Sunday, February 7, 2016

Feeling a little like spring

It feels a little like spring right now, with a little sun and some rain mixed it.  But what's really making it seem like spring are the air temperatures - looking at low to mid 60s for the next 10 days, and that means growth.

forecast courtesy of
Things start growing when it's above 40 degrees; I'm already seeing some growth in the pastures, and I may be able to get a little early-season grazing in for the cows, which is good.  My hay supply is probably adequate to get me to march, but stretching it another week by doing a little bit of free grazing adds a little insurance.

the long-term forecast is "warmer and drier" for this spring, and I'm looking at the next 3 or 4 days as a chance to get out and chop up the crop residue, disk some ground that has weeds just starting to pop up, and possibly do a little bit of field leveling.

The flatter the field the easier every other crop operation gets - easier to plant, easier to weed, easier to harvest, and you can do everything faster if the ground is flat and smooth.

I've got 100 concord grape vines coming pretty soon here, and I'll need to build another section of vineyard to accomodate them, too.  So a little bit of sun and warmth gives me a choice on outside tasks to get done, and the more I get done now the better.  Spreading the work out for the planting season is always a good thing.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

I'm the guy on the big agricultural implement going slow on the highway

There's a fair bit of agro-tourism in this area and a local one, black-crow pumpkins and corn maze had one this year.
this is the corn maze I combined yesterday pic courtesy of black-crow pumpkins

I noticed the corn was still there in January (usually it gets knocked down or cut by someone, and found the owner of the patch, and worked out a deal to combine it.   It's about 10 miles from my farm, probably a 45-minute trip in the combine, and it looked like there was enough corn there to make it worthwhile, so off I went.  

The combine is 12'4" wide, and about 30' long, so when I drive in a traffic lane I take up the entire lane and 2-3' next to it.  Most of the time I can keep the machine on the side of the road, so I stick off onto the shoulder, but guard rails and poorly placed mailboxes and stuff make me edge closer to the center.  

The max speed for the combine is about 20mph (22 if I'm going downhill with a tailwind) and you don't see many on the road around here.  It's funny; people move to an agricultural area because they like the green and growing and wide-open spaces, but they forget that the roads are there for everyone - including giant green things that don't go very fast :)

I'm always mixed about whether to go as far right as I can - I do that as much as I can, but I've had other farmers tell me different.  "I drive in the center of the lane because it's when they try to sneak by you that things get dangerous.  Force them to commit to going head-on into the other lane and they tend to be more careful!" says one fellow.  I try to stay to the right to give them the best sight in front of me as I can, because I want them to be able to see the oncoming traffic.

People are very impatient though, but to keep it as safe as I could I pulled over every mile or two and let everyone behind me pass, and then pull back onto the road and kept going.  

The combining of the corn was the shortest portion of the day; about 4 acres of pretty dry corn.   There was quite a bit of lodging (corn that was laying flat on the ground) and something had been eating the corn kernels - even with corn laying a little sideways the corn head will pick it up if you're careful, but if there's no kernels left there's not much you can do.  

 I was curious what the yield would be because this corn had been hit by the same flood that hit me, and there were paths mowed into it (for the corn maze. )  I filled my small dumptruck with one combine load (about 150 bushels and then kept about half a combine load in the combine as I drove home, so the total was about 225 bushels or 6.25 tons of corn off of four acres; so for 2 hours of driving plus 90 minute s of combine work it was worth it.  

I talked to the guy running the corn maze and he explained that one guy planted it, and then another guy tilled it, and a third guy cut the corn for silage.  I said that next  year I'd be happy to till and plant it in return for being able to combine it like I did this year; what I'm hoping is that I can put together a deal with all the corn maze guys and maybe put together 16 or 20 tons of corn; just go down the road and combine it all in a day after they're all done with using it as a corn maze.  

On the drive back, the little silver subaru that was SOO mad at me.  I couldn't tell anything about the driver; but they passed me on a double-yellow section, and then made a point of slowing down in front of me and rolling down the window and honking and waving their middle finger.  I watched how animated the arm was and just had to laugh.  I wonder if they understand where the food comes from -- every time they eat a piece of toast or a corn chip somewhere a combine blocked some traffic for them.  

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Final on the grain corn experiment

Standing in the grain tank, looking forward
 In the spring of 2015 when i was working on my 2015 crop plan I decided that I'd plant some corn and harvest it as grain corn, mostly to feed to the pigs.  The long term forecast said that the weather would be warmer and dryer than usual, and that sounded like good conditions for growing corn.

To prepare for the attempt, I did soil tests  to see what the ground was like, and then amended the soil, mostly by adding lime to it, so that it would give me the best shot at getting a decent crop.  I worked on my old John Deere 7000 planter, updating it to newer seed meters and replacing some worn parts, and I plowed and planted the corn, and then watched anxiously as it grew, ripened and then eventually matured and started to dry out.

Somewhere in the middle of that I purchased a combine at auction, and then had to go back to iowa to get a corn head to fit it, and then do some wrench work to get the combine into field shape, and some welding on the corn head to get it in ship shape, and then put the whole thing together and figure out how a combine works.  I've never used one before, and it took some fiddling and wasted corn before I got the hang of it.  At this point I'm pretty happy with the combine and my skill level at working it.  I'm sure that there's lots of stuff to learn, but my measure of success is how much grain goes into the tank and how much is left on the ground, and by that measure I'm pretty happy.

standing in the grain tank, looking backwards
The corn was "scheduled" to be ripe on Sept 1st, and I thought that would mean that I'd get it dry enough to combine by mid to late October.  It turned out that I didn't get the last of the corn combined until January.  the quality of the corn didn't suffer, but I did lose some of the corn due to lodging (where the corn falls over in the row) and some to animals.  In particular, a pesky beaver ate about 400 corn plants in the field where these pictures were taken.  The beaver would come out of the ditch that runs along the south side of this field, snip off  the corn plant, and take the whole plant and ears back into the river with him.  Given that he's been eating so well, I'm sure he'd be very tasty :)

At on first blush I thought my yields were going to be very good; amazingly good, actually.  I didn't get the yields I thought I would, for two reasons:  1) My corn planter is set on 36" rows, not 30" as I thought, and 2) the area I was samplign seems to have had a larger number of two or three-ear corn than the majority of the field.  I did end up with quite a bit of corn; roughly 110 tons, but it works out to 160 bushels an acre.  that's a little below average yield for USA corn.  There's room for improvement, but I have to say that I'm pretty happy with the harvest.

I did end up having to buy and use a grain drier to get the corn down to the 10-12% moisture content it needs to be at for long-term storage.    To dry the corn I  used 600 gallons of propane; a little more than I would like, but part of that was a learning curve, too.  It helps that propane is super cheap this year.

Right now corn is selling for $157/ton or so; that's the commodity price for #2 yellow corn, which this is.  So by that measure the corn I grew is worth $17,270.00   I'll note that corn prices are down quite a bit this year; just last year, that same amount of corn would have been worth $23,571 ($6/bushel); a big difference.  But commodity prices do that.  Part of farming.

So using the current price of corn, here's how it breaks down:

Corn value, dry at farm:  $17,270
Combine purchase             -3200
Corn head purchase           -2200
parts/repairs combine        -1800
parts/repairs corn head      -900
120 gallons diesel              -360
harvesting labor ($15/hr)  -650
Grain drier purchase        -3800
Propane                              -700
combine supplies              -500 (hyd. fluid, oil, grease, antifreeze)
Seed cost                           -800
Cultivation/planting          -1000

Costs total $15,910, leaving a net profit of $1,360 vs low cost corn

So even at the low corn prices that are present this year, my corn venture on paper made a small profit.  It should be clearly profitable next year because while I'll have to buy the consumables (diesel, propane) the big purchases from this year are all paid for.  Plus having a combine opens up all sorts of crops to me; wheat, barley, harvesting my own seeds (grass, alfalfa) and gives me a whole bunch of nice options for crop rotation.

The real profit (savings) are actually bigger than what is shown here.  I can't buy corn for $157 a ton here; it's quoted at $250/ton at the local feed mill, which makes my production worth $27,500 - and if I buy the corn in the form of pig feed, mixed with soybean meal and minerals and so on, the corn comes in at $390/ton - $42,900.

To make the corn a complete feed I'll need to add some protein to it, and then figure out what I need to do to process it.  The most likely source of protein is going to be some sort of bean - field pea or chick pea or soybean - and to do it right I'll need to process the feed; grind and mix it.  that will be the challenge for this coming year.  

And that brings me to the 2016 crop plan, that I'm working on now.