Wrapping up the Growing Year – Planning for Next One
One in a series of articles looking at the business of agriculture in northwest Ohio.
Scientists have determined that agriculture is the source of more than 80 percent of the phosphorus that reaches Lake Erie and contributes to harmful algal blooms. This series shows how area farmers make choices during the year to both grow a profitable crop and protect the environment that is their livelihood.
Brendyn George, who farms 2,000 acres in Wood County with his brother and a partner, managed persistent rain during both spring planting season and fall harvest time, with decent sunshine in between. All things considered, George sums up the year as a good one. Wheat and bean harvests were adequate and the corn is drying out in storage and looking very good.
Over the winter he’s planning for next year’s growing season, considering seed and nutrient purchases and waiting for results of soil sampling. He talked with TMACOG staff about his year and about how best management practices affect his yield and protect water quality.
Managing Water, Protecting Soil
Harvest can’t start until fields are dried out. In October, George raised gates in his water control structures to let out water that has been standing in his fields all growing season. A wet field is subject to compaction when heavy equipment rolls over it, and compaction is an enemy of farming. Usually he would be able to get the combine on the field quickly but in 2018 rains came in October and wouldn’t stop. “Normally we have our work done by about election day in early November. But this year it’s mid-December and most farmers are just now wrapping up,” he said.
Even if the field is relatively dry, George can’t bring in his crop if the beans or corn are damp. On an October morning with a little frost or heavy dew, he has to wait until late morning for the moisture to evaporate before he starts on the beans. After harvesting a test row, monitors inside the cab of the combine show that moisture content is ideal and he’s anxious to start bringing in several acres of beans. The monitors also show him that the parts of the field that have held water – over tile drains and at the low end of the field – are giving him his best yields. “I can’t say whether it’s because that water held the nutrients where they were going to work best, or if it’s having extra water in general, but I can see my yield is improved (through use of water control structures).” George was able to defray the cost of water control structures through a Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grant administered by TMACOG in partnership with Soil and Water Conservation Districts.
Bringing in a harvest requires teamwork and decision making. George works with his partners to schedule his semi trucks that will collect the crops transferred from the combine. Trucks will deliver to a local elevator, a nearby ethanol plant, or to storage on the family farms. He checks on where the best price is. The ethanol plant might be paying a bit better for corn, but lines are two or three hours and he can’t keep his trucks out of service that long when he’s filling up his combine every few acres. George is keeping some of his beans back to sell later in the year, hoping for better prices over the winter.
Late in the season, bugs got into the soybeans and have caused some damage. Examining several sample plants, it’s obvious that some pods have been chewed open, causing the beans inside to wither. While most of the beans are healthy and green with four or more beans to a pod, a percentage are smaller with hard dry beans rattling in the pod. George says, “We’re getting docked pretty heavy at the elevator.” Beans that have significant damage are sold for animal feed as opposed to human use and purchased at a lower rate.
The corn harvest was easier and better. George says that corn in his storage is drying well. Fans are on constantly, sending air through the bins to dry the corn. Corn that doesn’t dry will rot and spoil. He prefers to air dry his grain rather than having it heated at the elevator. Heating corn almost cooks it while air drying makes a better product. He anticipates a good price for the corn he’s holding.
Planning Nutrients and Seed
In December, George is getting quotes on seed and fertilizer prices. He determines how much nutrients to buy based on soil tests. This year, he collected samples and sent in soil tests following the bean harvest and before he puts fertilizer down for the next year’s corn. However, samples have been at the lab for almost a month and he has not received results. Soil sampling to minimize use of fertilizer to only what is necessary is a best management practice that is being strongly encouraged by those concerned with the health of Lake Erie including some legislators. But George’s experience shows some problems. “If everybody goes grid sampling, then everybody has all these soil tests. How's this going to be done in a timely manner? There's only small windows of when you can take soil samples. So, the labs are going to have to gear up or they're going to have to build more labs if they want us to do it this way. So, I feel they got to work with us also, it can't be just us.”
He’s got some seed prices locked in with some more research to do but he’s waiting on purchasing nitrogen and fertilizer. “The nitrogen is just out of reach right now,” He says. “I’m hoping they realize that they’re out of price range for us and it’ll come back down. If not, I might not plant much corn next year because it’s not going to be profitable.”
Paperwork and maintenance will take up the rest of the winter months. Machines will be fixed, oil changed, blades sharpened, tires checked. Brendyn George, his brother Coy, and their partner Jared Rader will be working on welding, making stands for hoses and building tools that make working with the water control structures easier. They will also be watching the prices for beans and corn and taking their stored crop to market as the prices indicate. As they consider new investments in machinery, tools and information that help them limit the amount of fertilizer is a top priority, both for the expense and for the protection of the lake.