Monday, May 9, 2016

What About Those Earthquakes?

In a comment on another blog post, Ed asked what I thought about the earthquakes in Oklahoma.

Before I give my opinion about whether I think there is a relationship between fracking and the recent earthquakes, I should give a little background.  Except for a petroleum engineering class I took in college, I don't have any education or direct experience working in the oil and gas industry. 

On the farm, there are pipelines running everywhere (in the recent boom, two new ones were built across a couple of pastures), back in the boom of the '70's a well was drilled on almost every 80 acres, and my grandparents, aunts, and parents own a portion of the mineral rights under the farm.

From what I know, the wells drilled in the '20's were shallow (1000 feet deep?), the wells in the '70's were deeper (around 5000 feet deep), and the recent wells were almost all directional (going down about 5000 feet, then running horizontal for about a mile).  Because the oil is in shale formations, all the wells were hydraulically fractured after drilling, and all the wells produced salt water that was disposed of in disposal wells.  If I had to guess, I'd guess that there was as much or even more drilling activity and production in the seventies as there was in the recent boom.

The recent earthquakes in Oklahoma started back in 2006 before the oil boom and started happening in my local area (where I live) about two years ago. There isn't as much drilling activity or as many disposal wells around the area where I live, but there was about a month or two when the earthquakes came all the time.  The biggest was probably around a 4.0, but most of them were small 2.0 type of earthquakes. The small ones feel sort of like the way the house shakes when there's a close thunder clap or if a large truck drove by the house. The larger ones feel like you'd think an earthquake would feel with the ground slightly "rolling", but it wasn't big enough to be alarming.

According to the geological websites I looked at, most of those earthquakes typically originated from 30,000 feet deep.

I never saw a good explanation for how injecting water into a disposal well that was around 5000 feet deep could cause an earthquake to originate from a faultline that was 30,000 feet deep.  From what little I know about hydrology, the water would tend to go upward towards the surface of the earth after being disposed of in the well.

To make a long story short, oil wells have been drilled in almost the same basic way since the oil fields opened up in Oklahoma, earthquakes have happened in the past in Oklahoma, the people blaming the oil/gas industry for earthquakes have a long history of blaming the oil/gas industry for anything and everything, and I don't see how anything that happens at 5000 feet underground can have an effect at the 30,000 feet deep mark.

So based on those thoughts, I'm not convinced that fracking or disposal wells caused the recent earthquakes, but I could be wrong, and I know that a ton of people will disagree with me.

What's Been Going On?

It's been awhile since I've posted anything, mainly because nothing really interesting has been happening besides the repairing, welding, and cussing that's typical when dealing with the well-used and abused farm equipment that's the norm on the farm.

Last summer, a white board was hung in the barn, and every problem that was encountered with each piece of equipment was noted on the board.  You'd be surprised how long and detailed a repair list can get when you make an effort to write everything down as soon as possible instead of trying to remember what was broken months later..

As soon as the wheat was planted last fall, the long list on the board was slowly worked through and now that summer is almost here, we've finally almost gotten everything fixed and the board close to being wiped clean.  Now, we can start making a new list of everything that needs fixed, breaks, or wears out this summer back on the board.

The last five months or so have also been spent trying to come up with some sort of crop rotation plan to deal with some of the wheat crop frustrations that we've been dealing with recently.  I've changed my mind so many times about the best way to deal with some of the problems (weeds, disease, low prices, dockage) we've had with our wheat crops that trying to write any blog posts about the subject would have just turned into an even more frustrating and confusing mess for anybody that happened to read them.

It's been more or less decided that the best and maybe the only way to solve our wheat problems is to grow much less wheat and grow something else like grain sorghum for a while instead.  A hundred years of more or less continuous winter wheat growing and the problems associated with that type of management might have finally caught up with the farm.  It might take a few years of not growing wheat at all before a proper crop rotation that includes wheat again will be possible.

That about sums up what's been going on for the last five months or so.  

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Cold and Miserable Weather

The last few days, we've had some pretty miserable weather with temperatures mostly around freezing and over three inches of rain with most of it coming as freezing rain.  It's the most miserable type of weather that there is with mud, rain, cold, ice, and grey skies. 

I'm hoping that it isn't going to be like this all winter long. 

Monday, November 23, 2015

Why Did Rich Disappear?

If anyone's been worrying themselves sick or losing sleep over what might have happened that caused Rich to disappear from the ether of the online world, I haven't posted anything in awhile mainly due to some overly frustrating computer problems.  I've almost reached my limit of patience dealing with dying monitors, bad hard drives, defective memory cards, and lost software verification codes, and I think my head would have exploded during that ordeal if my livelihood actually depended on anything computer related.

In addition to my computer woes, I've also been thinking hard about how to deal with lower wheat and grain sorghum prices, dropping cattle prices, drought, and how cover crops will fit into my future plans.  

Day to day, I change my mind slightly about what might need to change, but hopefully I can somehow sort through some of my options and ideas easier by writing a few blog posts on those subjects.  Who knows, some of those thoughts might even be halfway interesting to whoever reads them (although I'm not making any promises).

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Grain Sorghum Harvest

Grain sorghum stubble after combining
I've been relatively busy for the last month or so (or at least what passes for busy for me), which is why I haven't written much for awhile, although I've been thinking about a few things and pondering much so that might change.  

A few weeks ago, the grain sorghum planted in late-April was harvested and it was an awful disappointing harvest with yields even lower than I thought they would be.   One of the few bright spots in this year's attempt was that I'm pretty sure I know what caused the yields to be so much lower than expected, so now I think I know better what to do in the future whenever I'm trying to grow grain sorghum.

The main problem with this field was all the rain and cooler weather we had in May, which caused the grain sorghum to grow too slow after it first emerged, probably led to losing some of the nitrogen applied, and possibly also meant that the pre-emergent herbicide I used wasn't as effective at controlling volunteer sorghum-sudangrass.  I also shouldn't have let the sorghum-sudangrass that was planted last summer go the seed, if I had grazed or clipped it in late-summer when it started to reach maturity I don't think I would have had such a volunteer sorghum-sudangrass weed problem to deal with when the herbicide didn't control it completely. 

Despite those problems, test weights were pretty high (60 lb. per bushel) and the moisture levels were under the magical 14% number needed before the elevator will take a load of grain sorghum (until you've had to deal with a rejected truckload of wetter than you expected grain sorghum it's hard to understand how much of a relief being under that 14% number actually is).  Even though high test weights and optimum moisture levels mean there's no dockage when it comes time to sell, this field still didn't break even (in other words, more cash flowed out than flowed in), unless you include the value of the stubble.  If I was short on hay, I could easily bale enough hay from the stubble or get enough winter grazing to "make some money" off of this field. 

Hopefully, we'll get some rain sometime this month, I'll be drilling some wheat into this stubble, and  my wheat harvest will make up for the disappointing grain sorghum harvest.  Or, maybe a disappointing wheat harvest, drought, and low prices will be the final straw, and I'll start turning cropland into perennial pasture (I warned you that I've been thinking hard about a few things).

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Better Late Than Never 2015 Garden Cover Crop Update

Back in early May, I planted some alternating hills of corn and pinto beans along with some alternating hills of squashes, watermelons, and beans as a cover cropping experiment.  At the time, I said I was going to try to document the progress of this sort of cover crop planting and then I promptly forget about putting any updates at all on the blog (mainly because all of the photos I took along the way turned out all blurry for some reason).  But while looking through some photos, I happened to find a couple taken sometime in late-June that weren't all blurry which makes it a whole lot easier to show what was going on this summer with this cover crop.
approx. 6/28 - corn is just starting to tassel
Notice the hills of beans in between each hill of corn in the "row of corn"

This area of the garden was planted with the mixture of corn, beans, squash and watermelons right about the time most of the heavy rains we received this spring really started coming (rainfall totals were close to 30" in 30 days), but it seemed like the garden just sucked up every bit of rain and didn't really got waterlogged.  I don't know if it was a combination of the mountain of compost I spread years ago, the biochar, the residue from the cover crop mix, the earthworm activity, or a combination of all of the above, but it was pretty interesting the way the water just kept soaking into the ground.  Of course, I also could have just been seeing what I wanted to see, and the rain would have soaked in regardless of what I'd done in the garden.

I was looking forward to eating some watermelons out of this garden this year, but the pinto beans overwhelmed the watermelons and squash faster than I thought they would, and this was a home-grown watermelon-less summer for me and mine.  The next time I try something like this, I'll plant the  watermelons in their own row, with anything else planted at least 3-4 feet away so that I hopefully won't have to suffer through another watermelon-less summer.  
It's not really impressive corn, but there was some corn at the end of summer
I was a little surprised at how the corn grew when it was planted in hills like this.  My original thinking when I planted these alternating hills of corn and beans was that it would be more of a thicker cover crop type of planting with not very many ears of corn.  I also wasn't too sure about what sort of pollination I'd get, if any, with the the rows of corn spaced on six foot centers. But after the corn dried down I found a decent amount of harvestable ears of corn in almost every hill I'd planted. 

The corn was an open-pollinated corn variety (87 day Minnesota 13) that I first planted about 6-7 years ago and I've been saving seed from that first planting since then, so I made sure to save all the nice big ears of corn I could find. Growing OP corn and saving seed is interesting (at least to me) and I had grand plans for it on the farm back when I first started trying to grow it, so I might share a little about what I think about OP corn in the future.  

It's hard to define if this "experiment" was a success or failure (whatever that might mean to you or me), but I did come up with a few ideas about what I might try in the future both on the farm and in the garden.   

I've been thinking that I could easily use the planter to plant a cover crop of alternating rows of corn and beans (soybeans or cowpeas) simply by installing alternating corn and soybeans plates.  My planter uses a 30 cell corn plate and a 120 cell soybean plate so I could easily get the seed counts pretty close to optimum for both (i.e. the equivalent of 25K corn seeds and 100K soybean seeds per acre in each row).  A field of alternating rows of corn and cowpeas (or grain sorghum and cowpeas) would make a pretty interesting looking cover crop, and it's possible that I might even be able to harvest some corn, or I could just use the cattle to harvest it either during the summer or over the winter. 

Or, I might just mix some corn and beans together in each planter box and plant them as a mixture to duplicate the row of alternating hills of corn and beans.

It's interesting how ideas and plans can come from a handful of seeds, somewhere to plant them, a few photos, and a little head-scratching trying to figure out what you're seeing.  As always, so many ideas, but so little time and energy.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Baling Sorghum-sudangrass Hay

Looking east across a field of sorghum-sudangrass
There's nothing really exciting about baling some sorghum-sudangrass hay, but for some reason it seems like there are a lot of visits to the blog looking at the sorghum-sudangrass stuff, so for what its worth I thought I'd write about the sorghum-sudangrass I grew this summer. 

I planted about 36 acres of sorghum-sudangrass back on June 24, but instead of grazing it after it winter-killed like I did last year, I decided to bale it this summer.  One of the main reasons for baling hay instead of grazing it this winter is that I'm planning on planting grain sorghum next spring and I don't want to take the risk of ending up with a bunch of volunteer sorghum-sudnagrass in my grain sorghum field like I had this year.  Depending on how much rain we get, the sorghum-sudangrass should easily regrow to about 18-24 inches tall in the next few weeks or so, then I'll graze it off with the cattle and plant some wheat as a cover crop (at a much lower rate than I'd normally plant).  I'm thinking about planting a simple mix of wheat and turnips to feed the worms, cattle, and deer, but I don't know if that will happen until it happens.    

This summer, I planted a photoperiod-sensitive type of sorghum-sudangrass which means it won't start heading until the days get shorter than 12.5 hours in length. Because of that trait, it is supposed to make a higher quality hay because the maturity is delayed until sometime in September, which means it produces more leaves for a longer period of time instead of producing a head and getting more stemmy.  All of that also means that the seed costs more, and at this point, I'm a little undecided about if it grew any differently than "ordinary" sorghum-sudangrass would have grown and if the extra seed cost was worth it, although I'm leaning awful hard in the direction that ordinary, cheaper sorghum-sudangrass would work just as well for the way I grow and manage it.

From what I've seen,  photoperiod-sensitive sorghum-sudangrass would be better suited to a situation where it was being planted in late-April and was going to be cut for hay multiple times over the summer.   If you're going to double crop it after wheat or are planning to graze it in the summer, the ordinary, hopefully cheaper varieties of sorghum-sudangrass might be the better choice.
It's almost hard to see where you're driving in a field of 5-6 foot tall grass

The cropland around here is all terraced, so I usually try to break the fields up when I cut them for hay so that I'm not driving up and down the terraces on the ends as much (which probably doesn't make any sense at all to someone that doesn't know what I'm talking about).  In other words, instead of cutting one big square, I like to divide it up into two or more long rectangles.  All of that means that I have to dive into the middle of the field on that first pass across the field and almost drive blind while trying to follow a terrace. This year, I only had to deal with grass about 5-6 ft. tall, but I've cut some that was 8 ft. tall where I almost ran through the fence on the end when I didn't turn soon enough, it felt like driving in thick fog and almost going off of a cliff. So, if you plant some sorghum-sudangrass, don't wait too long to cut it, and I wouldn't plant it if you have a bunch of hidden obstacles in your field.

Besides that, baling sorghum-sudangrass is about the same as any other grass hay except that it's a little trickier getting it dry enough to bale while also trying to make sure it doesn't get too dry.  If anyone is thinking about baling sorghum-sudangrass, it's pretty important to cut it with something like a disc mower conditioner which crimps the stem so that it will dry down quick enough.  Even though I use a disc mower, most of the time it'll take at least an extra day or so for it to be dry enough to bale. 
Every time I've baled sorghum-sudangrass, the bales seem to come out much heavier and tighter than my other grass hay bales.  I've never weighed any bales, but I'd guess that my sorghum-sudangrass bales are at least 10-20% heavier, so there's even more hay out there than you'd think there was at first glance.

My bales also always seem to have a "shaggy" look to them when they are first baled, it always makes me get off of the tractor to double-check those first bales since it looks like the bales aren't being tied right or are loose, but I think it's just the nature of the grass and after the bales have set for a while they start to lose that "shaggy" look.  A net-wrapped bale wouldn't have that temporary shagginess, but since my baler gives me twine-wrapped bales, the shagginess doesn't bother me at all (besides that, I'm not a big fan of net-wrapped bales).  

That's about all I know about sorghum-sudangrass hay.  It grows quick, needs a little nitrogen but not too much, it can sometimes be difficult to get dry, it makes heavy bales, and my cattle seem to attack any bales of it that I feed them (there's almost no waste and they practically lick the ground clean to get every last bit of hay).