Have farmers become managers of technical information and data?

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, http://spinuzzi.blogspot.com/2012/11/topsight-activity-systems.html) 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

Late summer bounty

Garlic is harvested. Onions are harvested. The potatoes are coming in. We have been using herbs and kale all summer. The beekeeper has taken off the supers for the first round. The yellow summer squash are hard to keep up with.

We picked green beans, peppers, and squash today. I dug some of the russet potatoes. The beekeeper dropped off some honey when he took off the supers on Tuesday.

We picked green beans, peppers, and squash today. I dug onions and some of the russet potatoes. The beekeeper dropped off some honey when he took off the supers on Tuesday.

We had too much rain in June, however, and so we were a little lucky to get a decent garden crop.

This photo of my garden from upstairs in the house shows my PV array and the garden beds. The area between the beds is full of water from the excess rain we've had. As of today, August 10, that array has produced 1.44 mWh of power in 2014.

This photo of my garden from upstairs in the house shows my PV array and the garden beds. The area between the beds was full of water from the excess rain we had up to June 30. As of today, August 10, that 6-panel array has produced 1.44 mWh of power in 2014.

 

Weather is probably the biggest uncertainty in agriculture. Farmers everywhere in the world watch the skies daily and listen to the weather forecasts since their livelihoods are dependent on the sun, the wind, and the rain. One way to have some control in this situation where farmers are at the mercy of mother nature, is to increase pollination by bringing in more pollinators. That is the reason for honeybees (and the fact that we get a sweet product from them). On August 5 the beekeeper came by to check the hives and take off the honey in the supers. While honeybees do not benefit all crops, they do benefit from some. I have even seen honeybees on soybean flowers 1/2 mile away from the hives this summer (honeybees regularly work up to 2 miles from their hives and can go further). We started in April with 20 hives, later on two went bad so we were at 18 hives for June and July. Now I see that we are at 16 hives since August 5. The hives have either swarmed and moved away or weakened and died out.

Beekeepers are working my hives on August 5. They took off the honey-laden supers and left the hives to continue making some honey over the next month or so. The beekeeper's main objective, in addition to making honey, is to have strong hives that he can take to California in the winter to pollinate the almond groves.

Beekeepers are working my hives on August 5. They took off the honey-laden supers and left the hives to continue making some honey over the next month or so. The beekeeper’s main objective, in addition to making honey, is to have strong hives that he can take to California in the winter to pollinate the almond groves.

Here’s a photo opportunity that doesn’t come along very often…

Rainbow to the east!

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The bees are buzzin’

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Of 20 hives that arrived on May 11, we now have 18 strong hives with additional supers on them. We hope for a good honey season.

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White dutch clover is one of the honeybees’ favorite pastures. Notice the dandelions, which are also popular with the bees.

Yesterday the beekeeper came out to check the 20 hives he had placed here on May 11. He found two bad hives and the rest were fine. Some were making serious honey already. We thought that White Dutch Clover and Dandelions might be in the mix. He added two more supers to each hive so now we have 18 active hives with at least three supers on the base of each one. When you look at the hives you will see each one has a total of four boxes sitting on the pallet (except for the two pallets with a bad hive). Each of those bases has three supers on it. The two bad hives got put on top of other hives, so two of my hives are six boxes tall.

Unfortunately, my apple trees did not bloom at all this year so the honeybees did not have them to pollinate and harvest from. The only fruit tree that did bloom was my pie cherry tree which now has fruit on it. I have heard that after one good strong harvest (like last year) apples sometimes take a year off, so I guess that is what is happening. The best bee pasture here at home is dandelions and White Dutch Clover. Since bees range 2 miles and more for flowers, they have a lot of wild blossom options along the creek and in windbreaks in this area. I am considering planting American Basswood trees in my windbreak to replace the ashes that may fall victim to the Emerald Ash Borer in the near future. American Basswood, “bee tree”, is a favorite of honeybees and should also provide good shade and windbreak protection.

Soil erosion on farm ground in Iowa

Topsoil in Iowa is probably the single-most valuable ingredient in our agricultural economy. We raise our crops in it and our livestock feeds on the grain and hay that we produce from it. Between 12,500 and 14, 000 years ago, the last glacier receded from central Iowa.

Since then our topsoil has grown prairie plants and grasses. Then, about 150 years ago when European settlers, including my ancestors from Norway, Germany, and England, began plowing up the prairie sod, we began to expose the rich topsoil to wind and water erosion. Today, most of Iowa’s top soils are exposed in varying degrees to the wind and the water. At Iowa State University now there is a research project that is attempting to gather more accurate erosion data than we have had up to now.

What’s in your ditch?

We went out for a walk this afternoon. There were so many bottles and cans in the ditches that I drove back later to pick them up since here in Iowa we get a nickel for every returnable container we take in to the recycling center. Check out the data below and keep in mind that I picked these bottles and cans up in one mile of road, checking both the east and west ditches. Nearly all of the bottles and cans were in the east ditch (on the north/south road), which makes sense since the prevailing winter winds in the country are west/northwest.

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Are you surprised by the large number of Mountain Dew bottles & cans? I expected more beer than pop, but my assumption was wrong. With our 5 cent return policy in Iowa, the 63 bottles and cans would yield $3.15 at the recycling center in Ames; however, 13 of those bottles are not refundable (the Snapple and the water and Gatorade), so $2.50.

The main question, however, is why? Why is there so much junk in the countryside? How does it get here? Blow out of pickups? Get thrown out the window?

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