three herbicide applications to keep the weeds down.  It was now time for herbicide application number two in the soybean fields.100_1335

I plant some of my soybeans in 15 inch rows.  The soybeans close in the rows sooner, and that can keep weeds from growing later in the season.  We do raise some pre-foundation seed beans for Asgrow that have to be planted in 30 inch rows.  Pre-foundation is a stage in the life of a seed variety when the seed company is trying to increase the availability of that variety.  The variety is still years from introduction, so each acre of pre-foundation seed is very valuable to the company.  They will be out several times during the year evaluating the variety to see if it will be one that is going to make it to full time commercial seed production.  They weed out 75% of the varieties every year during the pre-foundation phase.

Now that I had the soybeans sprayed I hooked on to the cultivator to get some weeds out of a few corn fields.  When you raise corn on a field that had corn on it the year before, volunteer corn can be one of your biggest weed problems.  The only way to get them out is to cultivate.  There are also a few weeds that will resist the herbicides we are using.  A cultivator will take care of the ones growing between the rows at least.

Although the push is over, there are still things to be done on the farm.  Neglected chores and time with family becomes more of a priority as summer advances.  I should be able to get out fishing now also.  I know I have a job or two my wife wants me to do, and the weeds in the garden are still growing, so I will keep busy.  Now I’ll have more time to talk to you when you stop by.  Please come for a visit.


Shades of Green

I’ve been working the fields steadily since they got dry enough.  There really is nothing like looking out on the green of a growing field.  The thing is that a farmer sees a lot more in the green field than you would expect.  Those shades of green have a story to tell.

Having grown up on the farm I just took all of that green for granted.  When my city born and raised wife confessed to not being able to tell the difference between a corn field and a soybean field I was bewildered.  How could you not see the difference.  A farmer will look across his fields and see much more than just a green field, the shades of green tell him a story.

100_2188This picture does not do justice to the differences that a lifetime of growing corn can teach.  I look at this field and I know that some of the corn plants look like this100_2191green and healthy plant, and others will look like this100_2186not so healthy corn plant.  See that bit of red on the bottom of the plant and the yellow green of the leaves?  They tell me that this plant is struggling.

There are many reasons for a corn plant to struggle this year.  The heavy rains of last month have left much of our soil waterlogged.  This keeps the roots from growing down to reach the nutrients it needs in the soil.  The roots can also be inhibited by compaction in heavy soils.  The corn could look like this because of too much sand, which dries the soil out too fast, or too much dead plant material left over from last years crop, which uses up the nitrogen needed for healthy growth.  There could be too many weeds growing close to the plant stealing the water and nutrients the corn plant needs.  I’ll have to do a bit of detective work to find out what the problem is, and what I must do to fix it.

I have started to see a bit of grey green in the field which is indicative of stress from not enough water on the sandy soils.  There are also places where the green is not corn green, but weed green, which means I need to get out there and kill some weeds.

Yes, there are many shades of green in my corn field, and I am always looking to see how the field is growing.  The shades of green are telling me a story and I am eager to read it.



White smoke

Just because I had to leave the farm here in southwestern Minnesota to go to a wedding does not mean the work at home will wait for me.  Anyone who grows green things knows that the growing continues when you are gone, and weeds get bigger too.  So it is that I came home to a weedy field in need of spraying, that was my first order of business.  The JD 4250 was hooked to the sprayer and waiting to go to the field, time to get moving.

I had tried, really I did, to stop those weeds in their tracks earlier in the year.  The early post herbicide looked like it might hold, but as the rains continued it became obvious that the weeds were not going to die.  Now we had to bring out bigger guns for bigger weeds.  Luckily it was only on a part of one field.

It had rained half an inch in the week we were gone and those farmers that were not done planting in our area used the relative dryness to get their planting done.  Early this morning it rained another three tenths of an inch, but that was not enough to stop the sprayer.  Now it is raining again, how will this effect tomorrows field work.

Just after noon today the co-op delivered the side-dress rig to put nitrogen on our corn.  I have been putting most of my nitrogen on after planting for several years now.  It does add more work to a busy time of year, but you have to use less nitrogen since the chance of some of it being moved out of the root zone by rain is reduced.  The corn is just starting to really stretch out, some of it has even reached knee high, and the need for nitrogen is now.images

I hooked on the JD 8220 and started to put on the nitrogen.  The 8220 may be a bit over sized for the job, but the dual rear wheels and front wheel assist make it easy to get through the field if you find a wet spot.  Everything was going well, when all of a sudden there was a knocking in the engine.  I thought, this is not good.  When I called the mechanic, he wanted to come out and give it a listen.  Of course when he came out it was no longer making the noise.  We took the tractor back to the field and then the noise started again, and this time it came with white smoke.  Yep, we were getting water into the engine cylinders.  This tractor needs a trip to the mechanic now.

The job still needed doing, so I hooked the JD 7600 to the side-dress rig and went back to the field.  Now the 7600 is about half the horsepower and does not have dual rear wheels, but it does keep the rig going down the field at the recommended six miles per hour, so I guess I get to keep going with this tractor.  Hopefully I will not find any wet spots that are too big to get through with this smaller tractor.

So there you have it, just another day on the farm.  I sure wish the day had happened with out that white smoke.


Watching the rain

I’ve spent a lot of time this year watching the rain.  It is all the better today since I finally got my fields planted.  In my area of southwestern Minnesota corn and soybeans are the main crops.

We did get the corn planted some time ago.  The timing was a little later than we would like, but corn was planted early enough that we can hope for a good yield.  The fields all got planted in one hectic 4 day period that included 100 degree heat the last day.  Then it rained for days on end.

Fields dried enough so we could plant one field of soybeans.  We started working the next field to be planted and then it rained for several days.

The last two days of planting were just like the last planting session, long and hectic.  The forecast is for rain, so you know there is an end date.  The fields are mostly ready, but have a few wet spots in them, so planting is not all perfect.  It’s a choice of waiting long enough to get into the fields, but not too long so that you cannot get the job done.

So now we need some heat and sunshine.  Spring so far has been a bit cold.  The corn is all up and has a good start.  We’ll be watching for weed growth and planning the last application of nitrogen.

We have planting season machinery to put away, and summer season machines to get ready.  We have some corn left in the bins to haul into town once the clutch gets fixed on the grain truck.  There will be plenty to do on the farm.

I know I am lucky.  There are those not that far away that have had so much rain that getting anything planted has been a challenge.  Huge late snow falls were followed by large rain storms.  Some of them have not even started to plant.   I’ve heard that it is raining for some of them again.

After last years drought, it is amazing to see this much rain.  The day could come when we are glad we had so much spring rain.  2012 was a year with a wet May before the rains stopped and the heat dried us out.  2011 also had a wet start that changed into a dry summer when the rains stopped in late June.  What will 2013 bring?