Sunday, January 25, 2015

Five Reasons why Farming is Still Hard

According to my other blog post, Farming is Easy. Although we can all agree that farming is much easier than it was fifty years ago, today's farmings is not without its challenges. These are my top five reasons why farming is still hard.

1. Actually steering.
Even with the modern technology, most farmers still steer their tractors occasionally. According to John Deere, their base system is accurate within 4-8 inches. I have seen it change that much over lunch break. It takes a big chunk of change to switch to full auto steer and most applications aren't worth it. I always steer when doing the edges of the fields, making my turns, and around obstacles. It isn't as easy at is seems. I drive an articulated tractor, which means it pivots in the middle rather than swivels the tires to change direction. That means I have two pivot points to factor in when trying to drive straight. If I turn my wheel to the left to avoid an obstacle on my right, the equipment will initially become closer to obstacle. This may result in a foot long gash in the service truck. Another factor to consider is pitch and roll. Our fields are not flat by any means and trying to run the edges requires constant compensation. My tractor may be leaning to the left, but my equipment may be sliding to the right. Add a concrete post in there and you have some excitement. The last factor I have to include is how far away and wide my equipment is from the tractor. I may run a 70 foot wide harrow and then switch to a 30 foot disk. The pivot points and turning radius are widely different and I still have to maintain an accuracy within inches. For example, if I am coming to edge of the field and I am doing a turn with the seventy foot harrow behind me, with a paved road and a slight downward pitch and a roll to the left, I better not be drunk.

2. Obstacles.
There are many obstacles in the fields and I discovered that everyone frowns upon me running them over. There are two main types of obstacles. Man made obstacles include fences, buildings, concrete posts, wells, corrals, signs, culverts, dams, roads, telephone poles, and high tension power lines. You might get away with flattening a metal fence post, but not flattening a fence that is holding a pasture full of cows. Natural obstacles include trees, rocks, cliffs, ditches bigger than your tractor, rock piles and scab rock. Some of these natural obstacles may change or remain hidden until too late.  One obstacle, the neighbors wheat fields, falls into the middle of manmade and natural. When doing the edges between the two fields, it is important to get as close as possible. Weeds can grow 8 feet tall in a six inch strip between fields, which robs important moisture and nutrients. However if your weeder slides a foot into mature ripening wheat, you will have unhappy relationships with your neighbors. The last obstacle to avoid is a bit more tricky. Vehicles, whether parked or on the roads must be avoided. You can bet your last dollar that someone's insurance company will become involved if you accidentally run over a vehicle, even if you have the right away and your tractor is ten times larger than that Prius.

3. Breakdowns. Even the best maintained equipment suffers breakdowns and failures eventually. Farm equipment is under a lot of stress and any contact with articles under point number two will result in things breaking. There is also the normal wear and tear that requires parts to be replaced. The important factor in breakdowns is too catch the problem as soon as possible. A broken bolt can soon result in losing something important and become much more involved than two wrenches to fix. If things are not easily fixed, it may then result in the painful writing of a very big check to the local equipment dealer.

4. Technology. I may have claimed in my last article that technology makes farming easy. Still true, but it can also make it a pain in the posterior. The most obvious problem is when it isn't working. Our GPS may suddenly drop in accuracy and drive my tractor into the neighbors field. The height sensor for the combine header may suddenly slam the header into the ground and fill it full of dirt and rocks. Those are fun times. There is also the problem of software and hardware upgrades. Recently we had to replace two touch screen monitors, which wasn't a problem until we switched them to the combines. They required an upgrade before they would work with my harvest programming. Its not much fun when the combine drivers are glaring at the person they feel is responsible for holding up the start of harvest. It kind of makes me feel bad sitting in the air conditioned cab while they sweat in the beautiful triple digit weather outside.

5. Fatigue. Its not the 12-16 hour days that make you feel fatigued. It's not a week of long days that causes fatigue. That is just being tired and exhausted. It is the week after week, month after month, year after year that causes fatigue. It is when the job you love, combined with the newest problem of the day, and years of hard work causes one to want to give up. Its when farmers are attacked by people that don't appreciate how much they care for the land and their animals. Its hard to fight that, but I remind myself farming is a lifestyle and not a job. I don't think I could handle a commute where I am not driving the largest vehicle around. Plus I love the views from my cubicle.

Farming still requires hard work, skill, and dedication. Plus it takes a special kind of person to go back  to work the day after they screwed up and broke something. Because in all likelihood, something will go wrong again.
PS: no actual Prius's were hurt in the writing of this blog

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Five Reasons Farming is Easier than 50 years ago

In the last fifty years, things have changed a lot in the farming industry. By 1965 most farms had already converted to mechanization. Tractors and combines were used to till and harvest crops, instead of stables of draft animals. This was an important innovation for farms, but ultimately, farmers worked hard, physical labor as any oldtimer will testify. Technology has made farming a pretty cushy job according to them and here are the top five reasons why.

1. Climate control cabs to keep out the elements.
This was a major comfort upgrade and it became even better when they had reliable air conditioning and heaters. Depending on the time of year, farmers used to freeze, roast, or get eaten alive by mosquitoes. I've heard the most miserable days were running combine with no breeze. The chaff would settle an inch deep and the sweat bees would crawl inside your collar. How can I complain if my air conditioning is running a little warmer than I like? I am breathing clean, mostly cool air, and not being harassed by insects.
I love my cool ride!

2. Hydraulic equipment.
Most tractors and farm equipment didn't have much hydraulics, if any. We still run one set of old school rod weeders that use a lever system to put them in the ground or lift them up. The lever is squeezed to release a pin. I pull the lever down to lift the weeder out of the ground or push it away to put it in the ground. I release the lever and the pin slislides into the gear to hold it in place. It takes all my weight on the lever in order to set the right depth. (This is why I do not diet) Then I have to do it five more times. If I am weeding and it plugs up with big weeds and dirt, the weeds and dirt increase the weight I have to lift. I then clean it out before putting it back in the ground. Modern day weeders lift in and out of the ground with the touch of a button. They fold up for transportation with just a click. Hydraulic equipment is heavenly. Some rod weeders even have hydraulic controlled rods. This eliminates the need for finicky drive lines and the rod speed is easily controlled with hydraulic flow adjustments. If the weeds are big I can bump up the flow and not plug up. Did I mention hydraulic equipment is heavenly?

Each weeder is pulled by two chains, and the frame pulled by cables.
No backing up allowed!
3. Augers on my seed truck.
Filling drills is still a dirty miserable job, but I don't have to do it with a shovel and chute. Fifty years someone had to get in the back of the truck and shovel all the wheat to fill the drills. My seed truck has a hydraulic auger, so I can magically pull a rope and pour wheat into my seed boxes. Seeding requires long hours and I am already tired without the physical labor, thankyouverymuch!

Augers are almost like magic!
4. Horsepower. Tractors these days are big, efficient, and have the horsepower to do any job required. More horsepower means that equipment can be wider and speeds faster. More acres can be covered with less fuel and time. This is especially true in combines. My husband's first combine had a 12 feet wide header and he could walk faster than this combine could run. Harvest took longer, required more combines, and man power. What used to require five combines can now be accomplished with two combines and less time and effort. This reduces the risk of weather damage and driver fatigue.

This guy had it made in the shade!

5. Computer and satellite technology. Computers have dramatically changed farming in the last twenty years. Many tractors have GPS receivers allowing the tractor to steer itself! Rate controllers on equipment allows precision fertilizing, seeding and spraying. This reduces the amount of herbicides and pesticides farmers apply in their fields. On board computers also collect data from the field, which increases efficiency. For example, the GPS data from harvest can indicate the best and worst areas of yield and fertilizer can be custom applied. With completely straight lines and less overlap, my fieldwork looks as good as the veteran farmers.

Half a days work, over 200 acres harrowed.

Many people eschew the methods of the modern day farmer, but as someone that benefits everyday from these changes, I say hallelujah! Fifty years ago a farmer fed 28 people, The modern farmer feeds 155, with much less wear and tear on themselves. I can't imagine how farming will continue to change and improve in the next fifty years, but I am looking forward to it.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Busting some anhydrous ammonia myths

Last year we applied anhydrous ammonia to our fallow fields in preparation of seeding. Many people misunderstand the use of chemical fertilizers, so let's bust some myths.

The first myth is that farmers drench their fields, because conventional farmers don't know their land.

Nothing is further from the truth. Before we apply any fertilizer, the soil is tested. Soil tests include the existing nutrients in the soil, the organic material content, the pH, and salt. Samples are taken at the twelve inch, twenty four inch and thirty six inch depths.

Then a recommendation is made based on the desired yield, expected moisture, and soil properties. If we apply too much fertilizer, it will burn up the crop before it can produce anything. Over fertilizing is bad for the farmer and the soil. We only apply what is needed. An onboard computer is used to apply the precise amount desired. Newer technology can create a prescription based on yields and soil tests. Yields increase while using the same amount of fertilizer, but applied more accurately where it would best be used.

Another myth is that chemical fertilizer causes salts to build up in the soil and large amounts of water is wasted to flush them from the soil.

On our farm, the soil samples showed effects of salt were negligible. It would be impossible for us to flush salts from the soil since we are dry land farmers and apply no irrigation. It is also unlikely rain is a huge factor in salt reduction, since we receive less than ten inches of rain a year.

I have also heard the myth that chemical fertilizer kills the soil.

Initially anhydrous ammonia inhibits the microbes in the soil, but five weeks after application soil bacteria populations had returned to normal. Anhydrous ammonia can also increase organic material in soil and increase the amount of carbon stored in the top twelve inches.

Overall, anhydrous ammonia is a valuable and useful fertilizer that is used safely to increase yields and productivity on the modern farm.