Friday, April 27, 2012

Plant When the Oak Leaves Are the Size of Squirrels’ Ears

Note: Check this video to see how amazingly complicated the latest planters are. This farmer explains it in a clear, informative manner.

** This week I visited the family farm to witness the beginning of the annual transformation.  Brown, barren fields get injected with seeds, and the Midwest Green Revolution starts yet again.  My brother had the planter ready to roll, and like a modern day Tom Sawyer, he got me to pour hybrid corn seeds into the hoppers.  “Just don’t get any strings or tags in the hopper or it’ll plug,” he said. “At $250 dollars a bag, seeds are like gold.” 
As a kid, I ran the plow, disk, and cultivator, but I never did plant.  If I tried using the modern high tech equipment, the field would look like a random-abstract corn maze by July.  The machines now have precision settings with gps functions to make sure rows are straight, and many have sensors and light monitors to alert the farmer if seeds are not getting planted properly.  Farmers in air-conditioned cabs can watch computer screens and check the markets on their smart phones.
Before he hopped on his rig, my brother laid out a basic “planting for dummies” scenario so I could catch up.  “GMO hybrid seeds, crop insurance planting dates, herbicide resistant weeds, refuge seeds… “  I started to fade until he mentioned sex.  “The 45 acres we’re doing for the seed company call for other specifications.  The male and female seeds have to go in at different times, the heat units have to be measured, and the timing has to be just right.”  Sounded like a family planning operation, but I caught the main idea.  Corn growing is high tech and high planning.  You need to be part scientist and part administrator to get ‘er done now.
Dad still likes to help with the field work, and he remembers when it was simpler.  “Some of the old timers would say ‘Plant when the oak leaves are the size of squirrels’ ears,’ but now April planting is the norm.  It used to be that straight rows made for bragging rights, but now it’s a mark of the machines more than the man.”
Dad has farmed through the Ag Tech Renaissance, a time when planters have moved from two-row to sixteen and twenty-four row.  “We’ve had it relatively easy,” he said. “Your grandpa planted with horses. Half-mile rows on warm days got pretty tough. He had one horse that would revolt at the end of every round, lie down for a while, and finally get back up and start plodding along again.” 
Back then, they would stretch planter wire the length of the field, follow it along and “button” in a seed every forty inches, and at the end, they’d move the wires and start again.  It could be dangerous as well as tedious. Apparently lighting strikes on the wires could kill a horse, mule, or man.
I avoid the danger and the complicated work on the farm by helping with the garden—another spring ritual.  We battle rabbits and tomato blight, but it’s fertile Iowa soil, and if you push the seeds in, something will grow. Last year, one of our short bean rows did not sprout at all.  I tried to rationalize: bad seeds, ground squirrels, dreaded nematodes?  But it was obvious to the rest of the family. I’d had a brain freeze and covered an empty trench. Where was that computerized seed sensor when I needed it?  The growin’ is good in the Fields of Dreams, but you still gotta plant seeds if you want the transformation to occur.
by Dan Gogerty, photo from vachon, library of congress

Friday, April 20, 2012

Cows on the Lam

January 2016:  A steer in NYC flees the market and runs through traffic, past stores, and many people record the incident on smart phones. 

Aug. 2013-- Shawshank Redemption--Animal Style.
Animals—including cows, sheep, goats, and chickens—that escape New York City’s urban slaughter markets are given a second life at the Farm Sanctuary, which has taken in more than 500 farm animals from the city in the last decade.

July 2013--A cow on the way to the meatpacking plant escaped to the roof of a transport trailer and cruised U.S. Hwy. 50 with a semblance of freedom—for a while.

Cows on the Lam

During the past year, new legends have been added to the Book of Bovine Folklore. Last week, it was Mike the Steer from New Jersey. His tale includes escaping from a slaughterhouse, fording a river, and negotiating the streets of New York. He was granted clemency, and we assume he is peacefully chewing his cud at an upstate farm.

Yvonne (left) gets a nose bump from her son 
The legend of Yvonne the Gutsy German Guernsey has a bit more “Mad Cow” quality to it. After she jumped an electric fence, Yvonne survived in the woods for three months: In that time, she had a near collision with a police car, evaded a helicopter search, survived a brief shoot-to-kill order, and inspired a hit song in Germany titled “Don’t Let Them Take Your Freedom.”

Capture hasn’t diminished her fame.  Yvonne’s story will get the Hollywood treatment from a German production crew, and the animated film Cow on the Run is scheduled for a 2014 release.

But let’s face it. Most feeder cattle aren’t going to attain superstar status. They’re going to end up on the grill. That’s where a different type of legendary character comes in. Chet the Cow Catcher is an Illinois cowboy skilled at rounding ‘em up, and for many farmers, he has been a hero riding in on his not-so-white horse.

Chet came to Iowa a few months ago in an effort to help a local farmer gather a herd of widely dispersed cattle. A thunderstorm had damaged pens and spooked the 120 cattle, and locals were only able to corral 90 of them.  With his horse and six tracking dogs, Chet took over.

Since my dad lives in that area, he joined the locals and observed Chet working close up, so he wrote this description of the event: 

The strays were spread over a 25-mile area, and people from near and far had been sighting them one or two at a time. Chet explained, “I was constantly getting calls about steer sightings. Communication is important in this business. I’d rather be without my spurs than my cell phone.”  The dogs would pick up the steer scent and follow two or three critters down corn rows and across creeks. When the dogs tracked one down, they held it at bay while Chet roped and hobbled it. He says it takes brute strength mixed with care and common sense to load a 750-pound steer into a trailer.The first day on the trail, Chet brought twelve steers back to the feedlot.  During the next three days, he hauled in all but two, although they think that pair joined in with a neighbor’s herd.

Chet looks like a cowboy straight out of central casting, and he takes pride in his dogs, his horses, and his work. He knows cattle on the loose cause monetary losses for farmers and possible tragedy on the roads for unsuspecting drivers.  Chet answers more than 100 emergency calls a year, and he has worked across more than half the states in the country. 

Even a cowboy hero like Chet doesn’t always bring ‘em back. As he says, “Once in awhile a steer will get away and become a ‘free runner.’ He keeps running and jumping fences and either dies of old age or winds up in somebody’s freezer.” 

In pastures and barns around the world, a few “free runners” live on in tales whispered by cows late at night to their young.  “Once upon a time there was a brave and noble Guernsey named Yvonne, and she leaped like a deer over the electric fence and ...”  
by dan gogerty (Yvonne photo from

Thursday, April 12, 2012

When the Post-Nutritional Waste Hits the Fan, It Might Be a Good Thing

Several current ag stories take me back to my manure pitchin’ days on the farm, and I now realize how important that job was. We knew that livestock slurry makes excellent natural fertilizer, but we had no idea that we were scooping out energy-producing “fecal fuel”---or that we could one day be working for Google or Apple because of it.
Using methane from pig manure, Apple plans to build an enormous fuel cell installation at its North Carolina data center. Google has been working on a manure-to-methane plant with Duke University, Duke Energy, and a local hog farm. The University of North Carolina, Iowa State University, and many others are researching manure-to-energy as a way to eliminate odors and waste disposal issues on hog farms. And a Kansas project, supported by the USDA, is researching ways to use waste from cattle feedlots, while a dairy farm in Washington state is converting manure into money by making methane. In other words, manure is big business.

But I still haven’t scraped all the manure off my boots, so I’m old school enough to appreciate the best thing about animal waste—it is a natural nutrient farmers use to make the crops grow.  This popular video called “Water ‘n Poo” is an example of one of the many ways farmers recycle and sustain. The farmer drives, sings, and even radiates joy as he spreads his “honey” on the field. 
With livestock waste so trendy now, I’ll update a blog entry from last year that provides a “manure pitching for novices” segment:
During the pre-confinement era, hog houses had to be mucked out by hand, one pitchfork load at a time, and it was a Saturday morning ritual on our farm.  We’d prop a transistor radio on a dusty ledge, make sure our five-buckle boots were snug over our tennis shoes, and start slinging it. We’d talk, argue, yell top-40 lyrics, and think about how to get the smell out of our hair before the school dance that night.
Most Midwest farms today recycle manure in “honey wagons,” huge caldrons on trucks or behind tractors. They pull the liquefied manure from pits next to the confinement “motels” that dot the countryside.  This “smell of money” can raise issues.
Some communities try to restrict hog confinement placement, and letters-to-the-editor reflect deep emotions concerning this situation.  Some claim regulations are overly-strict and the industry is vital to agricultural growth; others worry about health issues, decreased property values, and threats to groundwater. Although most seem to accept that hog farming is a vital industry, it’s the location that often raises a stink. You don’t need to be a scratch-and-sniff expert to know that manure smells different for the pig owners compared to the neighbors who live downwind. And water quality experts know that most farmers work hard to keep manure out of waterways, but fish kills and groundwater pollution in the Midwest indicate some problems still exist.
My brothers, cousins, and I generally worked without parental oversight on those barn-cleaning Saturday mornings. But occasionally, equipment would malfunction or a teenage argument would break out. When the “nutrients hit the fan,” we needed some regulating. Manure is a natural part of animal agriculture production, and now that the waste can be used for fuel as well as fertilizer, it is up to the producers and the public to figure out how much regulation the modern post-nutritional recyclers need.

Note:  A 2006 CAST publication Biotechnological Approaches to Manure Nutrient Management provides information about the use and management of animal waste.  by dan gogerty, photo from thedairymom.blogspot

Friday, April 6, 2012

What’s Making Us Sick?

Health and safety groups reissued a list of the Ten Most Deadly Outbreaks of Food and Waterborne Illnesses in U.S. History, and a quick look at the causes makes me wonder how any of us kids made it out alive when we grew up in our rural community.

And rural it was. In second grade, the teacher asked, “How many of you are town kids?”  Answer: Three of twenty-two.  Three lived in the urban sprawl of our small Iowa town, population 511.  The rest of us were rural kids dealing with all the germs, toxins, and pollutants the farm could throw at us.  We grew up in the 1960s Mad Men Era, but without the high-rise offices, expensive suits, and sparkling cocktail glasses. 

Back to the “Deadly List.”  Typhoid from polluted water ranks one and two according to the Health Association, with both outbreaks occurring in the early part of the twentieth century and both in New York state. Maybe those easterners hadn’t built up an immunity.  From early on, creeks and ponds were our playgrounds, and they came equipped with hot and cold running cow pies, rusty barbed wire, and whatever flowed out of the field tiles.  Whether fishing, wading, or building dams, we were in the creek as much as out of it on hot summer days. On occasion, if the water was cool and looked clean, we probably even drank it.

Number three on the food outbreak list involves raw milk back in 1911, with 48 deaths.  We kids only drank raw milk when we were milking and one of us would aim a teat and fire at his brother.  Unlike the barn cats, we didn’t appreciate the warm, sticky shot to the face.  My folks pasteurized the milk, but I drank as little as possible.  Maybe it’s because I didn’t enjoy the milking chores, and maybe it’s because of the globs of cream at the top of each pitcherful.  Raw, pasteurized, whole?  Farm boy or not, I’ll take store-bought skim milk.

Some fruit and vegetables made the deadly list, but I don’t recall any problems eating strawberries or carrots straight out of our garden. However, I will admit a binge on mulberries was a certain recipe for diarrhea.  But that was self-induced, and I don’t know of any locals dying from mulberries.

A few cases of tainted meat also make the top ten, but our meat on the farm was probably too “local” to harm us.  We could feed grain to the chickens one day and watch them frying in the skillet the next. Dad would pick out one good looking steer in the feedlot, and you could almost see the labels on its side marked sirloin, hamburger, and rump roast.

One unusual qualifier on the list is cheese; a 1985 listeria outbreak from cheese killed 22.  During high school, I worked at a small, locally owned cheese factory, so I saw the “sausage-making techniques” of cheese production. I remember “shoveling” or stirring the whey-like substance in huge vats as it “set.”  One day when the boss was gone, a couple of older workers threw Albert, tennis shoes and all, into the vat.  It must have added to the flavor.  The cheese factory won awards for its products.

The FDA and others publish useful lists about how to avoid food and waterborne illnesses. And CAST has published a related paper and video presentation: Food Safety and FreshProduce: An Update.   It’s a serious matter.  I just wonder if we were inoculated with luck or ignorance back in the era when salmonella, E.  coli, and streptococcus were little more to us than medical terms hidden in the back of our science textbooks. by dan gogerty (photo from ars)