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News - Farming 101: Why farmers do what they do

  • June 30, 2011

Consumers are more curious about their food than ever before. Where does it come from? How was it produced? When was it harvested and processed? Are there health risks?

And they have questions about farming practices like raising animals in buildings, growing crops from genetically-altered seed, spraying animal wastes on fields and so on.

We asked farmers to address some of the common questions raised by those who are unfamiliar with agriculture. Farming practices have indeed changed dramatically over the years. Today’s agriculture is far more complex. But what hasn’t changed is the farmers’ commitment to produce quality products under high standards of stewardship.

Why do farmers... Raise animals in buildings?
From economic and environmental standpoints, raising livestock and poultry in a controlled indoor environment is far preferable to the days when the animals roamed outdoors. Many of the chores that used to be done by hand are now automated, allowing farmers to produce more animals in a much safer environment, and more efficiently.

“It’s a no brainer,” says Sam Hancock, an eighth-generation farmer who raises about 10,000 hogs annually from two barns on his Fulton County farm. “It is so much more environmentally-friendly to raise indoors. You can manage the manure evenly; the hogs aren’t out there eroding the land.”

A long list of advantages also includes better management, controlling costs and maintaining a healthy production environment.

“We don’t have free-range children; we care about them, we want to care for them. It’s that way with our pigs. If you put 5,000 pigs out in a pasture you’d be out there all day checking on them. If one got sick it could take days to discover it,” said Hancock.

“There are some who say those pigs should be outside where they are happy, can roll in the mud and all that. Well, they’re not happy to be rolling in the mud; they’re happy to not be dying from the heat. These barns are climate controlled. Weather is not an issue.”

The housing system also protects the animals from predators and other weather extremes.

Food animals produce lots of manure, which is better managed through the waste containment systems in modern facilities. Disposal is a sustainable system in that manure is applied to the fields, the nutrients feed the crops and the crops feed the pigs.

“Manure management,” explained Hancock, “has become a science. We calculate the process and spread at accepted agronomic levels. It’s both an economic and environmental benefit.”

Another myth about the so-called “factory farming” is that the animals are routinely dosed with antibiotics or growth hormones.

“We only spot-treat antibiotics to those that are sick,” said Hancock. “There’s no mass treatment; some never get antibiotics.”

From an economic standpoint, the hogs grow faster, so it takes less feed to get them to market weight. The manure also greatly reduces the need to buy fertilizer for his 5,000 acres of row crops, he said.

“The fertilizer situation was a big reason why I got into the hog business. With my size (crop) operation, this makes good sense.”

Why do farmers... Use genetically enhanced crops?
When genetically engineered crops (also known as GMO) were introduced in the mid-1990s, critics from the health and environmental communities raised concerns by claiming that these new seeds would produce dangerous “Frankenfoods.” It turned out to be unfounded.

“As far as we can determine no one has gotten as much as a headache from using GMO crops,” said Shelby County corn and soybean producer Jack Trumbo. “There’s never really been any science-based evidence that it causes problems with food or fiber.”

American farmers like Trumbo have adopted GMO crops widely since their introduction in 1996. Today, the large majority of soybeans, cotton and corn are genetically enhanced crops that make it easier to control weeds and insects.

Trumbo, a long-time leader for Farm Bureau and the Kentucky Soybean Association, has been growing GMO crops from the start. He is an avid proponent.

“Of course you have the economic advantage because it improves yields by controlling potential damage,” he said. “But to me the number one thing is the environment. One of the greatest advantages is that we use less chemicals and therefore there’s less residue left on the land. And it’s a much better way to control weeds and pests.”

The first genetically-enhanced crop to gain widespread acceptance was Roundup-ready soybeans, which have a tolerance to the herbicide Roundup. GMO crops later were developed to enable farmers to do a better job controlling some of the most predominate weeds and insects that afflict corn and cotton, including Canadian thistle, rootworms, the European corn borer and boll weevils.

Usage doesn’t mean that farmers use more herbicide; it means they have greater flexibility in deciding where and when to apply. Plus they don’t have to use their tillage equipment as often, thereby saving fuel.

“The environmental effects are tremendous – I can’t stress that enough,” said Trumbo, who is raising 3,000 acres of corn, soybeans and straw in Shelby, Spencer, Jefferson and Henry counties. He also is quick to note the heavy regulation.

“The Agriculture Department, EPA, universities – they’ve all looked at this closely,” he said. “This didn’t just pop onto the market. A tremendous amount of research and regulation is behind this.”

Trumbo estimates a yield boost of from three to five bushels per acre with GMO. That’s vital, he says, in an age where farmers must feed a rapidly-expanding world.

“We’re being expected to produce more and more; the only way we can continue to feed the world is with GMO to better protect our crops.”

Why do farmers... Inject manure into the ground?
Manure application has come a long way since the farmer stepped into some ragged bib overalls, pulled on some thick boots and grabbed a pitchfork. The process actually begins long before the manure hits the ground, with soil samples taken to determine exactly what nutrients are needed and at what rate of application. Some farmers use a high-tech global satellite system to map their fields so that the correct amounts can be applied. Those maps are loaded onto computers inside the tractor cab and are linked to a metering device to assure correct application levels.

Spreading manure is usually done during the winter season, before the planting of new crops. Manure is an excellent fertilizer as it contains nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and other nutrients. Nutrient values of manure vary greatly, depending on many factors such as type of animal, age, feed and storage system. That’s why farmers test it.

“There are so many benefits,” explained Henry County cattle producer Corinne Kephart, “that it’s well worth the time to properly prepare for an effective application. Manure returns organic manner to the soil and reduces compaction because it does so. It helps prevent erosion. It reduces the splash effect from raindrops in that soil particles can’t be carried away by water. It provides a slow release of nitrogen. And it doesn’t require the same energy to produce that a commercial fertilizer does.”

Mrs. Kephart and her husband, Jacob, are the fourth generation to live on their farm near Pleasureville. They have a small herd of purebred cattle plus Jacob’s father has about 100 head of commercial cattle there.

There are two way to spread manure. Producers like Mrs. Kephart who do not have a high volume apply solid manure to the surface and then use either regular tillage or a conservation tillage practice to work it into the soil. Those with the so-called confined animal feeding operations (CAFO) have a waste collection system in their barns. Solids and liquids become a “slurry” that is injected into the ground in a system similar to planting seeds. This reduces odors and enhances the nitrogen use efficiency.

Most states, including Kentucky, require large-scale livestock and poultry producers to file detailed manure management plans with state regulators. Those farms are subject to inspection and can face heavy fines for violations of state guidelines.

Mrs. Kephart is past president of the Kentucky Cattlemen’s Association and is an extension animal science/horticulture specialist for neighboring Shelby County. She laments the fact that critics use the rare instances of poor animal waste management to paint a picture of a widespread problem.

“Proper (manure) management can be complicated, but farmers realize and appreciate the benefits from doing it right,” she said. “It’s a sustainable practice. It makes sense economically and environmentally. It’s certainly cheaper than commercial fertilizer.”

Why do farmers... Treat animals with antibiotics?
John Kuegel Jr. is a mild-mannered dairy farmer who gets stirred up about allegations that farmers mistreat their animals for the sake of a dollar. And because he produces the most wholesome farm product, he’s particularly sensitive about claims that antibiotics and other medications can impact milk safety.

“The public has been misled about a number of things we (farmers) do,” said Kuegel, a third-generation dairyman in Daviess County. “We’re in business to take care of our animals so they can produce a quality product to bring to the marketplace. The better job we do, the less antibiotics we will require.

“We only use antibiotics when it’s absolutely necessary for keeping the herd healthy. If they don’t need it, we don’t give it. But just like with your kids, there are times when these cows get sick and we have to make it better.”

Dairy farmers have to be on guard against mastitis, a potentially fatal mammary gland disease that is the most common and costly disease in dairy cows. Other maladies include pink eye and pneumonia.

Like most dairy farmers, Kuegel is trained in how to “doctor” his cows.

“We attend extension classes and seminars to keep up-to-date, but the key thing is that we follow the label directions, which is crucial. We know the right amount and the right time.”

What the public probably doesn’t know, he says, is that dairy farmers are diligent in segregating sick cows from the rest of the herd in order to prevent a spread, as well as following the recommended withdrawal period to return them to the milking parlor. Milk from cows on an antibiotic does not leave the farm.

Dairy farmers also test their milk tank every day before the milk is trucked off to the manufacturing plant. And then it’s checked at the plant, as well.

“There are numerous safety checks in place prior to reaching the consumer,” he said. “And that’s because one slip up, one mistake, and the whole industry is damaged. That keeps us on our toes.”

Kuegel has 400 head of cattle on his farm just west of Owensboro and maintains a milking herd of about 150. He’s the third generation to operate the farm. He and his wife, Leigh Ann, have received KFB’s prestigious Outstanding Young Farm Family award.

The use of antibiotics in livestock is highly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Guidelines include withdrawal times for any antibiotic that could affect humans. Research has shown that livestock on antibiotics carry lower levels of bacteria that could cause potential diseases.

“It’s a critical thing to make sure our food is safe; we realize that,” said Kuegel. “This is our livelihood. These animals are like family. It doesn’t make sense to throw medicine at animals randomly. We make educated decisions about this.”

Why do farmers... Sometimes plow their fields and other times plant into the stubble from a previous crop?
As you drive through the countryside no scene is more bucolic than a freshly plowed field of brown, fluffy soil making a patchwork amidst green pastures. Conventional tillage, however, is becoming rare as farmers have reaped the advantages of “no-till” planting - - where they plant crops directly into the stubble from the previous crop with virtually no soil preparation or tillage.

No-till is not pretty, but there are huge economic and environmental advantages. So much so that it’s become a common practice for row crops like corn, soybeans and wheat.

Washington County farmer Michael McCain uses no-till on about 90 percent of his crop acreage.

“The number one advantage is soil conservation, and that’s more important than ever for us to continue to produce well,” said McCain, who along with wife Nora was a finalist in KFB’s Outstanding Young Farm Family program last year. “I’m a firm believer that with a limited amount of land available to grow food, we need to do all we can to preserve resources. Farmers count on the soil. It’s crucial to our business.”

Many parts of Kentucky are hilly, which is an even greater reason to leave residue on the fields.

“Any upland field with more than a six percent slope – you need to stay off of there (with tillage),” McCain explained. “In this part of the world we have to take care of that sloping land.”

There are other advantages such as building valuable organic matter, labor savings and fuel savings. McCain estimates he saves from $25 to $40 per acre on fuel because he doesn’t have to make multiple cultivation passes with his equipment through his fields. No-till does require additional herbicide use, but that is more than offset by the other savings on fuel and labor.

Studies have shown higher yields for corn and soybeans planted behind a no-till crop of wheat. McCain says that’s been the case with his crops.

No-till planting actually originated in Kentucky when Christian County farmer Harry Young planted the first commercial field of no-till corn in 1962. There’s a plaque at the site noting that historical achievement for agriculture.

Conventional tillage is still used, but mainly for vegetable crops or on flat bottomlands with compaction problems.

“You still need to till poorly-drained soils,” McCain explained. “A lot of (stream) bottoms don’t do well with no-till.”

Why do farmers... Plant or harvest after dark?
With Mother Nature as boss, farmers rarely work a 9-to-5 routine. Especially during planting and harvesting seasons.

Because crops need a certain number of warm days to mature, the timing of planting is critical, with the timeframe short on getting those seeds into the ground. Days lost is money lost in terms of expected yields on late-planted crops. Most of the corn and soybeans in Kentucky are planted by June 1. But certainly not this year, when the wet spring meant farmers had to put in some very long days.

Clark County farmer Shane Wiseman was so far behind in early June that he was planting soybeans as late as midnight. And because he couldn’t get a corn crop into the ground by his normal optimal deadline of May 15, Wiseman went to soybeans instead because that crop has varieties that can do well when planted later.

“There are varieties of beans we can go up to July 4 with,” Wiseman said. As for corn, he said: “There’s an old wise saying that after May 15, every day you lose is a bushel (of yield) lost.”

Farmers also face economic losses if they can’t get the crops out of the fields as close to possible to their maturity dates. Corn stalks that are left standing too long become brittle and are susceptible to wind damage. Soybeans can lose their optimal moisture level, thereby lessening their market value. October is a peak time for harvesting both corn and soybeans, but depending on the variety, area and planting date, harvest could come as late as early December. Winter wheat is planted in October and harvested in June or July.

Tractors and combines have the lighting technology enabling them to easily navigate farm fields in the dark. Farmers also have access to Global Positioning Satellite systems that make the job easier to plan and execute by setting exact coordinates that can be accurate within inches. GPS also allows for less overlapping, Wiseman explained.

“GPS makes sure your rows are straight,” he said. “All I have to do is sit in the cab and make sure the equipment is working.”

Twenty years ago you rarely would have seen a farm machine lighting up the rural landscape. But today, with technological advances and so many larger farms that require more time to manage, more and more farmers have a “night life” as well.

That was the case this spring for Wiseman, who is President of Clark County Farm Bureau and a Director for KFB.

“Right now, I’m trying to get six weeks work done in two weeks,” he said on June 9.

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