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The Calm Before the (Corn) Storm

12 Sep

The tall, swaying stalks out my bedroom window make it impossible to ignore: fall is here. More specifically, as the Dairy Man keeps reminding me, corn harvest is almost here.

DM is charged with nervous energy and dancing around the house humming “It’s the mooooost wonderful tiiiiiime of the yeeeeeear.”

I, on the other hand, start hearing the music from Jaws: “Daaaaa dum, daaaaa dum, daaaaaa dum da dum daaaa dum.” This week truly is the calm before the storm. Before the sharknado of farming activities, if you will.

People, a corn storm is brewing.

cornfield

It’s time to prepare, to brace myself. Call it mental calisthenics. As I stand on the precipice of a few weeks alone, it’s important to stretch my farm wife coping mechanisms (and stock up on dry cereal and wine).

This is my third corn harvest out in the boondocks (read about year one and two here). I’m not a rookie. But it will still be a shock to my system when DM slips into the delirium that can only be caused by corn harvest.

Over the next few weeks, we will harvest approximately 1,100 acres of corn babies. (Well, I suppose they’re corn adults at this point. *Sniff* They grow up so fast.) This will involve DM spending countless hours in the tractor building monstrous piles of corn covered with tires and plastic and seeing a whole lot of this:

Packingcorn

Unlike some farm wives, I don’t get very involved in the process. I work an 8-5 job wearing pencil skirts and stilettos and haven’t the foggiest idea how to operate farm machinery (for good reason). I’m currently planning EIGHT work events for this fall and stress-eating peanut M&Ms like it’s my job. My role on the dairy is to support, ensure DM is eating something every day, and keep myself entertained. Because, really. Can you see me driving a tractor?

MFW+tractor

I do not have the farming wardrobe figured out.

For all of the craziness these next few weeks will bring, I don’t want to miss the excitement, the progress, or the beauty of this time of year.

Corn harvest may signify dinners alone, an inconceivably exhausted DM, and a depressed Jersey the pup, but it’s also the culmination of so much hard work.

Despite a weird, wet spring, our corn was planted with intention and care. Dairy Man spent half his life checking pivots and making sure the babies were getting enough water. The leafy green stuff has survived dry weeks, wet weeks, and gale-force winds.

It feels good to be this close to the finish line. Corn harvest represents time well spent. It promises that our bovine ladies will have plenty of food over the next year. It also gives me large hills to scurry around on like a mountain goat.

Onthepack

It’s the little things when you’re a country bumpkin.

My biggest compliant is that I will lose the blossoming privacy screens surrounding our house. Things always feel a little forlorn when the corn comes down.

corn tassles

But for now, I will savor these final days of summer. I’ll soak in quality time with DM. I’ll take quiet moments to sit in the grass and let the rustling whisper of the stalks speak to my soul.

Just a few more days, my pretties.

farmers in corn

7 Bales of Hay

17 Dec

On the seventh day of Christmas, the Dairy Man gave to me
Seven bales of hay

hay field

Six stripping shanks
Fiiiiiiive commodity baaaaays
Four milking shells
Three shifts of milking
Two orange tractors
And a twinkly-light-laden faux tree

Ok, ok, there might be more than seven bales in this picture. But you get the idea. Let’s say the Dairy Man gave me seven.

Hay/grass/alfalfa silage is one of the key ingredients in our cow food ration. Depending on heat and rainfall, the Dairy Man and his father cut hay 3-5 times per summer (approximately every 30 days).

The cutting process has five steps:
1. Cut hay
2. Wait for hay to dry
3. Rake or merge hay using a big machine (helps it dry out)
4. Bale or chop hay
5. Load chopped hay into Ag-bags OR store bales in the barn for immediate use

DM, hard at work

Wet hay loses any nutritional value, so it is vitally important for the Dairy Man to work like a madman once the hay is cut to make sure we get it in before it rains. So, for several days every few weeks during the summer, DM is unloading trucks of hay silage every 20 minutes from dawn till dusk. Why can’t we just cut hay once per year, you ask? Well, as explained in this brief interview with the Dairy Man, we have to cut the hay before it blossoms. Once the stalks start to bloom, the plant starts to allocate nutrients towards seeding and reproduction, thus depleting the nutritional value of the hay.

I don’t particularly enjoy haying season (it’s hard to scarf down dinner and tell DM about my day in 20-minute intervals), but it’s a necessary process to make sure we have enough delicious food for the bovines in the upcoming year!

And you can’t beat a pretty hay field.

cut hay

6 Stripping Shanks

14 Dec

On the sixth day of Christmas, the Dairy Man gave to me
6: Six stripping shanks

DSC04636

5: Fiiiiiiiive commodity baaaays
4: Four milking shells
3: Three shifts of milking
2: Two orange tractors
1: And a twinkly-light laden faux tree

Something about the word “shank” makes me feel cool and dangerous. Like a stocky gangbuster out in the prison yard. Or a villain in a James Bond movie. But though this apparatus looks like it could be a torture device from a Bond flick, it serves a more wholesome purpose on our dairy: to help prepare the soil for planting corn. After all, this is a family show.

You might remember that the Dairy Man changed our field prep practice this year from disking to strip-tilling. I promise it’s not as dirty as it sounds. The strip-tiller machine has six rows with six shanks to churn up the soil. DM hooks the machine to a tractor and drives up and down (and up and down and up and down) the fields, creating perfect rows for our little corn babies.

DSC04666

photo

Strip-tilling works for us because a lot of our fields are sandy and hilly. It helps to eliminate soil erosion by only churning up strips of soil (as opposed to the entire field) and leaving organic material behind. This gives the corn plants an existing root structure to grow into and keeps more nutrients in the soil.

DSC04677

So there you have it. Strip-tilling is thrilling stuff. And my apologies to the wayward Googlers; but trust me, stripping is far more interesting on a dairy.

Corn Harvest In 6 Steps

11 Oct

Well, it finally happened. I dug my fluffy winter coat out of storage yesterday. Alas and alack; it’s cold in Michiganland. I know this weather is nothing compared to what I can look forward to in December, but I’m waving the white flag on sandals, short sleeves, and coatless workdays.

The cool fall air signifies the end of a lot of things: corn harvest, watering the grass, suntans, dinner on the deck, shaving my legs. It also signifies that I absolutely must fill you in on the corn-ish happenings around the farm in the last month or so.

Thus, before I launch into a late-fall tirade of apple cider, football games, and pasty white Dutch skin, let’s take a look in the rear-view mirror to corn harvest. I give you:

Corn Harvest in 6 Steps
Step 1: Accept sleep deprivation and bad wife-ery
Step 2: Bring in the harvester and chop! that! corn!
Step 3: Build the pack (and fill the bags)
Step 4: Cover the pack
Step 5: Harvest shelled (high moisture) corn
Step 6: Take a nap

Step 1: Accept sleep deprivation and bad wife-ery
My Dairy Man gets in around midnight each night during corn harvest. Between you and me, I don’t even notice anymore. During my first corn harvest, I would abruptly spring into consciousness as soon as the DM got home. This year—my third corn harvest—I found it startlingly easy to go (and stay) asleep without the husband next to me. Some call it bad wife-ery, I call it a coping mechanism. After over two years of marriage in the shadow of farming, I’ve gotten pretty good at sleeping through late nights, 3 a.m. phone calls, and power outages. As for the Dairy Man? He entered a zombie-like state somewhere in the second week of harvest and didn’t snap out of it until late September.

Step 2: Bring in the harvester and chop! that! corn!
Imagine that last part being as exciting as “move! that! bus!” It’s Extreme Home Makeover: Cornfield Edition. Each year we hire an outside company to chop our corn. Max the friendly chopper and his intrepid crew drive a machine called a harvester through the fields. Trucks follow along to collect the chopped corn.

A forage harvester (a.k.a. silage harvester, forager, or chopper) chops the entire corn plant into silage. Corn silage is just a fancy way to say “chopped up corn.” And I realized this year that a lot of farmers put silAGE into a siLO. Whoa. Do you think that’s where the word “silo” came from? I think yes. Silage in the silo. Don’t underestimate the gravity of this realization. When I finally figured it out, you would think I had invented butter. It was like the day I realized cows give milk because they’d just had a calf. Earth-shattering stuff.

Anyway. The chopper mows down the corn and blows the silage into trucks. The trucks drive from the field to the dairy and dump the silage on the PACK.

Step 3: Build the pack (and fill the bags)
After the trucks dump their loads of silage, tractors are waiting to push the piles up the pack (how’s that for alliteration?).

We squirrel away corn silage in two ways: giant packs and tubular ag bags. Ag bags are easier to seal and maintain; packs are more space efficient. This year we put up two large packs AND filled a bunch of ag bags. We like to keep things interesting.

Last year I explained the process of packing corn silage. Each pack this year contains almost 7,000 tons of silage and took approximately a week to build, compress, and cover.

Can’t get your head around 7,000 tons? For reference, the average adult blue whale weighs around 150 tons. Just imagine 46 blue whales flopping around behind our dairy. Now there’s a mental image not often associated with dairy farming. I’ve included this artistic and highly-scientific diagram to help you make the jump:

Between packs and bags, we put up approximately 16,000 tons of corn silage this year, or 106 whales. (No whales were harmed in the making of this example; we released them into Lake Michigan.)

Corn silage from harvest 2012 will feed our bovine ladies for the next year. And parents complain about the cost of feeding their kids. Geeze. You can’t buy Canned Cow Corn at Costco.

Step 4: Cover the pack
After a pack is built and compacted, we cover the entire monstrosity with huge pieces of thick plastic and thousands of sliced tires.

The tires hold the plastic down and ensure that no moisture or oxygen gets into the pile. They also serve as stepping stones if certain modern farm wives decide to climb to the top of the pack. King of the mountain, anyone? Just don’t fall into the manure pit.

We will uncover the pack bit by bit over the next year to feed our ladies.

Step 5: Harvest shelled (high moisture) corn
This step is currently in process on our dairy. A few fields have purposefully remained unscathed during Corn Chop 2012.

The corn stalks in these fields are left to completely dry out and the Dairy Man goes through a few weeks later to harvest shelled corn. While corn silage is comprised of the entire corn plant, shelled corn is just the kernels. Both silage and shells are used in our feed rations. And both types get tracked into my house on DM’s boots. I promise to drop some thrilling shelled-corn-knowledge on you in my next post. BAM.

Step 6: Take a nap
When the corn is harvested, the cover crops are planted, and all of the cows are starting to grow their furry winter coats, reacquaint yourself with family, friends, and puppies. At long last, my Dairy Man will slip into hibernation. Winter is almost here.

Green Pants, Center Pivots, and Happy Corn

21 Jun

Ok, quiz time. What do the following three things have in common?

  1. The Sahara Desert
  2. Our corn fields
  3. My mouth when I watch a Ryan Gosling movie

That’s right, my friends, all of these items are very dry.

Much to the Dairy Man’s relief, this post will not be about Ry-guy-McHotpants. Perhaps another time. For today, we’re going to focus on the corn.

With the exception of a brief, violent thunderstorm that sent our terrified puppy under the coffee table, the past few weeks in Michigan have been bone dry and oppressively hot. Our grass is brown and our corn is thirsty.

But fortunately for this year, a few of our newly-acquired fields came with some new toys: center pivot irrigators.

Up until this point, my only experience with these spindly metallic creatures was through a car window. They are both idyllically American and inexplicably alien. If  a spider and a caterpillar had a baby, it would look like this. Center pivots also give  free car washes if placed too close to the road.

This is the first year we’ve used center pivots to water our leafy green stuff. We’re using them because they came with the fields, but they also provide the extra water that the sandy soil needs to spawn healthy corn.

Naturally I had to experience the man-made phenoms for myself. So, one night the family (furry members included) took a drive.

The Dairy Man even found time to conduct some business while I took pictures of the machinery. Modern farming, I tell ya.

A center pivot irrigation system uses overhead sprinklers to water the crops. The machinery is made up of several segments of pipe joined together and supported by trusses mounted on wheeled towers.

In addition to their function, the towers also make excellent climbing trees.

The whole business is fed water from the central pivot point.

Water flows through the segments of pipes to the drop hoses (aka sprinklers) and the apparatus rotates in a circular pattern through the field around the pivot point.

There’s even an “end gun” sprinkler firing off at the very end of the center pivot, just to get  that last 75 feet of corn.

It’s all very complicated.

Conceptually, a center pivot isn’t that different from a lawn sprinkler. Not that I would know from personal experience. I kill plants. I hate yard work and fear dirt and bugs. I’m what the Dairy Man kindly refers to as an “indoor kid.” Last summer, he and I spent an entire day landscaping around our house and most of the plants have since died. Whoops. A certain farm wife forgot to water … and weed.

But if you are the kind of person who actually remembers to turn the sprinkler on for your poor baby plants, you’ll understand our irrigator.

The Dairy Man runs the center pivots at dusk to avoid any unnecessary evaporation during the hot parts of the day. If all goes well, the irrigation system will provide a half inch of water every 24 hours. This is accomplished over the course of 1-2 days per pivot.

Michigan corn can typically survive on rain alone, but the center pivots give our sandy fields an extra boost.

And even a green-pants-wearing farm wife can get excited about new toys.


Strip it Down, Paint the Town

6 Jun

The Dairy Man is one of my blog’s most avid readers. He also takes personal responsibility for the content.

In that vein, DM is appalled that I haven’t talked about corn planting yet. I was so busy thinking about friends and dreams—silly me—that I forgot to mention that we just wrapped up one of the biggest jobs of the year!

Consider me repentant. So. Let me proclaim this from the mountaintops. As of three weeks ago, OUR CORN IS IN!

For you city folk, this means that our yearly crop of cow food is well underway. Every inch of the green stuff will ultimately be harvested for corn silage in the fall.

Last year was my first planting season, but this year I was almost prepared for the craziness. For two long weeks, the Dairy Man started at 7 a.m. and ended at 11 p.m. He was delirious with sleep deprivation and was always covered in dust. I saw him at breakfast and through a bleary half-conscious fog when he climbed into bed. The lack of quality time with my friendly farmer directed my attention into other pursuits. I read a lot, got completely caught up with The Office, and took long walks with Jersey the dog. I changed my cooking criteria from “will this taste good?” to “will this reheat well?”

It was a lonely few weeks, but I’m not a newbie anymore. I knew it would end … eventually.

Believe it or not, this year’s planting palooza was even a little crazier than last year’s. Over the past 365 days, we’ve gone from 600 to 1,000 acres. (More bovine mouths to feed, dontcha know.)

This year, in order to speed up the way we prepare the soil, the Dairy Man went from disking to strip-tilling. My apologies to those who googled “strip teasing,” and found this post.

If you’re a farming greenhorn like me, you’ll need a definition of tilling before we talk about stripping. Tillage is the preparation of soil for planting. This process is implemented by machines agitating the dirt by digging, stirring, and overturning. Tillage dries out and turns the soil as well as creates an optimum seedbed for our corn babies.

The Dairy Man’s tractor even has a GPS system with auto-steer to create straight lines and parallel strips for the rows.

All corn rows are perfectly planted 30 inches apart. It certainly beats sitting out in the field with a yardstick, eh?

Last year we tilled our fields with a chisel plow and a disk. This year, we switched to strip-tilling.

The Dairy Man had three big reasons for the change.

  1. We have quite a bit of sandy and hilly ground. Strip-tilling helps to eliminate soil erosion (via wind or water) by only churning up strips or zones of soil, as opposed to the entire field. You can see the organic material left behind in the rows in the photo above.
  1. The ground holds more moisture because not all of the soil is turned over.
  1. It’s all about speed, baby. Strip-tilling is a one-pass system. Our chisel plow only tills 5 acres an hour (plus we still have to disk at 10 acres per hour). The strip-tiller tills 12 acres an hour. Boo-yah.

Based on the size, scope, and soil of our two dairies, strip-tilling was the obvious choice this year. Well … obvious for the farmers. Obviously. Between you, me, and the kitchen sink, I didn’t notice that the machinery looked a little different this year until the DM pointed it out. Whoops.

After the ground was tilled, the planter came through and spread its seed.

And there you have it. It would be terrible to let the excitement of stripping (again, my apologies to the wayward googlers) pass me by.

I expect to see 32,000,000 leafy corn stalks (32,000 seeds per acre x 1,000 acres) grow and mature in the coming weeks and months. The country is blooming and the Dairy Man couldn’t be happier.

As for me, I’m enjoying the brief reprieve before another round of haying. Oof. I’d better order some more books.

Aw, Shucks. Wrapping up a Corn(y) Harvest

29 Sep

Please forgive the title. It’s early and I’m a few cups (ok, a few thermoses) of coffee away from a sharp sense of humor. For now, it makes me giggle.

Anyway. Corn.

In farming, there are essentially two periods of complete insanity each year. Sure, there are little sprinkles of craziness between the two, but planting and harvesting (in my mind, at least) are the busiest times of year on the farm.

We (again, I’m using this pronoun loosely) plant corn every spring. The process typically takes a few weeks and the days are long, long, long. The Dairy Man will spend hours upon hours in a tractor. I see him for brief meals on the go, or I don’t see him until he’s crawling into bed. So, that’s spring. After a summer of basking in the sun and growing tall and leafy, our corn stalks are ready to be harvested in early fall.

Two weeks ago we wrapped up the corn harvest. Excuse me for a moment while I pop a bottle of champagne and do a slightly awkward happy dance.

Finishing corn harvest is a significant milestone. At this point, things really slow down for farmers (with the exception of one more hay cutting). I’ve always loathed the cold and snow of winter, but I do enjoy the moderate reprieve in the farming lifestyle that comes during the colder months. Things move a little more slowly. The days are shorter and a “dawn till dusk” workday is inevitably truncated. I eat carbs, wear thick sweaters, and actually get to spend evenings with my husband.

As we entered our second harvest as a married couple, I started to get flashbacks of this time last year. These flashbacks, naturally melodramatic and a little bit whiny, reminded me of a time when I barely saw my husband, ate my meals alone, and did all of the housework by myself. These were the dark days of a newlywed country transplant. It’s a good thing the Dairy Man had the sense to marry me before corn harvest. I was already locked in. But I digress. This year I had the benefit of a toughened psyche thanks to 12 months of farming fun. When the Dairy Man said, “Well Jess, we start corn harvest tomorrow,” I knew what to expect.

With my commute and work schedule, I wasn’t able to get as many in-action harvest shots as I would have liked, but I did get a picture of THE PACK. Well, more specifically, it’s one of THE PACKS, but this is the biggest by far.

All 700+ acres of our corn is harvested for cow food. Corn is just one of the many ingredients that goes into our feed rations, but it is by far the biggest component. Unlike sweet corn, which is grown for biped consumption, our corn grows all summer long and is harvested right before it dries up.

During corn harvest, a machine called a chopper drives through the field and chops up the corn, stalks and all. This product is called corn silage.

When you harvest corn, you have two options for storage: in ag bags or in large packs covered by plastic sheets and tires. The Dairy Man and his father used both methods of storage this year. Ag bags are easier to seal to ensure that the corn silage doesn’t get moldy, but packs are more space-efficient. Since we had a LOT of corn to put up this year, we went with both.

The process of bagging corn silage is essentially identical to that of bagging hay. Trucks drive the silage to the bagger and the Dairy Man makes sure the bags get loaded properly.

Packing corn silage, on the other hand, involves making a huge pile of corn and driving over it with a tractor to pack it. Hence: the pack. Once the pack is finished, the farmers cover it with plastic sheets and tires to keep out any trace of oxygen.

One night I had the opportunity to ride on the pack with the Dairy Man. And, oh dear, I was bored after about 30 seconds. Basically the Dairy Man drives up and down, up and down, up and down the pack ALL DAY LONG. Backwards, forwards, backwards, forwards, backwards, forwards. Talk about seasickness. The reason they undertake this monotonous task is because the pack of corn has to be tightly compacted in order for the corn silage to be preserved over the next year. So they drive on the pack. Up and down. Backward and forwards. All.day.long. My husband is a better man than I.

Though, I must say, the view from the top of the pack wasn’t half bad.

Corn harvest is finished, but our cows will be chowing on the silage from these bags and packs for the next year. And really, it’s all about the cows.