Saturday, September 27, 2014

Harvesting Milo (or Grain Sorghum Depending On Where You're From)

I just finished up harvesting my little field of milo (grain sorghum) yesterday, and I'm beginning to have a much more pronounced love/hate relationship with growing milo.  
Some of the best-looking milo a couple of weeks ago (ignore that crabgrass)
Harvesting some of that better-looking milo a few days ago

As an aside, I'm starting to prefer calling it milo instead of grain sorghum, mainly because the elevator it's being hauled to calls it milo, and "milo" seems to roll off the tongue a little easier than "grain sorghum".  Next week, I might go back to calling it grain sorghum due to some other goofy reason. The fact that milo/grain sorghum has two different names might explain why it can sometimes be a battle to get a decent crop and why more of it isn't grown.  I wonder how much corn would be grown if it was called both "corn" and "yeller grain"?

When I planted this field back in May, milo was selling for around $4.50/bu, and now at harvest it's going for a little under $3.00/bu.  Due to that drop in price and different weed pressures that seem to be impossible to control (which dropped the yield significantly in parts of the field),  that field managed to make just a little bit over the break-even point (when you just consider the money aspects). I made a little money, but I didn't make very much.

It might just be me, but combining milo has always been a miserable job, the chaff is extra itchy (it gave me a horrendous nose-bleed the first time I ever combined some milo) and some of the grain always seems to shatter into a fine, corn-starch-like powder that feels like it gets all over me when I'm combining it (I'll probably need to get a haircut to get it all out of my hair).   Those are just a few of the reasons (there are a few more reasons on top of those) that I hate growing milo.

But growing milo isn't all poverty and misery. I probably saw a couple dozen rabbits in that field from the combine (of course, it also could have been just one rabbit that was chasing the combine all over the field), I jumped a big covey of quail, saw a handful of dove flying around, heard some pheasant roosters cackling early in the morning over in a neighbor's milo field (not in this field yet), and the ducks usually show up in the winter.

During the summer I'd see various hawks hunting those rabbits and rats, and my nephew almost stepped on a huge rattlesnake when he was dove hunting (apex predators are usually signs of a healthy ecosystem, they're scary but good signs).

If the feral hogs ever show up, there's plenty of grain on the ground from dropped heads and spilled grain to feed a bunch of them, which could be both good and bad. There would be plenty of hunting opportunities, lots of experimenting with barbequing and smoked meats, but lots of crop damage.

So overall, growing milo is great for the wildlife if that's what you want (which I do).

On paper, the crop residue from growing wheat is supposed to be more than the residue from a comparable milo crop, but it always seems to me like there is a lot more organic material in a field of milo after harvest.   But even if there is less residue, it seems like it's a different sort of residue (I could easily winter dry cows on a field of milo stubble, while wheat stubble wouldn't feed that many cows in the summer).

So, growing milo is more like growing a combination of a cover crop, a cash crop, and a potential forage crop.  Wheat is more like a cash crop and a forage/grazing crop.

After saying all that, I still both love and hate growing milo, after every harvest I swear I'm never going to try growing the stuff again, then I eventually decide to try to grow it one more time to see if I've finally figured out how to grow a bumper crop of it.

Since I'm sort of using this blog as a way to keep track of some of my ideas, I'll bore everyone that happens to read it by writing down what I think I need to do differently next year (if anyone that's ever grown milo has any ideas, I'd be tickled to death if you'd leave a comment).

The first thing I think I'd change is my planting rate, it needs to be much higher.  All the planting guides for this area claim you only need about 2-3 lbs. of seed (30,000-45,000 seeds), but I think it would do much better if I planted at least twice that amount.

I think I planted it just a little bit too early in the year, mainly because of weed issues. Planting a little bit later might make it easier to control some of the weeds I have in my fields (I'm still thinking about that)

Double-cropping it after wheat harvest might have worked just as good as planting it as a full-season crop earlier in the year  (although harvesting a double-cropped field of milo soon enough to follow it with wheat might be a problem). 

Harvesting milo with a straight cut header can be a royal pain because of all the dropped heads and the heads that the reel slingshots everywhere.  Because of that, if I ever manage to get my milo yields higher, I'm probably going to need to find a row-crop header, and if I ever buy a row-crop header I'd grow corn instead of milo.

Maybe it would be easier to just figure out how to grow mediocre-yielding corn instead of high-yielding milo? I wonder if my head would explode if I tried to harvest corn with a straight-cut header instead of a corn header?

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Farm - How I started the farming part of the farm

I'm purposely leaving out any talk about the financial or money aspects of how I started farming because everyone is in a different situation, has different financial options available, has different risk tolerance, so my financial details would be of little use to almost anyone else except me. 

Simply put, if you want to farm, you need access to some land and you need some start-up money.  There are a bunch of different ways to come up with the money; you can use your savings, you can get a loan and borrow it, you can win it somehow, you can get a second job, you can sell off some of your assets, or someone can give it to you.  I used a combination of almost all of those options.

By the time I actually started farming, my farming plans had changed to the less risky plan of a cow-calf and wheat farm.  Everything I had read or heard about farming was along the lines of, "How can you make any money in farming when a brand-new combine will cost you $200,000?".  Or, "There's no money in growing wheat since fertilizer costs $xxx/ton and wheat is only selling for $x/bu."

After years of reading those sorts of pessimistic claims, it dawned on me that I didn't need or want to buy new equipment, and it only really mattered how much of that "expensive" fertilizer it took to grow each bushel of wheat (i.e. I'll gladly spend $1 to grow something worth $2). 

My first year of actual farming started in about June, right after the wheat had been harvested by the previous renter, but about six months before that had been spent getting some basic equipment ready to grow that first crop of wheat.  The initial equipment was a well-used and abused IH 1586 tractor (160 hp of bulldog-ugly tractor), a IH 5100 drill that needed to be rebuilt, a worn-out John Deere disc, an old Chevy wheat truck, and a John Deere combine that needed a lot of work and welding. 

It's been awhile, but I think the tractor cost about $6000 to buy and $2000 to put on tires, the drill was about $500 plus $300 in parts, the disc was about $1500, the truck was about $3000 and the combine was about $3000 plus $1000 in parts.  But after fixing everything, if I had decided to sell everything, it was all worth more than what had been invested in it, which to my way of thinking was the best way to buy equipment. 

I did almost everything wrong that first summer, I tried to disc when it was too dry or too wet, didn't get a good seedbed before I drilled my wheat, didn't fertilize enough, didn't plant at a high enough seed rate, etc. But somehow I lucked out, ended up with a good stand of wheat, got enough rain, and that first harvest ended up giving me both a decent yield and price.  That first wheat crop easily paid for all my equipment with money left over.  I'm not sure if I'd done a whole lot better if I hadn't made so many mistakes, but I like to think I would have.

After that first wheat harvest, I was making money and that's also when I planted my first grain sorghum crop.  I planted about 20 acres of double-cropped grain sorghum and once again did almost everything wrong just like my first wheat crop.  I planted it into a horrible seed bed that had almost no moisture, I planted at too high of a seed rate, had weed problems (I was walking the field with a hoe and a machete trying to control weeds), had some crop damage due to herbicide carryover from the wheat crop, had trouble getting the combine set up right at harvest, etc.

But once again I lucked out and got a decent harvest in mid-October just in time to plant the next wheat crop.  I didn't make a lot of money on that first crop of grain sorghum, but I more than doubled my money, and had successfully planted two profitable crops in one year (which was supposed to be relatively difficult to do).  I think that luck played an important role in being able to do that in the beginning.

I eventually ended up with a chisel plow (it was ugly, cheap, and worked great), a moldboard plow (mainly to fix terraces), and a field cultivator (bought in Iowa off of eBay for cheap) until I eventually switched to a no-till system which only needed a drill, a sprayer, and a planter.  Over the years, I've went from tillage to no-till, went from continuous wheat to growing wheat, grain sorghum, sorghum-sudangrass, crabgrass, and a few soybeans, to experimenting with cover crops and pasture cropping (ask me what I think about pasture cropping and I'll probably talk your ear off).

That's the basic story of how I started the farming part of the farm.  I doubt if my story is that unique, and if I can do it, then almost anyone else should also be able to do it.   

The next part of the story is about the cattle, which I'll talk about in another post. 

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Farm - My Original Plan When I Started Farming

I wrote about the farm and how I got it into my head to try farming in a few previous posts, so now I'm going to talk about what my original plans and how I would farm were. 

 Any discussion about farming or starting a farm should also have some sort of detail about how much land is being talked about, so even though I'm a little superstitious about talking about how many acres I'm farming or how many cattle I own, I'll go ahead and give some details about how much land I'm talking about (although I'll probably be a little less open about the numbers of cattle).

Right now, I'm farming 400 acres of family-owned land and I also rent another 160 acres about 4 miles down the road.  When I started out, I just had the 400 acres, so that's what I'll mainly be talking about.

On the 400 acres, there's about 140 acres of cropland, about 20 acres is a railroad right-of-way, about 10 acres has always been a hay meadow, and the remaining 230 acres is pasture (about 185 acres of grass and 45 acres of wooded areas).  

In this area and on this farm, winter wheat is usually grown and the typical livestock is a beef cow-calf operation. Calves are weaned in early-October and are either sold or are kept through the stocker phase to graze wheat pasture and then sold in the spring as feeders.   Most of the time (in a good year), cattle are grazed on the wheat fields until about late February and then the wheat is harvested for grain in the summer.

Combining cattle and wheat makes it a relatively flexible system.  Depending on the growing conditions and the markets, wheat can be grown for grain only, grazing and grain, or grazing only.  Cattle can be sold as weaned calves, or at any point between a weaning weight (~500 lb.) and a feeder weight (~900 lb.).  Only part of the typical farm is suitable for cropland, so you use cattle to utilize the rest of the farm to produce calves to graze your wheat to add more value to your cropland.  There can be a lot of options when you grow wheat in combination with cattle.

It is a type of farming that produces products for the 'commodity' market, which is looked down on by a lot of the local-food, direct-marketing, 'Joel Salatin' wannabe, 'Food, Inc.' documentary types, but it's a way of farming that works in this area.   I started thinking about farming, and was actually farming before any of that type of thinking really started moving into the mainstream, so sometimes I don't agree with everything that is advocated in that part of the world of agriculture (although I do agree with some of it).  

When I was thinking about farming that's basically the model of farming I was planning to follow.  It was a relatively simple plan, I was going to grow wheat for both grazing stockers and a grain crop, and I planned to do things like trying  to graze year-round as much as possible to cut my hay expenses and increase the profit potential of the cattle.  I was going to be grass-fed because I thought it would cut my input costs, not for the healthier beef reasons.     

It was so simple and almost the same exact thing that everyone else was doing in this area that I'm actually surprised that it worked.  Sometimes with a little luck, not trying to re-invent the wheel pays off.

As a hopefully entertaining addition, I thought I'd share some of the outlandish ideas I also had in that time period when I was thinking seriously about farming and trying to come up with a plan.

I had a pair of bird dogs (Brittany Spaniels) in that period of my life, and I had a grand plan to raise gamebirds like bobwhite quail, pheasants, and chukars.  I planned to sell live birds to  game preserves for shooting and bird dog trainers for training, I could release some on the farm for my personal hunting, and I'd also direct market the meat (adding a pair of pheasants to the Thanksgiving turkey dinner would make a memorable meal).    I'm not sure if I could make a living doing that, but once in a while, I still think about raising a handful of gamebirds  (I like the idea of jumping a covey of chukars once in a while while walking around the farm).

As a tangent to that idea, I also had the idea that I could raise and train bird dogs.  Since I had my hands full trying to train the two that I already owned, and there didn't seem to be that many quail or quail hunters around anymore, that idea would have been a colossal failure.

Raising buffalo also sounded like a great idea at one time.  There was even a big buffalo farm/ranch (it's still there) about 30 minutes away that I used to drive by once in a while when I was thinking on the subject. They supposedly took care of themselves, and only needed a pasture full of dormant native grasses to survive the winter.  All I needed to do was strengthen all the perimeter fences, turn them loose on the farm, then round some up once in a while to make a pile of money (the meat, hides, mounted heads, skulls, etc. were supposedly all worth a bunch).    What could be cooler than going out to your farm and watching some buffalo roam all over? 
Scimitar Horned Oryx (I think that's what they are?) on the local deer farm

There's a farm about 10 miles away (I even had a friend that was friends with the owner's son) that raised various exotics like fallow deer, mouflon sheep, corsican sheep, etc.   They'd sell live animals to exotic game ranches down in TX and they also direct marketed the meat.  At the time that sounded like a cool way to make a living (almost like my buffalo raising plans).  All it would have taken to get into the business would be a high-fence (8-10' tall woven wire fences) all the way around the farm, a bunch of connections to a bunch of people in the exotic game business down in TX, and a few head of really expensive breeding stock.  Since that time, I think the exotic game ranch business has slowed down (not exactly sure why, it might be due to Chronic Wasting Disease?), but the deer farm is still there.  The last time I drove by I happened to see a small herd of what I think were blackbuck right next to the high-fence.  Having a herd of blackbuck or fallow deer on the arm would be a little interesting, but I'll bet they taste about the same as my whitetails and aren't as profitable as my cattle.    

The get-rich-quick schemes of raising ostriches and emus had already crashed and burned by the time I was trying to come up with ideas, so that idea never really entered my mind.

Like I said before, sometimes it's better to forget about trying to re-invent the wheel.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Are We Finally Going to Have a Normal Wet Winter?, and a Sorghum-sudangrass Update

When I was a kid, I'd wait all summer to go dove hunting in September and then it always seemed like in the first few days of the month it would rain a bunch, the temperature would drop, and most of the doves would be chased away for a while.   Back then my whole world in September revolved around finally being able to go out and shoot at some doves with my shotgun and when it rained it was raining on my dove-hunting parade.
Sitting in the heat and the weeds, dove hunting before the rain comes
But that rain and temperature drop also usually signaled the start of a "normal" wet winter that you need to grow a decent wheat crop.  It's been a long time since we've had those September rains and for a lot of years we've also had some pretty dry winters.  About 5 days ago, we happened to get one of those formally-common September rains, and true to form it chased a lot of the dove away, but I'm hoping that it means we're going to have a wetter winter (and some better wheat yields next summer).  Of course, I also thought we were going to have an extra-hot and dry summer about 5 months ago and was wrong about that, so I wouldn't bet the farm on my prediction just yet.
It's been a long time since it's rained this much in early September
The sorghum-sudangrass has been steadily growing and at about the 45-50 day mark it's around 6 foot tall over most of the field, and I've finally reached the point were I am able to easily ignore the urge to just go ahead and bale it (it was a mighty struggle at times).  If I had baled it, I'd guess that I would have easily gotten at least 2.5-3 bales of hay per acre (1.5-2 tons?), and it would have grown about another 3-4 feet tall before winter-killing.  

Planting it earlier in the summer right after wheat harvest, baling or grazing it when it's about 45-50 days old, then letting it regrow before winter-killing might be the best way to manage sorghum-sudangrass.   Or, starting to graze it at about this stage so that I could plant wheat in about mid-October.  

We still have about 6-8 weeks before the first freeze date, so I'm not sure how much more it will grow or if it will get too mature and the quality will drop significantly (it shouldn't get too mature for a cover crop).  I'm also wondering if I'll get some volunteer wheat or some ryegrass coming up this winter after the cows are done grazing it which would be a bonus. 

Next year, I'm thinking that adding some sunn hemp and/or some sort of brassicas like turnips, canola, or tillage radish might actually be worth the expense.  A cocktail of pearl millet, sunn hemp, turnips, and oats might be even better.  One of the things I like is that there are a lot of options when you're growing something like sorghum-sudangrass or a cover crop cocktail.  I'm really looking forward to seeing the cows out on this field this winter.

Now, after all the boring grass growing talk, here's some pictures of that exciting grass growing along with a picture of one of the bulls (don't get too attached to him though, because he's on the short list to go to town).
Haygrazer - about 45-50 days and over 6 foot tall

That sorghum-sudangrass isn't as tall as it looks in the picture since the field is higher than the pasture

Sorghum-sudangrass already over 6-foot tall along the oil-field road

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Farm - After the Tornado

The farm was hit by what was then called a F4 tornado about 15 years ago (they've changed the scale since then to EF3, EF4, etc.).   A F4 tornado has winds rated at 207-260 mph and after seeing the destruction, I'd guess that this one was at least half a mile wide (at least the destruction was that wide).

Grandma was living on the farm at the time and she somehow managed to survive while her house was completely destroyed around her.  The only part of the house that was still standing was the bathroom and a short section of the hallway next to it where she rode out the tornado.  

On a side note, in my opinion, the only reason that part of the hallway survived was because the house had been remodeled years before and a door had been relocated further down the hall.  The old doorway had 2x4 blocking nailed all around the opening so it could be drywalled, so it ended up being beefed-up much more than a typical wall with three 2x4's on each side of the opening, a thicker header, and horizontal blocking in the middle of the opening (I'm not sure why they even put that in, but they did).  She was in the hallway right by that old doorway when the tornado hit and I'm convinced that's why she survived.

She spent the night at a neighbor's house and the next day we (me, my parents, my aunt, etc.) went to pick her up, to see what was damaged, what could be salvaged, and what needed to be fixed.  I was expecting that the house roof might need to be tarped to keep the rain out, or the tin might have been blown off of the barns, but instead everything was just flattened and either gone or scattered.

Most of the landmarks like buildings or trees were missing and everything had a strange "eerie feel" to it. The destruction was hard to explain at times, the roof of her house was scattered about a quarter-mile away in a pile, a couple of small 1000 bu. grain bins "unzipped" into long sheets and tied themselves around some big cedar trees, about 80 round bales of hay completely disappeared, and some clothes were still on the hangers in a closet even though the doors had been ripped off. 

At the time, I was either between jobs, unemployed, under-employed, or self-employed depending on who was making the observation,  so I spent a lot of time over the next year cleaning everything up (I didn't single-handedly do everything myself, but I did a lot of it).

It was one of the biggest projects I've ever taken on; the work ranged from tearing down what was left of the house, to salvaging everything that could be salvaged, to fixing fences, to cutting gigantic piles of firewood from all the downed trees, to cleaning up debris spread out over 600-800 acres, etc.  It was one of the few times in my life when I was consistently working hard for 10-12 hours a day and wasn't complaining about it, I was waking up each morning ready to go to work, and each day I could look at what I had done and could be satisfied with both myself and my place in the world.  As a bonus, I was in the best shape I'd ever been in.

At first, I was starting to think that I was feeling that way about myself and the work because I was able to take chaos and destruction and put order to that chaos.  I gave serious thought to finding some sort of career that might have some of the same type of working conditions.  But, I wasn't exactly sure what kind of career that might be.

The more I worked around the farm, the more I thought about my past ideas about finding some land and raising cattle and deer, and the idea of farming this farm started to grow on me.  I don't know why it took so long to realize that I might have my best opportunity to farm if I actually tried to farm this family-owned land, but there was something about actually working on the farm that seemed to be making it more of a part of me.   

In a similar but different way, every piece of land I've hunted "belongs" to me in a way, but working to clean up, improve, or make a living from a piece of land is more than that.  

Once I'd decided to set my course towards farming right here on this piece of ground, my focus changed from possibly farming to figuring out a concrete plan to farm.  I started paying much closer attention to how everyone else around the farm was doing things and trying to decide exactly what and how I wanted to farm. 

It wasn't a straight line from there to here, I almost completely gave up on the idea more than once, a few times I thought about leaving Oklahoma and never coming back, I had extraordinary luck and undeserved help at times, but I eventually got there.

In a future post, I'll try to explain what my original farming plans were and how I actually started farming (the nuts and bolts part of the story).

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Family Farm - From Burning Bridges to the Tornado

I laid out the story of the farm from my great-grandparents buying it to my being able to lease it from my parents, but I thought it might be worthwhile to also tell the story of the time between when I quit engineering and when the tornado hit the farm. 

After I had left both college and engineering, I packed up my old pickup and headed to the mountains of Colorado (nothing against WY, MT, or ID, but CO was closer) to look for some elk and just drive around thinking.  

I had a rough idea about what I wanted to do in my life, but as I drove across OK, KS, CO, NM and TX (gas was cheap back then and I drove all over the place taking the long way to the mountains and back),  along the way I saw cattle, antelope, elk, deer, grasslands, and wheat fields, and I came back with a rough plan of what I wanted to do.

At the time, it never really entered my mind that I could or would lease the farm from my grandparents and farm it, but I knew that I wanted to manage some land for both hunting (I had to hunt) and cattle (to make some money).  

I'd read the book Pasture Profits with Stocker Cattle by Allan Nation which talked about the stocker operations of Gordon Hazard, and I'd also read a couple of books about whitetail deer management written by Dr. James Kroll.

Gordon Hazard ran a low-input grass-based stocker operation because it was a more profitable way to graze cattle from the weaned calf stage to the feeder steer stage. His stocker operation was based around buying light weight calves and putting 400 lbs. of gain on them by grazing them on grass, minerals, and water.  

Dr. Kroll was planting food plots that had combinations of different crops (oats, wheat, rye, clover, etc.) as one of his methods for managing whitetail deer. In other words, he was talking about planting 'cover crop cocktails' long before planting cover crop cocktails became the newest thing in farming.  

I had an idea that I could combine those two ways of thinking into one strategy to run a profitable farm/ranch. In addition to grazing native grass pastures, I could also grow winter wheat for the combined opportunities of a grain harvest, some stocker grazing, and food plots for the deer.  I also thought that if deer grew better on a food plot with a combination of different plants then cattle should also benefit in the same way from grazing a cover crop cocktail.

Since I didn't have a farm to try any of this out, I started planting garden-sized plots (3000 square feet or so) trying to figure out just how to grow wheat, cover crops, and deer food plots.  That morphed into also growing a decent-sized garden because if I was improving the soil fertility with cover crops, I might as well also grow some food on the same plot (which then led to my Terra Preta experiments).

Eventually, through trial and error, I had a pretty good idea about how to grow a decent wheat crop, cover crops (or food plots), and a garden.  Scaling my experiences up might be a problem that would need work to overcome, but I had an idea that most of my ideas would work on a farm scale for raising cattle, deer, turkey, wheat, etc..    

So, I spent more time hunting on the farm, and observing cattle, grass, and wheat, but I still didn't think I wanted to rent the farm from my grandmother at this point.  I was more-or-less self-employed at this time making some money, spending as little as I could, and saving as much as I could while I bided my time. 

Then the tornado hit my grandmother's farm.