Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Harvesting Organic Corn

My first certified organic corn crop was trucked to Cashton Farm Supply, 170 miles south of Turtle Lake, in Cashton, WI, a few days ago.  A lot of planning went into making sure the harvest went smoothly, even so, there were a few things that went wrong.

Where to start.

We've had a wet fall, which pushed back all harvesting. There are really only two crops up here that are harvested in the fall, soybeans and corn. As corn can, theoretically, be harvested while there's snow on the ground, and beans are usually ready first, all the farmers in the area, including those who do contract work (known as "custom" work), are busy at the same time. This means that scheduling is a big issue. 

Being organic adds another layer of complexity to the mix. There are no organic grain mills nearby. The entire industry is dependent on semi-trucks to haul 50,000 lb (about 950 bushel) loads from farm to mill or elevator, where the grain is converted into feed or stored. Storing corn on our farm is something I don't want to do. First of all, I'd need to build storage bins and buy a dryer, as corn needs to be around 15% moisture before putting it into a bin, or it will rot. More importantly, I don't want to "manage" grain. And I don't have to. Since I have the option, I'd rather sell it for a little bit less right out of the field and let someone else deal with it. In practice this means the corn goes directly from the combine and tractors/grain carts and is then augured into waiting semi trucks. 

Finding four or five trucks to show up on a given day, during the busiest time of the year, on a day that can change due to unfavorable weather, is a challenge. Given how difficult it is to get trucks, you really only get one shot at it. Our combine is around 35 years old, and while it runs, I had no faith that it would hold up for two whole days. If your equipment breaks down, it's a long wait until the trucks are free again and the weather is favorable. Sometimes you'll have to leave the corn out in the field all winter and combine it in the spring. The weather and deer will take a big chunk of what you've worked on.

With that in mind I hired a local, experienced, "custom" combine operator. He came with his own relatively new combine too! I drove our grain cart the 12 miles down to this field and the custom guy brought his own tractor/cart, driven by his brother in law. Great.

As he started going over the field my first thought was he was going too fast and wasn't getting the corn head down low enough to the ground. My dad was there and thought the same. This became an issue when it turned out that I had a lot of downed corn stalks. That is, stalks that had fallen, or were so weak, that they ended up on the ground. The only way to pick them up is to slow down and run the corn head right along the ground.







If you look closely at the above pics you'll see plenty of horizontal stalks still on the ground. There shouldn't be any of that. All you should see is (much shorter) stubs of corn stalks surrounded by the corn stalks and leaves that have been pulverized by the chopper as they come out the back of the combine.

It seemed that he didn’t want to do any “extra” work, even when I told him the economics behind picking up the fallen corn stalks. Specifically that the profit from one of my organic acres was equal to the profit from roughly 5 of his and that he should treat every downed stalk as though it/they were 5. (This didn’t motivate him. I also said I’d pay by the hour and for damage to his combine vs. the per acre rate we initially agreed on.) It would have meant him going slower to allow him to get the snouts of the corn head under the fallen stalks. The snouts “scoop” the stalk into the combine where the grain is threshed. I believe that the stalks had fallen due to heavy rains earlier in the fall. 

Bottom line - based on several yield estimates prior to harvest I was expecting 140 bushels an acre. The combine operator has a real time yield monitor in the combine and he told me he was running across areas that were giving me 160-170 bushels/acre. Fantastic. I ended up averaging around 100 bushels/acre. Big difference. It took me a couple of days to understand what had happened. I ended up accepting that I did everything I could, but there were a few areas I need to do things differently.  An expensive lesson, but something that I can handle.

Aside from the stumble at the end I’m proud of my first year. Taken as a whole, considering all the various obstacles/issues I dealt with, it went great. I’m making plans for next year, which include starting the transition to organic on another 115 acres.  I’ll be making a major upgrade in our equipment now that I know what I need and am capable of.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Harvesting Soybeans

The fall weather has been wet, delaying everyone's plans. We needed to harvest about 62 acres of (conventional) soybeans so Dad hired our neighbor to do the "custom" (meaning for hire) combining. We used our grain cart, needed to temporarily hold beans from the combine while our orange C60 grain truck was making a run to the grain elevator (where the grain is stored for future sale.)





The idea is to keep the combine moving/harvesting. This takes some planning.  The hopper in the combine can hold about 300 bushels, the grain cart 450, and the grain truck 600. The combine can just about fill up the grain cart during the time it takes to drive the truck to the elevator, a 15 mile round trip. When the truck is gone, grain is put temporarily into the cart.

Given that all the farmers in the area are harvesting beans, and bringing them to the elevator, there's a wait to unload grain from the truck, usually about an hour. On the 62 acres we averaged about 45 bushels/acre, about 20% below normal. It was a cold wet (poor) year for growing.

Most of our equipment is old. For example our old combine is a 1981 6620 Deere.  A workhorse, but almost 40 years old. In a combine, with all it's moving parts, that's not good (See this for how a combine works). Even with constant maintenance, it would breakdown every year, seemingly at the worst times. We're selling it and going to have the "custom" guy bring his much newer Deere S660 to do our combining from now on. The grain cart and 7140 tractor are old, but should be able to function properly.

Just a quick note on that. When full of grain, the cart is emptied into a grain truck (the orange truck pictured above) via an augur. That augur is powered by a spinning shaft driven by the power take off (PTO) from the back of the tractor. Well, the shaft was bent, something I only found out after the cart was loaded and I tried to use the augur. I ran the shaft at a very slow speed so the run-out wouldn't tear out the cart's gearbox. Ok, fine. But, when it came time to stop the flow of grain, the shut off gate wouldn't fully close. So grain was spilling out of the top of the truck. If I shut off the pto the cart's augur would still be full of grain and so when I would start it up again I could potentially snap the pto shaft. (You're supposed to start the augur empty, with no load on it.)  It was a kind of Buster Keaton comedy. Just me and the equipment, early in the morning in the middle of nowhere.

This kind of stuff happens several times a day, every day. It's "normal" now. Most people have no idea what happens on a farm.  I'm proud that, most of the time, I can figure out how to get things resolved.

I ended up dribbling most of the grain out into the truck. But I had to shut off the pto with about 20 bushels of grain (for reference there are 8 gallons to a bushel) still in the cart. It took me the rest of the day to clean out the grain from the cart.  Now the cart is being repaired. I'll need it to harvest corn next week.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Putting Siding on the Farmhouse - Videos

I started a couple months ago, putting in windows and attaching rigid insulation to the exterior  of the exposed parts of the foundation.  If the weather holds up I should be able to finish going around the entire first floor this fall.

The "ladybugs" in the video below aren't native to the US. The are known as the Asian Ladybeetle, and while more a nuisance than anything else, can make it unpleasant to be outside when they're swarming. This usually happens in mid Autumn, on warmish days. The bugs also have a sharp little bite, and unhelpfully, sound just like a wasp (which also come out on warm autumn days) when they buzz by your head.

This species became established in North America as the result of introductions into the United States in an attempt to control the spread of aphids. In the last three decades, this insect has spread throughout the US and Canada, and has been a prominent factor in controlling aphid populations. The first introductions into the US took place as far back as 1916. The species repeatedly failed to establish in the wild after successfully controlling aphid populations, but an established population of beetles was observed in the wild near New Orleans, Louisiana, in about 1988. In the following years, it quickly spread to other states, being occasionally observed in the Midwest within five to seven years and becoming common in the region by about 2000. The species was also established in the Northwest by 1991, and the Northeast by 1994, aided by additional introductions from the native range, rather than just reaching there from the Southeast. Reportedly, it has heavily fed on soybean aphids (which recently appeared in the US after coming from China), supposedly saving farmers vast sums of money in 2001. 



In the above video, I think the damage was caused by carpenter ants. The two old windows on the second floor leaked (and will ultimately be replaced), letting water into the house framing.

See more here -  "How to Identify Carpenter Ant Damage"

It’s consistent with the other damage I found in the house. Any place there was water infiltration, to where the wood would be soaked repeatedly, there were tunnels. As far as leaving the damaged wood in place -- long as you stop the water from coming in and replace the rotted wood everything should be ok. I didn't see any live ants or their eggs.



Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Three Months Ago



I had just spent a long day row cultivating corn using our 55 year old Deere 4020 tractor (seen in the header of this blog, driven by my dad.) I remember feeling beat up -- and proud, since I'd never cultivated before and it had taken quite a bit of work just to get the old implement moving.  It was also hot, something that seems like a distant memory now, when temps have barely made it above 40º for the past three weeks.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

It's Official - We're "Organic"

My certifying agency is MOSA.  It's taken three years, but the first 61 acres is certified. All in all, a fairly smooth process.  To give you some idea of what's involved, I have a notebook detailing every bit of work I've done on that parcel for the past three years. An independent inspector needed to see all the receipts for the inputs used on the land, which she looked at during a six hour on farm inspection.  I paid about $1100 for this.

This certification is important for the farm, as the only way to sell an "organic" product to another (certified) organic producer is to have your product officially certified.  In our case this means that with every semi-truckload of organic grain that we sell, and it looks like there will be about nine full loads coming off this 61 acres, we need to provide the buyer with our Certification Number. This, in turn, allows for an auditable trail, enabling every input for a certified organic product to be verified as following organic practices in its production.

"My Partner in Organic Success"
The rapidly growing organic market is a great opportunity for farmers, food processors, handlers, restaurants, and food retailers. Consumers are demanding, and are willing to pay a premium for, food and fiber produced in accordance with the USDA National Organic Standards. To access this market, you will need a knowledgeable and professional certification partner. As a USDA accredited certification agency with over 17 years of experience, MOSA is ready to serve your needs. 


Next year, based on our experience we're going to transition another 110 acres, spread across 3 different fields. 

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Repairing the Masonry Heater Firebox

Last winter was the first for my masonry heater.  While building, curing and using it I meticulously followed all the proper procedures.  I used it full out, meaning firing it as often as recommended, simply because it was an abnormally cold winter and my farmhouse is unfinished.

I knew that the mortar was cracking inside the firebox, but put off repairing it as I was occupied with running the farm. A couple of weeks ago I began to consider what should be done.  After an inspection showed the mortar in the firebox was crumbling, I called Smith-Sharpe Firebrick Supply in Minneapolis and asked an expert "What should I do?". He said I might have used a bad bag of mortar, doubtful in my opinion, but that something called "Greepatch 421" would be the best product to repoint the joints.

When building the firebox I used the refractory mortar that came with the "kit" I bought from Eric Moshier at Solid Rock Masonry. It was rated up to 2500º. The new stuff is rated at 3500º. Maybe that will help, even though my temps never got above 2000º. (That infrared heat thermometer sure is useful.)

(Click on any picture to make it bigger.)


I started repairing the wall on the right. I scraped about 3/8" out of all the existing joints with a tuckpointing trowel. The mortar, when it didn't pop right out, was surprisingly soft.



 I also removed and relaid the floor of the firebox. The grate that fits in the hole seen in the bottom of the firebox was badly damaged and in need of replacement.  The "owners manual" from Solid Rock Masonry states that the grate will need to be replaced every other year. I'm ahead of schedule.

The old grate was badly corroded and had a bow/bend in it of about 1/2".

With the sides done I relaid the floor.
I think, and a phone call to the firebrick company will clear this up, that the mortar will have to cure for at least two weeks. Meaning no fires, and then only small ones. This is unfortunate because we've already had two nights with temps below freezing. For the next few weeks it looks like temps will be 10-15 degrees below normal.


Birds in the Yard



I like watching them roam around.. Their colors and sounds are vibrant, and memorable. As unsentimental as it sounds, I/we will kill them and put them in the freezer in the middle of October.  If anyone would like to help with that let me know.