Confessions of a Grainiac
This is a guest post by Jack Lazor of Butterworks Farm. All views expressed in this article are personal to Jack.
I grew my first grain crops during the 1977 season one year after buying our farm. Total acreage was six—four of wheat, one of barley and one of flint corn. The cereals were planted with a wooden wheeled antique grain drill and harvested with a PTO driven John Deere grain binder and a large tin Dion threshing machine. We ended up with some very nice looking hard red spring wheat that seemed to glow at us. Beginner’s luck was upon us. This initial success bolstered our confidence and nurtured a passion for grain growing that has continued until very recently.
Our operation continued to grow as both a dairy farm and a crop farm. Six acres of cereal grain turned into twenty and then forty. Reapers and threshers gave way to a pull type combine and then an older self propelled machine. Corn and soybeans were added into the mix in 1990 and acreage climbed to over one hundred. By 1992, I began to rent field away from the main farm. First it was a field about a mile away up here on the hill. By 1994, I began leasing acreage along the Missisquoi River on the Canadian border ten miles to the north and 800 feet lower in elevation. Then in 1996, we bought 100 acres of our own river bottom in the same area.
I’m not sure where I actually was throughout all these years of constant growth. Most likely I was on my own private grain cloud totally blinded by love of what I thought was farming. Our dairy and yogurt business prospered during this time and all of our extra profits went into rock fertility or machine infrastructure. I bought and used machines no one else had for miles around except across the border in Canada. I bought gravity boxes, grain cleaners, augers, storage silos, dryers and more combines. Our prairie style granary was built in 1990 and filled with all sort of grain goodies like elevators and gravity tables.
There were good years and bad years. Successes were sweet and failures were good lessons learned. As I learned how to clean and grade seed over the years, I came to the realization that I could grow my own crop seed. Cereal grains were relatively easy, but corn and soy presented other problems. Eventually I learned how to grow and save seed from my own soybeans and OP corns like Early Riser and some of the flints. It still feels so good to know that I can be independent from the corporate seed industry.
Six combines later, I look back at my grain growing days and know they have been exciting and rewarding. I do, however, have to admit that crop farming has not always been the ideal that I have imagined in my dreams. Flooding on the riverbottom fields has become a yearly occurrence that can happen anytime during the growing season. Weeds both perennial and annual have become more prevalent and once in a while an early frost will ruin a ripening crop of corn and soybeans. I have also noticed major differences in soil test results between our hilltop all sod dairy farm and my grain fields along the river. Organic matter levels on the home farm are in the 8 to 9% range while the rock free silt loams down in the valley is hard pressed to climb over 2% in organic matter.
I began noticing these differences about five years ago. Crop rotation was certainly practiced on the grain part of our farm. Cover crops like rye and sweet clover were thrown into the mix, but the river land was primarily planted to corn, soybeans and cereal grains. Each successive growing season more strange and exotic weeds like Jimson weed and Jerusalem artichokes began popping up here and there. I always thought it was interesting that many of these “new” weeds seemed to come in the same year as an application of commercial chicken manure that was supposedly composted. Sure smelled like chicken poop to me!
This past growing season provided me with enough messages to finally begin realizing that my river-bottom grain fields need a good long rest. April was wet and cereal planting was delayed into early May. We finished planting our oats, barley and wheat around the 10th of May. We had somewhere around 60 acres of corn in by the 19th of May and soybeans were finished May 22nd. Crops emerged well and were weeded once before June arrived. Pretty soon it started to rain and cool down. By July 1st we had had eight inches of rain. Thankfully, it warmed up a bit in July and only rained half as much as it did in June. The corn that started with such a bang in late May came to a screeching halt in June. It just sat there and shivered and turned yellow green. Sometime in early July, we spread about 300 lbs of Chilean nitrate to the acre on the corn. Warm rains continued and the corn turned dark green and took off growing. I didn’t really feel that good about “nuking” my corn like my neighbors do with urea, but I felt like I had no choice. Weed pressure was intense and the crop was weeks behind in maturity. Thankfully, August was decent and September was positively hot and dry. The corn and the soybeans made it, but at such a cost. I know that I could have bought my organic grain corn a whole lot cheaper than it cost me to grow it. Add in some major combine breakdowns and a grain dryer malfunction and the message becomes very clear—IT AIN’T WORTH IT.
I started asking myself if I was really sane. Over the last month or two, I have made the decision to discontinue growing soybeans and hybrid corn for cattle feed. Cereals and OP corn will remain in my repertoire in conjunction with a lot more forage. Close to 55 acres of our river bottom land (which grew soybeans in 2015) will be direct seeded to a mix of alfalfa, clover and various grasses. We won’t be planting this grass seed along with a crop of oats or barley next summer. The direct seeding will be mowed sixty days after planting- hay weeds and all. I can’t believe that it took me almost forty years to discover this little secret. If you are feeding cows on a dairy farm growing high quality protein and energy rich hay is where it’s at. I confess that I have been sidetracked by the lore of grain farming. I intend to keep planting much smaller amounts of grain in a more intensive and focused way. I’m looking forward to some roots in the Earth.