Category Archives: Farm

CNN Eatocracy: ‘Frostbite on their teats’ and other cold weather farming issues

Despite all the cold during the past few weeks, farmers and ranchers across the country have been out and about, taking care of their livestock, and getting things done on the farm and ranch. I wrote an article that looked at several of these cold weather tasks that was published on CNN Eatocracy yesterday. It was published without many of the links to the farmers’ blogs, so I thought I would post it here. Let me know if you’ve seen other ag blog posts talking about working in the bitterly cold weather. And hop on over to CNN Eatocracy and join in the comments section.

cows in the snow

Last year we talked about the fact that there is no such thing as a snow day on the farm or ranch. Livestock must still be fed, equipment must still be maintained, and preparations for the next growing season continue. All of that work becomes much more difficult when the mercury drops well below zero degrees.

The livestock take priority for many farmers and ranchers in these situations. Preparations for the storm include making sure all supplies are on hand, generators are maintained, equipment is prepared to start in very cold conditions, and extra feed is close by in the event that travel is impaired. Despite all the preparations, it is difficult to be ready for everything that will occur when the weather turns for the worse.

Podcast: Farmers go to extremes to keep their livestock healthy during weather extremes. Dr. Michelle Arnold joins Ray Bowman on Food and Farm to talk about caring for lactating livestock in winter. Click here to listen.

For dairy farmers, the cows must still be milked every day, no matter the weather. Minnesota Organic Dairy farmers Tim and Emily Zweber explained how important it is to provide a sheltered barn in -54 degree wind chills. Cows that do not stay in the warm sand beds may get frostbite on their teats. A very uncomfortable situation to say the least.

Patrick Mess in Wisconsin has been bringing the newborn calves into the shop for shelter and affixing doors on the hutches for older calves to protect them from the -20 degrees temperatures. This goes along with making sure the milking parlor stays warms and functional for every milking.

Even in eastern Kansas, the Heim dairy farm family experienced -30 degree wind chills. David and Jennifer were working hard to provide warm bedding in the barns for their cows and calves despite tractors not starting in the cold.

Most beef cattle ranchers will not bring their cattle indoors. However, if calving is near, a newborn may end up in the house overnight. Cattle are incredibly resilient and are able to stay warm through thick winter hair coats that act as insulation. As long as they are able to stay dry and find shelter from the wind, like a shed or trees, cattle will stay warm.

Cattle produce body heat from digestion of hay and forages in their rumen (large stomach compartment) and are able to stay warm in most conditions. One of the main challenges in this weather is keeping water sources thawed. As Kansas rancher Debbie Blythe shows, even the no-freeze water tanks ice over when it drops below zero.

For smaller animals like turkeys, chickens, and pigs, keeping warm can be more of a challenge. This is where it really pays off to have barns that retain heat well. Even when wind chills dropped to -26 on the Olson family farm in Minnesota, Carolyn’s pig barns never dropped below 73 degrees.

In Ohio, the Wildman family raises pigs and must make sure that generator power sources are ready for when power goes out on their rural farm. Extra feed supplies must be on hand when roads become impassible so farm from town.  Even in Iowa, turkey farmers like the Olthoff family are working to keep their livestock barns warm and insulating feed and water sources to make sure nothing freezes up.

bull in the snow

Despite all the preparation that may occur, not everything will go right on the farm and ranch when it gets this cold. Diesel tractors will not start, equipment will break, and a water line will freeze. The farmers and ranchers are in the fields and barns, working around the clock, waiting for things to warm back up.

Oh, and we did not even mention the bread and milk grocery run! Hopefully the farmers and ranchers remember to stop for a bite to eat and keep themselves warm as well.

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Ask A Farmer: Why do farmers leave dying corn in fields?

Today we have a guest post from Indiana farmer, blogger Brian Scott (Facebook, Twitter). Brian does a great job of explaining difficult questions about farming operations, how crops are grown, and the management decisions surrounding growing Genetically Modified crops. Brian blogs about growing corn, soybeans, and popcorn at

I am always intrigued by the questions people ask about agriculture. What might seem like a silly question to me at first is really a great question from someone who has not been around a farm very much if at all. Apparently, people have been asking Agriculture Proud why farmers let their corn die in the field. I imagine this question is spurred by the idea many people believe when they drive through areas of the country, like Indiana where I farm, they are looking at endless expanses of sweet corn. This is not so.

Green corn too wet and too immature to harvestThe vast majority of corn spotted in rural America is not sweet corn. And when I say majority I mean like 99% of it is not sweet corn. Not always but more than likely the corn in question is yellow dent corn. Dent corn feeds livestock, fuels cars, and makes plastics, starches, adhesives, and a huge array of other products. Sweet corn is harvested at what would be considered very early in the season for a farmer like me. The plant is still pretty green and the kernels are of course juicy and sweet. I do not want sweet juicy corn on my farm. My corn goes through a juicy stage after pollination although the sugars are more starchy than sweet.

So why do I let the corn die?

Well to me it’s not dying it’s drying. After pollination kernels appear. Sweet corn is harvested shortly afterwards. When the kernels are formed and full of liquid it’s called the milk stage because if you squeeze a kernel the stuff that squirts out has a milky consistency. After milk, we go to dough where the kernel gets a bit more solid. Eventually we hit black layer, which signifies physiological maturity. Black layer refers to a, you guessed it, black layer at the tip of the corn kernel. So now, the corn is physiologically mature and dent corn is maybe a month further along than harvested sweet corn. Time for harvest, right? Nope.

Now we start the corn drying process.

Corn can be safely stored for long periods at 15% moisture. Black layer is around 35% moisture in the kernel. 15% is a level at which the risk for developing storage issues is very low, and it’s no coincidence grain purchasers base their pay schedules on 15% moisture. Higher than that number on corn delivered to the elevator and I have part of my pay taken to cover the elevator’s drying cost. But there’s no premium for delivering under 15% moisture. Fair enough. Not all farmers have dryers on their farms, but many do. I have one. Dryers are generally powered by propane. Our dryer actually looks like a normal grain bin, but the top section has a floor to hold wet grain to be dried in batches. A large burner fan pumps air, sometimes over 200 degrees F, to dry the corn. Traps in the floor open after a specified period of time, and another batch enters.

So if wet corn costs me money to dry, whether doing it on site or upon delivery, why not leave corn in the field until it dries all the way down to 15% moisture in the field? We tend to start harvest at just over 20% maybe up to 25% normally. We plant various maturities of corn so the drying process is spread out. Sometimes farmers can get a break on drying costs. The local ethanol planted wanted corn early in 2011. In early September, they took corn deliveries for one week while covering the drying cost up to 25%. We harvested about 40 acres near 30%, and didn’t harvest anything else until 3 weeks later. Corn starts to be ground up and damaged a bit when it’s that wet running through the combine.

We dry most of our corn ourselves because we have the capacity to store most of our own crop. During harvest, lines at the grain elevator are usually long, and I can’t keep the combine running if there isn’t an empty truck waiting on the roadside. Since corn is in greatest abundance at harvest, the price may be relatively low as well. Storing means we can hold on to grain while waiting for higher prices. Pay or pricing can be held back upon delivery to an elevator as well, but you’ll be charged a per bushel storage fee for time between delivery and sale.

Farmers leave dead corn in field to dry2013 was a wet and cool year overall except for August. Our average harvest moisture was 20% across the whole farm. If we let corn dry all the way to 15% (maybe pushing into December with 2013 weather) in the field we would likely lose more money in grain loss than what we’d pay for drying. I believe this is where the idea of dead corn comes into play. Fields full of browning plants sitting in fields for weeks as compared to green sweet corn. I want the corn to look dried up, but when the time is right, I want the corn out of the field as fast as we can harvest.

The plant is dying and drying right along with the kernels. Stalks become hard and brittle, and ears might start dropping on the ground. Once they hit the ground, my combine isn’t going to pick them up. The last thing I want to see coming at dry corn stalks is a strong windstorm. Wind is bad enough on green and growing corn so it won’t have much trouble knocking down dead corn. The ground also needs to be dry for harvest to limit the risk of soil compaction and for ease of operating equipment.

Now you will know the next time you see acres of green corn that has turned like fall leaves on trees that in the farmer’s eyes his corn is not dying but drying!


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Breeding Season coming to a close

breeding season bull trailer
This bull is in the trailer, leaving his girls, and off to a 10-month vacation.

Earlier this week, I was busy in the barn at one of our farms despite the humidity and rain. We were working cattle and pulling bulls from the cow herds.

The calves were receiving their first round of vaccinations (2 shots – one to protect against 7 different Clostridiums and Pinkeye, another for Respiratory diseases), new ear tags with insecticide to deter flies and ticks, and the males were castrated if not already done at birth and received a Ralgro implant. (Be sure to click the links for more information about why these products are given.)

The cows and calves had their weight recorded. Many of the calves are already getting close to 600 lbs. After we were finished, everyone was turned out to the pasture; less than an hour in the pens for each herd of cows.

The bulls have been out with the cows for the past 60 days, but breeding season has come to an end, and they are headed to their pastures separate from the cows. A short breeding season is utilized as a useful management tool.

  • Calves are born in a short window, allowing us to dedicate time to watching over cows during calving.
  • Cows are more uniform in their nutrient requirements which change with stage of pregnancy and length of lactation.
  • Spring calving works for herds in Tennessee because our peak in forage production coincides with peak in cow nutrient requirements, allowing us to use pasture to supply all of our cow’s diet during this most important time.
  • Calves are more uniform at weaning, making it easier to market and feed them after weaning.
  • Less fertile cows are identified and culled from the herd when not breeding during this 60-day window, allowing us to build a herd with selection for better genetics for efficiency and production.

A few years ago, I recorded a few short videos while pulling bulls from the pastures and discussed what was happening. Continue reading

Gaining Ground – Saving the Family Farm (Book Review and Giveaway)

The family farm will continue as long as its existence is valued. There is strength in a family, and balance. The earth appears to respond to these things. And who is to say what defines a family? Certainly not I. My best attempt would suggest a congregation of like-minded hearts.

Saving the family farm will forever be a process, not a goal or a destination. Like any necessary chore, the work never ends. It only waits for us the following morning, or the following season. So I wake and enter the day.

Somewhere, another farm awaits its farmer. — Forrest Pritchard

Gaining Ground A Story of Farmers' Markets, Local Food, and Saving the Family Farm Forrest Pritchard BookThere’s something to be said about a person, fresh out of college, who can take a struggling business model, endure their critics, and change it into a successful, sustainable business. Forrest Pritchard did that with his family farm in Berryville, VA and writes his narrative in Gaining Ground, set to be released later this month!

Most material I have read in recent years from the local, grass-based farming movement is critical of more-conventional methods of farming embraced by most farmers and ranchers in this country. Pritchard’s words still paint a negative image of modern beef, pork, and poultry farming, but it’s an honest perspective and not what his message relies upon. And I can greatly appreciate that.

I honestly didn’t know what to expect from the book when Forrest offered me an opportunity to read a copy earlier this year. There’s a foreward written by Joel Salatin – a farmer I respect for taking the road less traveled and opening up the world of food production to urban dwellers, but I’m not always fond of how he describes other farming and ranching methods. I took the challenge and sat down to read the book on Spring Break. In two afternoons on the porch, I had read the entire book. Continue reading