Do city folks have any idea at all?

There are two kinds of farming that go on in rural Iowa, but very few people, urban or rural, are well-informed. Most residents of rural Iowa are no longer farmers. We work at desk jobs in cities and towns, we are teachers, accountants, graphic designers, professors, business people, bankers, and retail workers. While most of us, whether we live in town, in a city, or in rural Iowa, are only 2 generations off the farm (our grandparents were farmers). That does not mean that we really have much idea of the modern industrialized agriculture that our neighbors are engaged in (you might say caught up in, whether they like it or not). These folks raise grain (corn and soybeans) and sometimes confinement hogs. Dairy farms are nearly completely gone from central Iowa and beef cattle farmers are more common but still rare. A second growing, but small industry, is direct marketing agriculture. These are the farmer’s market folks or the folks that supply your CSA vegetable basket each week. They might market to you through the Des Moines Farmers Market, the Iowa Food Cooperative, or a CSA in the area. Many of these folks have to work other jobs to make a sufficient living, but there are a few that are large scale enough to make a go of it. The upshot of all this is that no matter where we live, if we are not farmers, we may not have much idea of the agricultural practices that are going on around us. So, to get to my point, do we know more than Mark Bittman?

I just read an article in the New York Times by Bittman, who clearly is a city guy. He has read about prairie strips as a conservation technique in Iowa and latched on to it as the next best thing after sliced bread. While prairie strips are interesting, they will not catch on for reasons that Bittman may not understand. Most of my neighbors rent the majority of their crop ground (farm fields, for you city people) from landlords. Often these landlords are retired farmers or their descendants who care most about the rent check on December 1 each year. Some farm ground in my area is owned by investors too. Therefore, as any good businessperson knows, the farmer (the renter) attempts to maximize his return each year. The quickest way to do that in our current system is to raise corn and soybeans, or continuous corn.Why would he spend on conservation measures when he doesn’t own the land?

For the record, I agree that we need to do much more conservation in the countryside. The two greatest concerns for many of us are (1) preserving soil health and topsoil and (2) cleaning up the water in our watersheds. Therefore, prairie strips, waterways, bio-reactors, no-till, cover crops, and terraces are all valuable conservation measures that we should be pursuing. However, a deep understanding of current agricultural practices in Iowa is necessary to understand how and why we do or do not use these conservation methods. It goes without saying, of course, that the number one consideration is to keep farmers on the land in a sustainable lifestyle.

Also for the record, conservation does not mean our grandfather’s farming methods. Precision agriculture, that is GIS-guided tools and software (yielding technical data) that farmers are using in their combine and tractor cabs, fits well with conservation farming. It’s not a question of low-tech conservation ag versus high-tech industrial ag at all. It’s a matter of utilizing all the tools we have to save our topsoil and our water; put another way, we need to farm with a long-term sustainable model in mind not a short-term profit minded model.

Harvest is underway and now what?

The soybean harvest is underway  in our neighborhood. We have had a wet fall so far, with 1/2 to an inch of rain weekly. That is is enough to keep the combines out of the field. Finally, yesterday, we had had a couple of dry days and some good sunshine, so the combines were out and back in the soybeans.

One of the things you notice, if you are paying attention while you drive through the countryside, is that the machinery does not fit on the roads any more. All my neighbors have trailers that carry the grain heads (for harvesting the soybeans) the long way, since they do not fit on the roads mounted on the combines. The corn heads, some of which are 12 row, do not fit easily on the roads either, but most of my neighbors use 6-row heads which just barely fit. I can guarantee you, though, if you meet a combine with a 6-row corn head on it, you will have to slow down and move over a bit to get by.

As soon as the combines move on to the next farm, some of my neighbors move in to the corn stubble with the chisel plow.  The arguments I hear for chiseling corn stubble are (1) that the soil warms a little faster in the spring, (2) the tillage incorporates the corn stubble into the soil and (3) the tillage helps to prepare the soil for pre-planting tillage the next spring. These are management strategies that have yielded good results for some of my neighbors. Other neighbors do not till in the fall). Research at Iowa State University, however, shows that fall tillage is not always a good idea.

Feral cats on the farm

In the old days, when every farm family had livestock, they had to have barn cats around to keep the rodents at bay. Dairy farmers used to be able, they say, to hit the open mouth of a barn cat with warm milk straight from the udder. These days we still have lots of cats in the country, but they are mostly feral cats and most farms don’t have any livestock. The cats are sometimes ex-pets or maybe 2nd or 3rd generation feral and are a problem because they breed freely so that we have an overpopulation.

Last night I set a Havahart trap for raccoons and got a gray feral cat. We tried to transfer it to a larger enclosure with the idea that we might be able to train it to stay around. The cat got away as we were moving to the larger cage, so it’s back in the wild catching birds and rodents and breeding freely to keep the problem growing.

Friday I had gone to a local shelter to get a replacement cat for the one that got hit in the road last week. The original cat was also a shelter cat that had been a stray picked up by a local animal control officer.

Our feral cat problem in rural Iowa is serious.

The monarchs are gathering for the long flight south

Monarch butterflies were gathering on my Colorado Blue Spruce on Saturday and then on my Norway Spruce on Sunday. They are gathering strength for their long flight south to Mexico.

Monarchs gathering on my Norway Spruce in the afternoon sun on September 14, 2014.

Monarchs gathering on my Norway Spruce in the afternoon sun on September 14, 2014.

For more on the Monarchs, visit the Monarch experts at the University of Minnesota.

Cover crop 2014

We have flown on oats and tillage radishes into standing soybeans. With the rains we have had over the last two weeks, the seed has germinated quickly. Both the oats and the tillage radishes will probably die over the winter. It will be interesting to see how much growth they will make before killing frost. We hope to have a good cover of vegetation over the winter. The radishes may offer good wildlife feed also.


Young oats shoots and radish plants are just emerging from the 2013 corn stubble. The 2014 crop is soybeans which you can see on the left. The beans are at least several weeks away from being ready for harvest.

Here we are a week later. The oats and tillage radishes are showing more growth. We had some sunny days and another .5 inches of rain since last weekend.

Here we are a week later, September 21. The oats and tillage radishes are showing more growth. We had some sunny days and another .5 inches of rain since last weekend. The beans are clearly drying down fast. I would guess that depending on weather, harvest is about 10 days away.

Here we are on September 27, at 26 days after seeding, and the oats and tillage radishes are doing well.

At 26 days, the oats and tillage radishes stand looks strong. In this time, according to my rain gauge at the farm, we have received exactly three (3)  inches of rain. On September 2, when we seeded, we had just received rain the day before as well.

At 26 days, the oats and tillage radishes stand looks strong. In this time, according to my rain gauge at the farm, we have received exactly three (3) inches of rain. On September 2, when we seeded, we had just received rain the day before as well.

Are farmers primarliy managers of technical information?

The naive notion of Iowa farmers as men who physically labor in the fields and barns from sun up to long after sun down is exactly that, naive. In the past, when my ancestors came from northern Europe to central Iowa, that might have been the case. Erik Tesdahl started with 40 acres of prairie, so he and his two sons might have labored long hours plowing the prairie and building their herd of cattle, but that is a long time ago. Today, I believe, successful Iowa farmers, whatever the size of their operation, must be technology-savvy and able to gather, interpret, and manage large amounts of technical information in order to be successful. A strong back and a strong work ethic still help, but are not enough and it’s no longer solely a man’s world (it never really ever was) either. Men and women work together to make their farming operations go.

Take for example, soil nutrient management. Farmers want to know the N (Nitrogen), P (Phosphorus), and K (Potassium) in their soil, and the acidity level. To make an informed decision about adding nutrients to the soil to get the highest possible grain yield, the farmer must conduct and interpret soil test results, make an informed choice about purchasing the nutrients, manage the application of the nutrients, and then follow up with yield data in order to see the results. With these decisions comes the possibility of both success and failure, since there are variables that cannot be controlled by the farmer.

Farming in the Midwest has, since European settlers arrived in the mid-19th century, carried with it both risks and rewards. It also can be viewed as an activity system. A Midwestern agricultural activity system (for more on the idea of activity systems, see (Spinuzzi, includes seed, land, water, technology, farmers, markets, livestock, weather and numerous other elements. In this agricultural activity system risks such as weather, injury, disease, and unpredictable markets have existed for many years. An increasingly important part of this activity system is the technology and the farmers’ management of that technical information. While understanding, implementing, and passing on technical information in the form of techniques, methods, use and crafting of tools has always been a farmer’s job, recently another element of our Midwestern agricultural activity system has emerged: precision agriculture. So my question for farmers is whether their use of precision agriculture tools (yield monitors, variable-rate applicators, guidance systems, and GPS maps) such as those provided by Agleader, Ames, Iowa, and the data they produce, offers a way to reduce risk down on the farm.

Bright moon

Last night in central Iowa we had an extra bright moon, a super moon. According to the weather guy on Minnesota Public Radio, as I drove home, the moon was about 30% brighter than usual.

Bright moon in the eastern sky at 11 p.m. on August 11, 2014

Bright moon in the eastern sky at 11 p.m. on August 11, 2014


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