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 conventional/chemical acres and that he should treat every downed stalk as though it/they were 5. 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 150-160 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.