Archive for the ‘Farming’ category

“Super” Cows Threaten The World

January 10, 2007

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Okay, so it’s not that bad…No 200 foot cow is going to walk off of the plains of West Texas, take a stink on Dallas, and suffocate an entire metro population.  However, news of “super cows” in Britain showed up in the Daily Mail today and are being seen by some as a threat to the nation’s food supply.  These cows promise to deliver 70 pints of milk per day and could lead to a source of cheaper food.

 The Problem?  The cows are second generation clones…embryos from a cow that is a clone of a champion dairy Holstein.  Only one has been born so far, but it has four “brothers” rumored to be on the way.  As one can imagine, this development has raised quite a stir in Britain; a country that has been fearful of even accepting genetically engineered U.S. grain products in the past.

Concerns raised vary from quality of life of the animal to “purity” (if that’s the correct word) of the food product itself.  Clones have shown to have shorter life spans than traditionally bread animals and seem to suffer from imperfections that lead to early arthritis and other ailments.  Although adverse effects on human populations eating food that is cloned (or genetically engineered) have not been proven, there are those who are concerned about the possibility.  The positive effect of allowing cloned or genetically engineered food to be used for human consumption is simple:  cheaper food.

Higher food supply will lower the cost of food on the world market.  This could allow countries to feed their own populations and have some left over to help feed other populations that are starving.  More supply on the world market would lead to a reduced cost in the effort of doing so.  If the food continues to prove benign, why wouldn’t we allow it to be used to help feed those who don’t have enough?  It seems to make perfect sense to continue along this path and see if it leads us to a larger food supply for a growing world population.

Strip-Till Guidlines

December 8, 2006

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This week, I’ve spent a lot of time researching and attempting to write a comprehensive article on the practice of Strip-Till.  It’s no excuse, but it is the reason why I’ve been lagging behind in my posts this week.  Over the past three years, I’ve watched (and spoken with) numerous producers from around the country who have succeeded in implementing Strip-Till into their production strategies.  The following is a synopsis of what has worked for them.

It must first be stated, that StripTill has caught on in numerous sections of the country for various reasons.  That is, farmers in states farther north, such as New York and North Dakota, have different primary reasons for incorporating Strip-Till into their production strategies than farmers in Nebraska and Kansas.  Reasons for incorporating a Strip-Till strategy include faster warm-up of the seed bed (vs. No-Till), decreased production costs in fuel and fertilizer (vs. Conventional Tillage), moisture conservation (vs. Conventional Tillage), erosion control (vs. Conventional Tillage), and better residue management (vs. N0-Till).  Strip-Till truly is a middle ground between Conventional and No-Till practices, allowing producers to obtain certain advantages of both.  But with so many different reasons for incorporating it into a production strategy, Strip-Till means many different things to many different people.

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The question most often asked by those trying to learn more is: “What is Strip-Till?”.  Most experts agree that Strip-Till is the practice of placing a strip no more than ten inches wide, and three to four inches tall, into the field; and then planting directly on top of the placed strip.  Consult local sources, but in some cases these measurements are critical in order to qualify for state Strip-Till programs.  Where opinions on the definition differ is what kind of nutrient to place at the bottom of the Strip, the type of equipment to use, and when to use it.

Nutrient Placement – A wide variety of nutrient types are placed 6-8 inches deep in the strip.  Of course, the amount of nutrient depends on what the crop will need next season, and the type is a function of what form is readily available in the area and price.  Soil type obviously plays a role in nutrient placement as well.  Some producers will inject N, P, and K.  Others will opt for just P & K, leaving the nitrogen application to be applied with the planter, or in side dress applications.  Most producers agree that fertilizer rates can be cut with Strip-Till applications when compared to broadcast fertilizers, because of the fertilizer’s proximity to the roots.  Those using precision Strip-Till applicators will employ variable rate applicators and apply based on prescription.

Types of Equipment to Use – There are many Strip-Till tools currently on the market.  Most employ either a deep Sub-Soiler Shank, or a standard fertilizer shank within their row unit configurations.  If you are going to Strip-Till, consider purchasing one from a manufacturer.  Farmers rarely succeed in building one themselves.  A section on what to look for can be found below.

When to Strip-Till – Most experts agree that Strip-Till is a practice that should be done in the fall.  This allows time for the strip to settle and mellow throughout the winter.  It also gives time for the fertilizer (placed in the strip) to disburse in certain soil types, reducing the risk of fertilizer burn on young root systems.  However, practicality overrules idealism in some areas; especially in those where winter comes early on wet clay soils and time dosen’t permit fall application.  If you live in an area where Spring Strip-Till is a must, consult local experts on the best way to proceed with your production strategy.

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Strip-Till areas of the country can be broken down into the four areas shown above.  Please keep in mind that this map is simplified for purposes of explanation.  For example, a farmer in South Dakota may use Strip-Till for erosion control, moisture conservation, and faster warm-up.  The map simply defines areas where Strip-Till is used, and the primary use for it in that area.  Knowing that the primary reasoning behind Strip-Till may be different in different areas, we can begin to examine the components used in Strip-Till and the reasons behind the use of each.

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Strip-Till Component Options

Strip-Till Components usually include (from front to back) a large coulter at least 20″ in diameter to cut residue, a residue manager to sweep away residue and provide a cleaner strip, a shank style conducive to stirring the soil and breaking up compacted layers where necessary, covering disks at least 17″ in diameter for filling and hilling the disturbed area, and a rolling basket to assist in firming and shaping the newly formed seed bed.

Shank and Point (Knife) Styles – Shanks are a vital component to the Strip-Till operation.  They place nutrient at the desirable depth (6-8 inches) and stir more soil for better warm-up.  In my opinion, Strip-Till equipment without a shank dosen’t do the same job.  Shank styles vary from the typical 1×2 flat fertilizer shank (max depth 8-10 inches) to Sub-Soiler shanks (max depth 18-20 inches).  The key to choosing the correct shank lies beneath the surface of your soil.  If your soil is prone to compaction, you must first gauge where the compacted layer(s) is.  For example, if compacted layers lie beneath the ten inch line you will want to consider a Sub-Soiler shank to break up the compacted layer while Strip-Tilling in a one pass operation.  Points for Sub-Soiler shanks vary, and do different jobs in varying soil types.  Common points are 2″ to 3″ flat or humped points depending on soil type and the amount of fracture you want to achieve.  Stay away from Sub-Soiler points that have wings, as they can do more harm than good in certain soil conditions.  If compacted layers are above 10 inches, or you have no compaction, a typical fertilizer shank will work just fine.  Knives for Strip-Till fertilizer shanks are commonly found to have a 1 to 1.5″ foot on the bottom.  These are typically referred to as mole knives and do a very good job in stirring up the soil in the strip.

Coulters and Residue Managers – The coulter is another vital component to the Strip-Till process.  At 5 miles per hour, a new series of residue will be processed through a Strip-Till row unit roughly every half of a second.  This will vary depending on the distance between the front of the row unit and the back of the row unit.  Because there are so many components involved in the process, cutting the residue first is a necessity.  Residue Managers assist in this process by sweeping the residue out of the row after it is cut, allowing the shank, hillers and baskets to have a cleaner path to work with.  They are nice to have on any Strip-Till machine, but are more important in areas where warming up the seed bed is a must.  The Residue Manager should be behind the coulter to sweep away residue afterit is cut.  Placing a Residue Manager before the coulter moves the residue away from the coulter blade, this keeps it from being cut and can result in plugging problems around the shank and hillers.

Hillers – Ideally, Hillers should be free floating (no down pressure) without springs.  This allows any remaining residue to flow more easily between the gap in the hiller blades without plugging.  Additionally, hillers with down pressure have been known to cause trenching on both sides of the strip.  This is particularly challenging in hills, as water can run down the created trenches (instead of soaking in) during significant rainfalls.  Flat Blades (instead of concave) can also assist in reducing the amount of trenching in a field.  In addition to this, they normally cost less than concave blades.  Again, Hiller blades should be at least 17″ in diameter.

Rolling Baskets – In fall Strip-Till operations, where a good freeze-thaw process occurs, baskets are optional.  Normally a strip will settle over the winter from 3-4 inches to 1-2 inches and any clods left in the strip by the shank and sealers will have mellowed.  Baskets in the fall become more important where the winters are mild, or where winter comes on too fast and a producer finds it necessary to finish up in the spring.  Baskets in spring operations are a necessity in order to produce a settled, mellowed, seed bed prior to planting.

Considerations Before Purchasing

Several considerations (other than soil type, climate zone, and residue situation) should be made before purchasing a Strip-Till implement.  These all have to do with the implement itself, and can be summarized into three categories:  1) Is the machine easy to operate?  2)  Is the machine easy to maintain?  3) Will it work for me?  All of these can be ascertained by doing a small amount of homework including reading literature on the product, calling the manufacturer, and looking at the product during a farm show or demo.

Is The Machine Easy To Operate – The primary concern here is the versatility of the implement.  Can it do a similar job in varying soil conditions and residue situations?  After all, residue situations vary from year to year; or you may rent a new piece of ground that has a different soil type and moisture content.  Can it be adjusted to handle various types of soil and residue situations?  How easy are these adjustments to make?  How forgiving are the components in differing soil types and residues if your going between fields and don’t have time for adjustments?

Is The Machine Easy to Maintain – This is where many Strip-Till Implements fall short.  Just by walking around farm shows and reading literature, I’ve found many that don’t make the grade.  One has a decal on each row unit that shows 18 grease points per row…all must be greased daily!  Many have five or six springs per row…that’s 60 or 72 springs on a 12 row implement that must be maintained and (eventually) replaced.  Be sure to look for maintenance nightmares in literature and at farm shows to be sure that you won’t spend more time in the shop than in the field.  If you can get a look at an operators manual, you will find clues there as well.

Will It Work For Me – One of the most important things to consider when making your choice in Strip-Till implements involves the experience of the manufacturer.  How many years have they been making ground engaging fertilizer application equipment.  Watch out for companies that did not make fertilizer application equipment before they started making Strip-Till machines.  Also watch out for companies that did not make ground engaging equipment before they started making Strip-Till machines.  Choosing a Strip-Till implement that is produced by a company that has experience in fertilizer application will help ensure that your fertilizer is placed at the proper depth, and evenly across the rows.  Choosing one that has experience in ground engaging equipment will help to ensure that the Strip-Till row units will function properly in yourtillage scenario.  Two companies (there are others) that were making both fertilizer applicators and ground engaging equipment long before Strip-Till was around are BLU-JET and DMI

Additional Considerations – Make time to attend a field demonstration of the Strip-Till equipment you are considering.  Better yet, try to schedule your top two or three choices to come demo on your farm.  Normally, Strip-Till manufacturers (or their representatives) can bring a smaller size demo unit out to your farm and show you how it works.  This also provides you an opportunity to solicit operating tips for your particular soil type, residue situation, and climate zone.  Be wary of a company that will not demo their equipment. 

Additional Note:  A demo at your farm doesn’t consist of 500 acres.  Usually a few passes is enough to tell whether you will be happy with the implement.

Summary 

The consensus across the country is that Strip-Till works.  Producers who hire custom Strip-Till work can see a return of anywhere from $6 to $16 per acre after costs.  Several operational considerations need to be made depending on your location.  Consult local agronomy experts to determine fertilizer rates and types that will work best for you.  When considering equipment, keep in mind that a manufacturer’s experience may be the difference in success or failure.  If you speak to a company representative, ask for the “Strip-Till expert” to make sure you are getting the best information.  Attend a demonstration of the equipment before to buy to make sure it will work the way you need it to.  

Links:

http://www.wq.uiuc.edu/Pubs/LW3.pdf

http://www.fultoncountyoh.com/swcd/No-Till%20Newsletters/notill%20spring%2099.pdf

http://www.oznet.ksu.edu/library/crpsl2/mf2661.pdf

http://apply-mag.com/mag/farming_striptill_teamwork/

Another Ethanol Challenge

November 30, 2006
ear-of-corn.jpg The University of Illinois Extension Office’s Blog has an interesting article posted on Wednesday highlighting Dr. Michael B. McElroy.  This Harvard University Professor is the latest in a line of “experts” who say that ethanol is not the answer to U.S. energy demands.  I wonder, has he been outside the ivory tower enough to even know what an ear of corn looks like?  The article can be found here.

Because my line of work involves the agricultural industry, I must keep up with the pros and cons of big Ag issues.  One of these is ethanol.  What I notice most about those who oppose the continued expansion of ethanol is that they do not present the entire picture.
They talk about rising food and fuel prices as the demand for corn heightens.  They paint doomsday pictures of a world without enough food or fuel.  They throw out statistics regarding fuel economy and the total cost of ethanol production.

Here’s what they don’t mention:  Corn hybrids continuing to become higher yielding, and being grown in areas previously not suitable for corn production.  Experimental ethanol plants using corn residue (instead of the grain itself) to supplement those that process the grain.  The gluten byproduct produced by ethanol that can be fed to cattle instead of corn.  Engine technologies that are striving to make ethanol more efficient in miles per gallon.  And, of course, my favorite reason for using ethanol:  to send less money to middle eastern governments.

Is ethanol the entire solution to America’s thirst for energy?  No.  Should it be part of the solution?  Absolutely.

StripTill In Minnesota

November 15, 2006

I had the distinct pleasure of traveling a good deal of Minnesota over the course of last week.  Nothing brings back a spring in the step more quickly than crisp cool
Northern Minnesota air in early November.  My route took me from Watertown, SD, across the state on U.S. Highway 212, through Minneapolis, northeast to
Duluth, back across U.S. Highway 2 through Bemidji, down U.S. Highway 75, and back to Watertown.  It was, of course, a beautiful drive.  It’s really too bad that I was conducting business along the way.

 

Besides the crisp air and the abundance of trees, one other item from the trip has stuck in my mind as a constant in many parts of the state.  Fields, where the recently harvested crop once stood, were turned pitch black by tillage implements.  In an age where conservation farming is routinely practiced and preached from coast to coast, why has Minnesota been left behind?  Conservation programs are in place in the state to encourage farmers to be better stewards of the land, but it seems that these programs have fallen on deaf ears.

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For those new to farming terms, Conventional Tillage (turning it black) is defined as mixing crop residue into the soil.  It promotes better breakdown of the residue and contributes to better soil warm-up for better germination in the Spring.  No-Till is defined as leaving more than 70% residue coverage on a field while it is idle.  This helps prevent wind and water erosion, but does nothing to promote residue breakdown or soil warm-up.  Strict No-Tillers try not to work the soil at all.  They rely on biological mass, earthworms, and other natural forces to keep the soil in good condition.  Several tillage strategies fall into the No-Till category.  One of these is StripTill, which leaves a worked strip of soil among the residue.  The farmer will then plant next year’s crop into these worked strips.  The idea is to promote soil warming while minimizing the effects of erosion.   I’ve simplified these explanations in the interest of brevity, but it will at least give the laymen an idea of what is being discussed.

 

Solutions to conventional tillage practices such as No-Till have been around for decades.  StripTill is a more recent phenomenon and is in the beginning stages for some areas of the country.  In others, it has been practiced for years.  I inquired in several coffee shops along my route to find the answer as to why everyone seems to choose to incorporate Conventional Tillage into their production strategy.  A majority opinion soon began to develop from this inquisition.  It seems that a majority of Minnesota farmers do not utilize a strict No-Till strategy because the soil will simply not warm up fast enough for row crop scenarios.

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So what about StripTill?  When I asked this question, I found myself in the teacher’s role, instead of the student’s.  Most had a general idea of what the concept was, but had not considered trying it.  Some had blown it off as the latest farming fad, others had no idea what the benefits were.  As I explained it to them, (the added benefit of soil warm up while limiting erosion, feeding the plant instead of the soil with fertilizer, the decrease in amount of fuel used) it seemed to make sense to some.

Will StripTill catch on as one of the best ways to farm, combining environmental advantages with a positive crop production strategy?  It takes time to convince a farmer that doing it the same way his father did it is not always the best strategy.  It will take time, but I feel that it will prevail.

For more information on StripTill, visit http://www.wq.uiuc.edu/Pubs/LW3.pdf#search=’Strip%20Till’