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.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Cold

No heat, other than two 1500 watt electric heaters, in the farm house. Carl spends as much time as possible under the covers.



Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Construction Update

I've been working on the farmhouse - Placing rigid insulation, then covered with stucco, around the exposed foundation


putting in several new windows. My dad has been helping me all the way through this build.


followed by trim around the windows, then siding. 








the guinea fowl like to climb up on the buildings

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Farm Politics

There are a lot of things that are "broken" that I'd argue are working as designed.  The economics of agriculture are in that category.


The above quote is a screen shot from a pdf titled "Parity and Farm Justice: Recipe for a Resilient Food System"

Parity is the idea of a "fair price" for farm commodities.  The "market" isn't able to pay anything near the cost of production for many commodities.  The large players have destroyed what worked in the early days of the Farm Bill and replaced it with something that preserves their access to a seemingly endless supply of cheap inputs.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We can make parity a household word. It’s as simple as believing in a living wage for farm workers, and a just food system.
 Even the "winners", at this moment organic grain/meat producers (though not dairy), are forced to play by these rules and will eventually be incorporated into the larger system.

The subsidies in place now are solely for crop insurance. So a failed crop ensures payment to the providers of inputs without putting anything in the pocket of the farmer.

It's a big subject. I'd encourage the few people who read this blog to continue to ask questions.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Armyworms

I have them in about 1/4 of my corn, almost exclusively in areas that had heavy foxtail pressure earlier in the year. This makes sense as the armyworms like to eat/lay in foxtail and other grasses. Unfortunately corn is a grass.






Armyworms have earned their name for their tendency, at high populations, to ‘march’ across a field, consuming whatever vegetation is in their path. Two species of armyworm, true armyworms and fall armyworms, may affect crops in the Upper Midwest, predominantly in the grass family (corn, wheat, other small grains) and in fall grassy cover crops.
Early summer crop damage is caused by the true armyworm. True armyworm larva can cause damage in the early summer to corn, wheat, barley, oats, and occasionally to soybeans and sunflowers. The adults begin arriving in the upper Midwest in April or early May, with peak moth flights later in May or early June. These dates vary from year to year, based on weather conditions.
The advice I've got says that trying to spray an organic "insecticide" isn't worth it. So I'll take the hit to my yield.

The link from Albert Lea Seeds has plenty of more info on them.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Corn is Chest High

It looks good, especially considering all the things I've done for the first time. There's nothing more to be done in the field until harvest time at the end of October.

(Click on any picture to make it bigger.)

There is a lot of compaction at the entrances to the fields, where very few corn plants grew.

'
The corn appears to be healthy and growing well. 


In the rows, missed by the rotary hoe and where I couldn't throw enough dirt with the row cultivator, there are some weeds. I expect that the shade from the growing corn will crowd out/kill most of these weeds. At this point there's no way for me to get rid of them.

As I said in the previous post, 10 to 13 acres, out of the 61 I have planted to corn here, have heavy foxtail pressure and will have this kind of weed pressure. The remaining ground is relatively weed free. Aside from not killing weeds so they don't return next year, I might suffer a yield "drag" as the weeds take nutrients from the corn, limiting my yield at harvest time.

Cultivation with Rotary Hoe and Row Cultivator

It's done. I went over the 61 acres twice with the rotary hoe and twice with the row cultivator. I also went over the areas that have heavy foxtail, approximately 15 acres, another two times with the row cultivator. A lot of time on a tractor that doesn't have a cab. I'll also point out that you need keep the tractor tires in between the rows of corn; there's about 4" of clearance on each side of the wider rear tires and the corn.

Here's a pic of me after a day of cultivation.

(Click on any picture to make it bigger.)









The row cultivator behind the Deere 4020, taken about June 23rd. This is after the first pass with the cultivator.

The photos below were taken about a week later, after we'd received 1+" of rain and had temps in the 80's. The foxtail is very thick in about 15 acres. All in areas that are wetter than normal due to the drainage/topography of the land. I've been thinking about how to better control the foxtail. There isn't anything else I could do, mechanically. The corn will be ok, as it can outgrow the foxtail. In following years other crops won't be able to do that.



 Most of the above pic shows how thick the foxtail gets. A little on the left rows shows what it looks like after my first pass through with the row cultivator.

 The first pass with the cultivator really didn't bury much.

 After the second pass through with the row cultivator most of the foxtail is gone, excepting in the row. There was so much residue from the foxtail I took out with the cultivator, the dirt wouldn't "flow" as it should and the cultivator would plug up fairly often. I'd get off the tractor and pull the big piles apart by hand, and then continue.

I'd say about 80% of the land is free of weeds. Foxtail, as well as canadian thistle, are the main culprits.

Today the corn is about chest high and is looking good. More on that in the next post.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Repairs to the Case 475 Disc Harrow

Five scraper arms were missing. The used parts place didn't carry them and the local Case dealer wanted to charge me $112 (!) each.

(Click on any picture to make it bigger.)

 The scraper arm is the red piece on the welding table. It's stamped from 1/4" plate and has a few angles and holes in it. My replacement parts are made from 1/4" steel strap and plate pieces that are welded together.


The discs cut through old plants and bury them in the dirt. While doing this dirt is often stuck to the concave side of the disc itself, and if there isn't a scraper, causing it to plug.


As well as the scrapers there are a couple of new hydraulic hoses, four new tires, and assorted other things to fix on the disc.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Planting is Done. Time for a Few Repairs

I'm pretty proud of my repair on the 4020 lift link (the arm that lifts the 3 pt hitch).It was bent many years ago,which made it very hard to remove from the tractor. I had to lengthen it in place by turning a threaded casting, but it was frozen. A combination of hardened grease and dirt. Plus 50 years. I soaked it with brake/parts cleaner then made an improvised vise to hold the shaft while I put a big wrench with cheater bar/pipe on the casting. It slowly turned. Now I can set both lift arms to the same height, ensuring that future passes with the rotary hoe and row cultivator will be done with the implement level (and the implement will dig down to an even depth across its entire width.)

(Click on an picture to make it bigger)


I also had to fix the rotary hoe stand, which slipped through its mount on the hoe while I was using it a few days ago. (When not attached to a tractor the stand has the flat plate on the ground. When using it behind a tractor, I invert it and put it in the same sleeve.) I didn't hear a thing, and am lucky that it didn't wipe out entire rows of corn. Fortunately it bent in such a way that it didn't hit the implement either. The culprit was a faulty cotter pin, which came off allowing the hitch pin to work itself out. Then the stand hit the ground.






I took the bent stand off the rotary hoe and made, then installed, a new one.


Dad and I got all the grass waterways and buffer zones, around 8 acres in total, planted on June 1st. A handful different types of grass, either alfalfa or clover, with oats to act as a nurse crop.

My 61 acres of organic corn is up, it looks like I've got good germination. The rows are pretty, the little plants are 1-3 inches tall, and the weeds are almost non-existent.  I'll rotary hoe it 2 more times in the coming weeks, timing my field work as the rain and weed pressure dictate.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Brillion "Sure Stand" Seeder

We need to seed grass waterways, about five acres of alfalfa/hay, and some grass border strips. Our friend and neighbor, Jeff, said we could use his Brillion Seeder. I hadn't seen it until I picked it up, but it was in pretty rough shape. As Jeff said, it works, but I guess I like fixing stuff.

(Click on any picture to make it bigger)

 I think they'd backed over the tongue with a tractor. It made it almost impossible to get attached to my tractor/truck and more importantly changed the angle that it rode on the ground. The back cultipacker wasn't really doing much.



Tonge and wheels off. 


I made a new tongue out of 4" steel channel. Drilled holes in the right places and painted it. 



The axle bearings were bad in both wheels. Two bearings, two races and one seal. To transport the seeder you jack it up off the ground and put the axle stubs in each end. Because the bearings were bad, when we got it the wheels were stuck (at a slight angle) in the seeder hubs. Took some pounding to get them out. 



The pin through the axle, nothing more than a 3/8" bolt, holds the axle in the seeder.


We've seeded about an acre and it works great. I had to make some adjustments to the seed meter, but I think the rest of the grass seeding will go smoothly. As a side note, I love using those fiberglass lunch trays to hold parts and tools while I do repairs. Most of the time its done in dirt or grass and its very easy to lose vital bits. Thanks to Art and H2 for giving them to me!