There are few occupations other than farming where the combined benefits of improved technology, genetics and management are more obvious. Average milk production per cow increases each and every year (and has been doing so for generations) while U.S. corn yields continue to rise even as some pessimists suggest that we’re approaching a practical ceiling for corn grain yields.
Some yield increases are almost unavoidable, including the steady genetic progress plant breeders are making in corn hybrids. Even if a farmer wanted to plant the hybrids his grandfather did he’d have a hard time finding the seed; that’s because as better hybrids are developed they replace the ones that were “the cream of the crop” only a few years ago.
In fact, the pace of change seems to be increasing: There’s a good chance that what was a high-yielding new hybrid in 2012 will no longer be available when you order seed corn for 2016 – and not because supplies were exhausted, but because the seed company has replaced it with something better.
Many improvements in technology are there for the taking, but you have to take the first step. There’s an old quote that says: “Behold the turtle: He only makes progress when he sticks his neck out.” Sometimes making progress means that you need to take a modest risk, especially if a new technology represents a significant change for your farm – thus the quote about the turtle.
Crop management challenge
Using a somewhat more confrontational approach, many years ago the farm equipment division of the Ford Motor Company printed bumper sticker-sized signs with the slogan (attributed to Ted Turner, founder of Turner Broadcasting System): “Do something! Either lead, follow, or get out of the way.” I had one of these signs tacked to the bulletin board in my office for many years. One example of the challenges of improved crop management is moving from narrow to wide windrows when mowing hay crops (alfalfa, clover, grasses) for harvest as silage. Leaving the crop in narrow windrows – three 3 feet or so in width – makes it easy to chop the forage since no windrow management (other than waiting for the crop to dry) is needed from mowing to chopping.
However, leaving forage in narrow windrows greatly slows the drying time, increasing the opportunities for sugar losses, mold growth, and weather damage. That’s why so many farmers are now spreading windrows as wide as possible, often 70 percent% or more of cutterbar width. This makes “hay in a day” (actually hay crop silage) much more achievable. However, in most cases it also means that just before chopping, those wide windrows must be either combined (two or three windrows into one) or otherwise raked into a windrow that the forage harvester can pick up. This involves an additional field activity, and in some cases it also means the purchase of additional equipment since many farmers soon decide that a merger is better than a hay rake for this purpose.
At Miner Institute that’s just what we did after moving to wide windrow management, but we had a bad experience with the first merger we bought and soon traded up for a larger (and more expensive!) model. Therefore while we made progress, it resulted in some adjustments as we adapted this new technology to our cropping operation.
Different strokes for different folks
Another example of the opportunities and challenges in improving crop management involves the use of winter cereal grain crops for spring silage harvest, a practice that’s gaining considerable popularity in the Northeastern United States. A winter cereal crop, most often winter triticale, is planted in the fall, usually following harvest of corn, and is harvested in the spring as small grain silage. The practice has been well researched, first on a small plot basis and later on a field scale, and when everything is done properly it works quite well.
The operative phrase in the previous sentence is “when everything is done properly.” In recent years I’ve heard farmers swear by this practice, and others swear at it. They say that timing is everything; I’m not sure it’s everything, but in the case of what’s harvested for silage, it sure is important! Plant the crop a few weeks too late in the fall? The result often is poor fall growth, weak root systems, and very poor survival into spring. Mow the crop a week or so too late in the spring? Instead of high quality “milk cow forage” you now have modest quality forage that may be acceptable for low producers or non-lactating animals but not for high-producing dairy cows. Mow the crop on time but leave the forage in a narrow windrow, then get rain just before it’s (finally) ready to chop? By the time the forage is dry enough again it may have lost a lot of its sugars and be very difficult to properly ensile.
The difference between swearing by vs. swearing at this crop involves being willing and able to faithfully follow all the steps necessary for success. Some farmers are never quite able to do this, which is why it’s a practice that’s been adopted by some, while tried and rejected by others.
Finally, use common sense and don’t assume that the success of a practice on one farm will transfer successfully to your farm. There are significant differences in soil type, climate and – or management. Some farmers are simply superior managers, and can make stuff work that the large majority of other farmers cannot.
I remember a dairy farmer who every five years or so would have an auction, dispersing his entire milking herd while keeping all the heifers. He had a high herd average on Dairy Herd Information, showed his registered Holsteins at the county fair with good success, and his cows sold for very good prices. Some of the farmers, after getting the cows home to their farm, found out that they were good cows but nothing special – at least not for the new owner. What made the cows special was the care they received from their previous owner.
Cover photo: BanksPhotos /istock