For the 150th year of Pope County History, we are diligently capturing what life is like in Pope County TODAY so Pope County residents and historians can look back at us 150 years from now.
This blog post is a little glimpse into the on-going research.
If you are willing to share information on your industry/occupation/life with us, please contact the museum.
Today (May 16, 2016) I had the privilege to ride along with Brannon Lange as he planted corn on the field he rents from my father southeast of Glenwood. As we rode around in the John Deere 8360RT, I quizzed him about farming in Pope County in 2016.
Brannon has been farming for about 23 years and specializes in corn while also growing a little bit of wheat and alfalfa. His family has some cattle, which he refers to with a laugh as a “hobby gone bad.”
He plants 5,000 acres of corn. Yep – 5 THOUSAND. This is a big change from the days of 160 acre homestead farms that I research at the museum.
Corn needs to be planted within a small window of time. Too early – and farmers risk it being destroyed by a late frost, too late – and it may not be ready to harvest before the weather turns in the fall. To plant 5,000 acres in that tiny time frame takes big equipment. Brannon started planting this year on April 21. He did have a few plants nipped off with Saturday’s frost, but they were small enough that they will be able to re-grow.
The planter Brannon used planted 36 rows at one time. Each seed was dropped into the ground at perfectly timed intervals in rows 22″ apart with a little shot of fertilizer and micro nutrients to get the sprouting corn off to a good start.
The thing that amazed me the most was the bank of monitors in the cab of the tractor. The tractor itself was guided by GPS and programmed to drive due east and west and align itself with the previous path. Brannon would turn it around and get it started, and the tractor would do the rest. We drove along at a brisk 7-8 miles an hour. If he was steering by hand, he would drive about 3 miles an hour. At 7-8 miles an hour, he can do 50-60 acres an hour. (5 thousand acres at 50 mph is still 100 hours of planting – not counting travel time to and from the fields, re-fueling, re-loading the seeder, or dealing with any breakdowns.)
We could see the guidance system on one monitor, while a second screen displayed statistics such as miles per hour, seed distribution etc. My favorite screen showed a wide green line following a little tractor icon. Dots of blue appeared on the green – that is where the seeder accidentally dropped 2 seeds instead of one. Luckily there were no red dots – places where no seeds dropped – while I was riding along. If a problem occurred with one of the seeders, Brannon would know immediately and could take action.
If the tractor were to break down, it is connected wirelessly to John Deere and technicians can often diagnose the problem over the phone – or send technicians prepared to deal with the exact issue.
The cost of planing an acre of corn is about $600. That includes the seed, fertilizer, irrigator and the cost of the land. Much of the land is rented, such as the field we planted today. The average yield per acre (depending on the weather) is about 205 bushels per acre. Seeds cost about $285 per bag and a bag will plant about 2.2 acres of land. The seeds we planted were DeKalb hybrids. The seed technology changes every 2-3 years. “About the time you get used to the seeds, they want you to buy something else.”
The field we planted has an irrigation system, a giant sprinkler that will guarantee that the thirsty corn gets enough water. Brannon can control the irrigator with his iPad or iPhone from anywhere. Since we have an older irrigator, his remote control is limited to off and on. (It is very useful to be able to shut off sprinklers in the rain without needing to drive to each field to do so.) For the newer irrigators, the remote systems can also control the speed and the end gun. The irrigators generally piviot in a circle from the center of the field. Using a powerful “end gun” can spray water farther into the corners of the square field, but you need to turn it off when the end of the irrigator reaches a point where the edge of the circle is near a road. We don’t want to waste water sprinkling the road – and passing motorists.
Brannon markets his own corn rather than using the elevator. Most of his corn is sold to local feed mills in Hancock or Willmar or to the ethanol plant in Morris. He spends his winter delivering the corn to his customers.
When I asked him about the biggest changes he has seen in farming, he talked about the incredible inflation of prices. 23 years ago it cost about $100 per acre to plant corn.
The technology is, of course, another significant change. For example, he said he resisted auto steer for a long time, feeling that he couldn’t justify the cost, but now it is everywhere. The rate of change is mind boggling.
We are a long way from this horse drawn, two row planter that spaced the plants out far enough to weed with a cultivator. And THIS was a huge improvement over the original hand planters.