Farming Magazine - February, 2009


Forages: Getting from Point A to Point B

By Everett D. Thomas

Two years ago while on a consulting trip to China sponsored by the U.S. Grains Council, I discovered just how far astray a person can get by assuming that farmers in other countries have the same goals as their U.S. counterparts. Farmers’ main objectives usually are quite similar: earning a decent living for themselves and their families. But, how they get there is often, literally, a world apart.

Since I was going to be conducting several seminars on growing and harvesting high-quality corn silage, I reviewed a large number of analyses of Chinese forages. It was immediately obvious that their corn silage was very low in energy and starch. Some of the corn silage was low in energy because it had been harvested at a very immature stage, 25 percent dry matter or less. I concluded that one objective would be to teach Chinese farmers the importance of delaying harvest until the proper stage of maturity—at least 30 percent dry matter, and preferably 32 to 35 percent, just as we recommend here in the U.S. However, other corn silage samples were 30 percent dry matter or higher, but still with very low starch levels. These farmers needed to be taught how to grow corn that had bigger, better ears, since poorly-eared corn could have acceptable dry matter levels, but be low in starch.

When I got to China and headed “upcountry” from the comforts of Beijing, I soon discovered the actual situation on farms there. Much of the corn silage fed on dairy farms in the several regions I visited in northern China isn’t grown and harvested by the dairy farmer. Other farmers, often with very small plots of land, grow the corn, harvest the plants by hand, and deliver them by wagonload to the dairy farmer, who pays cash on the spot before he chops it. However—and here’s the hitch—if the corn gets mature enough that the ear approaches grain harvest stage, the corn-growing farmers pick the ears and shell the grain to sell or for their own use, selling the now-barren stalks to the dairy farmer. Therefore, encouraging the corn growers to delay harvest until 35 percent dry matter would almost guarantee that the dairy farmer would wind up with less grain in the corn he purchases. It turns out I was trying to educate the wrong group of farmers. I also didn’t understand the level of farm technology, coming prepared to discuss genetically modified corn hybrids with farmers who often were still hand-hoeing their corn.

Know your audience

Those of us advising farmers need to know our audiences. We particularly need to know their level of education or experience. Farmers want to earn a good living for their family, but not all are willing to make the same sacrifices. For some farmers, planting that last 5 acres of corn at the end of a long day in the field is worth missing dinner with the family. For others, it’s not.

Some farmers need to be moved from Point A to Point B. For instance, applying nitrogen fertilizer to grass hayfields since unfertilized grass is often so low yielding that it’s hardly worth harvesting. Other farmers long ago passed Point B and fertilize their grasses every year. Their needs may include advice on the proper use of nitrogen stabilizers and urease inhibitors including the amount of “protection” from nitrogen volatilization they can afford to purchase. These differences are part of the reason why it’s so important for agricultural educators to work with agribusiness professionals. Most of these people know their farmer clientele well and understand the level of help they need. At one time (long since passed, thank goodness) cooperative extension administrators looked at agribusiness as “the competition.” Farmers were going to get their technical advice either from cooperative extension or from agribusiness, and it had better be the former. These people have long since retired, and today, cooperative extension looks at agribusiness professionals as partners, effective disseminators of technical and management information.

"Sonny, you just don't understand. I’m not farming nearly as well as I know how to."

Farming as well as you know how to

There’s an old joke about a young county agent nagging a back-country farmer to become timelier in his farm management, including planting corn in May rather than June, and cutting first-cut hay in June rather than July. The farmer patiently listened to the agent go on and on, and when there was a pause said, “Sonny, you just don’t understand. I’m not farming nearly as well as I know how to.”

The story is funny to some; a bit sad to others. Fortunately, some farmers have the objective of farming every bit as well as they know how to, using the latest technology and accessing all available forms of information. The practice of cutting alfalfa four times per season in northern New York (where three cuts per year was pushing it for many) didn’t originate with a Cornell University agronomist or extension educator, but with a few top-notch farmers willing to take some risks to maximize forage quality and quantity. In spite of some well-intentioned arguments against a four-cut system by the regional extension agronomist—uh, that would be me—these farmers stuck to their guns, and a few years later a four-cut system was being used successfully by better farmers across the region. Those of us advising farmers would do well to remember an old Ford Motor Company slogan: “Lead, follow or get out of the way.” (I think this slogan was used internally by Ford, not in its ad campaign.)

The author is an agronomist and vice president for agricultural programs at William H. Miner Agricultural Research Institute in Chazy, N.Y.