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Forage 2021: Drone-grown: Automating the future of ag

We might not be driving Jetson-envisioned flying cars yet, but in the past five years unmanned aerial systems, or drones, have merged from futuristic novelties into farm equipment. This crop season will bring swarms of drones that spray and seed cover crops – with a future as limitless as the horizon. 

In a report from the Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees drone usage and regulations, the worldwide agricultural drone market in 2017 was valued at $990 and projected to explode to $6.73 billion by 2025. The commercial drone market, including ag usage, is expanded to triple in size by 2023 with more than 15,000 commercial drones registered each month.  

Nick Williams of Parkston, S.D., launched Williams Drones last June and is looking forward to starting his first full summer work season. He purchased a swarm of three drones with spraying and spreading kits through a contract partnership with Rantizo, a turnkey agricultural drone service provide based out of Iowa City, Iowa, that provides everything, from hardware and software to training and licensing support, insurance and even customer leads.  

Williams, who owns the business with his wife, Katie, has conducted several drone demos to promote their business, and has received a lot of interest. He plans to offer spraying and seeding, particularly cover crops. 

“We’re not aiming to replace ground rigs by any means – drones are just another tool that people have available to get to the places where the sprayers and planes can’t get to,” he says. 

Rantizo estimates their drones can cover up to 14 acres per hour at 3 gallons per acre, at about 100 acres per day. With their company exemptions, a pilot can fly three drones at a time and cover up to 300 acres per day. While this clearly doesn’t replace an on-ground or plane system, Williams says drones solve issues of accuracy and access. “If you have a problem with just five acres, we can go spray that part with much more precision than a spray plane. We can also get in the field right after a rain or when the corn is too tall, or work in smaller fields that are surrounded by trees or telephone poles.” 

Everything Williams needs for a drone job is in his trailer, and he pulls up to the edge of the field – or as close as he can get – and goes to work. His primary work is application, not mapping, and he prefers to work off of a “shape file,” or digital map, of the field sent to him beforehand. With his Rantizo contract he is allowed to fly three drones at one time, all operated off one controller. The drones hover six feet off the ground and adjust to hills or low areas, and also have collision avoidance radar. They don’t run side-by-side, but instead spread out in formation and rotation, each taking a third of the prescribed area, operating in RTK (Real Time Kinematic is a GPS correction technology technique that provides real-time corrections to location data) with sub-inch accuracy. Each spray tank holds 2.5 gallons, and the batteries last between 5 and 15 minutes. When a drone empties a tank or gets low on charge it returns to the trailer and Williams services it, then it returns to the spot where it stopped spraying. He says with three drones it’s a pretty consistent job to refill tanks and change batteries, but the as technology continues to evolve he sees those processes becoming more streamlined.  

Williams says he is looking forward to the continuing advancements Rantizo provides its contractors, including a potential nighttime exemption, as well as technology to run more drones at one time.  

Rantizo CEO and founder Michael Ott started the company in 2018 and today they have 30 contractors in 18 states. The company recently received $7.5 million in venture capital from Bayer and is currently hiring to double their staff. They are continually accepting applications for new contractors nationwide. 

As part of its service, Rantizo has broken down the complicated process of starting an ag drone business into four steps – all of which they streamline. The first is equipment: they sell and service, as well as provide proprietary software, hardware, and research and development, on their products, along with comprehensive training programs. They currently operate using DJI Agras MG-1P drones. Second, they help navigate the FAA certification process, including a Part 107 (a remote pilot certificate), Part 137 (an agricultural operator certificate), and Section 44807 (exemptions to normal drone operations). Third, they assist contractors in the process of working with state pesticide offices to get applicator permits. Fourth, Rantizo offers insurance both for accidental crop damage and equipment coverage. 

Ott says their advantage is their software platform and legal exemptions to operate three spray drones at once; to his knowledge they are the only company legally doing this. He acknowledges that the current limitations of drones can’t perform whole field applications efficiently – yet. “We tend to do best in the hardest situations – we market ourselves to treat the problem areas.” 

Farm economics in a large part have provided opportunity for this niche. 

“A few years ago farmers focused on yield, yield and yield,” says Ott. “Today, people are starting to look at cutting back on input costs and increasing margins per acre.” Fewer inputs will also translate to environmental efficiency. 

“For a long time farmers have operated that a little herbicide is good, and a lot is better,” says Ott. “But we know that it is not only more cost effective but also better for everything if you farm 2,000 acres and have 200 that are a pain, to treat the 200 acres.” 

As technology advances, the current limitation of 55 pounds is not going to be what changes first, Ott says. Advances will come in the form of more rather than bigger. “It’s always going to be more productive to have three 55-pound drones than one 150-pound drone,” says Ott. “Think of a Roomba cleaning your house – is it better to double the size of the Roomba or have three Roombas running around?” 

He says current bottlenecks involve reloading capacity and as they solve that problem the size of the swarms will increase, which will enable larger capacity. Additional challenges include rural broadband access as well as regulatory aspects – all which Rantizo staff work on daily. 

As precision ag companies like Rantizo embrace the future, colleges like Mitchell Tech in Mitchell, S.D., are preparing the job candidates to work in this field. Devon Russell is director of the precision ag program at Mitchell Tech, which combines aspects of electronics, business, agriculture, and technology to meet industry needs. The program averages about 20 students and has a 100 percent job placement rate. 

Russell has implemented drones in the curriculum since 2016, and with grants the program has purchased several Trimble UX5 drones and a DJI. One of the classes he instructs specifically prepares students to take the Part 107 exam from the FAA to get their remote pilot license. His students combine their learning in GPS/GIS and field, soil and yield mapping to perform both drone imagery and spraying operations. Russell says technology advances in agriculture are growing so quickly they can be hard to keep up with, but the college has great industry partners who keep them updated and included in their field trainings and product launches. He says the future of automated technology is exploding. 

Although the majority of drone uses in agriculture are in farming, Russell’s students have some fun practicing a ranch application as well – counting cows.   

“The local sale barn is near us, and we have a drone that has a thermal camera on it and an automatic counting function, so we fly over there sometimes and practice,” he says. The technology was developed with human search and rescue in mind, but Russell says by changing a few of the parameters they can tally bovines just as easy.  

As with all emerging technology, the issues of appropriate use and privacy come to mind, especially in agriculture. Russell says ethics and legal uses are issues he teaches in his courses and are part of the licensing procedure. 

With drones a relatively emerging technology, the potential is intriguing. 

“Especially as the regulations are slowly lessened, I see the use of drones increasing,” says Russell. “When drones first became available the FAA came down with such harsh regulations it was impossible to use them. As we go forward, they are getting more user-friendly and more automated. 

“This is really just the tip of the iceberg, the possibilities are endless.”

Forage 2021: Microbiomes: Cities in the soil

Imagine a community. Every citizen in the community has a job. Some work in manufacturing. Some work in repair. Some haul off the garbage. Some prepare food. Some…well, we’re not sure what some of them do. They all have a function, but they all have needs that must be met. And they all have the same goal–to survive.  

Now, imagine that community being too small to see, and being in every square inch of soil, touching every plant in the world. 

That’s a plant microbiome. 

In the last 10 years, plant microbiomes have caught the attention of scientists who study agronomy, horticulture and energy.  

As the world looks toward renewable energy, there is increasing focus on improving the efficiency of plants–specifically, those that can be used for biofuels. While that big, sexy topic is attracting attention and grant dollars, that research and its findings is being applied and expanded on in studies that will benefit agriculture in general.  

Peggy Lemaux is a Cooperative Extension specialist with the University of California, Berkeley. She grew up on a small farm in Ohio, but when it was time to choose a career, she thought she’d find something easier than agriculture. So she became a microbiologist in medical research. After becoming disillusioned with medical research, she decided to apply her medical research background to plants. 

Microbiomes in the human body pioneered the research into understanding microbiomes, which are complex communities of microscopic organisms that interact with nearly every living thing. Some are beneficial, some are detrimental, but all exist solely for their own survival, Lemaux said. 

Lemaux’s research has been primarily on the effects of drought on sorghum and its microbiome, and understanding what makes sorghum more drought-tolerant. The Department of Energy funded a $12.3 million grant for the research Lemaux and her colleagues did on the subject. Sorghum is an important plant for biofuel use, and is more drought-tolerant, but also more flooding-tolerant than corn. It also has forage value, so a lot of industries have an interest in optimizing the efficiency of sorghum production, Lemaux said. 

While one would think that identifying the organisms in the microbiome would be the first step in learning their functions and requirements, Lemaux said their research primarily works backward from a genetic standpoint, by identifying individual genetic sequences and then figuring out the function, and identifying the bacteria that perform that function. “You can’t isolate each bacteria and figure out what it is,” she said. “But you can take this whole mash of genomes and put them back together. By figuring out what genomes are there you can figure out what bacteria are there.” 

A lot of research on these types of subjects is performed in a growth chamber, greenhouse or other controlled environments. Lemaux, though, wanted to know how real conditions affect the plant and its microbiome. So her research was performed in fields in California, where her team repeated the same experiments for three years in a row, taking samples of roots, leaves, soil and rhizosphere, a tiny layer between the root and the soil, every week for 17 weeks. “Every year is a little bit different. What we learned one year is fine, but if we do it for two to three years are we going to get the same answer? Not for everything. A lot of the microbe reactions and plant reactions are the same from year to year. We’re putting together three years of expression levels of genes that are in the plant roots. So we can know what kinds of things does the plant think it has to make or do? How is it protecting itself? A lot of those things, by looking at three years of data, are the same. That’s reassuring to those of us who do research.” 

During the study they discovered that the microbiome reacts faster than anyone anticipated to changes in water conditions. For example, when the plants were droughted for eight to nine weeks, the diversity of microbe types in the rhizosphere dropped from maybe 100 different bacterial species down to maybe 10, Lemaux said. Once water was added back to the plants, within 24 hours the number of species in the rhizosphere spiked back up to 100. The microbial community in the soil stays the same, drought or not; it’s just the rhizosphere community that changes dramatically. 

Lemaux pointed out that the soil they were studying isn’t “natural.” It’s been used for Extension agronomy studies for decades, so it was essentially converted to cropland. “Even so, it’s very diverse in terms of its microorganisms,” she said. “We hadn’t gotten rid of the microbes in the soil. That’s good.” 

Volker Brozel is a professor at South Dakota State University and is studying microbiomes in the context of “natural” soil compared to cultivated soil. One of SDSU’s study sites is the Sioux Prairie in eastern South Dakota, which has been owned by The Nature Conservancy since the 1960s, Brozel said. “It gives a comparison to what it looked like before people came with plows.” Brozel studies primarily the nitrogen cycle. “The prairie takes care of itself. Which, obviously, it did for many thousands of years. We do know there’s a lot of microbial activity involved in the root environment and inside the plant. When one gets to cultivated cropland there’s a whole different story, as a lot of the natural microbiota has been lost due to monoculture.”  

Brozel points out that most of the major breakthroughs in farming in the last few decades have been above-ground, plant-focused or on the physical properties of soil, as with no-till farming. “People have increasingly wondered what’s happening below ground. We don’t see it, but it’s very much part of the plant. Every plant has a root system.” 

The question they’re asking now is how to make the plant system more efficient at the underground level. “There are a lot of lifeforms and a lot going on there–fungi, protozoa, bacteria, insects,” Brozel says. “I think the important thing to realize for a producer is it’s not as simple as good guys and bad guys. Every organism in there is in the game of surviving, from their perspective. A plant wants water, phosphorus, nitrogen. A bacterium wants food. Sometimes it benefits the plant, sometimes it’s to the detriment of the plant.”  

Brozel points out, though, that the focus needs to be on the community, not on finding a “magic” bacterium that will make everything better. “There is something to that, but the soil is very diverse. It’s not that simple because you’re introducing it to a complex world. My lab asks how does that world work in its totality. Before we fix the engine, can we understand how it works and tweak it?” 

A natural grassland, Brozel says, is very capable of supplying itself with enough nitrogen through fixation. In a plant monoculture, like most farmground, some of that ability is lost. “If we can find out how that works we understand better the pieces to put back into monoculture. These nitrogen fixers can boost plants if you can boost their happiness. Fixing nitrogen takes a huge investment from the bacteria. It’s a very energy-intense reaction. Bacteria don’t do this because they feel like they want to do a good deed for the plant. They have to get something in return. Understanding how that interplay works is important for us.” 

Sen Subramanian is a professor in agronomy, horticulture and plant science at SDSU. His research focuses on how microbiomes affect nodule development in soybeans, and, in partnership with Kansas State University, how microbes affect chilling tolerance in sorghum. Sorghum would be a desirable crop on the Great Plains, as it doesn’t require as much water or fertilizer as corn, can tolerate flooding more than corn and can be used in both energy and agriculture applications. However, because it’s sensitive to early-stage chilling, meaning it needs a higher soil temperature than other crops, it often can’t use winter moisture for germination, and it sometimes freezes before it’s harvested. For fields that aren’t suitable for corn, or other cultivation, sorghum could be a valuable crop if scientists can solve that one small problem.   

The research is still relatively new, but several companies are in the early stages of offering farmers microbial options for improving growth and pest resistance. They identify a few species of bacteria that have a beneficial function and add them through seed coat or specific application. One company, called BioConsortia, is developing, or has developed, biologics to address nematodes, insects and fungus, plus nitrogen fixation and biostiumlants, which they say consistently improves the yield of various fruit and vegetable crops by 15 percent, according to their website.  

Brozel and Lemaux both pointed out that microbiomes are specific to ecoregions, so the microbes that would be beneficial to cucumbers in California wouldn’t be much help to millet in Montana. “They have to be tailored to soil structure and a range of factors, like temperature and rainfall,” Brozel said. “What would work in eastern South Dakota wouldn’t necessarily work in western South Dakota.”  

The scientists all hope their research will add another piece to the puzzle of what goes on underground that affects how plants perform and survive. “One can apply concepts to closely-related crops,” Subramanian said. “A benefit of doing this detailed analysis is you can identify what microbe, but also what quality in that microbe is performing a function. You can find another microbe that already exists in another environment that provides the same benefit.”

Like the communities in the world, microbiomes all have unique aspects, and they don’t all have the same needs or functions. Billings doesn’t need gondoliers and Venice doesn’t usually need snowplow drivers. The key, scientists are discovering, is figuring out who is doing which job, and who to hire and who to fire to get the important jobs done. 

Forage 2021: Baling in the Big City: Leep Hay and Grain, Co. Makes the Most of Farming in Montana’s Gallatin Valley

The west was won by homesteaders – pioneers bold enough to stake their hopes and dreams on a cash crop and a sod shack. Some places proved unsuitable for farming and all that remains is a rusty windmill. But in other areas, like the Gallatin Valley, barley boomed and neighbors sprouted up on all sides. Now, over a century later, wheat fields brush up against the side of a Starbucks and swathed fields are swapped for subdivisions as fast as the bricks can be laid. Welcome to the world that Greg and Sherwin Leep, third generation Montana farmers, wake up to every day. Their grandpa ran dairy cattle, and then their father started farming some ground near Four Corners to help support the family of 12.  

The world has changed a lot since then, but the Gallatin Valley seems to be on a faster track.  Even in the Leep brothers’ lifetimes, the transformation has been staggering. 

“It’s changed – changed incredibly,” says Greg. “One of the properties that we own north of Belgrade, that was open all around it when we bought it seven or eight years ago, and now they’ve got a school built adjacent to it and there’s houses right up to the property line. We’re just in the middle of a lot of growth, and it’s happening everywhere in the valley.” 

Farming and ranching have always been tough work, but an increasing population brings new challenges, says Greg – one of these being more congested roadways. 

“The traffic is quite a big thing we have to deal with on a daily basis in the summer, just getting moved around. Highway 191 goes up to Big Sky and Yellowstone Park, and that’s the highway we’ve got to get off the yard onto, so that’s always kind of a challenge.” 

Today, Leep Hay and Grain, Co. farms about 10 miles in all directions from the original Four Corners farm, so roading a combine and 50-foot header from one field to the next can turn into an exasperating all-day project near the city that’s come to be known as “Boz-Angeles.”   

With more people grabbing for limited land, Greg says: “The property values have escalated exponentially over the last few years.” 

That’s not inherently bad, though, especially if you are looking to sell your land; and for corporate investors, expensive land is just another day in the life. It’s not hard for developers to scare up enough cash to buy up acres and pour foundations. But what about the farmers? 

Sherwin says, “We’re trying to survive. It’s a good agricultural area in a lot of ways, because soil is good and water is good, but the price of the land is getting to be probably the biggest challenge. It’s getting as high as $14,000-$15,000 per acre for good land that’s located reasonably well. There’s just no way you can afford that and make it pay. So that’s probably the biggest challenge, but as far as the productivity of the land, the Gallatin Valley is a good place to be, it’s pretty reliable, year in year out. We’ve got good water most of the time – sometimes it gets a little tight, but from the point of being a farmer, yeah, it’s a good place to be.”  

Fortunately, the Leeps are out-of-the-box thinkers. “You have to create advantages wherever you can. You have to utilize the land where you can find it.” Thanks to some creative use of land programs and a handful of efficiency hacks, the Leeps have been able to do just that.  

According to Sherwin, the number one reason they’ve been able to expand their operation is their use of conservation easements. It’s an increasing trend: the Montana Association of Land Trusts reports that over 2.6 million Montana acres are protected from future development through these programs. 

“The land trust has been active here in promoting conservation easements,” says Sherwin. “We’ve participated in that program, and because we’re working on our fourth property into conservation easement, we feel that we’ve got a base of operation preserved for the next generation. We’re keeping some of those lands viable for agriculture that way, so it’s been kind of a good deal. Of course, they give you a pretty significant tax break by entering into easement, so we’ve been able to use some of the proceeds they pay to expand and buy additional acres, so it’s broadened our base a bit and it’s been helpful to keep our operation viable in kind of a busy, developing environment here in the Gallatin Valley.” 

Greg agrees, “It’s been very helpful for us, just as far as being able to expand our operation, because the price per acre here is just unaffordable for agriculture. To buy it and then try to pay for it farming is just not able to be done. So, by using that tool, we’ve been able to grow our land base quite a bit over the last 20 years. It would have been impossible without it.” 

With 5,500 irrigated acres to farm, and half of that in hay, land isn’t the only resource the Leeps have to fight for – between developers, ranchers, farmers, and conservationists, Sherwin says, “Water can get a little tight. 

 “There are people who think that agriculture takes too much water, like hay especially, it does take a lot of water to grow a good crop of hay. Fortunately, here in Montana, we have a pretty firmly embedded water law – the legislature still supports agriculture, so we haven’t felt hugely threatened yet.”  

For now, farmers have a good grip on the hose, but according to Sherwin, “That’s going to be more and more of an issue as time goes on.”  

“There are competing interests who have put out big money to try to purchase the lake water and that has taken some of the water from agriculture. The city of Bozeman has a standing offer of $6,000 an acre foot for the lake water, and when you have a hundred, or in our case a little more than that in lake water, that can be pretty tempting.”  

Lots of people come to the Gallatin Valley because of the elevation, but it’s usually for the skiing. The Leeps love the altitude, too, but it has less to do with snowy slopes and more to do with strategic farming.  

“Our operation works pretty slick in a way, because there’s a little bit of climatic difference between the north and south end of the valley,” says Sherwin. “The north is a little bit earlier, and as you gain elevation heading south to Gallatin Gateway, everything’s a little bit later. So we start in the north, and just try to keep moseying along from north to south. And in so doing, we can be pretty timely, with both the grain and the hay, with just one set of equipment and not too many people. So it adds quite a bit of efficiency just from that standpoint.” 

Besides good old-fashioned hard work and creative business strategies, the Leeps insist that the secret to their success is just being neighborly. More people might mean more neighbors, but the Leeps choose to use that to their advantage. Sherwin says they try to live by a saying they learned from an old Dutch potato farmer, “Take care of your friends, but treat your neighbors the best.”  

Judging by the Leeps’ ability to expand in such a tough market, it’s worked out pretty well for them. Despite skyrocketing land prices, they’ve gone from owning only 20 percent of their farm ground to about 70 percent.  

“Treating everybody straight up as much as possible has created opportunity for us. We feel really fortunate about how we’ve been able to grow,” says Sherman.   

By being good neighbors, the Leeps have not only been able to gather up more acres, they’ve also been able to improve their existing land.  

“We trade some ground with potato farmers,” Greg says. “We rent them some of our ground and then they’ll trade us some hay ground. Some of it we do cash leases but some of it we actually trade acres. We put hay up on their place and they put potatoes on our ground. So it helps both of us with rotation.” 

The Leeps’ good neighbor policy applies to water usage as well.  

“That’s always going to be little bit of a tug-of-war, between the competing interests. The water rights are such that, especially with the Gallatin River, that you could completely dry it up if you wanted to. But I think all of us recognize how important it is not to let that happen, with the recreational interests that we have in this area,” says Sherwin. “We work together with people to try to keep both parties alive. We try to keep everybody somewhat happy when the water gets tight.” 

Farming in the Gallatin Valley might feel a little cramped these days, but the Leeps don’t waste time grumbling about it. Rather, they are happy where they are. “It’s mostly irrigated and productive land, so we’re very fortunate,” Sherwin says. “Having the opportunity to work out-of-doors in creation the way we do, and with our family, has just been an incredible blessing. To work together and to grow it together.” 

The Leep brothers laugh and say, “Maybe it’s time for a career change…” but in the end, there’s nothing they’d rather be doing, and nowhere else they’d rather be doing it – after all, it’s a popular place for a reason.  

Forage 2021: Innovation in the hayfield

Two former ag teachers, a mechanical engineer and a machinist were fishing one day, talking about haying. While this may sound like the beginning of a good joke, their discussion on how difficult it was sometimes to rake and bale hay efficiently without unpredicted afternoon showers setting the process back resulted in the development of a new product, proving the old proverb correct, necessity is indeed the mother of invention.  

The Flex Rake saves time, labor and wear and tear on tractors, says Joe Waldorff, the vice president of the company. Photo courtesy of FlexRake.
FlexRake

For years, hay producers have had enough to worry about while cutting, drying, baling and storing hay efficiently without weather events, second guessing timing, or sacrificing quantity for quality, and as a result, machinery manufacturers have responded with new innovations and inventions and more improvements to old equipment, year after year.  

“We were looking for something that one, would eliminate a second tractor and the extra labor, and two, some way to get raked and baled at the same time so it wouldn’t get rained on and we just kept working with it and trying one thing or another,” says Joe Waldorff, vice president of Flex Rake LLC, the business that was formed between friends while fishing. 

It took roughly one haying season of adapting and improving before the designers were happy with the end product. They made it more heavy-duty and more trouble free so that it would last longer, changing the shaft to two-inches with three carrier bearings and adding a larger rear frame so it would handle larger windrows. 

The Flex Rake looks similar to a traditional rake, but is modified for use between a tractor and baler, eliminating the need for a second operator and tractor, or pass with a tractor and baler at a later time, saving money, labor and wear on equipment.  

“The drive shaft between the tractor and the baler is installed inside of the frame of the rake,” says Flex Rake’s website. “There are no PTO driven parts on the rake. This allows for safer operation of the baler behind the rake. The rake has wings which come in and out, hydraulically, for ease of use, precise hay gathering, and transport of the implement.” 

Because Flex Rakes are built to order in Alabama, they can be used for a variety of haying needs from traditional grass hay to perennial peanut hay.  

“We build the frames and have all the components ready to customize,” Waldorff says. “The main things that are specific to the individuals is the wiring harness for the baler, the choice of PTO shafts, the hydraulics and the rake wheels.” 

Wheels come with high capacity tines or standard tines, depending on the forage being raked and baled. For those who use both square and round balers, the Flex Rake can be modified with an additional wiring harness to accommodate both balers.  

While Flex Rake LLC is a small company with one, highly modifiable product, larger, more well-known equipment manufacturers are coming out with newer and more efficient products. Square balers are always reaching for more capacity, swathers are cutting faster and laying nicer windrows that can dry faster, and now Vermeer has come out with a self-propelled baler, the first of its kind. 

Automating parts of the baling process, the ZR5-1200 aims to reduce the number of steps an operator must complete to make a bale as well as provide the ability to automatically make real-time adjustments based on field, crop and operator inputs. Photo courtesy of Vermeer.
VermeerBaler

“There’s always advancements in precision planting technology and that’s getting better all the time, but probably one of the greatest things that’s come out in agriculture as a whole as far as machinery goes is Vermeer’s self-propelled baler,” says Dave Vanek of Billings Farmhand, Inc. “They’re performing really good with very little for problems with a new piece, so it’s been working pretty good.”  

Because it is driven by all hydraulic motors, the net wrapping process is sped up considerably. It is easier and faster to navigate fields with the zero-turn capabilities, that can also be turned off, locking the front wheels together so that it steers like a pickup while transporting from field to field at speeds over 30 miles per hour. The on-board camera system lets operators view the bale formation, from intake to bale ejection, without having to physically look back. Not only does the self-propelled baler make the baling process faster, estimating it can bale a field one and a half times faster than the traditional method, it also makes picking up hay out of the field faster with the ability to leave the bale straight in line with the baler or rotate them 90 degrees. 

“It’s not self-driving yet, but there will be a day when it is,” Vanek says, adding that Hesston by Massey Ferguson has a self-propelled windrower that can cut hay down at 17 miles per hour, hands free. “It’s all GPS guided because you can’t physically drive one that fast in the field,” he says. “They really can out-do what a human can do, you just plug in your map and go. Precision agriculture is here.” 

Forage 2021: Grazing and Forage Management During and After Drought

Winter is a good time of year to begin making grazing and forage plans for the upcoming season. Of course, there can be a tremendous amount of uncertainty on what type of growing conditions we will see in the spring and summer. This is especially true if we had droughty conditions the previous summer or little fall and winter precipitation.  

Precipitation and Pasture Growth  

Total plant production on native rangelands is dynamic and influenced by multiple weather-related factors. The most important factor influencing yearly plant production is the amount of growing season precipitation, which can vary widely in different years. Plant production directly influences appropriate year-to-year stocking rates. In dry years with limited plant production, livestock forage demand often exceeds available plant production and livestock producers are faced with decisions of overutilizing pastures, selling cattle, or finding alternative feed resources. In years with above average precipitation, plant production supply may be greater than livestock grazing demand. 

As one would expect, the timing and duration of drought conditions are key in the resulting effect on pasture growth.  Dry conditions in April and May would impact growth of cool-season grasses and dry conditions from mid-May to mid-July would have a more pronounced effect on warm-season grasses. Spring temperatures may also affect the start of the growing season and use of available soil moisture. During the 2012 drought, many areas in central and eastern part of the state had a moderate amount of precipitation during April; however, drought conditions intensified beginning in May and remained through the rest of the year. Observations in the Sandhills showed cool-season grasses achieving about 40 to 70 percent of the average growth, while warm-season grasses attained about 30 to 60 percent of their average growth.  Most warm-season grasses had stopped growth by late June and were going into a drought-induced dormancy.   

For many livestock producers, carryover or residual grass from the previous growing season can help support stocking rates that were higher than what would have been anticipated just based on grass production during a dry growing season. If the previous year was dry, and the amount of carryover forage is limited, producers should consider this in their cattle number and stocking rate plans. 

Grass and Rangeland Response to Drought 

The primary response and effects of drought on grasses and pastures include: 

  • Reduced aboveground growth. 
  • Reduced root growth. 
  • Fewer reproductive tillers (seed heads) and plants remain mostly vegetative. 
  • Severe drought will cause plants to go into dormancy. 
  • Reduced growth of rhizomes and formation of new buds that will produce next and future year’s tillers. 
  • Lower carbohydrate (energy) reserve storage. 

Although most pasture grasses are quite resilient, it is common to expect that production during the year following a drought will be reduced, even with average precipitation.  The reasons for this are most likely associated with the reduced root and rhizome growth, formation of new buds and overall energy reserve status of the plants.  The exact amount reduced forage production the year after a drought is difficult to predict because the precipitation patterns and severity of each drought are rarely the same.  In addition, the precipitation amounts and timing this coming year are unknown.  However, rangeland that is in a higher ecological state or range condition will recover quicker after drought than lower condition range.   

Timing of grazing is an important factor in grazing management and a common recommendation is to avoid grazing in the same pasture at the same time each year.  Previous research has shown that repeated annual grazing during the rapid growth stage will reduce the overall vigor of grasses.  This rapid growth phase is when grass plants are transitioning from a vegetative to elongation and reproductive stages.  This rapid growth phase typically occurs in May for cool-season grasses and during June and July for warm-season species.  Combining drought and grazing stress will greatly increase the likelihood of reduced forage production in the subsequent year. 

Drought Grazing Plans and Management 

The uncertainty of how much spring and early summer precipitation will occur suggests the need for plans that include multiple scenarios.  These scenarios might include: 1) average or above average precipitation during that period, 2) abnormally dry to moderate drought (60 to 90 percent of average precipitation, or 3) continued severe drought (less than 50 to 60 percent of average precipitation).   

Regardless of which scenario comes true, the primary focus should be about balancing forage supply (growth, production) and demand (animal numbers).  Keep in mind that grazing management through consecutive drought years is critical for future pasture health.   

For pastures and rangeland, common recommendations for the year after a drought include: 

  • Delaying initial turn-out to pasture. 
  • Reduction of stocking rates. 
  • Capitalize on growth of weedy species that might occur. 
  • Use rotation grazing and in central/western Nebraska, graze pastures only once from turn-out to killing frost. 
  • Use alternative forages. 

After a long period of feeding hay, delaying turn-out to pasture is one recommendation that many producers find difficult to follow.  Other than cases where a short, early grazing period is used to make use of weedy annuals, like downy brome; delaying turn-out will benefit the perennial grasses.  The deferment will allow the grasses to develop more leaves and ideally reach a point where some of their depleted energy reserves can begin to be restored. 

Where deferred rotation grazing (4 or more pastures) is used, deferment priority should be given to pastures that were grazed when grasses were green and did have some growth occurring before they went into drought dormancy.  Overall, the greatest number of cow-days per acre will be obtained when pastures are not grazed until plants have completed most of their growth for the year.  

Using Critical Dates to Help Plan 

Many ranch drought plans suggest the use of ‘critical’ or ‘trigger’ dates.  The concept is based on monitoring precipitation amount received by these defined dates and initiating certain management actions when those precipitation amounts are less than anticipated.  Management actions vary by individual ranch operation and would include things such as various levels of culling on livestock classes, feeding hay, finding additional pasture, drylot feeding of animals, or using seeded forages.  Precipitation amounts and critical dates vary for different pasture and rangeland types and location.  Critical date plans and actions are flexible over time and it does often take several years of records and observations to refine the plan for an individual operation.  In general for Nebraska, important periods and dates are as follow: 

  • Previous growing season:  Consider the previous year’s pasture production and level of utilization.  Drought in the previous year will likely be reflected in lower production during the current year because of reduced vigor in the grass plants. 
  • April 1: end of dormant season (October through March). Precipitation to this point supports early cool-season grass growth. 
  • May 1: Precipitation to this point is the basis for cool-season grass growth. The amount of moisture in the soil profile at this point will also affect the rapid growth of cool-season grasses that occurs during May and is the basis for early warm-season grass growth.  
  • June 15:  Precipitation to this point is the basis for warm-season grass growth.  Moisture in the soil profile will also affect the rapid growth of warm-season grasses that occurs during late June and July. 

Options for planting to produce extra forage

Seeded Annual Forages 

There are a number of different cool- and warm-season annual forages that can be planted to produce forage during times of deficit.  Although most all of these can either be hayed or grazed, the greatest tonnage of forage will be produced when they are hayed.  This is because grazing is less efficient in terms of actual consumption versus the production potential of the forage.  With grazing, there are the losses associated with trampling and reduced production because growth is interrupted when plants are grazed at various growth stages. 

Growing any annual forage with irrigation would of course, greatly increase yield during drought.  This is particularly true for those planted late summer with the intention of fall forage. 
Cool- and warm-season annuals with potential forage use are listed below. 

Information on seeding rates and methods, fertility requirements, or other cultural practices for any of these forages can be obtained from your local Extension office or seed supplier. 

Spring seeded cool-season annuals 

  • Oats 
  • Spring triticale 
  • Spring barley 
  • Italian or annual ryegrass 
  • Field peas 
  • Several other legumes 

Planting date: mid-March to mid-April 

Grazing: mid-May through June 

Hay: mid to late June 

Late-spring or summer seeded warm-season annuals 

  • Sorghum-sudangrass hybrids 
  • Sudangrass 
  • Sorghum 
  • Pearl millet 
  • Foxtail millet 
  • Corn 
  • Teff 
  • Crabgrass 
  • Several legumes 

Planting date: late-May through July 

Grazing: Varies with planting date and species 

Hay: Varies with planting date and speciese 

When planted later, several of these forages are suitable for windrow or stockpiled grazing in fall or winter. Planting should occur by about August 10 for significant fall forage. 

Summer or late-summer seeded cool-season annuals (for fall/winter forage) 

  • Oats  
  • Spring triticale  
  • Barley  
  • Spring wheat  
  • Annual ryegrass  
  • Field peas and other legumes  
  • Turnips and other brassicas 

Planting date: mid July through August 

Grazing: early October through November 

Hay: Cereal grains suitable for haying in late October 

Cereal grains are suitable for windrow grazing in late-fall or winter 

Planting should occur by September 1 for significant fall forage. 

Fall seeded cool-season winter annuals 

  • Rye 
  • Winter wheat 
  • Winter triticale  

Planting date: September through October 

Grazing: Some fall grazing when planted early; mostly the following spring 

Hay: May for rye and June for triticale and wheat 

Windrow grazing:  Windrowing in May or June (before advanced stages of maturity) and grazing windrows will result in greater harvest efficiency.  

*Any of these winter annuals planted in late July or August will produce significantly more fall forage. However, adequate residue on the soil (to maintain lower soil temperatures) and irrigation are desirable. 

* Winter annuals can be planted as late as November or December; however, spring forage yield will be reduced with later planting dates. 

Forage 2021: Give and Take: When Should Farmers and Ranchers Consider Fertilizing Pasture or Hay Ground?

Nature has provided the perfect patterns for renewal of the soil; as animals graze, they return “recycled” plant material rich in nitrogen to the ground in the form of manure. They trample some grasses as they graze as well, and this also adds to soil health. Rain and snow also nitrogen to the ground, and roots of legumes such as alfalfa fix nitrogen in the soil.  

What happens when we interrupt this process by removing a crop mechanically, year after year, without putting anything back? Should hay producers fertilize? If so, when and how much?  

It depends… 

Jerry Volesky, University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor of Agronomy and Horticulture, says that soil testing is a good first step in determining just what each field’s soils may need.  

“Nitrogen is probably the most important factor in grass production, but keeping everything balanced, including phosphorus and potassium, is key,” he said. “We always encourage doing a soil test to find out the needs of each field. With a hay crop, it’s all taken off, and you are removing nutrients year after year. It’s a slow process, but you can see it over time. With phosphorus, for example, we did some testing on hay plots and we could see the phosphorus levels slowly decline each year to the point where yield was affected. Everything from the soil goes into the hay and each year you haul it away. Rains and snowmelt replace a small amount of nitrogen, but it’s a losing battle if you don’t ever put anything back.” 

The next step is to push a pencil to determine whether investing in added fertilizer will pay off. Volesky said that varied soil fertility levels in Nebraska can indicate a need for anywhere from 40 to 70 pounds of nitrogen per acre.  

“Once you know how much the ground needs you can figure the cost of fertilizer and get a pretty good idea of what kind of a return you’d be looking at based on the value of the hay. In many cases, applying fertilizer will pay very well, but not in every instance.” 

Sara Bauder, South Dakota State University Extension agronomy field specialist, said that a general rule of thumb is roughly twenty-five pounds of nitrogen per ton of expected forage production per acre. Hay land soils should be tested annually and pastures every two to three years. Soil nutrient levels change more quickly when a hay crop is removed year after year in comparison with pastures, that benefit from the natural nutrient cycle. Legumes such as alfalfa and clover fix atmospheric nitrogen in the soil, but phosphorus and potassium are also key macronutrients vital to soil and plant health. 

“It is not recommended to add nitrogen on alfalfa as it is a legume and should not need any additional nitrogen,” Bauder said. “As long as the stand is at least one third alfalfa, you should not need any additional nitrogen. There will likely not be any need to add nitrogen during the lifespan of the alfalfa/grass stand unless it’s very old and the alfalfa has become very thin, leaving mainly grasses. However, soil tests should be periodically taken as phosphorus and potassium will likely be needed.” 

Proper fertilization helps with plant vigor, increasing longevity and production of alfalfa.  

“It’s imperative to make sure that you’re feeding your alfalfa stands so they stay healthy and productive as long as good soil management profitability allows,” Bauder said. “Potash can help improve winter survival as well.” 

Variables to consider while planning fertilizer applications include the amount of expected moisture, the anticipated value of the hay crop per ton, historical tonnage produced and increased tonnage expected after fertilizing. Wetter regions and irrigated fields are more likely to give a much greater return for investment, while drier, arid areas will see a smaller increase in tonnage. Available moisture is key to getting the benefit out of a fertilizer application. 

“You’ve got to have rain to get the value out of it,” Volesky said. “For dryland applications in western South Dakota and Nebraska with lower annual rainfall, it’s a good idea to make sure you have the fertilizer available, then watch the forecast for a significant rain coming up and make a quick application right before a rain. On good irrigated pastures or hayfields you can put down a lot more fertilizer because you have the moisture available.” 

A lack of moisture can also increase risk of nitrate toxicity in plants. It’s critical to test feedstuffs that are drought stressed especially when nitrogen fertilizer has been applied. 

“Nitrate toxicity is very dependent on the situation,” Bauder said. “Essentially, when your area has received less than normal precipitation and you applied nitrogen to your forage crops you need to monitor the situation. If you feel plants are drought stressed or if you applied more nitrogen fertilizer than recommended, it is worth the money to get the feed tested to be safe. Nitrates typically accumulate at the bottom of the stalk of most forages, so it’s best to make sure you are taking whole plant samples (from the soil surface and up).” 

Timing of fertilizer application is everything. Most hayfields in the upper Midwest are seeded with cool season grasses such as smooth brome, crested wheat grass or intermediate wheat grass. Getting the fertilizer in place prior to plant growth in the spring is ideal. For warm season grasses such as switchgrass, big bluestem or foxtail millet, a June application is best. 

“April to early May is great for getting fertilizer down before those cool season grasses are starting their growth,” Volesky said. “Here in the Nebraska Sandhills, hay meadows can be pretty wet in April so some guys get their fertilizer down even earlier while the ground is still frozen, but April is the most common timeframe.” 

Pastures and native rangelands in western South Dakota, the Nebraska Sandhills, and similar arid regions are not typically fertilized, but Volesky said that producers in areas with more rainfall, such as eastern South Dakota and Nebraska might find an application of fertilizer would boost growth, especially in pastures that are predominately smooth brome or other tame grasses. Data from the University of Wyoming, the University of Minnesota, as well as studies done in Oklahoma show that applying nitrogen to tame grass pastures can increase tonnage yield per acre and improve carrying capacity. But producers need to first make sure that adequate moisture is present, and secondly, take care not to overgraze.  

Pastures tend to benefit significantly more than hayfields from the natural fertilization cycle. 

“When pastures are grazed, nutrient cycling happens as manure and urine are deposited and trampling of some of the grasses occurs,” Volesky said. “These natural benefits can be applied to hayfields by grazing them in the fall or early winter. In some cases, producers feed on a hay field and then drag it in the spring to break up the manure. These practices can greatly improve soil health and nutrient levels, but they are not always possible due to location and availability of water and winter protection.” 

Forage 2021: Northern farmers grow mustard on purpose

For most of us, mustard is either the sunny, tangy condiment we put on hot dogs, or the weeds we try to keep out of our fields. Some farmers, though, look forward to seeing mustard crop up in their fields. Because they planted it there. 

Morgan Oie is the president of Hanrahan Farms, near Scobey, Montana, which is on the northeastern end of the state. On the farm he works with his father-in-law, Dave Hanrahan, they grow small grains–durum, canola, peas, lentils, flax and mustard. They use a rotation to help with weed control, as they’ve been completely no-till for more than 20 years.  

Oie said they choose the crops to plant each year based on the weed situation and the market. Some of their crops, like mustard, peas and lentils, are technically broadleaves, which would be killed by most herbicides. They can spray grasses in their broadleaf crops, but if thistle gets to be a problem, they have to change their crop to something like flax, durum or canola, which allows them to use a stronger chemical that will take care of the Canada and Russian thistle.  

When it comes to fertilizer, adding peas and lentils to the rotation gives a break on nitrogen application, as those fix the nitrogen in the soil naturally.  

Canola and mustard have big taproots, so they break up hardpan and loosen the soil down to 6 or 8 inches. 

So their choice of crop depends on price forecasts and what the field needs. 

Hanrahan Farms has been growing mustard for five years. Each year they sign a contract with the Olds Products Company, which makes Koops mustard, found in grocery stores across the United States. Oie said they buy seed directly from Olds, and the company buys the crop back, so they deal with only one person for the whole growing cycle. According to the Olds website, they’re a family-owned company that has been working directly with farmers for more than 100 years.  

Herman Kandel, an agronomist with North Dakota State University Extension, said the contract is one reason not many farmers in North Dakota are growing mustard right now. “You can’t just drive to any elevator and sell the mustard,” he said. “You must have a contract available.” 

The grower tells the company how many acres they’re planning to seed, and the company calculates how much mustard seed they’ll need, and arrives at a yield per acre they’ll pay a set price for. Oie said this year they’re paying $.36 a pound, up to 800 pounds per acre. If the yield is over that, Oie said they can shop around to sell it somewhere else, but usually the company will buy all of it at that price.  

The contract guarantees the price before planting, which makes it easier to figure a break-even cost. If hail or drought takes out the crop before harvest, there’s no penalty, and they start over the next year.  

The growing season is fairly short, so harvest usually rolls around in late August or September. “It usually finishes ripening earlier than canola, and right ahead of the durum, so it fits in pretty nicely that way,” Oie said. Harvest doesn’t require any special equipment, just a combine with the same header they use on wheat and everything else.  

Oie said the company assumes all cost after the seed is harvested. They pick it up, clean it and haul it. 

Olds contracts with farmers in different areas of the country, hoping that if one area gets droughted or hailed out, another area will have a sufficient crop to meet their needs.  

One drawback with the crop is that not as much work has been done genetically on mustard as on its relative, canola, so it’s riskier and harder to grow. “Canola’s come so far in even the last 10 years as far as being shatterproof and Roundup ready,” Oie said. “Mustard isn’t like that. The pods are very delicate. You can watch deer run across the field and the pods just shatter behind them, when it’s ripe.” Mustard hasn’t been genetically modified at all, and Oie suspects they may want to keep it that way, for non-GMO and organic markets.  

While the canola yield can be two to three times the yield of mustard, Oie said pound for pound, mustard is more profitable. 

“Like any crop, the price has to compete with other crops,” Kandel said. “But also the risk of growing a crop you’re not familiar with is substantial. So farmers shy away from growing a new crop if there isn’t an incentive. The soybean price is very high, and it’s very easy to grow soybeans. From a risk management standpoint, farmers go with crops they’re more familiar with. If the price of mustard is really high compared with other crops, we see an increase in interest.”  

When the pencil pushing is done, Oie said even in bad years, like the drought of 2017, they break even, or maybe lose a little, but the good years make it worthwhile. “It’s a good crop. We enjoy raising it.” But he doesn’t recommend eating the spicy crop straight out of the field.  

Forage 2021: It Depends… : The best way to the best alfalfa hay

When it comes to farming and ranching, “it depends…” is about the only answer that applies to every situation.  

There are a lot of factors of hay production no one can control. Chief on the list is moisture, even for the irrigated folks. Follow that with weevils, aphids, gophers and winter kill, and it starts to seem a little high-maintenance. But when you’ve been in the business long enough, you learn to control what you can, and fix what you can’t control, and to adapt when necessary.  

George Packard, the owner and manager of Packard Ranch Company near Arthur, Nebraska, grows mostly irrigated alfalfa-grass mix, added to a calf backgrounding, cow-calf and custom farming operation.  

The ranch was established in 1906, and they started raising alfalfa in the irrigated Sandhills ground north of Lake McCoughnahy in the 1950s, and raised dryland alfalfa before that. Their market was primarily dairies and feedlots, but they’ve adjusted their hay production to make it less fussy. Now they feed their hay themselves, or sell round bales locally to other cow-calf producers, having switched most of their fields to alfalfa-grass mixes. 

The addition of grass–usually elephant grass, orchardgrass and/or festulolium–has added some flexibility and resilience to their hay crop. “It’s a lot easier to put that hay up,” Packard said. “You can bale that hay in more of the daylight hours. There’s enough grass that it cushions the leaves. We can bale in the afternoon, or when the dew first comes on in the evening, rather than going out in the middle of the night. It cures out faster. We get more tons cut and baled. It’s a phenomenal feed, and the cows won’t waste any of it. You lose the market for feedlots and dairies, but for cow-calf or backgrounding, we see nothing wrong with the grass-alfalfa mixture.” 

Packard said the grass-alfalfa mixture also provides more energy, which helps in colder weather.  

A healthy hay crop starts with good seed, that’s suitable for the climate you’re planting it in, Packard says. He uses a grass-alfalfa mix from Tug-Of-War Seeds and he’s been happy with the hay test, and the tonnage from those fields.  Last year some of their grass-alfalfa mix hay tested at 22 percent crude protein, with an RFV of 200.  “We’re pretty sandy soil, not that high quality of ground. That’s phenomenal,” he said.  

When it comes to issues, Packard says they have their share. “I don’t know that you can ever get away from pests or disease. We see winter kill pretty easy. We have a lot of insect pressure just like anyone else. You can’t get away from that. About all you can do is start over.” 

As they encountered problems with their alfalfa that would have prompted them to replant, they’ve gradually moved away from straight alfalfa and the accompanying issues. They still see weevils, but it is less of a problem if the alfalfa is mixed with clover and grass. However, the alfalfa-grass mixture requires more fertilizer than straight alfalfa, which fixes nitrogen on its own. “You can’t expect a field to produce if you don’t feed it. It’s a little more input, but the results pay,” Packard said.   

As dairies became more concentrated in certain geographic areas, the market for dairy-grade, straight alfalfa diminished, and the cost of freight makes the distant dairies out of reach, for the most part. The local feedlots have access to less expensive, high-energy distillers feed, so Packard says the local cow-calf producers have created the best market for their feed. 

But the dairy market is still a guide. “We price our hay just under the dairy price. We go by the USDA dairy price in the Platte Valley. I don’t have any problems selling it at just below dairy-quality price,” Packard said.  

A couple hundred miles north, near Newell, South Dakota, Tom Seaman has been putting up alfalfa for 50 years. He was involved with South Dakota State University test plots in the 1970s, so he’s spent his life finding the best way to put up the best hay. 

He bought a place near Newell with irrigated alfalfa 23 years ago and got serious about alfalfa and selling hay about 12 years ago. They’ve shipped big square bales to 12 different states and China.  

“I’m the first to admit Mother Nature will always play a part in alfalfa stand production, as well as longevity,” he says. “But there are things you can do to help your odds. The one I will stress is fertilization, though all are part of establishing and growing good, healthy long-lasting alfalfa stands.” 

Success with alfalfa starts with soil preparation. “A thick stand will control weeds and grass. A firm seedbed is one of the keys,” he says. “I can remember before the roller-packers came along, my dad and anybody that grew alfalfa planted early in the spring to get a snow on the seed. The snow created the firm seedbed. A roller packer or some kind of packer wheels will help ensure a good take on your alfalfa. The old dawgs always told me the best time to plant and pack is after your ground surface looks like soup (fine, with no clumps at all). They also told me, and it holds true, a packer packs the seed better at higher speeds.” 

Your choice of seed will also affect the success of the stand. “Always buy certified hybrid multi-leaf alfalfa varieties that have characteristics that match your soil type or pest problems. Buy coated seed, and under irrigation, seed heavy. I seed 18 to 20 pounds to the acre. Getting a heavy stand of alfalfa is the first thing in raising good alfalfa. The second one is to keep that stand healthy.” 

To that end, Seaman recommends soil testing and fertilizing accordingly every year.  “If you want healthy alfalfa, long and thriving stands and tons, then feed it.”  

He also says he never cuts a fourth cutting. “You must let that alfalfa get some bloom sometime during that year’s cycle, and a field should always have some regrowth before going into dormancy.” 

Seaman recommends being choosy about when to graze an alfalfa field, avoiding it when it’s wet, and not in the spring at the beginning of the growing season.  

If pests like weevils do move in, Seaman recognizes the importance of taking care of the problem, if it gets bad enough, as weevils will negatively affect the protein. While weevils won’t kill an otherwise healthy alfalfa stand, the costs and benefits of treating them have to be considered on a case-by-case basis. 

Forage 2021

Forage 2020