It’s March! Spring is quickly approaching. When we will start planting corn and soybeans? Six weeks? Two months? We just have to wait on the weather. In the meantime, there’s still plenty to do on the farm.
Winter carries on around the farm. Spring is awfully close though!
This week the Supreme Court heard oral arguments involving an Indiana farmer who allegedly bought commodity seed from an elevator and used that seed to plant another crop. Monsanto argues this act would infringe on its technology use agreement. To me it sounds like Bowman did this knowingly violating the agreement. Personally, I don’t think he’s going to win this. Lower courts have already found in favor of Monsanto.
I also have some agronomic reservations. Bowman has said the seed he bought was to be planted after wheat harvest. I’m also an Indiana farmer who plants soybeans behind wheat in the summer. I call this double cropping. The wheat is harvested in late June or early July, and if conditions seems right we’ll sow soybeans into the wheat stubble.
Bowman says he bought the seed because it was cheap. I buy seed from a seed dealer just like my first crop, and purchase it at a hefty discount because it’s so late in the season.
I’m not sure why purchasing bin run seeds for growing a crop is even a good idea for the following reasons.
-Soybean varieties come in different maturity groups intended for different regions. The seed Bowman bought mostly likely would have been a mix of groups II, III, and possibly IV. Double cropping is risky here compared to a regular spring planting. Why would you plant something so late in the year not knowing what maturity group you are working with? Unless the elevator was somehow segregating seed by maturity groups, but that would be very odd.
-Let’s say that bin run seed was actually kept for the following season. Why would I want to plant a field where the plants will mature at different times intermingled over an entire field? That is a harvest mess waiting to happen.
I don’t know about you readers, but the whole idea of planting commodity soybean seed looks like a bad idea to me. And that’s before I’ve considered infringing on any patents.
What are your thoughts?
Update (2/24/13): I’ve been reading through the oral transcripts and looking around elsewhere. I don’t believe Bowman ever signed an agreement for the bin run seed. To me that potentially leaves a loophole for farmers to purchase bin run seed for planting without infringing on the patent. Bowman’s lawyer even argues the same logic as I have above that maturities as well as other qualities would be mixed, but he adds that this practice would only be viable for the riskier second planting. Doing this in the spring would almost certainly guarantee the farmer a poor crop in fall, so the lawyer argues this wouldn’t really hurt Monsanto sales of good, clean, uniform seed. I think that’s a pretty good point. What I don’t know is if Bowman saved any first or second crop seed for another crop.
Bowman’s lawyer also seems to think a seed company should somehow bear some responsibility for the farmer’s crop performance. I don’t agree with that at all.
SCOTUS Oral Arguments Transcript
Forbes: Supremes Unsympathetic to Farmer’s Deception at Center of Monsanto GMO Soybean SCOTUS Patent Challenge
SCOTUS Blog Argument Preview: Stakes are high in dispute over rights to genetically modify seeds
Cornell University Law School: Vernon Hugh Bowman vs Monsanto Company
Reporting on Monsanto vs Bowman and Tilted Zone
Taking our somewhat annual trip to stay with friends in Chicago, eat great food, and check out the auto show.
Dad, Grandpa, my wife, and I went to a farm auction tonight. We didn’t purchase the farm, but I thought I’d do a quick rundown of the auction process for all of you readers.
Farm land auctions work a little bit differently than a normal auction. As you can see there are two tracts for sale. Tract 1 consisted of the tillable acres and some wooded areas. Tract two consisted of trees and a possible site to build upon. The entire farm was about 76 acres with roughly 65 tillable and 10 in the second tract. The rough figures are there because the land won’t be surveyed for exact numbers unless the buyer and/or seller think it needs to be.
When farms are divided into tracts the auction generally occurs in the following manner. Each tract will be auctioned by itself. Then all the tracts will be offered as one item. At that point potential buyers will have the opportunity to bid up individual tracts or the combined lot. Compared to a regular auction farm sales are slow. Buyers are given plenty of time to make a decision. Sometimes people need to call spouses or their bank. This auction took just over half an hour.
The picture shows the farm was sold as a whole since that netted the highest price per acre. If tracts 1 or 2 had been bid higher than $7,929/A the tracts would have sold separately. The winning bid could also be thought of as selling for over $9,000 per tillable acre.
Why Didn’t We Buy?
This farm was of interest to us. The first round of bidding ended at around $5,000/A. In this day in age in our part of the world you’d better be writing a check at $5,000 if you want to buy farm ground. You aren’t going to do much better than that right now. Of course everyone else in the room knows the bids are going to get higher.
We don’t have any other farms near this one. The road to get there from our shop is long and winding and not in particularly great shape. Driving equipment over there would take an hour at least. The route we took a while ago to look at the farm had me questioning if I could even get the planter around some of the double right angle turns along the river. The tillable acres were divided into three sections separated by a ditch and trees. So it’s not really the most efficient 65 acres in the world. If we had something over there already it would have been more tempting. That’s not to say we couldn’t find something over there in the future.
The last reason? At the end of this month about 130 acres of ground a mile from 250 acres we rent is coming up for sale. It’s actually about as far from the shop as the farm that sold tonight, but it’s a pretty straight shot on nicer roads. The soil isn’t quite as good, but I’d be pretty happy to get that ground. Until I have to pay the mortgage anyway!
Last September we seeded our first round of cover crops on roughly 200 acres. These crops that we will never harvest are probably the most exciting thing on the farm right now for me.
What is a Cover Crop
A cover crop does just what it says. It covers the soil during the period between the time you harvest one crop and plant the next. For my farm this means winter. Our cover was seeded by airplane in mid September just ahead of harvest. We chose aerial application in order to give the seeds a chance to start growing before harvest and before winter set in. Next year I think we need to be seeding in early September to see more growth ahead of cold temperatures. Flying seed on requires more seed to account for seeds that won’t germinate as well compared to using a drill or planter to place the seed in the soil, but a plane allows you to get started growing before harvest.
Cover crops provide erosion control, improve soil structure, increase organic matter, scavenge soil nutrients, suppress weeds and pests, and some can be used as forage for livestock. But not all cover crops accomplish all these goals. Each one has its own unique qualities and must be managed differently. Many of them work even better when they are planted together on the same ground.
My Cover Crops
For now I’m just going to talk about the cover crops we have on our farm right now. First we have annual ryegrass. Ryegrass can develop very deep roots quickly. I attended a cover crop field day and saw ryegrass roots less than two months old that were already over 3′ deep in the soil profile. That’s amazing. Those roots are pulling up nutrients and when the grass dies those root channels will improve water infiltration and leave paths for next year’s crop roots to follow. Beneficial organisms like earthworms will follow those paths as well. All this while building soil organic matter and structure.
Getting rid of annual ryegrass is probably the most important part of management. The grass needs to be sprayed in the spring when it is actively growing. That means you have to wait until temperatures begin to warm up. If the grass isn’t growing it won’t take up any herbicide. If spring is warm and wet ryegrass can get tricky. Wet means you can’t get out in the field to spray giving the ryegrass time to grow even more and become tough to kill. I don’t foresee this being a huge problem, but important to know about ahead of time.
Adjacent to the ryegrass we are growing winter cereal rye. Cereal rye may not grow as thick or have as much of a root system as ryegrass, but it has some great qualities of its own. Allelopathy is one of those qualities. Cereal rye has the natural ability to suppress weeds. I also learned during the field day that cereal rye may have an effect on soybean cyst nematodes as well. The agronomist on hand all but guaranteed a 4-5 bushel bump in soybean yield if you have nematode problem. Lower pesticide use makes everyone happy right? Unlike ryegrass, you can plant into a growing rye cover crop and kill off the rye after planting. If we go that route, I’ll have some pretty neat pictures of the planter rolling through a green field of fairly tall rye. That’ll be kinda weird. It may be taken care of with the grass though since they are in the same field.
Finally we have about 120 acres of a mixed cover growing in one field. Oats and radishes growing together. These two crops will winterkill when the temperature stays around 20 for a few days. Ours have already died off in the last two weeks.
Radishes are really cool because they send a big tap root deep into the soil along with fine-haired roots. They are great at soaking up nutrients that may otherwise be lost to the atmosphere or through groundwater. When spring comes and the radishes start to decay they will slowly release those nutrients to the corn we will have planted by then. I should note these aren’t the radishes you are used to eating. These are called tillage or groundhog radishes. They are white and look somewhat like large carrots.
Oats are great because they scavenge nitrogen. Nitrogen is very important to a corn crop. Oats develop deep roots to improve soil structure much like ryegrass. I hope our oats/radish mix really show some results in next year’s corn.
What excites me most about cover crops is keeping more of what we have and potentially using less inputs in the future. I feel that increasing organic matter alone will be a great improvement to our farm even without all the other benefits. As organic matter increases soils can handle water better and hold on to and provide more nutrients to a growing cash crop. Improved soil structure means our crops will grow deeper roots. Having an active root system in the ground twelve months of the year instead of six means the beneficial organisms in the soil will be more active which is really good.
Nitrogen is one of our most expensive and most necessary inputs. If cover crops can allow us to either use less nitrogen or at least do a better job of effectively using the nitrogen we apply that will be a huge bonus for corn. Boosting yields on one end and cutting costs on the other end is a pretty great combination. Cover crops aren’t free, but I think their benefits will far exceed the costs.
Cover crops can also break up soil compaction. Compaction caused by driving heavy equipment over soil limits water infiltration and root growth. This is a reason no till and cover crops go so well together. In a true no till situation you won’t be doing any deep tillage to deal with compaction, and cover crops give you a way to deal with that.
When spring comes around you’ll definitely being seeing more about our cover crops. I’m sure we’ll be seeding more this fall too, and maybe we’ll try a few different things. If you’d like to learn more about covers crops check out Plant Cover Crops. Dave runs a great website over there and just so happens to be pretty close to our farm, making his data that much more relevant to me.