We are currently getting ready for harvest. The crop “is what it is” at this point and no amount of crop protectants, fertilizer or scouting will make any additional difference at this point.
This “lull” after late-August through mid-September is a good time to prepare for harvest, catch-up on “honey-do’s” and do the projects that are important but not imminent like most seasonal work on the farm (think planting or scouting—you do that when Mother Nature tells you, other important projects that aren’t weather sensitive get pushed to this time of year). It’s also a great time to start initial plans for the next crop year, thinking about purchasing inputs (if you haven’t already) and preparing a plan of attack. It’s early, but as Eisenhower once said “Plans are worthless, but planning is indispensable.”
As we prepare for harvest, we have equipment to maintain. Big jobs are already done, but oil changes, lubrication, and wear item inspections are performed. And calibrations for sensors and computers are needed too so that in-season, our data during harvest is accurate. We have a scale on our auger cart (this is a special wagon that moves grain from the combine—which harvests our crop in the field—to the truck for transportation). Last year we performed calibrations, but didn’t verify them against certified scales. We were subsequently halfway through harvest before we realized that we were had a 7% scale error. It was easy to fix, but it’s much EASIER to get it right the first time! We have a semi-tractor and trailer, tractor and auger cart, combine with corn and soybean “heads” for cutting the crops, tandem truck, tractor and wagon, auger and 200,000 bushels of grain storage to prepare. This is a common setup for corn and soybean farmers in the Midwest, with an infinite number of variations in size and types of equipment. We also will lease out a strip-till fertilizer applicator so it will be prepared for us. Strip till means that we are injecting the fertilizer in a band 4-7” deep in the soil. It means that the fertilizer stays where the crop roots are, rather than following rain runoff into streams. It also means that we’re only tilling the soil in a narrow band 8” wide. So most of our fields aren’t exposed for soil erosion. It’s a more expensive process, but one that is ultimately better for the farm economically and environmentally—win-win. This year, we’re also for the first time experimenting with cover crops. Cover crops are grown to simply cover the soil when it’s not being used by the cash crops. Think of it this way—a cover crop “covers” the soil so that it doesn’t erode. They also increase the organic matter of the soil, create a healthy environment for earthworms and beneficial bacteria and fungi, and suppress many weeds we fight on the farm. Lastly, they sequester (ie. Gather up) excess nutrients that the cash crop couldn’t fully utilize. This dramatically reduces runoff into our streams. We are excited about this new process and hope it works out on our farm!
But this “lull” is also great for the projects that don’t get addressed during the busy crop season. For us, we’re going to spend more time on our specialty hull-less popcorn venture. Check us out at PilotKnobComforts.com. We will be thinking about automation and facility construction—capital investments that will make us more cost competitive by letting us scale up production AND preserving our focus on quality. These are fun projects because, when I’m walking corn fields, I don’t have time to just sit and think. And investments like this require lots of planning—but it means a good return on investment AND a deeper sense of meaning (I enjoy the fact that projects like these make my farm better for my son and family). While this is certainly unique to most Midwestern farmers, the fact that we’re in “project-mode” this time of year is quite common. It’s where a summer of research starts to be addressed by more deliberate thought and action.
Finally, I’m also thinking about next crop year. Given the dramatic decline in corn and soybean prices of the past year (and especially last two years), there could be opportunities for young farmers if older farmers consider retirement. But the margins are also dramatically lower—with the opportunity to grow comes the risk of failure. So, it’s good to be considering what our inputs will cost—will nitrogen fertilizer go up or down? Will corn seed stay the same—do I need all the features in that bag? Is my equipment portfolio large and modern enough if someone retires? These are the preparations that need to be considered—not necessarily finalized (most retailers won’t give firm prices to lock in completely on all inputs anyway). Once the combine starts harvesting, it’s very easy to NOT take time to check emails and watch markets—you just get into your zone and go. As I type this, a few weeks ahead of when it will be posted, this is one of my goals in the next two weeks—have a plan that’s flexible enough for me to change, but firm enough for me to be structured to “go with the flow” during harvest!
So as you’re still getting your kids into the rhythm of the new school year, I’ll be preparing for harvest, planning my next crop, and working on special projects. There really isn’t a down-time on the farm—just times when the work can be pushed back a day or two and Mother Nature isn’t making your schedule.
Andrew is a fifth generation Illinois farmer. He and his wife Karlie have one son, Ryker, and farm with Andrew’s parents, Lynn and Sally Bowman, in addition to serving farmers through insurance and consulting enterprises.