A Fertility Mystery

July 23, 2009



Oat/Barley field with a creek intersecting.  Notice the dark-green line in both fields with plants to the left of the line darker-green than plants to the right of the line.  Why?

I will explain how the field was managed.  Last year was a wet spring and I was unable to plant this field to oats like I had planned in April.  By the time I could work the soil around the first of June I decided to plant corn, instead.

I had read about grazing standing corn in the book, “Grassfed to Finish,” by Allan Nation.  Since I had low expectations about this field’s yield potential due to the late planting date, I decided this was the year to try this radical idea.  Even Citygirlfriend knew this was crazy.

It turned out ok, though.  I grazed eight steers for eight weeks starting in July when the corn was waist high and ending in August with the corn eight feet tall.  The steers gained well, about two lbs. a day, but that was no better than the steers that were grazing permanent pastures and alfalfa/grass hay fields.  So, since the gain was no better and the cost was higher to graze corn, I am not planning on grazing corn anytime in the future. 

The dark-green line is where I chopped down the corn and put up a single-strand electric fence.  I then cross-fenced and gave the steers a half-day to a day allotment at a time.  I also had a round bale of hay available so the steers would never accidentally run out of feed.

After the steers were butchered in August, I took down all the fencing and no-tilled oats into the bare ground.  I didn’t want the soil exposed to rain, sun, and wind.  So are you picturing how it looked?  To the right of the line was a corn field, and to the left of the line was oats.

We harvested the corn in October.  At this point, the oats were about knee-high.  We then grazed the field with the cows.  They ate much of the corn stalks and grazed the oats right down to the ground.

I disced the entire field this spring and then planted oats/barley and didn’t think twice about it.  And then I looked at it one day and noticed the line.  I knew I had to take a picture and present it to you.

The dark-green color indicates higher fertility and that higher fertility is probably more available nitrogen.  Why is there more nitrogen available?  What are the management differences?

The steers grazed and deposited their manure.  However, they wouldn’t have deposited their manure evenly.  You can see where cows deposited their manure on the right side as it shows up in darker-green clumps of forage.

I planted an oat cover crop.  Cover crops are supposed to add nitrogen to the soil.  Would it add nitrogen the next summer even though it was grazed off the previous October?

There was very little carbon on top of the soil this spring.  To the right of the line was corn stalks.  As microorganisms break down corn stalks, (carbon), nitrogen is used.  Maybe more nitrogen was available to the left of the line because of the lack of corn stalks.  This is where I’m placing my bet.

What do you think?  Is it one of these theories, or something else?  Your comments are welcome.

Knee-high by the Fourth of July

July 6, 2009



My six-foot-tall father standing in our tallest corn on July 3rd.

Knee-high by the Fourth of July is a common saying in the midwest.  It refers to the height of corn.  I guess that used to be a decent target for corn in the old days.  Corn is planted earlier now.



This is a corn plant showing potassium deficiency.  Yellowing on the outside of the lower leaves is the telltale sign.  This plant is alongside a gravel road so it probably has more to do with soil compaction and the inability of the corn roots to search out available potassium than an actual potassium deficiency in the soil.  The corn looks fine a few rows in.

It’s enlightening  that corn shows it’s deficiencies so readily.  What if our personal deficiencies were as visible?

First Cutting of Hay

June 7, 2009



June 5, 2009.  Hay fields raked and ready to be baled.  These are the same fields that were pictured May 17 in the post, Contour Strip Cropping. 

I cut the hay fields Tuesday and Wednesday to hopefully be ready to bale on Friday.  Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday were good drying days, (sunny, low humidity), so we baled dry hay Friday.  It is raining now, (Saturday).

Yields are lower than hoped for.  I kept my fields in hay for one year too many and the fields experienced some winter-kill.  Alfalfa is known to winter-kill as it ages depending on winter conditions.  Orchardgrass is also known to winter-kill, but we haven’t had any problems until this winter.  These fields were my first experience with an improved orchardgrass.  The variety is “Extend” from Lacrosse Forage.  It is less clumpy and matures later than the common orchardgrass.  I picked out and planted the seed and it did well for me. I guess I fell in love with it and didn’t feel like rotating into corn.  Curiousfarmer is sentimental.

27 acres yielded 65 big round bales of hay.  Each round bale weighs about 1500 lbs.  So the total yield was 97,500 lbs. of hay.  That is 3,600 lbs. per acre.  We hope to yield 4,000 to 4,500 lbs. per acre for first cutting, which is by far the highest yielding cutting.  I’m interested to see how our other hay fields yield.

We are about 20% done with first cutting.  We will cut again next week when the weather cooperates.

Contour Strip Cropping

May 17, 2009


Contour strip cropping is a farming practice designed to minimize soil erosion.  Farming is practiced with the contour of the hillside or across the slope to slow water runoff during a rain.   Fields are arranged in alternating strips of an erodible cropping practice such as corn or soybeans with a soil conserving practice such as hay.

The picture above was taken today.  The tilled fields were planted to corn May 12th.  The green fields are alfalfa/orchardgrass hay fields which will be cut for hay three times in the summer and grazed by cattle once in the fall.

The narrow green strip in the middle of the corn field is a waterway.  It is important to not till in a natural swale or waterway to prevent erosion.  The large green strip across the bottom of the picture is the largest waterway on my farm.  The farmer who owned my farm before me said that when he bought the farm around 1940 there was a ditch big enough to drive a tractor in.  The early farmers didn’t understand some of the conservation practices we use today.  They cleared the land and plowed and planted wheat.

No-till Planting Corn into Sod

May 9, 2009


I no-till planted 25 acres of corn on Monday, May 4th.  This is our equipment, engaged in planting. 


There are three wheels in this picture.  The first wheel is the coulter.  The coulter cuts a two-inch deep slot into the soil.  The next wheel is the depth wheel.  Not visible is the corn being deposited into the slot between the depth wheels.  The next wheel is the press wheel.  The press wheels close the seed furrow and press soil around the corn kernel.  All of these wheels are adjustable and we often adjust based on soil conditions.

Planting Oats

April 11, 2009




My niece and I planting oats/barley.  In the background is my house and red barn.  The three white buildings over the top of my head are called “hoop buildings.”  This is where most of our hogs are raised.

This field was corn last year.  I plant a mix of oats and barley.  It will be combined about August 1 and used as hog feed.  The straw will be baled and used as bedding in the hoop buildings.  We also plant alfalfa and grasses now as an underseeding.  It will grow up under the oats and will be grazed by the cows in the fall.  Next year it will be an alfalfa/grass hay field.  It will remain a hay field for three years, then one to two years corn, then back to oats.  That is our crop rotation.  Check out my seeding recipes here.