6 Stripping Shanks

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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2 Orange Tractors

On the second day of Christmas, the Dairy Man gave to me:
2: Two orange tractors

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1: And a twinkly-light-laden faux tree.

As you might remember, I recently learned that we have not one, but TWO big orange tractors. These pumpkin-hued twins stay busy from spring to fall hauling manure to the fields. They boast air conditioning, padded seats, GPS technology, and one even has a satellite radio!

Modern farming, I tell ya. It’s not easy being a dairy man.

Strip it Down, Paint the Town

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.

Apparently Two is Better Than One

A phone call between a farmer and his wife: 

DM: Hello?

MFW: Hi! I’m driving home for lunch. Did you just pass me in the orange tractor?

DM: No, I’m in the office. My dad and Jacob are both driving the tractors right now.

MFW: What do you mean? We only have one orange tractor.

DM: Um, no. We have two orange tractors.

MFW: (looooooooong pause) …We have two orange tractors!?

DM: Yes.

MFW: Huh. I thought we had one. Though this would explain why I see the orange tractor go up our driveway so often. I always wondered how you hauled manure that quickly…

DM: Woman, do you pay any attention to what goes on around here?

Oops.

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

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.

Our first planting season.

Early last week the Dairy Man sat me down. He took my hand and said, “Well, it’s been fun. We had a great winter and I’ll always remember the time we spent together. But now it’s time to plant. I’ll see you in a few weeks.”

Yes. Sometimes the Dairy Man likes to be dramatic. But after we had a good chuckle, the basic point was still there. He was kidding, but not really. Spring is here and the busy season is off and running.

I wasn’t really aware that we were ever in a “slow” season, but normalcy for farming starts a lot higher than the rest of the world. 60+ hour work weeks are the norm. Busy season means getting up really early, staying out really late, and working like a madman to get as much done as possible before the rain comes. My Dairy Man, his father, and/or my future brother-in-law have been known to still be in a tractor at 11 p.m. at night.

This is my first planting season and I’m still adjusting. I find myself secretly hoping for rain so that I can see my Dairy Man for a few precious minutes. But it cannot rain. We will lose time, or the corn will get into the ground too late and the whole season will be thrown off.

In this small farming community, it seems like every farmer and his brother is driving some type of machinery down a road or through a field. The town is buzzing with activity. On my drive to and from work, a glance to either side of the road reveals fields speckled with shiny metallic tractors and the air is thick with the scent of … fertilizer.

My Dairy Man and his father farm over 600 acres between our two facilities. Every square inch is planted with corn to be ultimately turned into feed for our cows. I don’t claim to be an expert on the intricacies of planting (just when I was finally getting the whole cow thing down, we started an entirely new aspect of farming!), but I’m trying to learn just what my Dairy Man is doing out in those fields all day.

One night I decided to find out. After work, I changed my clothes, pulled on my rubber boots, and set off to find the Dairy Man. I located him in one of the barns and sweetly coerced my way into a ride-along. We climbed into the big red truck and set off to check on the fields.

This particular night it was his father and future brother-in-law sitting in the tractors. Here is my FIL working the ground.

Conversations with the Dairy Man (and extensive research on Wikipedia) tell me that there are four main stages to planting a field: 1) fertilize, 2) chisel plow, 3) disk, and 4) plant.

Fertilizing is an easy one to understand. We have many cows. Those many cows produce manure. That manure is stored in pits (like the nearly-empty one below) during the winter and spread on the fields in the spring as fertilizer. How very green of us, eh? Though anyone who lives near a farm will tell you–it stinks to high heaven.

This particular night, I was able to witness the disking portion of the planting process. Now, at long last, I know what this spidery thing actually DOES. Step #2, chiseling plowing, involves another piece of machinery to turn the soil. Using a disk harrow (below) finishes the top of the soil for planting. Not exactly a plow pulled by oxen, is it? Modern farming is big, intense, and involves a lot of giant toys. The Dairy Man still spends hours working the land, but his tractor has air conditioning and satellite radio.

Once the land has been properly fertilized, chiseled, and disked, it’s planting time. Within a few short months, this entire field will be bursting with leafy waves of corn.

So, there you have it. Apparently planting corn does not involve throwing handfuls of seeds into an open patch of dirt. Who knew? Though that does explain why I haven’t seen the Dairy Man for more than twenty minutes per day in the past week. It hasn’t been easy being a planting widow, but I know that this craziness won’t last forever. And a long hug in the morning can get me through just about any kind of craziness.

(And yes, I am aware of just how awesome my rubber boots look with shorts.)

On parade.

Texts between a Dairy Man and his wife:

MFW (6:42 am): I just passed five tractors in a row driving down Main Street. What’s going on?

DM (6:44 am): Oh yeah. It’s “drive your tractor to school day.” Totally normal.

*no response*

DM (6:55 am): Carhartt sponsors it at the local high school. They do it every year.

MFW (6:57 am): What kind of a crazy place do I live in?!?