Ground Con­trol

Pro­tect­ing soil, wa­ter and the farm­ing life is the pri­or­ity for an Iowa farmer.

Farm & Ranch Living - - CONTENTS - Story by Mark Mueller, Waverly, Iowa PHOTOS BY SOIL HEALTH PART­NER­SHIP/MICHAEL HICKS

I’m the fourth-gen­er­a­tion Mueller on this land in north­east­ern Iowa. My great-grand­fa­ther set­tled in Bre­mer County in 1894. My wife, Jeri, and I raised our two daugh­ters in the house my grand­fa­ther built in 1946. Al­though I had worked in the seed in­dus­try af­ter col­lege, Jeri and I wanted to raise our fu­ture fam­ily on the farm. Now my re­tired dad is a poorly paid em­ployee (but a very well-paid land­lord)! Mueller Farms raises corn for grain and for si­lage, for­age rye, al­falfa, soy­beans and spe­cialty beans for the ex­port mar­ket. Over the years we’ve tran­si­tioned to no-till farm­ing, which re­duces our time, la­bor and ma­chin­ery use by elim­i­nat­ing tillage passes. My goal is to keep vul­ner­a­ble soil from erod­ing dur­ing in­creas­ingly heavy rain­fall events here. Soil loss, wa­ter qual­ity and eco­nomics are all is­sues forc­ing farm­ers to look at dif­fer­ent farm­ing prac­tices. This is es­pe­cially true in my state of Iowa, where our wa­ter qual­ity is rapidly be­com­ing the most im­por­tant en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cern. One solution is the use of cover crops dur­ing early spring and late fall, some­thing that helps store nu­tri­ents and hold the soil in place. To con­trib­ute, I chose to join the Na­tional Corn Grow­ers As­so­ci­a­tion’s Soil Health Part­ner­ship. The SHP’s goal is to cal­cu­late the eco­nomic value of plant­ing cover crops and us­ing other healthy-soil prac­tices. I hope to show other farm­ers that this is a long-term in­vest­ment rather than a short-term cost.

Corn, Fire­flies and Al­falfa

June 16 A rare me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal phe­nom­e­non oc­curred to­day: It was calm. This is note­wor­thy be­cause calm days don’t hap­pen of­ten enough in Iowa, and June is our peak month for spray­ing. By July, corn is too tall to get the sprayer into the field. If my corn was only “knee high by the Fourth of July,” I’d be on the phone to my crop in­surance agent. June 17 Tonight Jeri and I walked down our dead-end road to watch fire­flies. Thousands of them had clus­tered over the 5 acres of rye grain Dad planted around his house. It looked like an arena con­cert with cam­eras flash­ing. June 18 It’s Fa­ther’s Day, and I didn’t spend it in the trac­tor! Both daugh­ters were out of town, and Jeri spent the day with her par­ents. So I picked straw­ber­ries from the gar­den, bought some vanilla ice cream and in­vited my folks to join me on the porch. Then we drove to Water­loo to tour the new John Deere Trac­tor & En­gine Mu­seum— well worth a trip to north­east Iowa. June 19 Our fa­ther-and-son mill­wrights, Zeke and Chris Za­jic, came to re­pair some of our grain bins and augers. Flowing grain even­tu­ally wears holes through metal. The flight­ing on one of our soy­bean augers was worn to a sharp edge, which can dam­age grain, so it needed to be re­placed. Chris climbed up about 60 feet to weld steel over a hole on a pipe. Zeke, 64, has been erect­ing our grain bins and el­e­va­tors since the early 1980s. I used to worry about find­ing an­other mill­wright when Zeke retires. It’s a good thing Chris joined the fam­ily busi­ness. June 20 I chaired a meet­ing of the Bre­mer County Plan­ning & Zon­ing Com­mis­sion to­day. These hear­ings are some­times packed with an­gry neigh­bors. I want to pre­serve crop ground and to keep farm­ers and non-farm­ers from clash­ing. Put an ur­ban­ite’s house next to a work­ing farm, and you will in­crease the flash points that lead to law­suits. Zon­ing laws help all prop­erty own­ers by keep­ing ag in­ter­ests in the coun­try and keep­ing busi­ness and res­i­den­tial in­ter­ests in­side city lim­its. June 21 The Ex­ten­sion Ser­vice’s North­east Re­search Farm put on its first sum­mer field day to­day. Var­i­ous pro­fes­sors from Iowa State Univer­sity dis­cussed the chang­ing weather (it’s been rain­ing more), weeds that are more re­sis­tant to chem­i­cals, and the nitro­gen fer­til­izer that’s con­tam­i­nat­ing our ground­wa­ter. Also dis­cussed: cover crops, some­thing that could help solve the three other prob­lems. June 22 A Men­non­ite fam­ily that does cus­tom har­vest­ing came to cut and chop my al­falfa field for the Dutch dairy next door. Back in 2005, I sold 20 acres to a young cou­ple from the Nether­lands who wanted to milk cows in the States. They’ve slowly built a 600-head dairy. Other fam­ily mem­bers have joined them. Now there are seven more chil­dren in the lo­cal school sys­tem, four more full-time jobs

and an op­er­a­tion that pays the county more in prop­erty taxes than my bare field ever did. I sell them al­falfa, si­lage corn and cover-crop for­age and ap­ply their cow ma­nure on my fields as an or­ganic fer­til­izer. There is no bet­ter eco­nomic en­gine for ru­ral Amer­ica than a dairy cow.

Weed Con­trol and Fam­ily Time

June 23 Our crop consultant, Ja­son Gomes, typ­i­cally scouts our fields look­ing for prob­lems with weeds, in­sects or dis­ease—any­thing that can im­pact yields. While he was here to­day we dis­cussed chem­i­cal com­bi­na­tions to com­bat weeds now re­sis­tant to the chem­i­cals that used to kill them. For a while, weed con­trol was easy; we just used Roundup. Mother Na­ture put an end to that. Now I sup­press hardto-kill weeds with cover crops. June 24 My daugh­ter Katie flew in for a wed­ding this week­end. She’s an Iowa State grad in an­i­mal ecol­ogy, now work­ing a six-month fel­low­ship at CROW (Clinic for the Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion of Wildlife) on Sani­bel Is­land, Florida. When Katie was just 10 years old, she would bring lunch out to the field. I would sit in the pas­sen­ger seat and eat while she com­bined soy­beans. I’ll hire her to drive a trac­tor, truck or com­bine at har­vest if she doesn’t have a job lined up af­ter her fel­low­ship is done. June 26 I had planned to spend time with Katie and our other daugh­ter, Sarah, who was home from Lo­ras Col­lege in Dubuque. Un­for­tu­nately, a grain-auger bear­ing went out, which cas­caded into a whole se­ries of re­pairs and reschedul­ing. I fi­nally got to re­lax with Jeri and the girls by the fire pit at dusk. June 27 Our mill­wrights came back to fin­ish last week’s work. They also fixed all the things that broke in the last 48 hours. FedEx de­liv­ered the parts for re­pairs on my main truck, a 1953 Dodge 4x4 pickup. June 28 The Iowa Corn Grow­ers As­so­ci­a­tion started its two-day di­rec­tors’ meet­ing in Des Moines. (I rep­re­sent 11 counties in the state’s north­east corner.) In the 1970s, Iowa corn farm­ers voted to cre­ate a vol­un­tary check­off sys­tem. We pay a penny per bushel to­ward crop and live­stock mar­ket de­vel­op­ment, re­search projects and en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­grams at the state and na­tional level. The pro­mo­tion of ethanol, one of the big­gest mar­kets for corn, is par­tially funded by Iowa-check­off dol­lars. The next big thing may be plas­tic soda bot­tles made from corn in­stead of pe­tro­leum prod­ucts.

Rocks and Cover Crops

June 30 When Katie and Sarah were younger, they got paid for pick­ing up rocks. Now Jeri and I do the dirty work. We use GPS equip­ment to find rocks we marked dur­ing plant­ing. Switching to no-till farm­ing means fewer rocks come up to the sur­face where they can dam­age ma­chin­ery. July 1 I find al­falfa to be the best cover crop. Once planted, it can last five years or more, and there’s a strong de­mand for hay. A lot of hot, dirty la­bor goes into mak­ing the small square bales for which

horse own­ers pay a pre­mium. Thank­fully, this field is next to the home of the in­dus­tri­ous Cor­nick brothers, with whom I have an ar­range­ment to share the al­falfa crop. I plant, fer­til­ize and spray the field. The two young men bale it three or four times a sum­mer, sell it at the lo­cal hay auc­tion and split the pro­ceeds with me. Those 8 acres are eas­ily my most prof­itable. July 5 Grow­ing cover crops that crowd out weeds al­lowed me to de­lay spray­ing soy­beans un­til to­day. A com­bi­na­tion of cover crops and no-till farm­ing lets wa­ter from heavy rains soak in faster. That al­lows top­soil to stay dry enough for me to en­ter the field ear­lier with­out get­ting stuck in mud. July 6 A note of ex­pla­na­tion to western read­ers: Wa­ter prob­lems east of the Mis­souri River usu­ally in­volve too much wa­ter. Per­fo­rated plas­tic tub­ing (known as tile line) is typ­i­cally buried about 4 feet deep and 40 to 80 feet apart to drain the fields. Oc­ca­sion­ally we come across clay lines that were hand-dug by teams of work­ers a cen­tury ago. When old lines col­lapse, we bring in a tiling con­trac­tor. That’s what hap­pened to­day. Dad went along to help with the re­pairs. Then, this evening, the Greater Waverly Mu­nic­i­pal Band gave our weekly con­cert in a park by the river. A lo­cal busi­ness gave away pop­corn and le­mon­ade. Food ven­dors grilled their spe­cial­ties. Young cou­ples pushed strollers, and se­nior cit­i­zens in lawn chairs sat and vis­ited. Pon­toon boats floated just off­shore. Walk­ers, bi­cy­clists and kayak­ers ar­rived in time to see the first act, a lo­cal ma­gi­cian. Then the honor guard pre­sented the flag, and the band started play­ing. Mu­si­cians ranged in age from mid­dle-school­ers to my 86-year-old fa­ther.

Grain Fu­tures, Ethanol and In­surance

July 7 Corn Belt weather con­cerns drove grain prices to their high­est lev­els since March, so I sold corn to­day for de­liv­ery in two years. My plan is sim­ple. If the mar­ket sets a fu­tures price I wish I had right now, I take it. Most of this year’s corn was sold be­fore I ever planted it. July 8 Plenty of peo­ple raise corn and soy­beans, yet prices barely ex­ceed costs. Cover-crop acres have been dou­bling each year. The de­mand for seed is grow­ing, and rye grain is cheap to grow.

While rye seed costs $10 per acre, corn seed costs $125 per acre. The chem­i­cals to kill weeds cost me nearly $50 per acre last year while cover crops choke out weeds free of charge. I can earn more money rais­ing rye seed than I’d make grow­ing corn. I daz­zled Jeri with this fi­nan­cial acu­men over a bot­tle of wine by the fire pit. July 9 Jeri and I trav­eled to the Iowa Speedway in New­ton to watch the Iowa Corn 300, an IndyCar race spon­sored by the ICGA. Cars raced on ethanol at speeds a nor­mal mini­van would never see. Ethanol is made from field corn, not the sweet corn that we eat. Only the starch in the corn ker­nels is used for ethanol, leav­ing pro­tein, fat and fiber to make an ex­cel­lent live­stock feed called dis­tillers dried grains. July 10 Our long­time in­surance agent re­tired, so we in­ter­viewed a po­ten­tial re­place­ment to­day. It’s a good time to re-ex­am­ine our cov­er­age. Farm­ers have so many ar­eas of ex­po­sure that in­surance is a ne­ces­sity. Crop in­surance helps me (and my banker) sleep at night. Our com­bines have caught fire in dry corn­fields; grain bins have col­lapsed on build­ings; light­ning has killed live­stock; and an axle fail­ure once re­sulted in smashed cars and downed power lines that blocked Main Street for hours. July 11 Chuck Byrum, our re­tired black­smith, still takes care of a few cus­tomers, and we’re grateful to be on his short list. We re­ally needed him to make a house call to­day. I can torch and weld some, but Chuck can de­sign and fab­ri­cate one-of-a-kind tools and ma­chines. A 110-year-old ma­chine shed built by my great-grand­fa­ther re­ceived some long-over­due main­te­nance.

Locks, Barges and Leisure

July 14 Yes­ter­day I worked at my desk mak­ing grain sales for corn grown from 2016 through 2018, and pric­ing fer­til­izer and cover crop seed for this fall. To­day I at­tended the ICGA’s 50th an­niver­sary

Early sum­mer is prime time for spray­ing soy­beans, as Mark Mueller is do­ing in this no-till field.

Mark and Jeri Mueller (left) have picked up some of their grown daugh­ters’ child­hood chores, in­clud­ing gath­er­ing rocks in the fields. The job is a good ex­cuse to put Mark’s 1953 Dodge 4x4 to work.

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