Suggestions for Young Farmers?

This spring I had the pleasure of interviewing a diverse group of established cash crop farmers for a Sustainable Corn Project video. These farmers strongly recommended purchasing crop insurance. Farmers run the risk of losing a large amount of money in just one or two growing seasons, but crop insurance will help cover this potential loss. These farmers also emphasized stewardship: taking good care of the soil for profitability, for sustainability, and for future generations who will farm that soil. Some of these farmers also suggested that young farmers consider farm management practices that build crop resiliency to minimize the potential impacts of extreme weather.

What advice would YOU give to young farmers? What would you tell a young person who wants to go into farming in the future? (Click on the “conversation bubble” above or leave a comment below to share a suggestion.)


    Days suitable for field work in the Corn Belt

    Tillage, planting, fertilizer application and harvest all require field work to be completed. The timing and sequencing of these activities are critical for crop development, field dry down and farm profitability. Members of the Useful-to-Usable team have compiled weekly reports of days suitable for field work and planting and harvest progress from the state offices of the National Agricultural Statistics Service to understand the historical trend in days suitable during planting and harvest. An important objective of this research is to construct a predictive model of days suitable as a function of weather and soil type at a given location. We are using historical field work and weather data, together with soil information, to construct a statistical model that explains as much of the variation in historical field work days as possible so that we can use this information in the development of decision support tools to aid farmers in:

    • Selecting what size of machinery to purchase,
    • Determining the risks and rewards of alternative fertilizer application timing, and
    • Predicting how we expect field work days to be different in the future based on predicted climate change.

    Over the period from 1980-2010, there is an overall trend towards fewer days suitable per week during the planting period and more days suitable during the harvest period. There are differences across states, as is shown in the table below.



      Farmers weigh in on Nitrogen management in a changing climate

      Climate and weather greatly impact a farmer’s day-to-day operations as well as their livelihood.  To gain perspective on farmers’ production practices and how they are changing, Michigan State University Extension educators and specialist invited farmers from across Michigan to participate in one of three discussions on sustainable corn production held at locations in the north central, central and south central part of the state during mid-March.  Climate and nitrogen were two of the topics discussed.

      Concerns over heavy spring rains prompts Michigan corn growers to split N-applications throughout growing season.

      Concerns over heavy spring rains prompts Michigan corn growers to split N-applications throughout growing season.

      We found that producers have already decreased the amount of nitrogen applied per bushel of yield.  Cost of nitrogen, concern of environmental impacts, improved technology and better information were all given as reasons for the change.   The source of nitrogen used is also changing.  Most producers indicated that they will or have already moved away from using anhydrous mostly due to availability. Continue reading


        Water Chat

        Water is an extremely valuable input in agriculture, whether delivered through rain, snow or irrigation. This fact was made very apparent during the kickoff presentation at the recent Iowa Water Conference.  In his presentation Water Issues in the Developing World, Dick Schultz (Iowa State University) detailed the different sources of water in our world.  While it seems that there is “water, water, everywhere”, only 3% of the world’s water is fresh water, the balance resides in the oceans.

        Of that fresh water, 69% is in glaciers, 30% is groundwater, 0.3% lakes, 0.06% soil moisture, 0.04% in the atmosphere, 0.06% in rivers and 0.003% in the biosphere.  He went on to point out that 50% of the fresh water is in 6 areas: Canada, Russia, Tibet, Columbia, Brazil and Indonesia. freshwatersources

        Water has been a hot topic in the US news with stories of the California drought, an extremely snowy winter in the east and nutrient reduction strategies in the Midwest.  A quick look at the Drought Monitor shows that drought conditions extend from California to Illinois. Continue reading


          Waiting for Spring

          This winter has been significantly colder than average across the Corn Belt. The December-February temperatures were 9 to 12 degrees below average across Minnesota, Wisconsin, eastern Iowa, and northern Illinois. The rest of the Corn Belt was 6 to 9 degrees below average (map below). In addition, snowfall for the winter season was above average in the eastern two-thirds of the Corn Belt and near to slightly below average in the western third.


          Temperature departures for the period December 1, 2013 to March 1, 2014 for the central US.  Click to enlarge.

          The results of this cold and snowy winter are that we have: 1) a significant snowpack in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and in much of northern Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio (see snow depth map below) and 2) frozen soils across much of the northern two-thirds of the Corn Belt.


          Snow depth (inches) as reported on the morning of March 4, 2014.  Click to enlarge.

          It will take some time for the snow to melt and the soils to warm up and dry out. The latest forecasts from the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center indicate that colder than average conditions will prevail for at least the next two weeks. A slow melt is desirable at this point in order to reduce the risk of flooding on rivers and streams.

          Soil moisture was in good shape going into winter in much of the eastern Corn Belt, but was below average in parts of the western Corn Belt. It remains to be seen how much of the snow melt will actually go towards recharging the soil moisture in those areas. It is likely that that the frozen soils will inhibit the recharge in many instances.

          While there are concerns of a slow start to the growing season due to the cold weather, circumstances could change rapidly, as they often do in the Midwest. A few weeks of warm weather and sunshine in April could put us back on track.

          Maps are courtesy of the Midwestern Regional Climate Center, Illinois State Water Survey and the University of Illinois.


            State Nutrient Reduction Strategy: Information Midwestern Farmers Can Use

            Dick Sloan, an Iowa farmer in Buchanan County, recently wrote to his local newspaper to bring attention to the portion of Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy that provides tables that assist farmers in making nutrient management decisions. Table 2, for example, on page 6 of the strategy shows the potential impact of certain practices, like cover crops, on reducing nitrate loss and on corn yield based on literature review.  Farmers can see which practices have been shown to be most effective. His article can be found at  The document to which he refers – Iowa’s nutrient reduction strategy – can be found online at


              Decision tools that are useful and usable

              Farmers are data hungry. I know because I moonlight as one.  I get eight texts a day just to know what the grain markets are doing.  What is my cost per acre?  How fast did that group of pigs grow?  These are the types of questions I and other farmers are asking themselves all the time.  This fall I finally installed a GPS-enabled yield monitor in my combine.  I couldn’t take my eyes off of it.  Sure, much of what I was seeing I knew already. Some areas are good, some bad, and some are much better or worse than I ever expected.  That real-time data gave me something to think about and will lead to management changes in the future.

              This want for data is why I’m excited about the decision tools that the Useful to Usable (U2U) project is developing and has made available at   Continue reading


                Spring/summer outlook and El Nino

                The January long range outlooks were released two weeks ago.  The main themes are continued similar overall pattern is expected into February and possibly into spring.  Colder conditions are more likely in the northern plains with no strong indications on precipitation except for some increased chances in the Ohio Valley.

                The more interesting feature in the outlooks is not mentioned in the outlooks directly.  Recent forecasts for El Nino have been showing Continue reading


                  Corn Belt Farmer Perspectives on Climate and Ag Summarized in New Report

                  New Report!

                  New Report!

                  A new report on farmer perspectives on climate and agriculture, gathered in a 2012 survey of nearly 5000 farmers from 11 Corn Belt states, presents survey results by watershed. The survey was conducted in partnership with the Useful to Usable (U2U) project (, another USDA-funded climate and agriculture project. The watersheds that were surveyed account for more than half of all US corn and soybean production. Farmers selected for the survey were those who grew corn and who had more than $100,000 in gross farm income in 2011; these larger-scale farmers cultivate approximately 80 percent of the farmland in the region.

                  The farmer survey data have been compiled in a “statistical atlas” that contains tables that present the data and maps that show the geographical distribution of survey results across the Corn Belt. Data presented include: Continue reading


                    Scientists Team Up to Keep Nitrates on Fields

                    Matthew Helmers is an associate professor of agriculture and biosystems engineering at Iowa State University and a Principal Investigator with the Sustainable Corn project. He is working with teams of scientists who are field testing promising strategies to keep nitrogen fertilizer on farm fields, using a systems approach. The following is a news release about some of his findings…

                    AMES, Iowa – Keeping nitrogen fertilizer on farm fields, to support optimum crop growth, and out of streams and rivers is no simple formula. It’s complex.

                    “Think ‘writing a novel’ versus ‘writing a recipe,’” said Matthew Helmers, an associate professor of agriculture and biosystems engineering at Iowa State University, where he is working with teams of scientists who are field testing promising strategies, using a systems approach. Continue reading