Archive for August, 2012

Forgotten river plays key commercial role

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

Billions of bushels of Minnesota farm products have started their journeys to world markets with a 14.7-mile ride down the Minnesota River. At that point the Minnesota joins the Mighty Mississippi, and barges continue 1500 miles, where their cargoes are loaded onto freighters and sent into the Gulf of Mexico and from there to all points.

The Upper Mississippi Watershed Association, a group representing both commercial and recreational interests on the Mississippi and its major tributaries in Minnesota and Iowa, organized a paddleboat tour on August 22 to help focus attention on the importance of the Minnesota River.

Since 1982, what is now CHS, Inc., has operated one of the four elevators located at the Port of Savage on the Minnesota River. Since that time 29,000 barges have departed from the CHS slip, carrying 1.6 billion bushels of corn, beans and increasingly distillers dried grains and solubles, according to Clint Gergen, a representative of CHS who took part in the river tour.

Gergen noted that farm product traffic on the river has slowed, but he hopes that strategic changes might reverse that trend, in particular an effort to develop capacity to deliver non-GMO products to markets like Japan. A key to this, and to access to all world markets, is the imminent conversion of the Panama canal to make it serviceable for the current class of ocean-going freighters. (Currently, such freighters must offload their cargo onto smaller ‘Panamax’ vessels, in order to use the canal, and then reload onto larger vessels on the other end of the canal).

The touring party included journalists, government officials, academics and citizen volunteers who are concerned about river issues. The tour was funded by MNDOT, Minnesota Soybean Growers Association and the Upper Mississippi Watershed Association.

Minnesota Department of Transportation sent several representatives, to speak to the importance of the river as part of the intermodal approach—meaning roads, rail, air and water transportation must all work in concert in order to achieve the highest efficiency. One of the effects of intermodality is that the various forms of transportation compete for customers, keeping the cost lower for all users.

“We keep the railroads honest,” said Greg Genz, with Kaposia Marine Service, and a representative of Upper Mississippi Watershed Association. Genz and Gergen describe the capacity at Savage, which CHS and Cargill continue to maintain. The two companies can load 40 barges daily, though current use has fallen significantly below that mark.

“If the river shippers weren’t there, the farmers would be getting hit with a lot higher basis for transport. That’s because the capacity is still there, hasn’t gone away.

A group of soil and water scientists led by University of Minnesota Prof Satish Gupta, and Warren Formo, director of Minnesota Agricultural Water Resources Center, both spoke to the question of sediment loading in the river. Gupta’s current research focuses on the role of groundwater seepage in the undermining of riverbank soil structure along the Minnesota. This seepage leads to slumping of riverbanks and huge volumes of clayey soil enter the river in this way and become suspended sediment. The tour took a run upriver to a bluff in Eden Prairie where the location of several high value homes has become increasingly precarious, due to this seepage-slumping effect.

The effect of the 2012 drought was very evident as the tour made its way both up and down the river. Along the entire length, it was clear that the river is well below its high water mark. Because of the reduced flow, the normally cloudy brown look of the river has become a light green—reflecting increased algae production due to how stagnant the water is.

One university scientist remarked that the high sediment load in the Minnesota River is a function of the relative youth of the river—it was only formed about 14,000 years ago, after the retreat of the most recent glacier sheet to cover Minnesota. The slumping of streambanks is the river’s natural process of achieving dynamic equilibrium. Left to its own devices, the river would eventually become much wider and shallower and the sediment load would drop dramatically. The scientist pointed out that riverside private property and other public uses make it undesirable to leave the river to its natural process. The science of managing streambanks, however, is also young.

When someone asked if anyone had considered riprapping the whole length of the Minnesota River—riprapping being the method of controlling erosion by putting a layer of rocks over that streambank—the scientist noted that the US Army Corps of Engineers studied a potential project to riprap 1,000 yards of the river near Rice Lake, and found that the cost for that one segment would be $1 million dollars.



Growers make the case for passing a new farm bill, and keeping RFS

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

NCGA Corn Congress, held in Washington DC in July each year, is always an occasion for Minnesota growers to meet legislators and continue the conversation about what will help midwestern farmers keep the American system of raising food the envy of the world: an overwhelmingly safe supply of food available in every region at reasonable prices.

The two political issues that will impact U.S. food production the most in 2012 are a successful conclusion to the drive to pass a Farm Bill, and one of the chief agenda items for corn growers and ethanol producers–keeping the Renewable Fuels Standard intact, and allowing its built-in mechanisms to deal with issues of grain supply.

The 17 Minnesota growers met with the entire Minnesota delegate to Congress, as well as many members of the House Agriculture Committee.

“We told congress members we need to keep the RFS intact, let it work, it’s got provisions designed to handle scenarios like this,” said John Mages, a corn producer in Belgrade, Minnesota, and president of Minnesota Corn Growers Association. “RFS demands that so much ethanol be used each year. It’s important to remember that, at the beginning of the year, there was a lot of ethanol in surplus, also there is a credit called RINs (Renewable Identification Numbers) that the fuel blenders can use in the place of actual ethanol. Between those things we may be able to meet all the market demand. It’s important also to wait and see exactly how much corn we produce before the government resorts to drastic changes. One message we’ve been bringing to lawmakers is that once there’s a cut back on the mandate, it will be very hard to get back what’s been given it up. So we want to keep it going.”

Among those new to the process of visiting congress people in Washington and carrying the farmer message, were MCGA director Les Anderson and Anna Bellin, MCGA’s new policy director.

“Our message was straightforward,” said Bellin. “We want to get it done. Don’t mess with the RFS, because the market is working. It is easy to blame ethanol for the problems being caused by the drought, but we should be careful not to take apart energy policy that’s just beginning to deliver energy independence–let’s see what the actual corn production is.”

The grower leaders found the lawmakers receptive and supportive of the idea of getting a farm bill passed this year. The Senate has passed a version and now it is up to the House of Representatives.

The whole thing gets tied up in election year politics,” said Bellin. “Members of the ag committee were generally supportive of getting it done, but it comes down to being a leadership decision. A large part of the farm bill is nutrition program spending and that’s getting all tied up in debates about budget cutting.”

Whatever else gets done regarding farm policy, it appears likely that some kind of disaster program for livestock producers will pass, either as part of a regular farm bill, or failing that, as a stand alone extension.

But the farm program is an essential element — without it, farmers cannot plan for the coming crop year.

“Without a farm bill in place I don’t know a single banker that would make a loan to a farmer,” said Lori Feltis, a producer in Stewartville and a representative to the Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council.

However, success will require an eye to timing.

“It was our effort during our Washington visit to put as much pressure on the House to get it done as we could,” Bellin said. “Congressman Collin Peterson has been extremely supportive of getting it done. He is doing whatever he can to get it across the finish line and we really appreciate it. It’s our intent to keep the pressure on, but there’s also a delicate balance–while we are trying to get it done as quickly as possible, we also want to make sure the votes are there when it comes to a vote.”

MCGA helps race fans connect with ethanol

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

MCGA staged four “Jam The Stands” events at stock car races across Minnesota during the last week of July, to reach race fans with a message about the positive impact of ethanol fuel on the economy and the environment in Minnesota.

With “Jam The Stands,” MCGA bought the entire grandstand section and offered free admission for the evening at each of the four tracks: KRA Speedway in Willmar, Fiesta City Speedway in Montevideo, Madison Speedway and Viking Speedway in Alexandria.

“Each of the races had about double the usual attendance,” said Chad Willis, a farmer in Willmar and past chairman of the Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council.

In return for bringing in the big audience, MCGA had the chance to deliver the facts about ethanol. The track announcers played trivia games with the crowd. Volunteers from the local corn grower groups sold specially made t-shirts with “Jam The Stands” logos. 

Among the trivia and “did you know” questions, the audience learned that ethanol reduced gasoline prices an average of $1.09 per gallon in 2011 in the Midwest (source: Iowa State University study) and that ethanol plants directly provide high wage jobs for 8500 people in small towns across Minnesota. They also learned that corn is Minnesota’s largest crop at 1.2 billion bushels, and 95 percent of the farms that produce it are family farms.

“As a marketer you want people in the stands and ‘Jam The Stands’ definitely did it,” said Willis. “You get the message out, engaging the crowd before and between the races, and you get a chance to talk about the benefits of ethanol to Minnesota and the nation. It’s very effective. We had lots of people coming up to us and thanking the corn growers for the free admission. There were lots of families. With these events, from the track’s point of view, you want to create new race fans. The fact that so many kids come with their families helps the tracks build their future audience.”

The t-shirts have been a popular item since MCGA began sponsoring the ‘Governor’s Ethanol Challenge.’ Shirts from the previous seven years were visible throughout the stands at all four race evenings. This is the first year of the new marketing concept, Jam The Stands. The bright green shirts with orange highlights offered the message: “Jam The Stands: From Field To Fuel.” The back of the shirt showed race cars with numbers 20 and 12, to show the current year.

“Seeing all the previous years’ shirts and all the Jam The Stands shirts out in the crowd you can instantly see that the shirts are an ongoing message, which makes them a super marketing tool.”


Drought + Resistance = surge in rootworm numbers and damage

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

Alarming signs that the corn rootworm is developing resistance to major GMO corn traits, along with the impact of increasing drought stress and booming rootworm populations, adds up to potential trouble for Minnesota corn producers, according to Prof. Ken Ostlie, a University of Minnesota Extension entomologist, based at the St. Paul Campus of U of M.

Now is a critical time, according to Ostlie, for getting a handle on Bt performance in your fields, and assessing corn rootworm populations. 

“Corn rootworms have been emerging over the last ten days to two weeks, with root injury nearing completion” Ostlie said. “The drought may be aggravating this situation in a couple of ways. Corn rootworm survival is better under drought conditions. Insect feeding on the roots will increase moisture stress and its yield impacts. Also, without thunderstorms, the typical lodging that would be a telltale sign of corn rootworm problems may not be happening, so producers need to get out into the field, dig roots and scout for beetles.

Besides looking for beetles on plants, especially on the ear silks, dig up plants, wash the roots and carefully examine for signs that the worms fed there. “Growers should be concerned when root injury is occurring to a node or more of the roots,” said Ostlie. “In these drought conditions, even loss of half a node may lead to yield loss. Time scale wise, the next week will be crucial to assess what is happening.”

Another concern is that high corn rootworm beetle numbers can trim corn silks so severely that pollination fails. Spraying for corn root worm beetles to prevent ‘silk clipping’ is warranted only on the leading edge of pollination when scouting uncovers the presence of eight-to-ten or more beetles per ear that are keeping silks chewed to within ½” of the ear tip. Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council sponsored a radio interview with Ostlie that aired recently on the Linder Farm Network to alert growers to this threat.

For the past six years, with critical funding from the Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council, Ostlie has investigated the potential for corn rootworm to become resistant to the main genetic traits used to combat it– genes taken from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis and spliced directly into the genetic make-up of “Bt” corn varieties. These Bt genes produce a protein in the plant which is toxic to the rootworm alone. In order to assure that the protein remained effective, producers have planted refuges of conventional corn where the insects could feed. Difficulties in maintaining refuges may have led, in part, to the current resistance, Ostlie said.

“It’s important for farmers to know how the traits are working in their fields,” Ostlie noted. “Scouting how these traits are working in their fields right now will be critical to making good decisions for next year. Producers are beginning to plan what additional root protection measures to take, which seed varieties and pest management resources to purchase for the 2013 growing season.”

Since 2009, Ostlie has tracked a growing resistance problem in Yieldgard VT Triple and Triple Pro, but it may be only a matter of time before resistance impacts other Bt varieties like Herculex Xtra, AgriSure 3000GT or even SmartStax.

“We suggest the fields most at risk are going to be corn planted after corn with a multiple-year history of the same trait,” Ostlie advised. “Those especially would be the ones growers should check–number one looking for signs of excessive moisture stress, number two looking to see if corn rootworm beetles are especially prevalent in a field, and third, digging up plants and washing roots off to see if they had been attacked by the worms.”

Ostlie is working with pest management scientist Bruce Potter, at the Southwest Research and Outreach Center in Lamberton, to develop maps and other information to help growers assess potential rootworm activity in their regions.  We’re particularly interested in reports of performance problems with Bt rootworm traits, Potter says.

Go to this web page to get additional information, or to report Bt hybrid performance problems:

Farmers gather to learn latest science on nitrogen fertilizer

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

An audience of farmers packed a meeting room in Rochester last week to hear from six experts representing the spectrum of scientific investigation into nitrogen fertilizer and the associated compound, nitrate, to hear the latest information about techniques for fertilizing crops while reducing nitrates in the environment.

The nitrate forum, convened by Minnesota Agricultural Water Resource Center (MAWRC), welcomed Bruce Montgomery, a scientist from Minnesota Department of Agriculture, who is in charge of its nitrogen fertilizer management review. Montgomery assessed how agriculture is doing controlling nitrate loss and where it can be improved. He praised the willingness of all the farmers he has encountered on these issues, to join with them to help solve situations where wells show presence of nitrates in drinking water above the standard for human health, 10 parts per million.

He noted that the yield of corn per unit of fertilizer has increased dramatically (meaning less fertilizer per pound of corn is being used), which is a great success story.

Montgomery noted that two major areas of the state–the Central Sands (stretching north from the metro area) and the southeastern region, are particularly sensitive to nitrate movement into groundwater, and that different crop regimens may in future be brought to bear, to reduce these problems. He noted that some areas had success using “nitrogen scavenger” crops like alfalfa–actually feeding high-nitrate water into these crops to cleanse the water.

Dr. Carrie Laboski, an expert from the University of Wisconsin, shared an overview of the complex chemical workings of the nitrogen cycle. With knowledge of this chemistry in mind, management decisions that improve water quality can be made. The timing of fertilizer and the use of “inhibitors” that slow the transformation of ammonium (NH4) into nitrate (NO3)–a process known as mineralization. This can be the key to making nitrates available at the right time for crops to make use of them, so they don’t end up moving into the water table. Environmental factors can influence mineralization, which is a chemical process actually governed by bacteria and microbial fungi in the soil. Mineralization hastens under conditions that favor that flourishing of these microbes–soil temperatures in a certain range and a certain level of soil moisture. “Mother Nature has the final say,” Laboski acknowledged. As understanding of the weather and how it acts on this cycle becomes more and more refined as time goes on, but chance can disrupt even the most careful stewardship.

Other experts included Eric Cooley from Wisconsin Discovery Farm Network, speaking about data that compares nitrogen loss from surface water versus the flow from tile drainage systems; Waseca crop scientist Jeff Vetsch discussed his research on maximizing the impact of fertilizer while minimizing nitrate loss; and Iowa State University’s Steve Ensley gave practical advice on the signs and impacts of nitrate toxicity on livestock animals. He noted the most pertinent information for this growing season, marked by drought, that livestock operators who have to haul water for cattle and other animals should, at all costs, use a separate tank devoted to water, rather than hauling water in a tank that has been used to transport nitrogen fertilizer. Even after careful washing of such a tank in order to haul water, an Iowa cattle operation suffered significant cattle losses to nitrate poisoning.

Ensley offered a cautionary note for farmers who raise their own corn to feed cattle who cut their drought losses by green-chopping stunted corn. Farmers cut the plants down, stalks and all, for cattle feed. Unlike silage, which is mature corn that has been cut and allowed to cure for a period of time, this immature green-chopped corn can contain super-high levels of nitrates–in excess of 10,000 ppm–two to three times the level considered safe for cattle. The danger increases if the crop is cut down shortly after a rain, which oftentimes stimulates the withered plants to take up even more nitrates into their stalks.


As Drought Kills Corn, Farmers Fight Over Ethanol

(a story on North Country Public radio, reprinted at )

Recently, a coalition of groups representing America’s livestock and chicken farmers delivered an angry attack on the “Renewable Fuel Standard,” which requires gasoline companies to buy a minimum amount of ethanol — 13 billion gallons this year — and blend it into gasoline supplies. The groups released a new study that argues that this ethanol mandate does very little good: It increases the cost of gasoline and makes the country no less dependent on energy imports.

Even worse, the meat producers say, it creates unfair competition for corn. The mandate forces gasoline companies to buy billions of gallons of ethanol that they don’t even want, driving corn prices through the ceiling and potentially forcing livestock producers into bankruptcy.

Our Take:
Let’s turn the situation around. How would livestock producers react if another industry told them who they could sell their product to and who they couldn’t? They’d say, you are standing in the way of out livelihood and making it impossible for us to sustain ourselves economically.

There is no money for government handouts anymore.

If the livestock industry succeeds in sinking RFS and the ethanol industry, farmers won’t raise corn. Period. Because $2 corn, with no government support, is an impossibility.

The same small towns that livestock farmers share with crop farmers will dry up and blow away and we will be buying our food from Chile and Russia. That is, if we can afford to import food. Through the recession, agriculture was a major engine for economic stability.

Iowa State University’s Center for Agricultural Research and Development has had something to say about the question of gas prices. The idea that replacing ten percent of the gasoline market with biofuels has no impact on prices (or that it increases gas prices) is pure hog wash. Or maybe it’s chicken feathers—since the National Chicken Council states that biofuels did not reduce our dependence on foreign oil despite the fact that we now import 49 percent of our energy compared to 60 percent before the rise of the ethanol industry. Yes, many people are driving less or driving more efficient vehicles, but studies show at least half of that reduction in energy imports comes from ethanol use.

The livestock industry knows all this. And when it isn’t under pressure from a temporary price rise, they remember it. In the end, they will get the feed they need. Perhaps this won’t be without pain, and perhaps some producers may exit the business, but livestock production as a whole will continue to thrive as long as there is strong pipeline of crop production to feed their animals. Ethanol is part of what makes that happen because it’s a part of a strong crop production industry.