I've learned more from watching and listening to good farmers than from any college class I ever took, even though I had some excellent professors - no, Socrates wasn't one of them. Below are a few examples, including a take-home message for each.
One June evening in the early 1970s, while working as a regional agronomist for Cornell University Cooperative Extension, I was conducting a twilight field meeting to show farmers how to identify alfalfa weevil damage and discuss control options. We were in an alfalfa field owned by Rovers Farm, and Dutch Rovers was in an adjoining field side-dressing corn with nitrogen.
He was using a Lilliston rolling cultivator and speeding along at about 8 mph. In those days, most corn cultivation was done with a sweep-type cultivator at the mind-numbing speed of about 2 mph. On a warm afternoon, a farmer might doze off in the tractor seat, thereby cultivating out a few hundred feet of corn rows before he woke up.
I quickly realized from all the rubbernecking by the farmers that this was a teachable moment; the alfalfa weevil could wait. We walked over to the field and watched for a few minutes until Dutch came by and paused for a few minutes so farmers could look at the equipment. (Farmers always love to look at field equipment, especially in action, and particularly when it's something they haven't seen before.) I explained that not only was Dutch cultivating his corn, but also side-dressing urea fertilizer at the same time, incorporating the urea to limit volatilization losses. Therefore, one trip accomplished two jobs.
By the next spring, several of the farmers who were at the alfalfa weevil meeting had purchased Lilliston cultivators and had the dealer equip them with fertilizer boxes. That really got the ball - and the cultivators - rolling, and soon a higher percentage of corn in that area of New York state was being side-dress cultivated than in almost any other place in the Northeast.
Take-home message: Keep your eyes open at field days and other events; sometimes you'll learn something completely different than what you expected.
Not long after that I was in Minnesota - I've long since forgotten the reason for the trip - and saw the wonderful alfalfa seedings the farmers in that area were getting. Good soils, but even so the uniformity of stand was really impressive.
I asked a couple of the farmers what their secret was, and they said it was no secret; they just did a good job of soil firming before seeding. They also didn't use excessive tillage on fields that were going to be seeded to alfalfa. This was about the time that power harrows were gaining popularity in the Northeast, billed by their manufacturers as providing once-over tillage.
I already had some misgivings about PTO-driven power harrows because of their power requirements - in some cases, 1 hp for every inch of working width. The other problem with power harrows was that they often produced a very fluffy seedbed; even with only one pass, they often overworked the soil.
After the Minnesota experience, I started to promote proper seedbed preparation more than ever, recommending that farmers roll or cultipack fields before as well as during or after seeding. (For the uninitiated, a cultipacker is simply a corrugated roller.) One reason Brillion seeders were so popular with farmers wasn't because of the seeder itself, but because it included a cultipacker. Farmers should walk their fields just before seeding, and if their shoes or boots sink into the soil more than half an inch, they should make an additional firming pass.
Take-home message: Don't be afraid to ask farmers about their practices - what they're doing and why. They're almost always willing to share.
Learning from an unconventional source
Watching what good farmers do and learning from them is a good idea, but occasionally a so-so farmer (or even a nonfarmer) can provide an object lesson.
Larry owned an insurance company in Champlain, N.Y. He also owned some cropland that his dairy farmer brother Leo used. Even though Larry knew little about farming, he was observant, and when more farmers in the region started adding tile drainage to their fields, he decided to have this done on a 25-acre field he owned.
After this was accomplished, he contacted me and said that he wanted his brother to seed the field to alfalfa "by the book," doing everything that Cornell was recommending at the time for alfalfa establishment. Leo's practice was to seed alfalfa with oats, and sometimes the oats provided too much competition for the alfalfa before he harvested them. Larry told him that with this 25-acre field he wanted to do it "Cornell's way."
So Leo took a soil sample and fertilized the field according to Cornell recommendations. Leo seeded the field to alfalfa - no grass, no oats - and with the aid of some good weather got a terrific seeding. They weighed and counted bales the first year after seeding, and three cuts yielded 6 tons per acre of top-quality alfalfa, but that was only part of the story.
The rest of the story was what Larry told his many farmer clients: "Hey, you should see the alfalfa field Leo and I have. If a beginner like me can grow alfalfa like that, think what you could do."
For several years I'd been encouraging farmers to clear-seed alfalfa, either with or without grass, but without an oat companion crop (which often turned out to be a competitor to the alfalfa seedlings). I had some success, but nothing like Larry was able to accomplish. Soon, many farmers in the Champlain area were clear-seeding alfalfa, usually with very good results. The kicker was that Leo was as impressed as anyone and began clear-seeding alfalfa on his own farm.
Take-home message: Sometimes learning comes from the most unexpected sources.
Farmers need to get far away from the farm on occasion, not just for a vacation (though this is a good enough reason in itself), but also to see what farmers in other areas are doing. Unfortunately, many farmer "road trips" are to the South during the winter, when there's not much happening in fields across the northern half of the U.S. Try to carve out a few days or so during the summer to see what farmers in another part of Dairy Country U.S.A. are doing. You'll benefit from the break in routine - and you might even learn something.
Ev Thomas has worked as an agronomist in New York for 48 years, first with Cornell University Cooperative Extension, then with the William H. Miner Agricultural Research Institute in Chazy, N.Y., including managing its 680-acre crop operation. He continues to work part-time for Miner Institute and is now an agronomist at Oak Point Agronomics. He has written our Forages column for 16 years and has been an expert contributor on a number of other topics.