Sunday, April 23, 2017

Not Your Father's Farm Anymore

While planting corn in Nebraska and chatting via Facebook on my iPhone with my third cousin in California, it dawned on me how much agriculture has changed in the short 14 years since my father passed away.

My father started farming in 1937 after graduating from high school. At that time my grandfather was just starting to transition from horse power to tractor power. They farmed 240 acres, had a hired man and worked very hard.

During my father's career he was an early adapter. That is, he was rarely the first to use new technology or ideas, but was very early to add it to the farm after he saw it could work.

He adapted very early to using reduced tillage. I barely remember him using a plow for anything except mother's garden. Once he and Mom were on a trip through Iowa and while eating at a downtown cafe they overheard the farmers talking about "John Doe" who wasn't going to plow that year. They were debating whether his corn would even grow. Dad started laughing and told them he hadn't plowed in over 10 years and the corn would grow just fine. Of course he was still chiseling the ground and disking it twice before planting.

By the time of his retirement we had advanced to ridge planting, a form of minimum till. No-till was on the horizon. We had started electronically controlling fertilizer application. Genetically modified seed was just being introduced. But I think even he would be amazed at how much and how fast farming has changed.

File photo of a 730.
I remember as a youth helping Dad hook up to his planter. A John Deere 730 (53 horsepower, tricycle front end, no cab, 6 gears, hand clutch) to his 4-row planter with the 3-point hitch. He put in a seed plate and then filled each row with half to 2/3 of a bag of seed. The row markers were controlled with a rope. Then he'd go plant.

Today I run a New Holland T-8010 (210 horsepower, 19 gears that power shift, mechanical front wheel drive, duals, roomy quiet temperature controlled cab with stereo radio, all the tractor controls are switches that connect with electrical wires) with 300-gallon fertilizer tanks bolted on each side and the front. I'm hooked up to a Case 12-row 30-inch spacing planter with our Category 3 quick hitch 3-point that has a hydraulic top link. There are 8 hydraulic hoses connecting the planter to the tractor, 4 wiring harnesses, 4 air lines, and 2 fertilizer hoses. Each row will hold 2 bags of seed.

I have an Ag Leader Integra guidance computer mounted in the tractor cab that utilizes both the U.S. and Russian GPS satellites for steering the tractor in straight lines. We have no row markers anymore. It is also telling the planter how many seeds to drop and how much fertilizer to apply. The target seed population is changing as I drive through the field because we know which areas can produce more and which areas will produce less from ten years of yield data that is also GPS collected by the combine.

We use a disc or chisel only when we have to. Our ground is either ridge-tilled, if it is gravity irrigated, or no-till, if it is watered by pivot or subsurface drip irrigation. We figure every time we move the soil we are losing moisture and burning diesel fuel. If possible we let the worms and microorganisms in the soil do our work.

Dad started collecting soil samples from every field every year 35 years ago, including a deep sample for nitrates. He then fertilized each field according to the soil test. That was revolutionary then. Now we sample every 20 acres every year and grid sample every 5 acres every 5 years. Dad tested for nitrogen, phosphorus and pH. Now we test for nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, zinc, calcium, magnesium, sodium, hydrogen, pH and organic matter. We use the grid sample soil test to create maps that show which areas of the fields are high, medium or low in each nutrient. Then the agronomist makes up maps with variable amounts of several different fertilizers to correct the deficiencies.

Hybrid seed corn started while my Dad was farming. He would plant a good hybrid for 5-10 years until something better came along. All the seed I plant now is high tech GMO seed that is bred to kill insects that eat it and/or live through herbicides that will kill all other plants. I try new hybrids every year and a good hybrid might last only 3-4 years before it is outpaced by newer ones.

Irrigation has changed a great deal over the last 50 years. When Dad started farming he used open ditches and lath boxes to control the flow down each row. The lath boxes soon became siphon tubes. They would hire land levelers to move soil around so there was an even slope to the field. Instead of having ditches run through the field at several locations, they moved the ditches to one end and had longer runs. The open ditches started to become gated pipe while I was in high school, which meant much less labor was required to irrigate. Now I'm replacing the gated pipe with center pivots and subsurface drip irrigation. Again, greatly reducing labor requirements.

Dad would go out with a spade and dig down 6 inches and feel the soil to tell when to irrigate. Now we have electronic soil moisture probes that communicate via cell phone to the internet. I can read them on my cell phone and if needed I can start the well and turn the pivot on, all from my cell phone. If the pivot gets stuck or has a problem it sends me a text message.

All of Dad's corn went to feed his cattle in his feedlot. I had to close the feedlot in 2003, as it was too small to operate efficiently and was going to require some very expensive environmental updates to stay operating. Now much of the crop that will be harvested will be used to make ethanol for automotive fuel or will be fed to livestock somewhere else.

When returning from college I bought our first computer, a rare Apple III. (No, I don't have it anymore, traded it in.) It ran VisiCalc (forerunner to Excel), Basic (programming language) and some type of text editor. Now our farm runs on 2 iMacs in the office. Wife has a MacBook and both of us have iPads. I am writing this blog on my iPad while planting corn, since the guidance monitor will take care of most functions while going through the field.

What's next? We have been experimenting with cover crops for several years and are now making them a part of our rotation. Cover crops are planted after we harvest and will grow until the next season. We do not harvest them. Their purpose is to feed the soil microorganisms and worms, build organic matter and loosen up the soil. Now we realize the soil is full of living breathing organisms that can make or break our crops. There is more that we don't know than we do know about the interactions they have with our crops.

And then there is the changing role of women in agriculture. Women have always been partners with their husbands on the farm. Now many of the sales people, advisers, reporters and electronic techs I work with are women. Several days I come in and confess to my wife I have been texting other women all day. Since farming no longer requires as much brute force and is more mental, the number of women actively farming is increasing rapidly and that's a great thing.

Now we need many young people to enter agriculture. Some as farmers, but many more to fill the many occupations that we rely on every day. They do not need to have a farm background, although that helps. We need students who love science or math and enjoy the rural lifestyle. The University of Nebraska College of Agriculture and Natural Sciences (CASNR) is at record enrollment, but is looking for more students as they cannot graduate enough to fill the jobs available.

Hopefully some of you may know a young person who fits this niche. The world's population is predicted to rapidly increase and the amount of food we produce must increase even faster to stop famine in parts of the world.

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