There’s more than meets the eye to a beautiful field of crops

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This is another installment in a series of columns to run weekly highlighting the area’s agricultural community.

This time of year is a very busy and exciting time in the agricultural community. With the warmer weather and spring showers comes the enormous and daunting task for local farmers to plant their crops. It’s the beginning for new life in the form of corn, soybeans, vegetables, flowers, or whatever other vegetation is grown locally here in the Mohawk Valley.

Perhaps you live near some agricultural land or pass by on the commute to work, but all of us can have some level of appreciation for the way that agriculture paints the beautiful landscape that surrounds us. There is a lot that goes into transforming an open piece of land into a productive healthy crop. Let me tell you about the science that goes into growing the crop that I am most familiar working with — corn.

Our farm grows roughly 1,200 acres of corn annually in order to feed our dairy herd. In an average year 700 acres is harvested as forage that is ensiled. The remaining 500 acres is harvested with a combine to make a grain commodity feed known as high moisture corn. To harvest corn as a forage, the entire corn plant (stalk, ear, and leaves) is cut roughly 12 inches off the ground and chopped into small pieces about a half-inch long.

The chopped corn is then brought back to the farm and packed into a large pile and preserved to be fed out for the remainder of the year. In contrast, only the kernels of the corn are harvested from the field to make high moisture corn grain feed. The remainder of the corn plant (stalk and leaves) is left in the field and incorporated back into the soil to add organic matter. The kernels that are harvested are then transported back to the farm, ground into a powder, and packed into a large pile to be preserved. Each of these two feeds serve different purposes when combined into the final feed that is eventually delivered to the animals for consumption.

One can imagine that coordinating and executing a planting season for 1,200 acres of corn does not happen overnight. Perhaps the most important part of the entire planting season begins before any piece of equipment enters the field, planning. We begin planning our planting season generally in December. Lots of decisions have to be made that include but are not limited to which corn seed and fertilizer will be purchased and how much, which parcels of land will be planted into corn, and which pieces of equipment will need to be upgraded and rebuilt to make it through another season.

There are a lot of factors that influence which corn seed we will purchase to use on our farm including pricing, genetic potential of the plant, availability, and compatibility of the product to our soil types and average growing conditions. Some varieties of corn seed are more suited towards grain production, and others are better for harvesting as forage.

On average, we plant 10 different corn seed varieties to mitigate the risk that one does not perform as well as the others. The main factor that is out of the control of the farmer that has the greatest impact on a crop’s health is the weather. Certain corn genetics have been purposely selected to thrive in dry conditions, while others can tolerate wetter soil types. The other major difference is the time it takes certain corn varieties to fully mature. On our farm, the shortest day till maturity seed we plant is 90 day, while the longest is 103 day. This means that once the seed is placed into the ground, it will take roughly 103 days for that seed to develop into an adult plant that can be harvested for feed.

In order to make these decisions, I use Excel spreadsheets to help organize which parcels of land will receive which seed. The spreadsheets detail how many acres are in each parcel so as to plan how much of each seed variety will be required to complete the job. This tool — combined with an intimate understanding of the different soil conditions and types of ground each parcel consists of — allows us to develop a plan to execute in the spring when the weather is conducive to begin planting.

As a general rule of thumb, our farm begins putting corn seed in the ground anytime after the first of May. The ground must be dry enough so that the equipment can maneuver across without getting stuck in the mud. This is a lot easier said than done as we all know spring in Central New York is generally very wet. The other reason for waiting until May to plant is to avoid the risk of frost.

A hard frost will kill young plants which is a very costly mistake to make. In order for the corn seeds to germinate and grow, the soil temperature must be at least 50 degrees Fahrenheit or greater, and we check this with a thermometer before planting occurs. While the act of planting seed must wait until May, preparing the ground for planting begins in some years as early as March. There are three processes that happen to a parcel of land before the seed is placed into the ground:

First, cow manure is broadcast on the top of the ground to add nutrients to the soil that the crops can utilize to grow. In a perfect world, the manure is incorporated into the dirt within 24 hours of being applied so as to capture as much of the nitrogen as possible. On our farm we accomplish this by pulling a chisel plow across the land with a tractor. The plows loosen up the dirt that has been compacted over the course of the previous year and fold the manure below the surface for the plants to use.

Following plowing, another piece of equipment known as a disc is used to level off the soil and break up clods of dirt. The goal is to create a nice even and fine soil bed for the seeds to be placed into. This tillage pass is important because in order for seeds to germinate, they must have good soil contact. Large clumps of dirt create air pockets that won’t allow for good seed to soil contact which can result in poor seed germination.

After these processes have been completed, the final tillage pass across a parcel is the planting itself. This is where the seeds are placed strategically into the ground in rows so that they can be easily harvested in the fall. The final step of planting is critical to get right so that all the hard work that went into preparing the land is optimized. There is a lot of technology that is used in the planting equipment so that the operator can be confident that both the seeds and fertilizer are being
administered at the correct rates and areas in the soil. We strive to plant our corn seed at a depth of 2 inches into the ground to promote timely emergence of the crop. This is when the corn seedlings break through the soil and can begin photosynthesizing. Timely emergence is the critical foundation for the seedlings to develop into strong and healthy mature plants.

We have recently invested in GPS (Global Positioning System) technology that aids the operator in knowing where seed has been placed in a field. There is small computer screen in the cab of the tractor that generates an aerial map that shows what parts of the field seed has been planted to ensure that there are no areas that are missed.

The GPS also communicates to the machinery so that it cannot overpopulate an area of land with seed. We strive to plant our corn crop at a rate of 32,000 seeds per acres. This is important because plant population can greatly impact the overall yield that can be expected off of an acre of land. When the soil conditions are right, we can plant roughly 14 acres of land per hour with a 12-row corn planter.

When all of these things are combined and executed, and with a little cooperation from Mother Nature, the team at Finndale Farms is able to start the cycle for another year’s worth of feed for our dairy herd. It requires a lot of time and dedication when the weather is right to accomplish this monumental task. It’s a very rewarding feeling for a farmer to drive by a field this time of year and see straight and healthy rows of corn growing. I believe I speak for all farmers when I say we all take pride in doing our part in creating the beautiful landscape that we all get to enjoy!

— For comments on the Farming in CNY series, e-mail Sentinel photojournalist John Clifford at
jclifford@RNYmedia.com
.

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