Archive for the ‘Farming’ Category

University of Minnesota Student Reflects on his “Vern-alization” while Studying Agriculture

University of Minnesota Profressor Vernon Caldwell

University of Minnesota professor Vernon Caldwell is retiring after 45 years.

By Nick Peterson

This past winter one of my professors at the University of Minnesota retired after spending the last 45 years with the Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics. It was bittersweet, since I had learned a great deal from him through my time with the Crops and Soils Club, Crops Team, and his classes.His name is Vernon Cardwell, previous professor/advisor/researcher at the University of Minnesota for the better part of the last century. As he spoke during the retirement party, he recalled the different “vern-alizations” he had witnessed with undergraduate and graduate students. With vernalization meaning acquisition of a plants ability to flower following cold periods, it was a metaphor of his students.Growing up on the family farm it was not difficult to realize that agriculture is what I wanted to continue to pursue in my career. However, the agricultural industry is a very broad field with many opportunities. As I was accepted to the University of Minnesota, College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences, I was still very uncertain as to where I wanted to end up following graduation.

As I attended my first Gophers Crops and Soils Club meeting, I met and talked to Vern, who was the faculty advisor for the club. Soon after, following persuasion from Vern, I decided to join the crops judging team, where we competed against students at other schools in weed and crop identification, grain grading, and seed analysis. Since the 1970’s Vern has been leading the University to top ranked finishes, although participation had been waning in the last few years. This is when my Vern-alization began.

As I spent more time looking at plant and seed mounts and taking in all the information that Vern was spewing out, I couldn’t help but notice him slowly having an effect on me. The vast amount of agricultural knowledge that he had acquired over his many years of research, extension, and interaction with students was a little intimidating. I tried to soak up as much of it as I could.

Looking at my Vern-alization, though, it wasn’t so much the knowledge but the activism that he inspired in me that I would attribute to it. What makes him such a successful mentor to students is his ability to inspire this activism.

So, as I look towards graduation and opportunities in the agriculture industry in agronomy or seed representative roles, I continue to look back and use his contagious personality as a template for myself. I have no doubt this outlook will not only strengthen my commitment to clubs and organizations that I put my time into, but it will enable me to see the best in people as well.

The agricultural community was lucky to have a man like Vernon Cardwell influencing its students for the last 45 years. And so my Vern-alization proceeds, as I am ready to follow in my mentor’s footsteps and do what I can to better agriculture and the people within.

Nick Peterson is a participant in Minnesota Corn Growers Association’s Agvocate program.


Eons at the verge of prairie and forest created “Lester”

The highly productive, clayey soil now designated “Minnesota State Soil”

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

Some 400,000 acres, across 17 counties in south central Minnesota are home to some of the most productive soil on earth, called Lester soil. Legislation signed in April by Gov. Mark Dayton recognized Lester as the state soil of Minnesota, and a series of programs to celebrate Lester and all of Minnesota’s soils is now underway, including an exhibit called Dig It!, opening Nov. 10 at the Bell Museum of Natural History at the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus.

“Lester is well drained, with a nice, thick ‘a-horizon’ — that black surface soil,” said Gary Elsner, a soil scientist at Minnesota Department of Agriculture. “There are a thousand different soil series in Minnesota. Lester is in the well-drained positions which are higher in the landscape (Slopes 5 to 70 percent).”

Elsner chairs the “Perfect Storm for Minnesota Soils” committee of the Minnesota Association of Professional Soil Scientists (MAPSS), which singled out Lester soil as something special back in 1987, but did not succeed in getting the official state seal for it until this year.

“Lester soil formed at the prairie and forest interface,” Elsner said. “Most of southern Minnesota soils were worked around by glaciers, and they have been forming ever since. A forest forms and that influences the soil, then a forest fire clears the land and it becomes prairie. Over a very long time period, it goes back and forth. In forested land you get clays near the surface, and over time these leach down and they accumulate deeper in the profile. So you get a layer that has a higher water-holding capacity and that makes it more productive–both for agriculture and forestry.”

“The Perfect Storm for Minnesota Soils” committee of MAPPS arose to publicize the series of important soil science events taking place last year, this year and next. Ultimately, the committee hopes to use these events to make the public more aware of the incredible importance of productive soil in their everyday lives. The roster of events shows that concern for the health of our soils is nothing new among farmers, foresters and soil scientists. In 2011, it was the 75th anniversary of the Soil Science Society of America. This year is the 150th anniversary of the USDA (inaugurated by Pres. Abraham Lincoln). In addition to successfully passing the soil legislation this year, the University of Minnesota’s Bell Museum has a new exhibit, Dig It!, devoted to soil and including soil “monoliths” (glass columns showing the stratifications within soil series like Lester) for all the official soils of the 50 states. The exhibit opens Nov. 10.

For more information on Dig It! go to

The soil events continue, according to Elsner. Next year is both the 100th anniversary of the University of Minnesota Department of Soil, Water and Climate, and the 40th Anniversary of MAPSS. Various tours and special events at locations like the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum are planned.

Elsner noted that MAPSS chose Lester soils for a number of reasons, including that it is photogenic, but its water-storing capacity may be its most important feature, especially in drought years such as Minnesota experienced in 2012 and 1988.

“Whether you’re growing a tree or a corn plant–if you have more water it’s going to grow better,” said Elsner. “When you compare to a sandy soil, you can see how Lester holds more water, and it will do better at producing healthy plants than the sandy soil, when we have dry weather conditions.”

Lester soils were first identified in Lester Prairie, in McLeod County in 1939. According to MAPPS, soil supports 235,000 jobs in Minnesota. Roughly one hundred scientists belong to MAPPS, including state and federal government workers, academics and private industry workers.

Autumn Appreciations

By MCGA Agvocate Michaela Bengtson

Being a college student, I sometimes get caught up in the hustle and bustle of the cities.  So for me, one of the greatest things is getting to go home on the weekends, back to the farm and enjoy the country lifestyle again.  As I was driving home this weekend, I was rolling past the golden fields and started to think about how corn is used every day by my family.

My first thought was about the fuel in my gas tank, which is ethanol.  Ethanol helps the world not only save on oil costs but it helps us use more renewable resources.  Another benefit of ethanol for my family is that it produces distillers grain.  One of the components of our dairy cow’s diets on the farm are distillers grain.  If it weren’t for ethanol, we wouldn’t have that feed source for my favorite cows!  Another benefit is that ethanol can help boost local economies and provide jobs.  In Atwater, an ethanol plant was built in 2005. It not only helped out farmers by providing a new market to keep prices competitive,  but it also gave farmers more confidence that there would always be a buyer for their grain. 

The second thing that I thought about was how corn helps out my mom.  In May, right after the corn planting was done, my mom had a stroke.  Currently, she is working on rehabilitation and gaining back the mobility in her right arm and leg.  One of the things that she sometimes feels is that her arm is tight.  At therapy they have a special machine to help with that tightening.  The main part of the machine is made of crushed corn cobs.  How the machine works is that a patient’s arm is put into a sleeve in the machine and a cuff is secured around their arm to ensure that the sleeve is snug. The machine is then turned on and starts to blow hot air into the crushed corn cobs, which heats them up to very hot temperatures.  The neat thing is that even though the temperature of the air is extremely high, because of the crushed corn cobs, the patient won’t get burned and it helps to loosen and relax their muscles.  It is amazing how something that might only be used for compost is used to help out so many people! 

As I roll past those golden fields, I am so thankful for everything that corn does.  From being a fuel source, to a feed source, to helping a farmer to have an income, to helping people recovering from illness, corn can do a-maize-ing things!

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.


Home Sweet Home

By 2011-2012 MCGA Agvocate Kelsey Gunderson

College is done and I am ready for summer, excited to be home on the farm for a couple of weeks to relax, right?  It seems like farming and relaxing are not always synonyms as I came home to tractors busy in the field, a request to pick rocks from my dad, and lots of work being done around the house.  It’s planting season, perfect weather for working outside and time to get ready for summer and never a dull moment on the farm.  Farming is not a job or career, it is a lifestyle.

Having livestock and crops, my family’s work is never complete. Caring for the animals, planting and harvesting a high yielding crop and implementing new technologies are all important in our farming operation.  I have learned the skills and gained knowledge through helping on the farm while my brother has learned everything that is needed in running a farm.   My brother is just finishing up his senior year of high school, and will soon be off to his next adventure – college, studying farm operations and management with plans to take over the farm.  He has grown up as my dad’s right hand man, working with him every day and learning all of the tricks to the trade.  Nothing other than farming has interested him so deciding to go to a college near home so he could keep working on the farm was always the plan for him.  He believes in the agriculture industry and knows that his work on the farm plays a key role in our world.

I have seen my brother develop his passion for agriculture and put his skills to work into his future career on the farm.  We are going into our third generation of Gunderson Farms and it is great to see a young generation want to continue to farm.  He has developed skills such as responsibility and teamwork, and has developed a strong work ethic that never quits. I am proud he is continuing to develop our family farm.  

I am proud of the way I was raised, the farm I grew up on and the family that I have. This opportunity is one that many people do not have.  Being raised on a livestock and crop farm has taught me skills that I use in my everyday life and has helped me in my current jobs as well. After experiencing my time in the big city, I realize how much I have learned, gained, and have much more appreciation for farmers everywhere.  Farming is not a career – it truly is a lifestyle. Plans are changed around seasons, weather and the animals, and we work together as a family to get the job done.  I would not be the person I am today without my family and farm experiences.

A fast forward planting season

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

Every major crop in Minnesota has blasted past five-year averages in panting progress this year, by a wide margin, according to the latest report of NASS-Minnesota (USDA).

“Corn planting was 73 percent complete, compared to 20 percent last year and 53 percent for the five-year average,” according to the May 7 Minnesota Ag News Crop Weather report. “Twelve percent of corn was emerged. Land prepared for soybeans was 39 percent complete. Nineteen percent of soybeans were planted, compared to 4 percent planted last year and 13 percent average.”

Minnesota even exceeds the average progress of the 18 major corn-producing states, though producers in all theses states are accomplishing planting progress faster than the five-year average. Nationally, corn producers had planted 71 percent of their corn acres as of this past Sunday, which compares to the average, from 2007 through 2011, of 47 percent.

“The weather is one of the most unpredictable aspects of our job, but this early spring warm up, coming along with the moisture we need is putting us in a very good position,” said John Mages, a farmer in Belgrade, Minnesota, and president of Minnesota Corn Growers Association. “Minnesota corn producers are taking the ball and running with it.”

As of Sunday, Iowa’s corn planting was 64 percent complete.

Early corn planting progress in Minnesota correlates with higher plant populations and higher yield, research by University of Minnesota has found.

Across Minnesota, a very welcome half-week of rain kept operators out of the fields and perhaps kept them from finishing the corn planting altogether. Following a drought that began in late July, rains in late April and the first week of May have replaced much of the missing moisture.

“Topsoil moisture was rated 1 percent very short, 10 percent short, 71 percent adequate and 18 percent surplus,” the NASS crop weather report stated.

Locations across the central and southern tiers of the state saw rain amounts ranging from just over an inch in Aitkin (East Central region) to 5.84 inches in Pipestone in the southwest of the state.